Review: ‘The Cinema Of George Lucas’

As the intensely ballyhooed "Revenge of the Sith" finally brings the legendary "Star Wars" saga to a climax (at least in its core medium), the lazy general assumption that the globe-straddling franchise is director George Lucas' sole achievement of note will doubtless be fiercer than ever.

As the intensely ballyhooed “Revenge of the Sith” finally brings the legendary “Star Wars” saga to a climax (at least in its core medium), the lazy general assumption that the globe-straddling franchise is director George Lucas’ sole achievement of note will doubtless be fiercer than ever.

Consequently, Marcus Hearn’s thoroughly enjoyable and visually resplendent coffee-table bio arrives in time to forthrightly emphasize Lucas’ vaunted position as a one-man cinematic revolution — even if it is parlayed in a dutifully worshipful and wholly uncritical fashion, which, given this is authorized fare, is only to be expected. For Lucas’ worldwide legions of rapaciously devoted followers, however, that upbeat attitude will only accentuate the book’s status as an essential library addition.

Hearn — whose relationship with the Lucas empire was forged by his one-time editorship of “Star Wars'” official magazine and his bestselling 2002 “Making Of…” book on “Attack of the Clones” — crafts an enjoyably revealing narrative of Lucas’ career (although occasionally sanitized, as with the later chapters on the “Star Wars” prequels). He employs an excellent level of detail that especially pays dividends when applied to the previously much-explored ’70s/’80s era that spawned the original “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” trilogies — Lucas’ undoubted zenith.

In particular, Hearn hits paydirt in the absorbing opening two chapters, which cover Lucas’ evolution from restless, underachieving, car-obsessed Modesto, Calif., kid at odds with his conservative background and deeply uncertain of his career direction to fiercely experimental filmmaker at the University of Southern California in the mid-’60s.

Wowing students and teachers alike with a series of innovative short films that swiftly marked him as a superior — if puzzling — talent, Lucas would consolidate his early efforts with his 1971 debut “THX-1138” and 1973’s iconic “American Graffiti” (amusing working title: “The Fast and the Deadly Make Out at Burger City”).

Hearn’s coverage of Lucas’ formative years provides fascinating insight to the Lucas aesthetic, such as his being hugely influenced by the work of Slavic filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich or his single-minded drive to convey emotions through cinema. It’s in these early chapters that Hearn truly divines the Lucas brand of cinema.

Like Lucas’ subsequent career, “Star Wars” dominates the remaining six chapters. However, Hearn ensures the lesser efforts of Lucas’ career — “Howard the Duck,” “The Radioland Murders” and “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” — get ample coverage, along with the spectacular technological progressions for which Lucas was responsible (such as the digital backgrounds pioneered by TV series “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”). Which isn’t to say there isn’t any revisionist history at work here: The 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special,” allegedly loathed by Lucas, is vanquished from official history with all the deftness of an Industrial Light & Magic digital effect.

Where “Star Wars” is concerned, with this book the first to envelop the completed sextet (actually, the book went to press with “Sith” in late stages of production), Hearn’s collective history makes it possible to divine a potential reason the prequels have sported a relative flatness compared to the originals. While the first pic (now “Episode IV — A New Hope”) especially was a phenomenally high-risk production saddled with an almost universal lack of faith, the sheer exuberance that dominates the resulting film was surely due to Lucas’ determination and the triumph of overcoming myriad struggles. Conversely, the prequels, complex productions aside, clearly suffered no such problems: unparalleled creative freedom for Lucas, a brand that had an enormous built-in audience and, most tellingly, no one to tell him no. Few films could have been more sure-fire; therein, perhaps, lies the source of the prequels’ pervading laziness, widely noted by critics.

Throughout the book, the myriad treasures of Lucasfilm’s extensive archives are spectacularly on display: storyboards, concept art, details of deleted sequences, a vast array of rare photography and even pages from the famed green-lined yellow note pads that Lucas habitually used to pen the first-draft “Star Wars” scripts. The sheer wealth of visual material augments Hearn’s assessment of Lucas in a way that few others have come close to achieving.

A frustrating side effect of the clear drive to have this book published in time to benefit from “Sith’s” publicity is the all-too-swift coverage of perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Lucas’ career: Where does he go now? Lucas’ recent talk of leaving others to put “Star Wars” on TV, while he focuses on small, experimental productions likely to be commercial failures, will have delighted those who feel his talents have been wasted on such overtly commercial fare. While there is tantalizing mention of a project called “Red Tails,” about an African American squad of fighter pilots, it would have been nice to have Lucas elaborate on his intentions in the book.

Still, if “Star Wars” taught Lucas anything, it’s that there’s always time for revised editions.

The Cinema Of George Lucas

Abrams; 264 Pgs.; $50

Production

Marcus Hearn
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