From a certain point of view...
What are the most personal films ever made? In fact, what is it that defines a personal film in the first place? Is it the quasi-autobiographical stylings of Woody Allen in his prime, turning his intimately hilarious stand-up routines into little New York operas of love and loss? Is it the works of Abbas Kiarostami, who went so far as to not only make movies of his life experiences, but then go on to remake said experiences within the context of making movies themselves? What if I told you that some of the most personal films ever made boil down to a quiet kid from Modesto speeding around in his convertible, trusty canine companion Indiana in the passenger’s seat, his overactive imagination painting them as a space pirate and his fuzz-ball alien copilot zipping around the galaxy on one unbelievable adventure after another? Because, make no mistake, the Star Wars films are an intensely personal expression of their own creator’s life (yes, even the Prequels), and they do so within the confines of one of the most populist film franchises out there.
But to best understand how the Star Wars saga encapsulates its maker’s experience upon this little blue marble of ours, first we must go back to the oldest of stories: the one where the boy meets the girl. The boy was named George Lucas, and the girl was Marcia Griffin.
The fact that Lucasfilm has almost wiped all mention of Marcia Griffin from the history of Star Wars is a shame of the highest caliber - one that hopefully that company’s new management will seek to rectify in the coming years. Being that she was one of the editors on the first film and subsequently won an Oscar for her troubles, she always gets a passing mention in all the officially-sanctioned “Making of…” books, but Marcia’s influence extends far beyond winning the little golden statuette. It’s not a stretch to say that without Marcia Griffin, there would be no Star Wars (or, at the very least, not in the form we know it today). Frankly, it’s safe to say that with no Marcia Griffin, there would be no George Lucas, either.
The two met by chance, a USC film student and a seasoned assistant thrown together on a project legendary film editor Verna Fields had assigned them to, and they seemed an odd-yet-perfect match in that beautifully-rare way of complimenting opposites. Lucas was the prototypical nerd: quiet, shy, but fiercely intelligent and with a seemingly-endless imagination. Griffin, in turn, was the dream of every male film nerd: bright, beautiful and outgoing, and able to argue Goddard or Kurosawa with the best of them. The two eventually married and found themselves becoming titans of the film industry in their own, particular ways: Lucas as a filmmaker/outright media mogul, and Griffin as one of the defining editors of the Film School Brat generation.
It was not always so, however; Lucas’ first film was a flop. THX 1137 was a technical marvel (and absolutely worth seeing, if any of you still haven’t taken the plunge into Lucas’ early work), but emotionally distant - far more concerned with what it was trying to say without ever figuring out why it wanted to say it in the first place. Griffin was reportedly never fond of the movie, and was incredibly supportive of Lucas’ idea to turn to something personal for his follow-up, something that was more emotionally engaging than the experimental films her husband was so fond of. And that was how the most indie of independent filmmakers, who once planned to shoot his friend John Milius’ script Apocalypse Now documentary-style on location in Vietnam while the war was still raging, wound up directing an honest-to-goodness, feel-good Hollywood film, what is arguably still Lucas’ best: American Graffiti, a coming-of-age tale about kids and their cars in the early sixties. The success of that film gave Lucas the clout to bring his biggest dream yet to the screen, a children’s sci-fi saga that would recall the passions of his youth whilst also pushing them forward into uncharted territory. But the filmmaker was still stuck in his own head, busily writing down complicated histories and civilizations inspired by cheap pulp thrills and old movie serials. It was Griffin who helped him bring it back down to a relatable human place, all the way up to when they were assembling the film into the final cut for which she won her Oscar for.
Star Wars came out in the summer of 1977, and you all know how that particular strand of the story wound up. Its monumental success further emboldened Lucas to build his own Hollywood away from LA, turning the nascent Lucasfilm, Ltd into something far more than a mere production company - a multimedia empire where he could make the movies he wanted to make unencumbered from the major studios. He threw himself into its building with a passion that was borderline obsessive. Lucas became more difficult to work with and harder to reach - literally and emotionally. That all-encompassing devotion to building the company slowly drove a wedge in George and Marcia’s relationship, one that eventually ended in divorce the same year Return of the Jedi was released and Lucas’ epic trilogy was completed.
It was a messy break-up by all accounts, with the Lucas’ mutual friend Steven Spielberg once saying in an interview with 60 Minutes, “George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married, because it was insurance policy that marriages do work...and when that marriage didn't work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.” Following their divorce, Griffin left the film industry altogether and Lucas fell into a deep depression, stepping back from directing and engaging in most projects in a producer-only capacity. It seemed like Star Wars too was done for good and all, destined to settle into a cult-film status following its original success. But then, as these things usually go, Lucas got bitten by the bug again, and found himself intrigued by the possibility of returning to the world of Star Wars with an all-new trilogy. These new films wouldn’t be sequels, however, but rather prequels, and would go on to tell the story of bad guy-turned-tragic hero Darth Vader’s fall from grace…
Do you see what I’m getting at here, dear reader? Are those six little pieces of George Lucas falling into place? Because the Star Wars saga is many things, but - when viewed through the filter of Lucas’ evolution as an artist - it is most chiefly a reflection of the filmmaker’s own life and career. Look at the story told by the original trilogy, and you see the younger Lucas weaving threadlike beneath the very fabric of the main story itself: a young hero standing up and proving himself against a vast and nigh-unbeatable establishment, the figurehead of which it turns out is his literal father - the plight of the entire Baby Boomer generation laid bare for all to see. Fast-forward twenty years later, and with the Prequel trilogy we get another young hero, only this time it’s different. This time the hero is working for the establishment, and becomes so corrupted through his devotion and obsession that he loses his wife and everything he holds dear in the process - the prophesied hero becoming the very thing he was supposed to defeat in the first place. That’s more or less the journey of George Lucas, the Eternal Skywalker of the Star Wars universe, who “won” the story of his life by making peace with the fact that he had undergone a sub-Oedipal transformation from the brash son to the co-opted father (as many a Boomer has likely discovered on many a New Age therapist’s couch).
That to me is why the Prequels can never be written off completely - you literally cannot trace Lucas’ career or life without including them alongside the actual good movies of the series. That’s what makes them art in the truest sense, an honest and naked look into the mind of George Lucas. Now, this isn’t some defense of those dramatically inert, lifeless jumbles of pixels and trade negotiations; they’re unmitigated piles of shit. But they are still art. Some people like to think of that term as purely a descriptor of quality, reserved only for the best of the best, the most hoi of the aristoi. But art is far more complex than that. Art is true neutral - neither intrinsically good nor bad. As long as something is an expression of whatever’s going on inside the creator’s head, then that makes it art. And despite their prepackaged Cambellian mythmaking and their endlessly marketable toyetic qualities, the Star Wars saga provides a unique look into the artistic evolution of one of the greatest and ultimately most compromised filmmakers of our age…
George Lucas’ soul bared in six little pieces.