21-87: George Lucas Under the Influence
May 2, 2005 8:47 AM   Subscribe

"When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off".
"21-87" is an experimental film made in 1964 by Canadian avant-garde director Arthur Lipsett ,who committed suicide in 1986. "George" is George Lucas, who was obsessed by underground movies until "a little movie called Star Wars lured him to the dark side". (more inside)
posted by matteo (25 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Lucas on Star Wars, Fahrenheit 9/11, and his own legacy, from Wired magazine. Story by Steve Silberman, aka MeFi's digaman
posted by matteo at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2005

Thanks for the post, matteo.

If you're a Lucas-hater, I hear ya, but please at least do me the courtesy of reading my article, which is the cover story of the May issue of Wired, before dismissing the subject in the abstract. It is an extremely unusual bit of Lucas coverage, particularly amidst the blizzard of Sith hype.

Basically, I uncovered an entire period of Lucas' life that has never been explored at length in the press before, when Lucas was sneaking up from Modesto, where he grew up, to see the edgiest first-wave of underground films in the Bay Area, by such indie pioneers as Stan Brakhage. I then closely examine the films he loved at film school, many of which were produced by the National Film Board of Canada -- such as the gorgeous animations of the born synaesthete Norman McLaren. Lucas has always said that he wasn't interested in movies beyond Flash Gordon serials before he went to film school, which is not true, and it turns out that these experimental films are what inspired Lucas to become a filmmaker.

For the Q&A, I also got George off his Star Wars talking points and onto some interesting stuff like how he sees his role vis-a-vis explicitly political filmmakers like Michael Moore.

posted by digaman at 9:05 AM on May 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

(By the way, very little of the information about these films and their effect on Lucas in my story is even in the existing Lucas biographies. The little scooplet I'm most proud of was tracing where the phrase "the Force" came from.)
posted by digaman at 9:08 AM on May 2, 2005

great great story! Nice work!
posted by scalz at 9:11 AM on May 2, 2005

Thanks so much, scalz! (Just to be clear, the article and the Q&A are two different things. The Q&A was primarily a Web extra made up of interesting things that Lucas said during my interview for the article, which I couldn't use. If you only have time to read one, please read the article, though it's quite a bit longer. Thanks.)
posted by digaman at 9:15 AM on May 2, 2005

If you get the chance, check out the disturbamusing short film, George Lucas in Love...having not seen Shakespeare in Love, I dunno how closely it parallels that, but the psuedo-inspriations for george's eventual masterwork are very funny. In that geeky sort of way =p
posted by nomisxid at 9:22 AM on May 2, 2005

That film is hilarious, nomisxid.

"Could you please talk.... forwards?"
posted by digaman at 9:24 AM on May 2, 2005

Very nice work digaman. Nice post matteo. I do have more respect for Lucas now. Still, after Clones I swore never to spend another dollar on a Lucas product and I think I'll stick with it. I really need to go back and see that NFB stuff again. It's been too long.
posted by arse_hat at 9:47 AM on May 2, 2005

I read your article in Wired, thought it was really well done (primarily because you did get Lucas off of his talking points.)
I should probably try to check some of these movies that influenced his style so much...they seem very interesting.
posted by schyler523 at 9:50 AM on May 2, 2005

Lipsett's 21-87 and his debut, Very Nice, Very Nice, are two of the most luminous films I've ever seen. (The latter was nominated for an Academy Award, and inspired a piece of fan mail from Stanley Kubrick, who invited Lipsett to create a trailer for Dr. Strangelove. Sadly, he declined -- but then Kubrick had a trailer made that mimicked Lipsett's style.) Unfortunately, 21-87 is totally out of print. I tried to convince the NFB to bring it back into print as a DVD-on-demand in time for my article, but had no luck. Very Nice, Very Nice, however, is available at the link above, albeit at a rather high price for such a short film.

Like Lucas was in film school, I have become a Lipsett fanatic.
posted by digaman at 10:05 AM on May 2, 2005

Great work digaman and nice post matteo.
I didn't realize that THX1138 had been rejigged and released last year. I'll have to see if I can track it down. It was an awesome film. Let's hope he gets into some of those offbase films he alludes to.
posted by peacay at 10:22 AM on May 2, 2005

I'm sad that George's student films haven't made it to DVD. A few of them are really worth it. "Look at Life" was the one that got him a lot of early attention, and you can see why. There's one film of a race car going around a track -- that's it, just shots of the car and the sound of the engine -- that is totally amazing, one of my favorite short films. (I forget the exact name, but it was a time -- 1:23:36 or something like that.) It gives you a very clear connection between George's car-racing days and the action sequences in the Star Wars movies (the trench battle in SW, the forest speeder scene in Jedi, the pod race in Ep. I). There are a few more I liked a lot as well.

My memory is that USC holds the copyright on them. (Any USC film students want to find out?) They would make a great standalone or "DVD extra" release, especially if George goes through with his plan to work on similar, more experimental films post-Ep. III.
posted by precipice at 10:24 AM on May 2, 2005

precipice, check out that link I just put. There's 'some' student work on the 2 DVD THX rerelease.
posted by peacay at 10:28 AM on May 2, 2005

Here is a page from USC with short clips and stills from most of his student films.
posted by stefnet at 10:36 AM on May 2, 2005

THX 1138 was my favorite film when I was about 12. As 21-87 was to George, THX was to me -- I watched it over and over, and that was in theaters. The most haunting thing about it to me was the sound montages (oft-sampled by such bands as Nine Inch Nails) by Walter Murch (amazing Murch stuff behind that link, to Jay Allison's transom.org), who I quote in the Lucas piece -- and it turns out, they were directly inspired by Lipsett. The soundscapes in that film are permanently wired into my brain.

"What's wrong?"
"Are you now, or have you ever been?"
"The theater of noise is proof of our potential..."
posted by digaman at 10:40 AM on May 2, 2005

re Walter Murch:

The sound film man

Immortalised by his soundtrack for The Conversation, Walter Murch has a rare understanding of the elements of cinema.
Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch
The Conversations : Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema
A Conversation with Walter Murch
posted by matteo at 10:47 AM on May 2, 2005

My boss and I have conjectured that Lucas borrowed a lot from Jack Kirby's New Gods.

From power that exists throughout the universe that could be tapped into, known as "The Source," to Orion (the hero) battling the Dark Side--only to discover the leader of the Dark Side is his father, known as "Dark Father" (the phonetic parallel to Dark Vader is inescapable.
posted by sourwookie at 10:48 AM on May 2, 2005

It'll be interesting to see if George can redeem himself in the years to come. He had incredible early potential, but he's very much gone the way of the hack the last ~20 years or so. I'll reserve my belief in his plans as an auteur until I see something that doesn't have Jar Jar in it.

I've always thought he'd dug himself too deep in the technology box. That's why the prequels are such crap - he's not telling those "old stories" he likes to talk about (that and his recent penchant for casting hyper-attractive mongoloids to "act")

George has two big problems - too many resources, and not enough people willing to say no.

I'd like to give him a budget of $50,000 american, and a handful of staff who won't say "A bumbling talking playtpus that spouts idiotic catchphrases in a vaguely racist patois? AWESOME IDEA SIR!"

Lock him in a studio with three XL-1s with an arriflex lens interchange kit, and say, here motherfucker, Make a real movie. Ya got six months. Get crackin'.
posted by stenseng at 11:19 AM on May 2, 2005

Bravo, digaman, great article. As a fourth-class interviewer who's currently working on getting quotes from "the Star Wars Line people", I am envious of both your opportunity to talk to Lucas AND what you did with it...

And here's a good resource I've found for info on Star Wars Influences (at least it's good for somebody who HASN'T interviewed G.L.): Star Wars Origins at jitterbug.com
posted by wendell at 4:17 PM on May 2, 2005

At the time he made it I would guess that all (most) involved had serious ideas that Star Wars would be a small film, not the transformative film that it became.
posted by caddis at 5:14 PM on May 2, 2005

Thanks for that link, wendell. And yes, I agree caddis.

Well, THIS is very cool: the film by Arthur Lipsett that so deeply affected Lucas, 21-87, has been out of print for at least 30 years, but the National Film Board of Canada told me today that they would make it available as a DVD on demand. Unfortunately, their website doesn't list it, but the DVD can be ordered by calling the following numbers:

1-800-542-2164 (US)
1-800 267-7710 (Canada)

It's a very lovely, strange, haunting film.
posted by digaman at 5:53 PM on May 2, 2005

When I saw this article in print last week, first I said, "Hey, it's digaman." Then — as someone who regularly interviews lesser beings — I was impressed (a lot) with the piece, especially the stuff about the Canadian filmmakers (since nobody usually talks about much more than Joseph Campbell's influence on Lucas's mythology). I also liked the way Steve politely glossed over how not many people much liked the last two movies. Very nice job. (And thanks, matteo, for linking the online Q&A.)

My favorite sentence comes right near the beginning: "The whole rollicking galaxy of Star Wars was originally rendered in longhand with a No. 2 pencil." Talk about high-tech!

As for Walter Murch, I was absolutely knocked out by the book The Conversations when I reviewed it. I couldn't believe such a literate, well-spoken, thoughtful fascinating guy had ever gotten anywhere in a soulless place like Hollywood. I still think about him and that book a great deal.

p.s. Never was much of a fan of THX 1138, but I really enjoyed The Hidden Fortress. As the sidebar in Wired and this article note, much more than two bumbling sidekicks made its way from there into the first Star Wars movie.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:59 PM on May 2, 2005

Heh, thanks lelilo.

For the record, I didn't try to "gloss over" the fact that a lot of people hated the last two Star Wars films -- in a way, the deeper truths underlying that fact inform the whole piece, and I thought Murch's comment about the prequels was so surgical and so forceful, so to speak -- and coming from a friend/collaborator of George's, as well as a filmmaking genius in his own right -- that I didn't have to say much more.
posted by digaman at 9:59 AM on May 3, 2005

The sound in THX-1138 is simply awesome. It's probably the greatest film ever to watch with your eyes closed.
posted by rusty at 10:10 AM on May 3, 2005

I agree.
posted by digaman at 10:23 AM on May 3, 2005

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