THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS ★★
Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS ★★★
Directed by Woody Allen
Fantasy geeks have become a topic of increasing interest to indie documentary makers. Trekkies (1997), which recorded the rituals of Star Trek fanatics, was followed in the past decade by such low-budget productions as Comic Book: The Movie (2004), Ringers: Lord of the Fans (2005), Darkon (2006), Monster Camp (2007), The Secret World of Superfans (2008), and, inevitably, Trekkies 2 (2004). I'm not sure why there are so many, but it must have something to do with the fact that fanboys (and -girls) can be counted on to both generate and consume their own hyperbole, rhapsodizing about their obsessions on camera and then drumming up an audience for the finished movie online. No one in these movies ever supposes that the explosion of fantasy entertainment in the past 35 years has hastened the recent decline in reality-based thinking. The fanboy docs I've seen all travel the same rhetorical trajectory, treating their subjects with amusement, then skepticism, and finally respect; there's always some concluding homily about the importance of wonder.
The People vs. George Lucas, screening this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, explores the love-hate relationship between Star Wars creator George Lucas and the adult fans who've grown up with his work. It sticks pretty closely to the template, with fast-moving montages of cultural commentators and shameless obsessives hyperventilating over the pettiest details of Lucas's space opera. But director Alexandre O. Philippe also touches on some fairly knotty matters of film preservation, creative ownership, and cultural participation. He includes numerous snippets of fan films, and even fan edits of the original movies, illustrating the extent to which Lucas's world has been colonized by others. Lucas is presented alternately as a prisoner of his own creation, sacrificing his career as an artist to the demands of entrepreneurship, and as an auteurist megalomaniac, tightly controlling every aspect of the Star Wars universe. Either way, he's clearly become only half the story, and the other half is those consuming his movies.
Lucas's relationship with his fans first began to sour in 1997, when he took advantage of the new digital technology to refurbish Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) for rerelease. New visual effects were designed, and Lucas tweaked the original cuts, adding scenes, adjusting dialogue, and in one instance digitally substituting one actor for another. In the documentary, fans go postal over his revision of a scene in Star Wars to make the space desperado Han Solo seem less ruthless (in the 1977 release Solo zaps the reptilian bounty hunter Greedo with his ray gun; in the 1997 version Greedo gets off the first shot). But Lucas also gets low marks from the film buffs and academics in the documentary for his decision to embargo the original versions. As they point out, this is an affront to his original visual effects designers (who won multiple Oscars for their work), and a curious state of affairs for Star Wars, a film that's been recognized by the National Film Registry as an American cultural landmark.
This question of ownership is further complicated by the amazing breadth of the fan films sampled by Philippe. There's live-action, clay animation, and stop-motion animation using Star Wars toys. There's a farcical account of Lucas's life, a spoof of the Kathy Bates-James Caan thriller Misery in which a deranged fan holds Lucas hostage, and a parody trailer for a 70s drive-in horror item called Don't Go in the Endor Woods. Fanboy Casey Pugh recalls that when he launched StarWarsUncut.com, dividing the original movie into 15-second segments and soliciting fan re-creations of each, all 473 segments were snapped up within three days. And just as Lucas monkeyed around with the original trilogy, his much-derided second trilogy—The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005)—has become fodder for a proliferation of "fan edits." Dissatisfied with the movies, fans have taken it upon themselves to tighten up the pacing, trim out the stuff they don't like, and circulate their own versions under new titles.
One of the more revealing clips shows Lucas, interviewed in the 70s, drawing a distinction between himself and the great George Cukor, who disliked the term filmmaker because it reminded him of toymaker. "I like being thought of as a toymaker who makes films," Lucas explains. As author Henry Jenkins notes in the documentary, the culture of participation begins when a child first puts his Star Wars toys through the paces of his own invented story. Community ownership of Star Wars is inseparable from the merchandising empire, which may be one reason Lucas, controlling as he is, has so enthusiastically endorsed fan films (he even sponsors an annual competition). At this point Star Wars is more than a movie franchise, or a marketing juggernaut, or even a cultural phenomenon: it's more like a collective fantasy, trapping people in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 but lost out to Annie Hall, which announced Woody Allen's emergence as a "serious" filmmaker. In the years since then, as Lucas built his empire around a single story, Allen has churned out another 34 features, the latest of which, Midnight in Paris, is opening this week. Like the fans in The People vs. George Lucas, Allen devotees have been dealt their share of disappointments over the years. Back in the 70s, I ate it up when Allen romanticized Manhattan, in the movie of the same name, as "a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin." But with each successive feature Allen's idealization seems more infantile and self-indulgent, and his New York seems less a recognizably real place than a thick bubble of wealth, culture, and privilege. Now I hate nearly everything he does, from his complacent romantic comedies to his trite humor pieces in the New Yorker. Now, whenever one of his movies starts up, with the credits in that Windsor font and some old jazz tune on the soundtrack, it's like fingernails on a blackboard.
So perhaps I'll seem more credible when I tell you that Midnight in Paris is Allen's best movie since Match Point (2005) and his funniest comedy since Bullets Over Broadway (1994). I'll take the upfront fantasy of Midnight in Paris over the upper-middle-class fantasy of Vicky Cristina Barcelona any day. Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter, visiting Paris with his fiancee and her parents, who longs to become a serious novelist and idealizes the Paris of the Jazz Age. One night as he's glumly wandering the city, the clock strikes 12 and a vintage Peugeot rounds the corner, filled with carousing socialites in evening dress. After hopping into the backseat for a ride, the screenwriter magically travels back to the city of the 1920s, where he meets Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Night after night the automobile comes back for him, and eventually he begins hanging out with all the creative giants of the era: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Cole Porter. They accept him as one of their own; Stein reads his novel manuscript and pronounces it a great work of art.
This fond fantasy demonstrates how much Lucas and Allen share even though they embody stylistic extremes. Allen may fancy himself a modern-day Bergman, but he's always functioned best as a fantasy filmmaker. His early, farcical comedies often traded in the fantastic, from the Fantastic Voyage parody in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) to the futuristic satire of Sleeper (1973) to the ghostly visitations from Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam (1972). Some of the funniest sequences in Annie Hall were the hero's ridiculous reveries of grade school classmates updating him on their lives and Marshall McLuhan materializing in a theater lobby to help him win an argument. And in the features that followed, Allen tended to be funniest and least pretentious when he was exploring some bizarre concept, like the human chameleon of Zelig (1983) or the movie character climbing off the screen to join the real world in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Midnight in Paris is endearing for its fondness as much as its fantasy: Allen clearly loves the Paris of the 20s, and his time-traveling screenwriter is also an ardent fanboy, delighted to be meeting and connecting with his literary heroes. But that doesn't inhibit Allen from giving them all a good ribbing: Picasso is an amorous egomaniac, Dali is a wacko, and Hemingway is one grimly romantic pronouncement after another. In one of the funniest gags, the screenwriter gets Buñuel off to one side and pitches him an idea for a movie: an assortment of wealthy dinner guests discover they're locked inside a room and are trapped there for days. It's the premise for Buñuel's surreal masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962), but in the movie, the young Buñuel looks at the screenwriter as if he were nuts. Some people have no imagination.
E-mail J.R. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.