Does a piece of art belong to the artist or to the people who engage with the art? The creator or the comsumer? And who gets final say in how this piece of art is preserved and passed on? This is at the center of The People vs. George Lucas, a documentary that explores the Star Wars phenomenon, and how it led to a very shaky, love-hate relationship between the fans of the movies and the creator of said movies.
The documentary starts in the beginning, giving some details on George Lucas’ early career as an artist and aspiring filmmaker in the 1970’s, and how Francis Ford Coppola took Lucas under his wing a bit and helped fund some of his earlier movies, like the excellent avant-garde film THX-1138, and then it quickly fast forwards to the creation and release of Star Wars and how it took the world by storm. There is a lot of great footage of the film’s premiere in Hollywood and how they had costumed characters from the movie hanging out, and it all seems rather prescient, as people in Star Wars costumes would end up being a worldwide cultural staple that would span five decades and multiple generations.
Lucas created two sequels to this smash success and people at those up as well. And then there was nothing for a over a decade, as Lucas went on to work on other projects (including the legendary Raiders of the Lost Ark, which this documentary goes into as well), and Star Wars fans sat around and wished for more Star Wars. Which is why when Lucas announced a new trilogy of films, the fans became ridiculously excited and waited with baited breath for Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.
And when that movie turned out to be a complete hunk of garbage, legions of disappointed, bewildered, and disenfranchised fans had to grapple with this new variable in their fandom, something that they wanted to love dearly but just couldn’t bring themselves to do. After two more Star Wars prequels that left many fans of the original cold and uninspired, the backlash against George Lucas and his art started to emerge.
This backlash only grew stronger with George Lucas’ now infamous meddling and rejiggering of his original trilogy, as he has released multiple “special editions” of his movies that included additional scenes, some re-edits, and CGI effects that were state of the art at the time but now stick out like sore thumbs in the otherwise practical effects based world of Star Wars. Not only did he change the movies that so many grew to love and adore, but he also made the original versions of his movies as hard to access as possible but not making them readily available on DVD.
Which brings up a central argument of The People vs. George Lucas, which is “Who does the art belong to?” Because many feel Star Wars, after its initial completion and public offering, belong to the people, those who love the movie as they saw it, warts and all, and love every aspect of it. They didn’t fall in love with the CG-laden 1990’s special edition versions of the original trilogy, they fell in love with the trilogy in the way it already existed. This documentary does bring up one important fact that seems to rule against artists changing their art after releasing it to the world, and that’s the fact that the original Star Wars film was chosen for inclusion in the National Registry at the Library of Congress, as it was deemed, along with 24 other films, to be culturally significant and worthy of preservation. The Library of Congress didn’t go into their registry and swap out the original Star Wars with the special edition DVD when that came out, because that’s not the movie they selected for preservation, they chose the original.
Also coming down in favor the side of the people is George Lucas himself – well, 1980’s George Lucas anyway. When Ted Turner saw fit to take classic black and white films and colorize them for re-broadcast, Lucas took to the US Congress and called this act of art alteration barbaric, stating that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians. And if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society.” To be fair, Lucas was talking about someone taking art made by someone else and altering it for their own purposes, which is different from Lucas altering his own art, but that just brings us back to the original question of whom the art belongs to once it is completed, which is a tough question indeed.
The People vs. George Lucas isn’t entirely about slamming Lucas, though, as parts of it are also a love letter from the fans to Star Wars and what they still consider a great gift given to them. Fans from all over the world submitted little videos explaining their love for their films and everything Star Wars related, and many of these videos are very heartfelt and sincere and it is the rare movie that elicits such a response from so many different people from so many different walks of life. So it’s no surprise that such extreme love could turn to something so ugly and contentious. Like many marriages, this one was lovely for a while, but it has definitely started to fail, with the people claiming domestic violence, emotional battery and betrayal as the reasons for the drastic change.
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