GEORGE LUCAS wants to be Walt Disney. AT least that's what is implied in Skywalking, the new biography of Lucas written by Dale Pollock, a journalist and a film writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Lucas is not a complicated man. His father, a businessman in Modesto, California, instilled his son with those two particularly American virtues, hard work and frugality. George was a small child, and quite as well. He was an unexceptional student, but one who led a rich fantasy life. As a child and young adult, he was fascianted by comic books and Buck Rogers serials on Saturday morning TV. In the early '60s, he followed the pattern of every self-respecting California teenager and went "cruising" in his car every weekend.
But Lucas' gift is that he can make films that let people share his fantasies. Cruising became American Graffiti, comic books and Buck Rogers turned into Star Wars, and Lucas found that he had made two of the most successful movies of all time.
Skywalking reports briefly on the sources for Lucas' inspiration, but mostly only to dismiss them. Pollock's main comment on Buck Rogers is to present a remark that Lucas made when he saw the serials again as an adult and couldn't believe how badly made they were. Pollock seems embarassed even to talk about comic books beyond one rushed mention early in the book.
Pollock is more at home with cruising, which he treats as a sociological phenomenon at some length. But Pollock never looks at the emotions behind the phenomenon, and it is these that George Lucas deals with in his films. Pollock instead reports incident after incident in Lucas' climb to the top, dropping names like Spielberg and Coppola along the way. Lucas comes across as a very private man, and few of the ancedotes Pollock relates are truly revealing. Any by reporting the day-to-day incidents of Lucas' life, Pollock misses Lucas' art.
Lucas' peculiar talent is that he can recognize bits of popular culture that many of us respond to at some basic level, and he can integrate these things as elements of a film in a way that makes them seem fresh and new. Graffiti, for example, combines rock 'n roll with the actions and desires of a group of teenagers. The songs drive the movie, linking the characters' aspirations, often setting the moods and emotions, much the way we'd let a car radio enhance our mood as teens, stepping on the accelerator with the fast songs, necking in the park on the slow ones. But, despite the book's title, Pollock's doesn't really examine why Lucas' films work, why they're so popular. And, without a thorough look at them, Pollock misses a large part of Lucas the man.
Lucas puts elements such as those in Graffiti into an upbeat package, and the films just seem to make money forever. As Pollock points out, this is one of the great similarities between Lucas and Disney. Lucas has found a niche making family films, and these have allowed him to create his own company outside the Hollywood system, much the same way Disney created Buena Vista.
Lucas, like Disney before him, believes in "basic American values," like hard work and happy endings. And they both believe in extending these values beyond their films into the world they create around them. Disney's last legacy ws Epcot, his vision of the future, while Lucas is now involved in developing video games, which he hopes will overcome certain shortcomings he sees in American education. Like Disney, Lucas sells the world his dream -- in books, records, toys, cookies, and more.
An example of the thoroughness of Lucas' marketing expertise can be seen in the current Return of the Jedi publishing blitz of well over a dozen books, comics, and magazines.
Least successful of these tie-ins is Return of the Jdei (Del Rey/Ballantine, $2.95), a novelization by James Kahn. Kahn's prose is overwrought. On page 149, for example, we discover that people don't point their swords, they "extend their blades," and farther on down the page, Luke encounters Vader in a "dire, aggrieved contest." Much more rewarding is Return of the Jedi: The Storybook Based on the Movie, (Random House, $6.95), aimed at children, with plenty of color photos and a nicely understated text written by Joan D. Vinge.
Other Return of the Jedi books concentrate on the visuals. The production sketches of Joe Johnston and others are featured in the Sketchbook (Ballantine, $5.95), a collection of preliminary drawings for the film, while 20 of Ralph McQuarrie's production paintings are reproduced in full color as the Portfolio (Ballantine, $9.95). Then there's the Official Collector's Edition (Paradise Press, $3.50), a general "making of the movie" souvenir, with plenty of pictures and numerous quotes from the filmmakers. And The Illustrated Edition (Del Rey/Ballantine, $5.95) combines the novelization with drawings from the sketchbook.
But wait! There's more: comic book tie-ins, including magazine and book versions of the comic, educational Star Wars books for children, covering such topics as robots, space flight, and computers; and two more publications that will appear later this summer. The Making of Return of the Jedi, and Return of the Jedi Calendar.
Many will buy one or two of these publications, some will buy all of them. Just like Mickey Mouse watches and Donald Duck comics, Star Wars has become a part of American culture.