A look at the new doc 'The People Vs George Lucas' and the victim culture surrounding 'Star Wars'
How many years will the fanboy community cry the same song?
When I was at Wondercon last week, someone at the Warner Bros. panel asked Sylvain White, the director of "The Losers," how he got into filmmaking. I think they were asking more in terms of "What steps did you go through to get into the director's chair?", but he answered it a different way. "When I was eight years old, I had a life-changing religious event in the movie theater," he said. "My parents took me to see 'Star Wars.'"
How many people had that same life-changing religious event? I know I did, and it seems like every filmmaker roughly my age can say the same thing. The original "Star Wars" trilogy was a hugely important and beloved cultural event that lasted for six years, and during those six years, it was an amazing, intoxicating lovefest for the world and the characters created by George Lucas.
Fast forward to the past week, where "Mr. Plinkett" of Red Letter Media is the nerd du jour thanks to his just-released nine-part video review of the 2002 film "Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones." His review last year of "The Phantom Menace" made him a cult figure in fandom, and he seems to be a perfect example of the corner of pop culture that gave rise to the documentary I saw at this year's SXSW festival, "The People Vs. George Lucas." Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, the title would imply that it's a sort of mock trial of George Lucas for the crimes he's committed against fandom. It's more or less another slice-of-fandom film that makes a few arguments for Lucas as a hypocrite without really landing any serious points. If anything, the sheer scope of the subculture that still exists around fandom refutes the idea that Lucas did something "wrong." For all of the tears that have been spilled, "Star Wars" remains an incredibly healthy overall property in terms of enthusiasm around the world among all ages. It's just that one part of that fandom, a very specific part, has managed to become the most vocal.
And frankly, I'm tired of it.
This is not because I am a rabid defender of the second trilogy of "Star Wars" films released between 1999 and 2005. I'm not. I think all three films have some pretty basic problems. However, I think they are, at the very worst, average Hollywood empty calorie junk. No worse than most, no better than most. This is because I have never seen a stranger, more off-putting display of first-world-problems victim culture hogwash than with people who have spent the last ten years comparing a trilogy of films they dislike to actual sexual violence. It is jaw-dropping, and if there was any one thing that led to me taking a step away from the collective energy called "fandom," it was this.
I understand being disappointed with a film, especially films that come with the staggering expectations that were affixed to new "Star Wars" movies. Anyone who cares deeply about films has suffered many, many disappointments in their life as a film fan... it's inevitable. One of the reasons I first started writing film criticism was to explain why things did or didn't work for me as a viewer, more for me to sort it out than because I thought anyone else would care. Even today, writing about a film is part of the way I process a film. It's one thing to have a gut reaction in a theater, but sorting it out and making sense of why I reacted the way I did... that's important to me. In the case of the "Star Wars" prequels, I remember publishing my review of "The Phantom Menace" before it came out, and then taking a ton of heat over daring to say it was anything less than perfect and amazing. Between the films, I ran these discussion groups on Ain't It Cool that were published under the name "The Jedi Council," and they were anything but gushing lovefests. They were an attempt to bring together people who represented the full spectrum of fandom. Some of the people who participated hated the prequels. Some loved them. Some were deeply conflicted and working out their feelings. But what really made those meetings great was the acknowledgment that we all started from the same place of fandom, and the wide range of reactions didn't change that baseline dialogue we were able to have.
Philippe's film is an amazing display of hubris, an attempt to make a name for himself by taking shots at a pop culture cornerstone. If there was anything new in his movie, any argument that we hadn't already heard a dozen times before, then maybe there would be some value to the film. Instead, it's a weakly organized hodge-podge of random points, and the film never figures out exactly what it is that Lucas is alleged to have done to fandom to deserve a trial. The one honest thing about the movie is the way it never really commits to its rancor. Just like fandom in general, the film wants to be above all things "Star Wars," but more than anything, it just reinforces how much headspace the films still occupy for any fans as time wears on. Have you seen the cover of Entertainment Weekly this week? Oh, look, there's Chewbacca and Princess Leia. "But those are the original films. That's different." True, but the CGI "Clone Wars" series is still going strong, and I would argue that the franchise has never been stronger for young fans. There are three more television series in development right now, including the live-action show, and although Toshi hasn't seen any of the feature films yet, he's already totally hooked on the iconography of the world. He loves the characters. He loves lightsabers. He loves Jedi and Sith and spaceships and all of the trappings. When I do finally show him the movies in a few years, I'll do it in a very particular order that includes the prequels. He'll see Episode IV, then Episode V, and then, using "Luke, I am your father" as the instigator, I'll use the prequels as a flashback, and then wrap things up with Episode VI. I was talking to a friend about this the other day and he gave me a look like I just sharted. "You're not really going to show those to your son, are you?" He was genuinely incredulous.
And that's where fandom loses me. I think the prequels have problems, but I'll be honest... I think "Jedi" has problems, too. Overall, I love the world of "Star Wars," and I look back at the time I spent growing up immersed in that world as valuable. When I share the films with my kids, my job isn't to order them to love only what I love, and my job isn't to tell him what he's allowed to like. It's to make things available to him, to set a context, and then to help him process what he watches. The "Star Wars" series is six films long as far as I'm concerned. And if you feel differently, there's an easy way to handle it.
It's not making nine-part videos in a silly voice in which you rehash the same points people have been making for a decade.
And it's not loudly screaming about how someone "raped" you every time the series is mentioned.
If you really hate the "Star Wars" prequels and the "Star Wars" special editions, all you have to do is never watch them again. Problem solved. You don't like anything about the CGI animated show? Don't watch it. No one is going to force you. There is no quiz. The things I choose to revisit are the things that give me pleasure, not the things I despise. The people who are still whining in public about "The Phantom Menace" in the year 2010 blow my mind. It's like if I constantly talked about the James Bond franchise, but the only films I ever brought up were "Moonraker" and "A View To A Kill." My favorite book of all time is John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany, so would it seem like a rational thing for me to do to make a 110-minute video review in which I spend the entire time crying about "Simon Birch"?
If you really loved the Mr. Plinkett videos, I'm happy you found some pleasure in them. And maybe you'll get more out of the whiny and unfocused "The People Vs. George Lucas." But I honestly think that at this point, a decade after the prequels were released, it feels like manchild syndrome writ large, entitled fandom out of control.
And at this point, I want no part of it.
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