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George Lucas (#110 of 23)

Of Light and Darkness Brian R. Jacobson’s Studios Before the System

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Of Light and Darkness: Brian R. Jacobson’s Studios Before the System
Of Light and Darkness: Brian R. Jacobson’s Studios Before the System

By the early 1970s, the term “studio system” had become synonymous with an institutional form of artistic repression, intent on sucking the lifeblood from auteurist projects in favor of safer, commercially viable fare. Just ask George Lucas, whose experience working with Warner Bros. on THX 1138 made him so angry that he swore off studio films for good. Of course, then Star Wars inaugurated the concept of big budget, globalized franchising, axed most remaining personal visions produced within studio confines, revved up synergistic media practice, and turned “Weekend Box Office” into a household term.

Cut to West Orange, New Jersey in 1893, where W.K.L. Dickson has just finished building the Black Maria, the world’s first film studio. An open-air establishment with a retractable roof and rotation capabilities, it became responsible for cultivating what Brian R. Jacobson calls a “framed aesthetic,” committed to the “enframing of light and objects” within the closed space. In Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, Jacobson examines such pre-system spaces within the United States and France in order to better comprehend the “formal genealogy” and “importance for theorizing film space” offered by these prototypical studios. Rather than simply celebrating early film pioneers for their innovations, Jacobson rigorously examines the architectural, industrial, and artistic logic that drove filmmakers out of the daylight and into enclosed structures that became “a technological form of environmental regulation” and proffered cinema as “a broad reformation of the relationship between nature and technology in the late nineteenth century.”

Summer of ‘89: Shag

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Shag</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Shag</em>

Having grown up in Bloomington, Indiana and graduated from high school in 1959, George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a nostalgic view of teenagers living in a small town, naturally struck a chord with me when it came out in 1973. Eight years later, so did Bob Clark’s 1954-set Porky’s, a more accurate depiction of the horniness of the American teenage male. Then came 1989’s Shag, and what with its story looking back to 1963 and focusing on the experience of a group of teenage girls, it felt like a delightful corrective, not least of which because these characters were allowed to be horny too. At one point the girls talk about boners and one of them, Pudge (Annabeth Gish), says this of her friend Mary Pat: “This cousin of hers dated a Clemson Tiger who sprained his in a game, and she had to massage it every night when it got hard because he was in so much pain.” Another girl, Melaina (Bridget Fonda), replies, “Mary Pat told you that?” Clearly we were at the beginning of the long, curvy road to Sex and the City and beyond.

I wasn’t the only person to see the connection to Porky’s. Robin Swicord, who wrote the final drafts of the script, was working from an earlier draft by the team of Lanier Laney and Terry Sweeney. Their script was about a group of girls on vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Swicord—in an interview for the 1995 edition of the Film Writers Guide—described it as “a little bit more like Porky’s (1981), it was about finding moonshine liquor. That was the plot; ’Can we get drunk?’” Swicord said her “version of it was like a summer weekend that I spent with my girlfriends in a town very much like Myrtle Beach.” She felt she “accomplished making Southern girls who were not ridiculous and simpering. We knew that they were comic characters, but we also knew that they were real.” The characters aren’t deep, but they’re very sharply drawn and imminently playable. I liked them when I first met them in 1989, and liked them still when I encountered them again in preparation for this piece.

An Essential Entry in the Up-All-Night Canon: Dazed and Confused Turns 20

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An Essential Entry in the Up-All-Night Canon: <em>Dazed and Confused</em> Turns 20
An Essential Entry in the Up-All-Night Canon: <em>Dazed and Confused</em> Turns 20

Few directors are as enamored with the passage of time and the preservation of memory as Richard Linklater. From the episodic chronicling of a relationship in the Before trilogy and the real-time unfolding of the chamber play Tape to his upcoming Boyhood, which was filmed in vignettes over the last 12 years to reflect the aging of its protagonist, Linklater is primarily concerned with capturing specific moments of significance and preserving them like celluloid time capsules. To that end, Linklater’s teenage opus Dazed and Confused, a 1970s high-school snapshot that, on Oct. 10, celebrated its 20th birthday at the New York Film Festival, ideally and uniquely lends itself to an anniversary screening. And even if Linklater, who was present at the screening, joked in his intro that the film “never would’ve gotten into” NYFF when it was first released, it also doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most beloved and influential movies of the 1990s.

Summer of ‘88: Tucker: The Man and His Dream

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Tucker: The Man and His Dream</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Tucker: The Man and His Dream</em>

As you’ve no doubt noticed from the last few entries in this series, the waning days of 1988’s summer didn’t feel quite like the blockbuster season we now see extending all the way up to September. Opening on August 12, 1988, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream was the kind of prestige project you’d more likely associate with awards season. For Coppola, it is among his most personal films, not only because it spent the longest time in gestation, but because it’s the closest the filmmaker has ever come to a confessional about the professional betrayals he’d contended with in his career, and the virtues and flaws of mounting a creative collaboration.

As Coppola recounts in the DVD commentary, he had been fascinated with Tucker ever since childhood, when his father had invested in the iconoclast’s auto company. Coppola had conceived of a Tucker musical biopic while still in film school at UCLA. His initial vision was as ambitious as Tucker’s was for his automobile. In the years after the Godfather films, Coppola had attained sufficient clout, enough to invite Gene Kelly to choreograph, and to offer the lead role to actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and even Burt Reynolds. Coppola wanted composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) to score, with Singin’ in the Rain’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing the lyrics, and the collaboration produced at least one song. But this iteration of Tucker was ultimately scrapped after the failure of Coppola’s experimental One from the Heart (1982).

Summer of ‘88: Willow—Fantasy Departed

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Willow</em>—Fantasy Departed
Summer of ‘88: <em>Willow</em>—Fantasy Departed

One of the many residual effects of the massive success of the Star Wars trilogy was the boom of fantasy films that arrived in theaters in the mid-1980s. Movies such as Legend, Masters of the Universe, The NeverEnding Story, The Princess Bride, and others were all released within the span of a couple of years, and each to some degree featured sprawling sets, evocative atmospheres, and extensive use of prosthetics and puppets. These elements were staples of George Lucas’s storytelling, a quality that proved to be a strong companion to the Star Wars films’ grand visual and narrative design. It wasn’t long after the trilogy had wrapped that even Lucas himself had dipped into the bankable commercial lore of fantasy moviemaking when he produced Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. His own contribution to the subgenre followed two years later at a time when fantasy appeared on the decline. With an original story by Lucas, Willow was met with widespread ambivalence upon its release. Retrospectively, however, the film’s graceless hybrid of Star Wars-style mythmaking and leftovers from the short-lived fantasy period in commercial cinema that Lucas inspired offers a pointed reflection and portrait of the filmmaker that has grown more compelling as the full trajectory of Lucas’s career has emerged in view.

Of course, Lucas didn’t direct Willow (we’ll get to that later), but the film bears his authorial stamp almost immediately at the outset. In fact, you don’t even need to see the trademark Lucasfilm logo to sense the filmmaker’s touch. The setting and storytelling influences may diverge from those of Star Wars, but the same propensity for merging age-old legends is evident. Instead of drawing from Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, Lucas and screenwriter Bob Dolman fold elements of the Grimm brothers and J.R.R. Tolkien into a nakedly bibilical framework. Take the prologue: Willow opens on the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), who orders the slaughter of all newborns for fear of a prophecy predicting the usurping of her power. But the blatant bibilical allusion doesn’t end there. Lucas and Dolman also add a dash of Moses for good measure, when a baby born in secret is placed into a basket and floated down a river. Then, after the baby is discovered by Hobbit-esque folk called Nelwyns, Willow shifts into Star Wars mode, slowing down to allow the larger world to develop.

Poster Lab: Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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Poster Lab: <em>Drew: The Man Behind the Poster</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Drew: The Man Behind the Poster</em>

In a column devoted to the art of movie poster design, it would be criminal to not highlight the one-sheet for a documentary about Drew Struzan, the most influential and notable film poster illustrator of the last four decades, and the strongest name to be tied to movie cover art since Saul Bass. As much a cult hero as an artist whose work has beguiled the masses, Struzan has been commissioned by geek superfans like Kevin Smith, who turned to the illustrator when whipping up promo material for Mallrats, and famously brought to prominence by blockbuster maestros Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who’ve hired Struzan time and again for the likes of E.T., Hook, and, of course, Star Wars. Also the man behind the iconic paintings that heralded each Indiana Jones film and Blade Runner (the latter causing a fan-fueled stir when the studio opted for work by John Alvin instead), Struzan may just be Harrison Ford’s definitive portrait artist, repeatedly nailing the actor’s likeness for two classic franchises, and for the film that many would call Ford’s greatest.