In all of the ways that George Lucas has been an idiot, this man (below) has been a genius. His name is Tommy Wiseau and he has made what many consider to be the worst movie of all time.
In case you didn’t know because you’ve been hiding in a bomb shelter since the early days of the cold war or because you just don’t cotton to such things, George Lucas is the creator and shepherd of the Star Wars franchise and as such is one of the most successful men in the history of Hollywood. Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars and it was released in 1977, becoming a phenomenon and surprising everyone in the process. The movie had largely been expected to fail and 20th Century Fox, the company that unleashed it upon the world, had been very nervous about this movie with the space knights and the evil sand dwarves.
Fox was so skeptical about Star Wars becoming a franchise worth owning or merchandising that they failed to purchase the property outright, leaving it in the ownership of its creator and losing billions of dollars in future revenue. That is how George Lucas became that rare creator who actually managed to keep possession and control of his creation.
The stories of artists being exploited and abused by the corporations that package and sell their ideas go on and on –Jack Kirby’s estate didn’t receive a dime from Disney and he co-created the Avengers. But not George Lucas. George Lucas owns Star Wars. He controls it. Every single toy, video game, lunch box and t-shirt needs his stamp of approval. And every single dollar made from toys, video games, lunch boxes and t-shirts puts money directly into his pockets. That ownership has been a blessing for him financially, generating a personal net worth approximated at over 3 billion dollars. That ownership, however, has also been the creative undoing of both the man and the franchise that made him.
The reason that Star Wars initially succeeded when so many people expected it to fail is because it was a movie made for its audience. By creating a movie that was essentially a tribute to the science-fiction film serials of his childhood, Lucas enabled himself to create a fantastical backdrop that facilitated naturally familiar characters, engaging settings and an almost mythological story in tandem with special effects so convincing and –maybe more importantly- gorgeous that they overshadowed the film’s lesser aspects. This combination of pure narrative with striking, innovative and yet familiar visuals created a movie that the general movie going public understood more fully and readily than critics or intellectuals. While critics generally accepted and enjoyed Star Wars upon its initial release, the general public did more than accept it; they absolutely loved it.
Star Wars, along with Jaws, was one of the original populist blockbusters. People understood the movie in a way that critics inherently couldn’t, with the pure enthusiasm that comes from accepting things as they are rather than wondering what they mean or how they came to be. Star Wars wears its themes openly and in so doing unburdens its characters and story, allowing them to become more, allowing them to become icons and mythology. Absolutely everyone can understand everything that this movie is. For those reasons, Star Wars is a masterpiece that belongs to its audience. It belongs to the people because it is popular acceptance that has elevated it from “movie” to “legend.”
The only problem is that, when it comes to his audience, George Lucas doesn’t seem to care.
Since 1997 Lucas has been systematically alienating the exact group of people that made him by claiming Star Wars as his own through the process of cutting and recutting the films in a steady stream of rereleases. Each successive cut serves to undermine the qualities that made the original trilogy such a triumph in the first place. Whether it be the constant polishing of the special effects that dims the films’ visual weight and charm or the added scenes that range from Han Solo stepping on Jaba’s tail in A New Hope to an extended alien dance number in Return of the Jedi that makes Toby Maguire in Spider-Man 3 look like Fred Astaire by comparison. (By the way, that Spider-Man dance scene is actually amazing and totally underrated because it shows that Spider-Man is such a fundamentally decent person that even when he is totally taken over by evil this is what he looks like (below) These changes only make the movies worse. Just ask the fans.
The best example of Lucas ignoring his audience and diminishing his art as a direct result is the “Han Shot First” debacle that has been raging since Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was rereleased in 1997. This film features a scene where Han Solo is cornered in a tavern by a shady alien named Greedo. In the original release of the film Han chooses to shoot Greedo, arguably in cold blood, rather than take the risk that he himself will be shot. It is an important scene in that it establishes Han as being morally ambiguous. This characteristic is important as it defines the starting point for his character’s entire arc, from mercenary to hero.
The updated scene uses unconvincing CGI to facilitate Greedo shooting first, missing and then Han firing back in response. The scene becomes ugly and narratively stillborn. When the audience told George Lucas what they thought of this change he responded by ignoring them, then scolding them and then crystalizing his creative downfall by creating Jar Jar Binks and the prequels.
Yes, George Lucas owns Star Wars, but by choosing to rule over it as some sort of sovereign dictator rather than in partnership with his audience he has unmade the franchise that made him. Imagine what could have been -what exciting avenues could have been opened- if Lucas had only acknowledged his fan base, embraced their partnership and worked with them.
And then there’s The Room. Like Lucas with Star Wars, Tommy Wiseau owns The Room…not that anybody cares. He couldn’t sell it if he tried. The Room is a movie, released in 2003, that was produced, financed, written, directed and starring the mystery wrapped in enigma dipped in a funny accent that is Tommy Wiseau. It was a labour of love that personally cost Wiseau a sum estimated at 6 million dollars, years of hard work and boundless amounts of sweat and passion. It is also terrible in every single conceivable way.
Pointing out the flaws of The Room is like eating at a Vegas buffet, there are just so many options that it’s hard to know where to begin. To call the story “muddled” would assume that there is one. To call the characters “two-dimensional” would insult dimensions. With characters slipping in and out of frame at random and cameras that go in and out of focus with reckless abandon, calling the movie a technical disaster would be really, tragically accurate.
And yet its late-night screenings have become major events in film communities all around the world and its fans are legion.
So how did this disaster caught on film become a beloved cult classic? The people made it one. Over the years since The Room’s release, a bizarre set of traditions have built around the movie that have become the heart of these late-night screenings. They include screaming “Go! Go! Go! Go!” during the film’s absurdly long establishing shots, passing a football around the theatre, drinking lots and lots while the theatre staff pretends they can’t see and, most famously, throwing handfuls of plastics spoons at the screen. Tommy Wiseau did not make these traditions, his audience made them and they have caused his movie to thrive.
Wiseau’s wisdom comes from the fact that he understands that it’s these people and their traditions that make his movie relevant and meaningful. Tommy Wiseau owns this movie. He could take offence to the whole affair and decline to release any prints of the movie to any theatres that would use them in any way that he did not approve of. While he might not be totally successful in squashing the phenomenon that has grown around his movie, he certainly would cast a pall over the whole affair. Instead, Wiseau has embraced these traditions going so far as to attend screenings, answer audience questions and even laugh with the audience that is laughing at him.
In doing so he has elevated the relationship from one based on mockery to one based on a strange kind of affection. His choice to embrace the people who care about his work and to give in to the love and meaning that they have found has helped to save the life of a movie that should have died on the vine.
Owning a story is like owning land, you might have a title or a deed but everybody knows that even one small piece of the Earth is so much more than any person. After a director has made a movie and it has been released into the world, it stops belonging to that person. It becomes something unique in the eyes of each viewer and, if it strikes a chord, a part of their personal history. It grows beyond narrative and becomes experience and as such belongs to each participant equally.
The filmmakers who achieve their utmost potential are not always the people with the most training or expertise, but rather the people who truly understand what storytelling is: a democracy.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter: @TheodoreWiebe
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