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The decline of genius: this is what happened to the Star Wars you used to know

This Teddie Films parody of the Gotye hit "Somebody That I Used To Know" reprises themes taken up by critics, bloggers and moviegoers constantly since the release of the first Star Wars prequel in 1999. The song is catchy, the video is well-done, and the sentiment is the premise of this whole blog. So why do I feel so ambivalent towards it? 

When, nearly two years ago now, I decided to write a book about Star Wars (out now), the outline I prepared followed the six films: 1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, 2005. I imagined that I would tackle each of the prequels separately, explaining in detail my objections to them and the disappointment they engendered in me. Being of an especially linear turn of mind, I started writing from the beginning. I spent months reflecting and reminiscing on the original three films. I watched them again. I watched documentaries featuring Lucas in his prime: a thoughtful, well-spoken young man--younger than I am now--who had accomplished so much so soon. I came to regard him as something more than a wildly successful filmmaker. I realized he was a genius.

A genius, in case we have all forgotten, is not the guy you take your Macbook to when the trackpad fails. The dictionary will tell you that a genius is a person of exceptional intellectual or creative power, but I do not find that definition very satisfying. There are, in my experience, a surprisingly large number of exceptionally powerful intellects and artists in the world. What is missing from this definition of genius is the element of synchronicity: the pairing of the genius's natural ability with the period he or she lives in. Historically significant geniuses match their talent to their time, catching it like a surfer riding a wave.

But time can also be the genius's enemy. A typical pattern of genius, it seems, is to flower in youth then decay for years after, unless preempted by a young death. The English romantic poet William Wordsworth is one of the more famous examples of an artist widely considered to have outlived the apex of his abilities by decades, dying a much diminished figure. 

When I came to the part of my manuscript which, according to the outline I had prepared a year earlier, called for an extensive treatment of each of the three prequels, I had lost all appetite for the work. I no longer had any wish to vent my fury at George Lucas for three chapters. The year I had spent writing about the original trilogy and its effect on my boyhood had reawakened my respect for Lucas, even my gratitude towards him. Besides, heaping more criticism on the prequels felt like pouring water on a drowning man.

Lucas, I concluded, is a Wordsworthian figure: a genius who exhaused his talent in youth and went on to outlive it by decades. The answer to Teddie Films' question, "What happened to the Star Wars that I used to know?" is that the genius that fired it in the 1970s flamed out long ago. George Lucas remains, but the moment in which his prodigious talent matched his time has passed. 

Outliving one's genius must have been rather easier in nineteenth century Britain than it is in twenty-first century America. Wordsworth retired with the title of poet laureate and a state pension. He did not have to contend with near-constant reminders of his decline generated by YouTube, bloggers and other internet-enabled critics. Lucas does. As frustrating as I find him now, with his seeming determination to undermine his own masterpieces by ill-conceived corrections and additions (what Steve Martin calls 'deprovements'), I cannot help but feel for him. 

I abandoned my outline. There was little to be gained by arguing at length for a proposition that was obviously true, namely that the prequels represented George Lucas's decline. Now the prequels form a single chapter in my book, together with the special editions which were the canary in Lucas's coal mine. Frustration and disappointment are the inevitable themes of this chapter, but I have tried not to dwell on them more than necessary to be faithful to the story. 

When, nearly a week ago, I had a chance to post the Teddie Films parody on this blog--about two days before every other blog on the internet had it--I couldn't bring myself to do it. I thought of Wordsworth, reduced but dignified with his title and pension. Then I thought of Lucas, beseiged by bloggers and viral videos, being called a sell-out by people who are themselves trying to make money off the accusation through YouTube advertising. George Lucas's genius was real, and now it is gone. Instead of bemoaning its death (which I have certainly done on this blog before), I prefer now to celebrate its life.

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Reader Comments (2)

A genius, yes.

I think you might be underestimating the value of the contributions that other authors made to the legacy of the first three films, versus the prequels which were largely Lucas' undisturbed vision. In the former he benefited from the good (begrudging?) artistic collaboration of other geniuses, in the latter, he did not. So if he is in decline I think it's mostly a result of hubris, not decay.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCal

I hear you. But I suppose part of GL's genius in the early period was his ability to surround himself with good people—which he clearly failed to do in the Rick McCallum era.

July 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDark Helmet

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