If I have to choose...
No, I don't like a false dichotomy any more than the rest of you. But if I have to choose, I'll choose.
Specifically, if I have to choose between a technically-meticulous piece of work without a shred of soul, and a flawed but ambitious / quirky production, I'll have what's behind Door #2 each and every time.
Some of that, I'm sure, is Underdog Syndrome. I empathize with the guys who tried to do it their own way. God love the bastards; they deserve it. I love it to death when there is a real risk, a real shoot-for-the-moon quality about something that tells you people were trying not just to repeat themselves, let alone anyone else.
I got to thinking about this when working on a piece about an almost-forgotten animated production, Twice Upon a Time, which was co-financed by George Lucas and has all but slipped down the memory hole. I rewatched Time recently, and was knocked out by it. It's not perfect—what is?—but it is distinctive. It's clearly the product of people who were happy to take risks and managed to get away with a good many of them.
Lucas's involvement in the film was minimal, which explains how he was able to drag director John Korty away from something that original and get him to work on the thunderingly awful Ewok Adventure movie for TV. And then when Lucas finally got back behind the camera, he gave us the prequels, which are the absolute last cynical word in Film As Managed Risk.
I have a hard time describing the level of disappointment, and later annoyance and outrage, that I felt in '99 when I saw Episode 1. What bugged me most was how dull it was, how prosaic; how despite having a whole farrago of things zipping past the camera, the camera itself never seemed to be all that interested to be there in the first place. It was the cinematic equivalent of a house decorated by a nouveau riche, someone who clutters the place up with tapestries and paintings and rugs, and yet has no personal attachment to any of it. He put those things there because he thought that's what a filmmaker does, not because there was any compelling argument from within himself to do it.
The other two films simply repeated the same mistake with different scenery and props. Not in a single moment did I feel like there was an artist, or even a showman, at work. It was all technique and technology in the service of a story that had never progressed beyond a template that needed its blanks filled in. There were no happy accidents, no lovable mistakes. It had all the charm of a form letter from a ex-lover.
The irony, as has been said before, is that this happened with films Lucas had total creative control over. It was not because someone else had come along and gutted his work. Time had been caught in a struggle between Korty and one of its other producers, who wanted a more adult-toned production, and which resulted in two different versions of the film circulating amongst bootleggers. The movie also suffered because of the bankruptcy of the Ladd Corporation. But despite all that, it still shines.
With Lucas, I felt that once all disciplinary pressure had been removed (in the form of his peers, like Marcia or Brian de Palma), he was free to do what he wanted — which was to create something that outwardly resembled the entertainments of his youth but was inwardly without spirit. He was in a position that almost every single one of the people who have followed in his wake would have killed to occupy, and he blew it. Who in this industry — who in any creative field — have the kind of total control that he did, and on the scope he could command? Not ten others; maybe not even five. He didn't realize his worst enemy was now his own limited vision and his atrophied imagination.
I worry that this may be interpreted as leading up to a truism: that adversary is the mother of creativity, or something along those lines. Too easy. I'm thinking more along the lines that anyone who sets out to remove the obstacles before him, without knowing what others are now in his way to replace them — because they are always there, even if you can't see them — is only pulling the wool over their own eyes. Probably their whole head, come to think of it.
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