November 1, 2012

Personal essay: Lucasfilm, the artistic endgame, and the death of the Gen-X man-child.

Disney buys Lucasfilms

So did you hear? Disney just bought pretty much everything George Lucas owns for four billion freaking dollars. Yeah. And now there's a nation of Gen-X handwringers already starting to decry the decision (or at least it seems like a nation of Gen-X handwringers, but more on that in a bit), and to bemoan the loss of a beloved franchise to what amounts to the Evil Empire; but I gotta say, I've actually been quite impressed this week by Lucas' end-of-career accomplishment, and am now starting to look at his entire career overall in a brand new light. And that's partly because as a small business owner myself, I'm always having to think about some of the business issues that Lucas handled particularly well here; and it's partly because I now spend a significant amount of time in my life with two nine-year-old boys, and watching the way they interact with the Star Wars universe has recently had me rethinking the entire way I now interact with it. And that in turn has had me thinking a lot about Generation X in general, the obsession with cheesy pop culture that so defined our youths, and how that relationship with throwaway culture is changing now that we're becoming fathers ourselves, and now that we've seen that pop-culture obsession co-opted by the rich, powerful and evil to get away with all manner of nefarious things.

You see, back in 2005 and '06 when I was first formulating CCLaP's plans, and was spending most of my time merely reading the several hundred books I would need to absorb in order to successfully open a small commercial business, one of the things that was hammered home over and over again in these books was the importance of a small business owner having an "endgame" to their company; because as we all know, eventually everyone is going to die, and most likely you will spend several decades leading up to it getting tireder, developing more and more medical problems, and shifting your priorities to more end-of-life ones like travel, philanthropy, family, etc. So how to plan things while you're actively running your business so that it's ready to provide the revenue needed for these end-of-life changes? Sometimes that involves training an entire salaried staff to run things without your help, and you merely keeping the profits; sometimes that involves going public at a certain point, then selling that stock in old age; sometimes that means breaking up the company and selling off the lucrative pieces you've collected and grown over the decades; and sometimes that means literally selling the entire kit and kaboodle to someone else in one fell swoop, then taking the money and running.

It's this last option that's often seen in a lot of neighborhood retail spaces -- think of the convenience store or gas station that changes ownership every twenty years -- but frankly is not something you often see in the arts; and that's because most arts groups are a labor of love, and never achieve the kind of profitability that would make an outright purchase desirable. Hell, if we're going to be really honest, it's kind of a miracle that an arts group stays open and profitable for decades to begin with. And back when he was starting out, there was no particular sign that George Lucas was going to last and thrive as long and as successfully as he did either; the son of a middle-class suburban couple, he started his education at a community college, basically lucked out by transferring to USC at the exact time it was getting a lot of attention, was an unremarkable production assistant in his first few years after college, and literally started Lucasfilm in 1971 as a glorified countercultural garage company because he had nothing better to do with his time. (Like his friend Francis Ford Coppola's American Zeotrope which was started at the same time, both production companies existed as not much more than paper, ideas and a few dedicated backers when they started, both of them hippie experiments in trying to bring a European New Wave sensibility to American cinema.) And once he did start having his first moderate successes, Lucas used the money to form his own special effects and sound companies, literally because he couldn't find anyone else in the movie industry who could currently do the kinds of things his imagination required.

It's not luck that made these companies grow so profoundly, but rather a tremendous amount of work by Lucas himself; a brilliant sense for picking the right people to work for him, often without them having any professional experiences to back them up; a prognosticator's sense of where the film industry was heading next; and an uncanny ability to produce highly sellable products and services out of the creative experiments his companies are dedicated to. (Plus several dozen Oscars for Industrial Light and Magic didn't hurt.) This is the goal of most arts organizations, in fact, and the vast majority of them never break through to profitability in the first place; so for Lucas to start a "company on paper only" in his twenties and eventually sell it for four billion dollars...yeah, I think that deserves some celebrating. It's the goal of all young creatives who start production companies or small presses or dance troupes; and Lucas is one of the most successful in history, so I congratulate him for thriving in a way that most other arts groups will never get to.

And sure, without a doubt this will change the Star Wars franchise into a thing it wasn't before -- a corporate brand unto itself, basically, just like Mickey Mouse, no longer the product of a single creative mind but its own company, its own amorphous mass, its own creature. But so what? And that gets into what I was saying before, how in the last five years I have started spending a significant amount of time here in Chicago with the twin nine-year-old sons of an old friend of mine, and how one of the first things that let us all bond was our mutual love of Star Wars. But I gotta say, it's not the original movies nor even the prequels that the boys are obsessed with, but rather that they have an endless fascination with the new-generation "Clone Wars" television shows, books, and especially Lego sets; and I also have to confess, just trying to keep the dozens of new characters straight from the Clone Wars universe is enough to give my middle-age brain a headache, what with all those similar-sounding names and elaborate backstories and divisions into combatants that I barely understand. ("Okay, so Onaconda Farr is part of the...Republic?" "Part of the Separatists, Jason! Sheesh, you don't know anything!") I mean, granted, the boys definitely have a respect for the old-skool stuff, and spend as much time as any other nine-year-old boy drawing light-saber battles between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; but when it comes time to sit on a Sunday afternoon and do a full two-hour story-writing playtime session, it's always to Dooku and a teenage Anakin and their Lego sets that they turn.

The older I get, the more I realize that this is the way the world is supposed to be; that the exercises in empty pop-culture designed to entertain overactive children are supposed to be inscrutable to grown-ups, supposed to be maddening in their unending tedium to middle-aged brains, and that something bad and weird happened to my generation to make it not this way for so far most of our adult lives. I mean, now that I'm studying the history of Postmodernism more and more, mostly because I've been recently selling a series of first editions from this period through CCLaP's rare book service, the more I'm realizing where this all-consuming worship of empty pop culture came from, and how it wasn't designed from the start to be the malicious, society-destroying thing it's become; instead it mostly grew out of the confluence of intellectualism, counterculturalism and the "high arts" of the 1960s, when heavy thinkers like Susan Sontag were coining new phrases like "camp" to justify a new look at '50s throwaway television and B-movies, and when gallery darlings like Andy Warhol were actively breaking down the line between high and low culture, between the fine arts and advertising. This was all new, exciting, heady and smart at the time, so it's no wonder that its veneration would continue into the next generation after them, the Generation X of my own age group, especially when all the projects of our own childhoods came with this knowing countercultural wink, training us since infancy to believe that the worship of crap is just as valid a way to live one's life as any other.

But it's no surprise, I suppose, that a lifestyle choice based on consumerism and the worship of empty pop culture would be quickly co-opted by the commercial corporate world; and even better (for them, anyway), they discovered how easy it was to drop the entire intellectual sheen and sense of academic irony from it all, and simply make it about the anti-intellectual worship of shiny things, and the act of spending money as a valid psychological coping device. And so as the Countercultural '70s became the Reagan '80s, it was the veneration of this empty fluff and the poo-pooing of everything else that became the norm; then as we moved into the Nerdy '90s and then the Terrible 2000s, it was not just the crap that was co-opted but the very behavior itself of the obsessed nerds worshipping the crap, so that suddenly now everyone is counting down the days until the next superhero movie, and the airwaves have nothing but reality shows glorifying stupidity, and who cares if anything substantial was actually said during the Presidential debates because here are some celebrities tweeting a ten-word statement and a frowny face about what they thought. And that's why earlier when I was talking about a nation of Gen-X handwringers complaining about Lucas' rape of their childhood, I mentioned that maybe it only seems like a nation of Gen-X handwringers; because especially now with the merging of social networks with traditional journalism, it's nearly impossible anymore to tell when any kind of swelling of popular outrage is really a legitimate sign of a larger issue, and when it's simply a well-placed handful of ringers and loudmouths who are being paid by corporate interests to drum up controversy, all in the name of selling yet another Avengers ticket.

So no more, I say; no more worshipping of emptiness for me, no more breathless anticipation for trailers, no more eBay action-figure auctions, no more hand-wringing over a trilogy of children's movies that admittedly meant a lot for me as a child, but should've been left there a long time before I actually did. I'm happy to see Lucas give up control of his empire and let it turn into something greater than himself, because it means I can give it up too, let it morph into something that I could care less about but that captures the imagination of the next generation of bored kids. All of these things that are currently so much a part of regular adult society -- the superhero movies, the television talent shows -- are fine for kids who are looking to be entertained, but who haven't yet developed an adult's sense of creativity and understanding about the world; but it's time that all of us as actual adults start letting go of these things, start demanding the actual grown-up projects that should be entertaining us, the smart and challenging things that we sometimes have to think about to truly get, or that sometimes offend us by how close to home they hit. It's time we stop worshipping crap, and this recent sale of the Lucas companies is a perfect symbolic moment to start.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:51 PM, November 1, 2012. Filed under: Arts news | Movies |