Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Lifetime of Lucas

Now that George Lucas has finally completed his illustrious Star Wars saga, the guy has probably earned a vacation or two. He can rest a bit on his laurels as he picks up awards hither and thither.

A couple of weeks ago, the AFI honored George Lucas with a lifetime achievement award for his legacy in cinema. They keep rerunning the damn thing on USA and Bravo, and I can’t help but get completely sucked in by all of it. This whole lifetime achievement award thing got me thinking about, not only Lucas, but filmmakers and creative types at large. Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and there is no one that comes to mind, even within the great masters of film who haven’t made a misstep every now and then. When great filmmakers have their weaker moments, their works may be head and shoulders above most of the other stuff churned out in a given year. But that does not prevent both critics and fans alike from storming the ramparts when they feel like their favorite director or writer has fallen off the wagon, and “sold out” or “gotten lazy”.

While I have some sizeable beef with Lucas about certain creative choices he’s made over the years, it was really interesting to watch this award show, because it highlights what an inspired, creative and impassioned life Lucas has led. Whether or not he may have alienated part of his fan base along the way, he is truly a man who has devoted almost his entire life to his art, and it is his dedication and stamina that seems to be honored here as much as the actual works he has put out.

They started off the show with a montage showcasing all of Geroge Lucas’ works – everything from THX 1138 to Willow, to Howard the Duck, and of course all six installments of the Star Wars saga. And as if that montage wasn’t enough to draw me in, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is there: Steven Speilberg, John Williams, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamil, Richard Dreyfuss, William Shatner, Billy Dee Williams, -you get the picture.

Sure there’s something corny about these award ceremonies – the fact that there’s someone dressed up as Chewbacca, groaning and running up to hug Lucas. The requisite reaction shots of old Hollywood laughing or rolling their eyes (i.e. Warren Beatty, who attends every single award show in the history of the universe regardless of his actual affiliation or involvement).

To everyone’s surprise and near horror, it was William Shatner who came out on stage to open the show. It was hilarious to watch everyone get caught on camera, mouthing things to each other like “What the hell is he doing here?” and “Why?!”. Shatner’s opening gag was that he thought he was opening an event for Star Trek, not Star Wars. It felt a bit forced, but he redeemed himself with a spoken word rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a song which I’ve always greatly appreciated, and one which I think is a perfect choice for Lucas. Lucas always has done it his way, and I liked the teasing undertone that Shatner gave the song, because he is at once remarking on his stalwartness as well as his stubbornness which may have hurt him as much as it helped him throughout the years. Still for better or for worse, it is the constantly propelling propensity for Lucas to do it “his way” that has made him the artist and film maker that he is today.

After the opening song (which had a grande finale involving dancing storm troopers), there was a neat biographical section about Lucas’ childhood. Some of the home video footage and photo stills that were shown were incredibly prescient. Snippets of him as a child, maybe four or five years old, on one of those circular swing rides, sitting in a pod that looks like a rocket ship, and cutting a birthday cake with astronauts on it. There’s a still of him, when he’s maybe 15, in his first car, a fiat, with a helmet that makes him look like a rebel fighter.

There was something so exciting about listening to Spielberg talk about the first time that he met Lucas in the 60’s, at a film festival of students from both USC and UCLA. I wonder if anyone around them had an inkling of just how significant that movie was, or that they were in the presence of what were to become two of the greatest American film makers of all time.

Watching Lucas talk about THX 1138 was pretty fascinating. As they showed a montage of various scenes and shots of the film, I was reminded of the visuals and themes of that movie. Looking back at the fact that Lucas was only 26, 27 when he worked on the film, his precociousness as a film maker seems so apparent. This was a man who was headed towards genius.

Of the films that Lucas has made, American Grafitti is not the one that I personally connect with the most (perhaps because of my age). But I will say that it is truly remarkable, not only in the way it showcases that era and music, but in the way it demonstrates the creative versatility that he possessed as a film maker. For anyone who’s ever said that Lucas is only capable of detached impersonal epics that take place in the future, here is perfect proof that he is not. It illustrates he could handle more subtle nuanced moments between actors, and create a story as real and grounded as he wanted it to be. Not just aliens running around with blasters.

The show continued on with speeches from each of main stars of the original Star Wars trilogy, Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford.

While all three of them made their own little jibes, but Ford might have had some of the best, saying things like “But the thing about Star Wars, at least the earlier, funnier, part of the saga…” and recalling an instance when he was frustrated with some dialogue in the script and said to Lucas, “George you can type this sh*t, but you can’t say it.”

Surprisingly Lucas was able to maintain good humor through it all, despite the giggling crowd. Everyone in that room seem to recognize that Lucas has weaknesses like anyone else. No one was trying to make him out to be a master of the written world. But what is undeniable is what a visionary he was, and how irregardless of blunders, it still doesn’t minimize the impact that he’s had on film and pop culture at large.

Harrison was really on a roll that night. Later in the evening he came back up on stage to introduce the portion of the show remembering Indiana Jones. At the end of that segment he said:

“But I do love Indiana Jones. And if you guys can dream up more ways to torture me I’ll be there for Indy 4. But George, George, George, listen. Get on with it man! If you wait too much longer, Sean is going to be much too old to play my father.”

This was an obvious little jab at the fact that Lucas has reputedly been the one to turn down script after script for Indy 4, including those handed in by the likes of M. Night Shymalan and Frank Darabont. The clause for proceeding with the next movie being that Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas must all give the script their approval. Ah, it’s funny because it’s true….

The award show then goes on to a segment on how Lucas has really changed the world of special FX. In an interview Ron Howard talks about how revolutionary the morphing animal sequence in Willow was, and I can still remember being amazed by it. The impact that Lucas’ work through Industrial, Light and Magic has had seems immeasurable. James Cameron says in an interview that George Lucas has really raised the bar in every aspect of film making, and I do believe its true. His effect on the technological aspects of cinema are truly tremendous and will never be forgotten.

Not surprisingly, the award show doesn’t spend a lot of time on the new Star Wars trilogy. It seems more of a footnote to Lucas’ love and devotion to the digital world. While there is some talk of the new three episodes as backstory, and Spielberg compliments the climax of Revenge of the Sith, no one is pretending here. They are politely glossing over movies that may be remarkable in certain senses, are not the founding pieces of what Lucas will be remembered for.

It is Steven Spielberg, who won the award himself in 1995, that presents the AFI honor to Lucas. It is touching and amazing at the same time to hear Spielberg thanking Lucas for thirty seven years of friendship, in that their relationship has seemed to stand the test of time as much as each of their works have.

Lucas stumbles a little with an odd joke when he gets up there (he lifted his arms and said, as Palpatine would say ‘Freedom for all!’ I guess he was saying everyone could sit down and stop the standing ovation, but it still came out awkwardly) but he never looses his sense of humor throughout his acceptance speech. When he thanks Francis Ford Coppola for being his mentor, he says:

“He took me from not being able to write a word to being the king of wooden dialogue”

It is this acceptance of his own flaws and faults, and the fact that Lucas is far from perfect part of what makes watching this award show so tremendous. George Lucas has continued on, despite all nay sayers to create art in the way he best sees fit. Because no one is perfect, but it is those who realize that they never will be, but still persevere in their art and work, that may brush up against greatness.

{The AFI’s award show honoring George Lucas’ receiving the Lifetime achievement award will be rebroadcast on July 8th on Bravo}


Anonymous Anonymous said...

you left out the best part. when the fans all thanked the big guy. very touching to me. but again a solid piece ny'r.

1:50 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I thought that part was ok. didn't love it though - a little overly sentimentally nerdy even for me. I actually think I found it kind of depressing, because I felt like some of those people had nothing else to hold onto. Could've been a little too close to home or something.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I have often wanted to ask someone like Peter Jackson "What is it like to see a man, who has been so influential to you and so many others in the film industry, turn around after 25 years and make a collection of extremely average films?".

3:10 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yes, it would be interesting to hear. They actually did have little soundbites of Peter Jackson talking, but only about good stuff - like his first time watching Star Wars and all that.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah well i think you are wrong about the ending. it gave me something to hold onto!

3:41 PM  

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