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SXSW 2010: The People vs. George Lucas, Beijing Taxi, and Canal Street Madam

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SXSW 2010: The People vs. George Lucas, Beijing Taxi, and Canal Street Madam

Wrekin Hill Entertainment

SXSW’s film festival officially ended last night (though the films continue to play just as often for a few days, for those of us who haven’t seen our fill yet) and the music festival started today. Watching the mole people of the movie world get replaced by sleeker, more stylish, generally younger musicians and A&R types makes me think of a very clever bumper (one of those short films that precedes each movie to let you know it’s part of the festival) for this year’s festival. This one, which is by SXSW staffer Joe Nicolosi, shows a bright-eyed young woman who heads into the woods “to get some exercise” and has to fight off one horror-movie monster after another. As she’s about to go down, the final supertitles say something like: “Stay indoors. Watch movies.”

The People vs. George Lucas (Alexandre O. Philippe). SXSW always has a strong lineup of documentaries, and The People vs. George Lucas is one of this year’s best. Smart, funny, and often impassioned, it’s entertaining even when it’s just exploring the filmmaker’s relationship with his rebellious army of fans. But what really hooked me were its insights into why this battle matters to the noncombatants.

Some points are hammered away at too often, and the Stars Wars-style “episodes” the doc is divided into work better as a joke than an organizing principle. I could have done with a little less footage of talking heads too. But those talking heads sure can talk. Their vivid language, self-aware humor, strong emotions, and intelligent observations won me over, as did the generous sampling of impressively creative or endearingly amateurish fan edits and the footage of fans, often surrounded by merchandise or putting their own stamp on the Star Wars myth. I particularly liked a couple of guys dressed as Elvis, one of whom was also a storm trooper while the other was a Jedi. Now, that’s participatory fandom.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe and his editor deftly explain the love/hate relationship so many of his fans have with Lucas, making it clear enough that someone who knows nothing about Lucas or his movies could easily follow. They also explore the faceoff between Lucas and his fans as an early skirmish in the battle for control of our popular culture, as we move from a gatekeeper-controlled model to a more participatory one.

Non-famous fans, book authors, bloggers, academics, and a lot of professional geeks weigh in, explaining how Lucas “unlocked a generation’s imagination” and invited Star Wars fans to reinterpret his fantasy world—to play in his sandbox, as one interviewee puts it—like nobody before him, partly by marketing it with an unprecedented deluge of action figures and costumes and light sabers and such. He also encouraged the fan edits that play with or off his movies, even holding a contest for them.

Then he reneged on that invitation, as the fans see it, by re-editing “their” Star Wars on its 20th anniversary and coming out with prequels and sequels they deemed unworthy of the original. That leads to some interesting questions, like whether a movie is ever actually done, who has the right to alter a piece of artwork once it has become part of our shared culture, and how artists must adapt to remain popular or even relevant in this new environment. And is Lucas, our canary in the mine for this new way of making and marketing movies, a fat-cat master exploiter, a great artist martyred by a venal culture, a geeky child hiding from a world that doesn’t understand him, or all of the above?

Beijing Taxi (Miao Wang). Director Miao Wang grew up in Beijing but left in 1990. In 2006, she started going back with her camera to film the city as it prepared for and hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Looking for “a portrait of the city, but also of three characters who represent the ordinary people of Beijing,” she recruited three cab drivers and filmed the city mostly through their eyes, as they drove and went about the rest of their lives. The result is Beijing Taxi, an unfocused but occasionally enlightening documentary.

The ghosts of Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town—not to mention Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, The World, and 24 City, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Three Times, and Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze—haunt this movie for me, since they all either told me more than Beijing Taxi about how life is changing in China, told individual stories that resonated more, or both.

Wang doesn’t delve very deeply into her subjects’ lives. She doesn’t always set things up clearly or ask follow-up questions either, which leaves too many questions unanswered. Why did so many shops get less business instead of more from the Olympics, for instance? And why does one of the cabbies worry about going without insurance? Doesn’t China have nationalized health insurance?

We never get close enough to her cabbies to really care about them as individuals, though we sense their impressive ability to adapt to their ever-changing economic and political system. And after a while, all that footage of skyscrapers, cyclists, soldiers, and other sights shot through the car windows starts to feel like dailies for a movie that hasn’t yet been made.

The Canal Street Madam (Cameron Yates.) The Canal Street Madam plays a little like Grey Gardens, only this time the mom runs a whorehouse and her daughter is one of the whores. Director Cameron Yates says he made the movie because he “always wanted to make a humanistic story about sex workers.” He found a good subject in Jeanette Maier, a longtime prostitute and madam whose mother helped run her business and whose daughter worked there for a while—until the house was closed down by the F.B.I..

Maier is no saint. Quick to cry for herself but slow to recognize the pain she inflicts on others, she provided for her kids financially but neglected them emotionally, according to her daughter Monica. Not surprisingly, they struggle to cope with life: One son is in prison and the other is a drifting drug addict when the movie begins, and though Monica seems to have gotten her life together, she started turning tricks at the age of 15 or 16. “Just like she was given certain tools, she laid those tools into my hand,” she says of her mother.

Directors of documentaries like this have a choice to make: focus on their subject’s faults, creating a portrait of a fascinating but flawed human being, or take a nonjudgmental stance, using their subjects as a window into a world. Yates chose the second path, seeming to take Maier’s frequent self-justifications at face value. Maybe for that reason, he gets great access. He’s there for some key moments, like when Maier watches news reports about other madams releasing their client lists—something she is always threatening to do—or when she gets her son out of prison. (The son doesn’t say much on the ride home, maybe because he doesn’t love being on camera as much as his mama does.)

Yates’s use of footage from before he met Jeanette is spottier. He culls revealing audio from “thousands of hours” of F.B.I. wiretaps, but he relies too much on a single home video the Maiers shot in 1989, showing the same few scenes so often I could probably recreate them shot for shot. Still, he makes his point, showing us Maier saying, “Sex between two consensual adults should not be a crime” enough that that you recognize and remember it. That’s Jeanette Maier’s motto, and it’s a good one.

SXSW runs from March 12 to March 20.