Silverdocs Documentary Festival 2010

'The People vs. George Lucas'

by Chris Barsanti

29 June 2010

Who really cares if Han Solo shot first? The passionate protesters in this nerdcore documentary do – and they make a credible case for why it matters.
cover art

The People vs. George Lucas

Director: Alexandre O. Philippe

It’s a love-hate relationship, this thing that Star Wars fans have with the father / creator of so many of their space opera fantasies, and one that director Alexandre O. Phillippe deftly explores in his winning documentary on the subject. The crowd at Silverdocs’ East Coast premiere of the film was suitably keyed up for a film whose makers reportedly screened over 600 hours’ worth of fan-created Star Wars videos, remixes, remakes, and animations.

Fortunately, instead of simply playing to the series’ constituency and parsing the differences between, say, a fan film that utilized Lego stop-motion animation or lo-fi live-action reshoots, Phillippe delves into what it is about Lucas that drives his followers so insane and how much he should care. In between the choice nuggets of YouTube-culled videos that constitute the film’s mosaic background, Phillippe intersperses interviews with a gallery of people holding strong opinions on the subject, from nerdcore rappers to fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman to obsessive toy collectors (a particularly cursed fan subset) and everyday fans who still can’t handle the existence of Jar Jar Binks, or really any of Lucas’s second trilogy of films.

While the subject of Jar Jar raises almost the most passion of any of those assembled, it’s fandom’s other cri de coeur that raises the most interesting questions. For the uninitiated, in the cantina scene in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (the first one, in layman’s terms), Han Solo is confronted across a table by the bounty hunter Greedo. Pressed for time, Han casually guns him down and strolls away. When Lucas remastered the original trilogy, cleaning up the picture and sound and dropping in some extraneous new special effects, he clumsily tweaked the scene so that it looked like Greedo shot first, missed, so that Han only fired in self-defense.

In addition to the shoddy manner in which it was done, this raises two problems: the first is that this fundamentally changed the nature of Han’s character. Instead of being an outlaw smuggler pressured eventually into doing the right thing, he is made here to seem honorable from the get-go. While one can argue that this is Lucas’ right as an auteur to do exactly what he wants with his own creations (a point elaborated eloquently by several interviewees), there is a corollary that raises tougher questions. When Lucas remastered the first trilogy, he didn’t leave viewers the right to watch the films in their original format.

Phillippe’s film points out that when Steven Spielberg reissued E.T. with a semi-notorious digital tweak (changing a gun in a police officer’s hand to a walkie-talkie), the DVD release included both his updated version and the original. There is no such option for Star Wars episodes four through six – Lucasfilm has reportedly even said that they destroyed all the original negatives.

Where this becomes almost comically hypocritical is the fact that back in the 1980s Lucas testified before Congress in opposition to Ted Turner’s colorizing of black and white films. For a filmmaker with such a passionate interest in not just the integrity of those films but also the restoration and promotion of works from great directors like Akira Kurosawa, to then turn around and manhandle his own creations is hard to reconcile. But then this is the man behind the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special—that disco-drenched televised monstrosity which Lucas has done his best to hide from sight but which Phillippe includes a couple hilarious clips from.

Where Phillippe’s film really tackles the love-hate issue, though, is with its dissection of the second trilogy which Lucas released between 1999 and 2005. Recalling the nearly-psychotic levels of anticipation for Episode I - The Phantom Menace, The Onion‘s Todd Hanson delivers a spot-on recreation of the hype and then slow deflation that followed the actual watching of the film. Many will cringe in recognition (you know who you are) when Hanson and others talk about how they justified the The Phantom Menace experience to themselves, saying how it wasn’t that bad, and maybe they just needed to see it again, and again, to fully grasp the film’s impact.

What Phillippe vividly recreates here is the nearly indescribable pull that the original trilogy had on the generation of filmgoers first entranced by it, and how betrayed they feel when that vision is later tampered with, whether in tinkering with the originals or making new films with an entirely different sensibility. The multiple variants on “George Lucas raped my childhood” that we hear, however, are patently ludicrous, with Phillippe neatly undercutting these bloggy fulminations by showing modern-day kids proclaiming how much they love Jar Jar, just as many grown-up fans once loved the Ewoks. Again, you know who you are.

The People vs. George Lucas


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