Surely one of the most irritating propensities of the mildly talented hack George Lucas is his repeated assertion that he planned out the entirety of the Star Wars saga from the start. The original six-movie narrative, spanning from Anakin’s childhood to post-Dark Side redemption, was, as George would have it, his original artistic vision. This is patently untrue, and demonstrably so. There’s the fact that Lucas chose to name the original 1977 flick Episode IV not because he had planned out other films – he couldn’t afford to be as ambitious – but because the film is aesthetically a mimicry of the Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s. Success was never anticipated, and the modern behemoth of a franchise that grew out of a nostalgic tribute act to The Dambusters and sci-fi chapter plays was a wonderful surprise – an accident. Why, then, does George Lucas lie?
Whereas the analysis of political and social history has long since moved on from the myopic orthodoxy of great men leading the charge for Progress with a big P, our understanding of culture is stuck in that archaic rut. The age-old temptation to be reductionist about such complicated and fascinating things as books, and films, and the like, the desire to attribute it to the Great Man, an individual thinker, is hegemonic when it comes to the creative arts. Even the most atavistic of us will now happily accept a more nuanced, more multifaceted understanding for past ages, recognising they are not the work of one divinely appointed architect – but we are less willing to use this same approach when it comes to, well, something like Star Wars.
We could Freud this dichotomy away and relate it to specious pseudo-scientific theories of an attachment to a God-like paternalism, or our own innate desire for individuality. Yet I think it runs deeper than that, and is more specific to the kind of society we inhabit. Art, especially popular art, is usually a collaborative accident, but instead we are fed the narrative that great men – to stick with the case study of cinema, the likes of Disney, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Curtiz, Spielberg – purposefully and knowingly reproduce the images of their subconscious. Certainly they like to do it for the sake of it, like when David Lynch speaks of fishing for ideas in the undergrowth of his unconscious, but this silly view of art as nonaccidental and individuallywielded is the product of capitalism. How else could copyright and the undeserved wealth of lucky filmmakers be justified if not for the Great Man theory of art? The fetishisation of the individual has prompted us to put artists – who (perfectly reasonably!) steal and bend ideas from others, who don’t know what the finished product looks like, who are often effectively improvising – on the same pedestal as gods. It’s disingenuous, and more problematically, it makes art the domain of ostensibly omniscient elites. One wonders how many aspiring artists have been turned away for fear of lacking ‘creativity’ or ‘vision.’
Indeed, when a film is made, it is not the director’s creation. It is the creation of set designers, of composers, of sound editors, of a veritable army of make-up artists, gaffers, forgotten script editors, producers with last minute ideas to fix the story. Cinematic art may be hierarchical, yet it is a collectivist project. Indeed, what makes Star Wars work as a piece of art is everything but George Lucas. He is tone deaf when it comes to dialogue and can’t write character except in echoing broad, sweeping archetypes, though it doesn’t matter.
But beyond that, cinematic art is often the product of sheer good luck. After the success of Snow White in 1937, the Disney Studio launched three projects simultaneously: Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. When the latter’s production was undermined by an animators’ strike in 1941, the studio rushed through a cheap feature to keep finances afloat, a cartoon barely an hour long: Dumbo. Not only was this quick option considerably more successful than Bambi at the box office, its character animation and unusual willingness to embrace the Dali-esque surreal cemented it as an unexpectedly great work, even if it was designed purely for profit. Snow White itself, of course, was not expected to be a hit, but without it modern cinema would not exist. An even more salient example from around the same time is Casablanca: the Epstein brothers wrote a part of the script, Howard Koch did 30 pages focusing on politics, and yet another writer, encouraged by the director, tweaked it to focus on romance. The result of this desperate, disparate, rushed mishmash of ideas was one of the most beloved films of all time.
Film is uniquely well-suited to this understanding of art as accidental, as collaborative, as an improvisation rather than a clear vision. It is the business of ad hoc storytelling; it is the last minute essay crisis (or, metatextually, the last minute, ah, article crisis) as an art form. Although it is customary to try to pin a work of art to one great mind, the case is often a mix of great minds who don’t quite know what they’re doing, but are trying – and sometimes, when the context is right, perform magic. One last example, perhaps: Frozen was intended as a Tangled-style version of The Snow Queen. It’s easy to look at it in hindsight and view it as a feminist, Wicked-style reinvention of a fairy tale, complete with Idina Menzel; in actuality, Elsa was always intended to be the antagonist, but in a rather piecemeal fashion, the writers tried to flesh out her character more and more. That the film is now remembered for a feminist antiheroine, and indeed a rallying cry of championing queerness, was not intended at all. It was the result of redrafting the original notion and the influence of others – and is all the better for it.