Opinion: Can George Lucas still make 'small' movies?

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With the release of animated spin-off 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars', Tom Huddleston wonders whether George Lucas will ever return to his roots.

'I've earned the right to just make things that I find provocative in my own way. I've earned the right to fail, which means making what I think are really great movies that no one wants to see.'
George Lucas, speaking in Wired magazine, May 2005

It’s hard to believe now that George Lucas started out as an experimental filmmaker. His USC graduation short ‘THX-1138-4EB: Electronic Labyrinth’ , and the feature-length ‘THX-1138’ that followed, are stark and uncompromising visions of the future, combining a European-inspired avant-garde aesthetic with an American tradition of speculative science fiction. ‘American Graffiti’ is also, in its way, an envelope-pusher: almost plotless and entirely based around character, music and an achingly nostalgic specificity of place and time, it’s a film which hews much closer to neo-realist works like Fellini’s ‘I Vitelloni’ than to anything in contemporary American cinema. Even ‘Star Wars’, for all its populist success, was a bold move at the time, and one which many among its crew considered doomed to failure. Science fiction was a failed genre, and Lucas had no guarantees that the fantastic landscapes he saw in his head could ever be translated to celluloid.

Of course, all this is a long time ago (in a yadda yadda yadda). Before ‘Howard the Duck’ and ‘Willow’, before the Skywalker ranch, before the Lucas Arts electronic empire and, most importantly, before ‘The Phantom Menace’. That film was, of course, experimental in its own unique way – an experiment in how far a well-loved filmmaker could push an eager and receptive audience before they fled screaming from the theatres (quite a long way, actually, as the film’s two hugely successful sequels proved).

Once ‘Revenge of the Sith’ was out in the world, Lucas’s thoughts turned back to his roots. In a series of interviews he gave around this time, the director repeatedly professed his love of ‘out-there’ cinema and a desire to get back to a smaller, more personal vision. And this was by no means the first time such convictions had been expressed. For years, Lucas had complained about how the success of ‘Star Wars’ had ‘sidetracked’ his career, as though this multi-billionaire mogul persona was merely the outward face of an imprisoned idealist loaded with dynamic intellectual notions just screaming to be realised.

In the wake of ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ and the announcement of no less than two forthcoming Star Wars TV shows, it should finally be clear that such assertions are complete fantasy. It may be a fantasy which Lucas himself believes, but no one on planet earth is still holding their breath for that groundbreaking work of obscurist Godardian self-expression that the director clearly feels is still bubbling away inside. It’s not for a lack of opportunity – only this year, it was announced that Lucas had handed the directing reigns of his long-treasured Tuskegee Airmen biopic ‘Red Tails’ over to an as-yet unnamed director rather than helm the project himself. And let’s face it, if George really had the desire to go out and make a personal movie, he could probably fund it with his pocket change. And people would watch it, in their millions, however bad it turned out to be.

Sadly, for those of us weaned on the worlds he created, George Lucas has finally, inexorably been consumed by the darkness. He’s not an artist any more, he’s a corporate boss, a financier; in the words of Obi Wan, ‘more machine now than man…’. ‘The Clone Wars’ is a film which would surely have gone straight-to-DVD if some plucky young suit in the Skywalker offices hadn’t spotted the potential for increased revenue streams and decided to dump it out onto an unsuspecting public.

So is there still hope for Darth Lucas? Could he take off the mask and rejoin the artistic community that sired him? His old partner Spielberg still manages to balance commerce and artistry, enthusiastically if not always successfully. All it requires is the will – even if the movies turned out to be terrible, and it seems likely they would, there’d still be satisfaction in seeing the man try. There’s still good in him. I can feel it.

'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' is in cinemas from August 15.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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