Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock

Dale Pollock's informative biography of George Lucas provides a glimpse into the man who shaped the cultural imagination of late 20th century. Described as an aimless teenager with limited ambitions, he miraculously survived a car crash at age 17 and resolved to make something of himself.  He cultivated an interest in movies and entered film school at UCLA.

Lucas flourished there and immersed himself in the film making process, with an emphasis on the process. The technical side of movie making fascinated him as he spent hours in the editing room with his own films and even editing for fellow students.  His films were experimental and marked by their minimalism and disregard of narrative.  In 1969, his student film THX-1138 won accolades for its innovative use of sound in an abstract dystopian tale.  During those years he befriended Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and many others who set the course of American film in the 1970s.

Coppola, a key figure in the life of Lucas (he based Han Solo on him), served as a Socrates to the UCLA students.  He founded Zoetrope, an alternative studio for young independent directors.  Pollock portrays the Lucas-Coppola friendship as one of alter egos: George the quiet, workmanlike artist and Coppola the gifted, but sometimes self-destructive visionary.  Coppola produced THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973).  The success of the latter, gave Lucas the time and funding to write his space epic, originally titled The Star Wars.  

A good portion of the book covers the years 1974-77. Lucas would spend hours in his office trapped in writer's block. He read comic books, fantasy, and science fiction for inspiration.  The story went through an endless series of rewrites and character shuffling. Lucas wanted to create modern mythology set in space while using traditional motifs found in the epic tales of world literature. 

The actual filming proved a harrowing experience as unrelenting pressure from the studio pushed Lucas to the verge of nervous breakdown. The challenges did not end with post-production either.  He created his own special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, to create the effects using miniature sets and motion control cameras. Once the effects were perfected and John Williams had completed the score all the elements of Star Wars started to gel together.  

Released in May, 1977 Star Wars instantly captured the public's imagination. The movie offered a new hope to a generation raised in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam.  The New Age philosophy of "the Force" captured the zeitgeist as well.  Box office records were shattered and the age of the summer blockbuster began.   

After the success of Star Wars Lucas opted to let other directors and writers to make the sequels, although he retained creative control.  With cohort Spielberg he produced the Indiana Jones trilogy and made some forays into television.  A painful and expensive divorce from his wife Marcia Lucas (a highly respected film editor of Taxi Driver and Star Wars) led to to his absence from directing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Originally published in 1984, Pollock added a chapter covering Lucas's return to Star Wars in the 1990s.  At times, he takes a critical tone towards Lucas for the simplistic morality in his stories, his reliance on action sequences, and an inability to achieve success outside of Star Wars.

Interestingly Apocalypse Now began as a George Lucas project.  He made plans to start shooting in Vietnam on 8mm film as a cinema verite blurring the lines between fact and fiction.  While Coppola's version produced a remarkable film, it is tempting to consider what Lucas had in mind. For years Lucas has spoke of plans to make "art" films no one will care about, but they have failed to surface.  Is he pulling a Prince and leaving a vault of material unreleased?  When looking back at his three films from 1970s THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars one sees an amazing potential to evolve into something more interesting than sequels, blockbusters, and special effects extravaganzas.  

Of the New Hollywood directors, only Spielberg and Scorsese stayed on course. They were always the purest filmmakers and they continue making relevant films in the latter stage of their careers. At the moment, Lucas has settled into elder statesman status.  He spent most of the 90s raising his children and returned to public view with the making of the prequel trilogy of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Last year he sold the rights of Star Wars over to Disney (a sad irony reflecting the times) who will release the much anticipated, Episode VII next year.  

Nevertheless his legacy as a myth maker has shaped modern culture, but also his innovative marketing strategies through toys and comic books have left their mark as well. I only wish we had seen more of the 1970s spirit in his other work.