Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wide Angle: George Lucas, Godzilla, and the Good Old Days

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

There are many things about George Lucas that make it difficult to empathize with him. His cloistered existence. His gazillions of dollars. His insouciant attitude toward his numerous critics. But if you asked most people, they'd probably cite his inability to leave their memories well enough alone, raising their ire with his incessant changes to Star Wars - the most recent ones revealed in leaked footage of changes to the original trilogy’s upcoming Blu-Ray release.

They're wrong. The best thing about George Lucas is that he isn’t swayed by nostalgia.

That seems odd to write about the man who almost single-handedly created the modern nostalgia business with American Graffiti, but Lucas has long been defined by his contradictions. He is a technical wizard who fancies himself a great storyteller, not to mention a crass commercialist who has crusaded against tampering with cinematic treasures. The latter particularly drives people nuts. A old video clip or speech excerpt surfaces every time Lucas tinkers with his own films, as if they reveal something about the principles he has betrayed when nothing has really changed at all.

George Lucas’ lifelong nipping and tucking of Star Wars is the mark of a man not only unencumbered by the good old days, but contemptuous of them. As a teenager, Lucas miraculously survived a high-speed car crash that should have killed him. As a young filmmaker, he exhausted himself at the beginning of what he undoubtedly saw as his magnum opus, then watched others finish what he started and gradually gain nearly all of the credit for any part of it that was deemed good. Now, I wouldn’t say that the absence of nostalgic feeling in Lucas’ creative life has necessarily led him to make the best decisions, but it has been instructive to how I’ve approached his films and many others as a viewer – or, rather, a re-viewer.

Take one of Lucas’ grandest follies – the Star Wars prequel trilogy. When I went to see The Phantom Menance in 1999, my past experiences with the stories and characters of the 1977-1983 cycle of films was an asset, not a liability. What could be more appealing to a 12-year-old than more Star Wars? Yet I came to realize that my nostalgia was also insulating me from The Phantom Menance’s obvious flaws.1 People want to believe that Menace and the other prequels have some how diminished the Star Wars movies that they actually like, but they are unaware that their pain for the past has led them astray. Nostalgia can’t be used a defense when you’ve been tricked into caring about bad movies.

Something similar happened a year earlier with the Roland Emmerich-helmed 1998 version of Godzilla, a movie that constantly thumbs its nose at starry-eyed nostalgic mollycoddlers – and is a perfect example of how you can’t beat them, either. Nobody thought that the man behind Independence Day was going to make a movie respectful of the terrible lizard’s long and storied cinematic heritage.2 But instead of appreciating Godzilla for what it was obviously going to be – a vehicle for massive explosions, landmark destruction, and oddball-for-a-blockbuster humor (Jean Reno’s French commandos spend more time complaining about coffee than commando-ing) – audiences and critics alike unsheathed their knives and proclaimed it not merely a flop but a travesty and a desecration.3

I rediscovered Godzilla years later on VHS (warm memories of the ludicrous and sublime soundtrack album trickling through my consciousness) and couldn’t understand why everyone was suddenly so embarrassed by its existence. Yes, much of it is hackery, but it’s inspired hackery, devoid of the pitfalls of so many other movies that assume a slavish nostalgia will substitute for actual entertainment. It’s not enough that the audience is reminded of things that were cool; getting people to look backwards is an easy cop-out. A movie that aspires to spectacle should focus on things that we have not foreseen, things we could not have conceived. And Godzilla brings the goods, whether spontaneously propelling the monster through the roof of Madison Square Garden, or (1998 spoiler alert) trapping her in the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, a bizarrely spectacular ending on par with Superman turning back time by flying around the world really, really fast.

What Godzilla illustrates is the reason that George Lucas remains a fascinating presence in cinema – unorthodoxy. There is a definite exhilaration in creativity that chooses its own starting point. We may despise this quality in Lucas because he exploits it so poorly and often with misguided intentions, but without it we would might have R2 or Chewie or Yoda, no Indy or E.T. or Doc Brown, perhaps no Harry Potter or live-action hobbits. Indeed, nothing to be nostalgic about, nor anything to compare it to as we fitfully try to convince ourselves of how good things really were way back when.

9.3.11.George Lucas

1 I was very, very much taken in by the fanatical atmosphere in the summer of ‘99. Lucas could do no wrong. On the car ride home, one of my friends professed his love for the film’s sinister henchman, braying “Darth Maul all the way!” I immediately countered with “Qui-Gon Jinn all the way!” I was a dumb kid.

2 As long as I’m feeling iconoclastic, I will posit that Emmerich was one of the most influential directors of the 1990s and early 2000s, both in a slightly despondent look-at-all-these-annoying-blockbusters kind of way and an impressive look-at-how-he-transformed-the-marketplace kind of way.

3 Lost in the furor was the fact that Godzilla was a top-ten grossing movie for 1998, and cracked $125 million when that still meant something. Not that all those “Size Does Matter” bus ads and Taco Bell commercials didn’t eat into the profits.

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