Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas

Before he blew up the box offices with his special effects driven spectacles George Lucas was a rather reserved documentary filmmaker who leaned more towards experimenting than empire building. Watch, Filmmaker, a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain Peopleand you’ll find a wholly different filmmaker than the man who gave the world Jedi Masters and Wookies.

Confession: I was once an unabashed Star Wars fan. Episode IV: A New Hope was the first film I ever saw. I had all the toys and so much other crap plastered with the Star Wars logo. I saw the Star Wars Holiday Special when it originally aired! My love for the original Star Wars trilogy never wavered during those dry years after Return of the Jedi and before the Special Editions, when hope of Lucas ever fulfilling is promised 9 part saga grew dimmer and dimmer.

My love for Star Wars is what drove me to attend film school. I entered film school right around the time of the Special Editions and when Lucas announced that he’d begin making new Star Wars episodes. While I didn’t like the digital dicking around with the old films, I was excited for the new ones. But, Lucas was now also saying he’d only make three more, denying that he ever said that Star Wars was a 9 part saga. I should have taken that as a sign of a man who had grown sick of his own creation. When the new trilogy finally arrived. I fears were confirmed.

Of course, By the time Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released I wasn’t the same 3 year old who went gaga for lightsabers and X-wings. I had completed film school and undergone a transformation into an artist who no longer wanted to make fantasy films. I wanted to make neo-realist independent films, documentaries, and experimental videos. Still, I loved Star Wars. It was, after all, such a big part of my life. That all changed with The Phantom Menace. Sure, I watched the subsequent prequels. Each one only further confirmed my lack of interest in the franchise and my growing theory that Lucas was more interested in making money than telling a mythical tale.

Today, I’m like a reformed Catholic. I know all the saints. I know all the rituals, but I don’t believe any of it and I don’t waste my time thinking about it. I’ve moved on. So, when Disney announced that they would be buying Lucasfilms and making new Star Wars films I didn’t mind. What could they do to besmirch the Star Wars franchise that Lucas hadn’t already done with his megalomaniacal prequels or his lack of interest in protecting the brand? Heck, he’d already been in bed with Disney for two decades, thanks to Star Tours at MGM Studios in Orlando, where you could witness this travesty.

If anything, the sale of Lucasfilms to Disney meant two things. First, it means that the Star Wars saga might get some writers who can do a have decent job of writing a story. Face it, without help, Lucas is a piss-poor writer. Secondly, and far more interesting to me, is the fact that Lucas, freed from the burden of running Lucasfilms, might get back to making experimental and documentary films. It is something he has said he wants to do for many years. I never understood what was stopping him before, but now he has even less of an excuse.

Lucas was once a very technically minded film student who enjoyed foreign and experiment films. He once mentioned Arthur Lipsett‘s 21-87 as a life changing film experience. Lucas’ student work reflects these non-mainstream tastes. He produced animations, visual tone-poems, lyrical documentaries, and experimental narratives, few of which predicted the blockbuster kiddie films that would make him a household name. While never profound and perhaps not even that original, for student work, Lucas’ films showed the promise of a growing filmmaker dedicated to his craft and curious about the ways film could be used. This notion carried with him after college when he went on to make behind the scenes documentaries for Columbia pictures and Francis Ford Coppola. These works are far more spectator than spectacle and I would be far more excited to see him return to making these kinds of films than another Star Wars.

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The Blob (1957) + Beware! The Blob (1972)

The Blob is a matinee flick wherein Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut play very old teenagers who cannot get adults to heed their warnings about an intergalactic menace. It’s a classic, but it’s overshadowing an equally entertaining blob film.

Beware! The Blob diverges little from its predecessor’s plot. Again, a gelatinous life form is unleashed and few believe the teen witnesses. Filled with far more humor, Beware! The Blob is a surprisingly fun sequel filled with great bit parts by Richard StahlGodfrey CambridgeGerrit GrahamBurgess Meredith, and many other.

Poking fun at its genre and source material this Larry Hagman directed horror comedy, mixes farcical jokes with traditional scares. There is some low-budget, but inventive camera work and special effects, not to mention some of the wackiest dialog I’ve heard in ages. “Hey let’s go to your place and have an avocado sandwich, on whole wheat bread, with alfalfa sprouts, and Monterey Jack cheese.”

You’d have to watch Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch to find a similar comparison between The Blob and Beware! The Blob, with the first film setting up a premise and the second film having fun with the premise while also poking fun at it.  Joe Dante directed both Gremlins films. His directorial style is a more polished and pointed version of Hagman’s direction, perhaps even influenced by it.

I am quite surprised that it took me so long to stumble upon this gem and to do so uninvited. I cannot recall anyone ever suggesting it to me, nor reading about it in any books or magazines – even those that deal mainly with b-movies. Frankly, I’m shocked as Beware! The Blobis one of the most enjoyable popcorn flicks I’ve seen in some time. I also now get the reference made by WFMU’s Beware of the Blog.

Rollerball (1975)

Rollerball predicts a corporatized future where the most popular sport is a no holds barred, semi-motorized version of roller derby. It’s vision of the future is part Ikea, part Eames, and part Playboy advertisement. It’s masculinity meets mod.  What’s so strikingly wrong about its vision of the future is just how it is so low-key and unadorned with advertising. Rollerball is a far cry from NASCAR. Though, I’d much preferred to have seen a future as stylish as the one in Rollerball and not as slobbish as the future we are living in – minus the bloodlust, an corporate monopoly, of course.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness is a John Carpenter film that asks us to consider the possibility of a physical embodiment of evil. Located in the basement of a boarded up church lies a vessel containing the anti-christ.  As the evil escapes its holding tank an army of undead surround the church. Religion and science work together understand and contain the force of evil that has laid dormant for eons.

If there is a great fault with this film it casts a gang of less than stellar stars, including Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount as unlikely and not too memorable research students working to save humanity from ultimate evil. A budding romance between Parker and Blount’s characters is meant to draw us in emotionally. While most of the other students simply serve as hapless victims. In the end, I cared little for any of characters and too much for the unexplored history of evil incarnate.

Prince of Darkness does offer up one of the more chilling visuals in horror cinema. It’s a broadcast from the future year of 1999. The image of a dark figure exiting an abandoned church is wavy, broken up by static, and accompanied by garbled audio. What we can make out from the message informs us that in the future they have developed a transmitter strong enough to broadcast into dreams.  The film has a hard time explaining the physics behind how messages from the future can be transmitted into dreams. It is just one of a few interesting ideas that is never explored enough for my liking.

 

 

 

Possession (1981)

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is a film for anyone who felt Kubrick’s The Shining provided too sane a depiction of madness. Zulawski’s has none of the visual rigor of Kubric. Zulawski is far more daring with his visuals, but not always successful. Sam Neill rocks with intensity, the kind that is so unhinged it becomes nearly comical to those watching in the audience. To his screen wife, played by Isabelle Adjani, Neill’s madness can only be matched by her own masochistic insanity. When she’s not slicing herself with kitchen appliances she’s making love to a gooey creature straight out of a David Cronenberg flick, even if this pre-dates some of Cronenberg’s slimiest pics. There may even be a hint of Roman Polanski‘s paranoia sprinkled throughout this film

A combination of Kubrick and Cronenberg  and Polanski sounds appealing, I’m hard pressed to consider this film anything more than daring or bold. Those are not bad attributes for a film, especially if you are looking for a cinematic experience to shake up your night, but I would caution anyone to confuse those two terms with a guarantee for greatness.

The Hypnotic Eye (1960)

Women around town start mutilating themselves. They act as if in a trance. The results are grizzly, even deadly. Is a traveling hypnotist to blame? One detective must find the answer before his girl friend becomes the next victim.

The Hypnotic Eye swings like a pocket watch back and forth, back and forth, between dark and campy. The methods used by the women to disfigure themselves are shocking and cringe worthy, but then their are moments of unintentional hilarity. Take for example this scene inside a beatnik coffee house, perhaps my new favorite portrail of beat poetry in a Hollywood film.

Besides the  reflexive silliness of a pome like “Confessions of a Movie Addict” there is a lot to like about “The Hypnotic Eye”.

Check it today:

http://www.wbshop.com/product/hypnotic+eye+the+1960+1000180252.do#.UFy-vBgpQco

An American Hippie in Israel (1972)

It is not often that I go this blind into a film, but I had heard that An American Hippie in Israel was something unbelievable. I guess, I just wanted to believe it was as crazy as I’d heard. I wanted to be surprised. I’m not sure if surprised is the right word, but unbelievable certainly is the wrong word to describe this film. Unbearable is a far better word. Perhaps, unbelievably-unbearable is the right combination of words or perhaps there are just no words in the English language to properly explain the anguish I endured while watching An American Hippie in Israel. 

It’ll have you screaming for freedom.

Maybe there is an Israeli word that adequately describes the mind-numbing experience of this film. Now, I’ve seen bad movies. I’ve seen boring movies. I’ve seen movies by Matthew Samuel Smith. Nothing prepared me for An American Hippie in Israel. Well, except maybe Hoodlums.

There are vast stretches of this film where nothing happens and its not that good kinda nothing. It’s not Antonioni or Akerman nothing. Sure, this film would like to imagine itself as some sort of existential exploration, but it’s more exploitation than existential. Yet, it’s not even interesting exploitation. It’s just maddening. It’s the kinda film you just want to scream at and with this huge pregnant pauses and scenes that extend well past the point of necessary, screaming at the screen is what I did.

Well, it turns out I’m not alone. After watching – or I should say enduring- this movie I listened to Mike White’s Projection Booth podcast about An American Hippie in Israel. I needed answers. I needed to understand. I needed to know why anyone would recommend that someone suffer through this film. What I learned was that over in Israel, this movie is like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For two years, dedicated fans and curious masochists have gotten together to watch and heckle this picture. Hearing how these screenings are interactive, even performative and listening to all the choice lines from the movie condensed down, with that insanely lengthy gaps of dead space removed from the soundtrack, I was convinced that this film is amazing. There truly is some choice dialog in this film. It’s just surrounded by acres of nothing.

Yes, rarely do I have such marked transformations, so quickly, about a film. I suppose that goes to show what a little education will do for you. I am not really sorry that I went into my viewing so ignorant. I feel bad for the other fellow who was subjected to watching this with me. Still, we wear our experience like a scar. It was a feat of strength to get through this film. I imagine it is not so bad in a theater, under the influence, surrounded by like minded individuals who all know what to expect from this film, and feel free to share their frustration and humor with one another. That is certainly the only way I’d watch this again. I will however be quoting it for the rest of my free life.

http://vimeo.com/26789655