I recently decided to pick up John Scalzi's book 'Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded', based on the fact that I'd heard good things about him as a blogger. I did feel a little trepidation doing so, having already read his 'Rough Guide to Science Fiction' and found myself more than a little irritated by a few of its claims, such as "You're not a true science-fiction fan if you don't like 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai'!" (a claim right up there with "You're not a real gourmet unless you can appreciate the subtle flavors and distinct aroma of yak vomit," or "The true automotive enthusiast loves the classic lines and dynamic handling of the AMC Gremlin.") But on the whole, I found myself greatly entertained by the book, and thought Scalzi was generally pretty clever and insightful.
Except for his column on Star Wars, which takes a few good points and weaves them together into a wild mess of incoherent fanboyish speculation that bears no connection to the worlds of art, commerce, film theory, mythology, and quite possibly chemistry and physics as well. I'm aware, of course, that despite Scalzi's repeated assertions that he's not particularly famous, his fame relative to mine is similar to George Lucas' relative to his, but nonetheless I feel bound to reply, knowing he'll probably never see this. (Which doesn't mean I plan to insult him just because I don't think he'll answer back. My policy when blogging is never to say anything I wouldn't say to someone's face. Which should tell you something about my lack of social graces, looking back...)
Scalzi's basic assertion, for those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, is that the reason the prequels weren't any good (he takes it as an article of faith that you'll agree, but I don't mind that, because the prequels really weren't any good) is that Lucas doesn't actually have any talent as a film-maker; he's obsessed with detailing the mythology of the Star Wars universe, and anything good in the movies is either (to quote Scalzi) "unintentional, achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett".
This statement tells me something pretty important right off the bat. Namely, it tells me he hasn't actually seen the movies in a long time. Fan opinion has a tendency to petrify in the absence of occasional connection with the material; over time, the actual feelings you had about the original work slowly get leached away and replaced by the discussions you had with other fans. Everybody "knows" that 'Empire' is the best Star Wars movie, because we all talk about it all the time at conventions and we all agree on it.
In fact, Empire is pretty damn awful. It's a long, shaggy-dog story that starts with the Rebels having established themselves in a very stupid position with no logical explanation, and then proceeds to make an entire plot of, "Will our heroes get away?" Which is a problem, as the answer can never be anything other than, "Well, yes, of course." (Except for Han, who gets captured in a weak attempt at a cliff-hanger; it's funny fans excoriate 'Return of the Jedi' without ever considering the fact that it's forced to spend a half-hour extricating itself from the plot cul-de-sac left at the end of 'Empire'.) Most of its reputation rests on the fact that "it's dark" (never underestimate the attraction to grown-up fanboys of a "darker, more adult" version of something they liked as kids), the romance between Han and Leia (which was rightly eviscerated by Jeanne Cavelos as the moment when Leia stopped being a strong female character and started being a shrill, whiny stereotype of the Girl Who Just Needs a Man In Her Life) and the "I am your father" bit, which was good but not nearly good enough to rescue the movie. The actual great movie is the original, always has been, but it's become fashionable to hate it because We're Too Grown-Up For That Now.
The point is, the second I hear, "The only good one was 'Empire'," I immediately know that this is going to be someone who is discussing the fan orthodoxies of the Star Wars movies, rather than the movies themselves. And Scalzi doesn't disappoint. He makes the entirely correct point that Lucas has nobody who can gainsay his opinions when making the prequels, nobody who can edit him, but then goes on to make the claim that this means that we're seeing undiluted Lucas, without the filters of talented people making him better, and that this just shows how inept Lucas really is without others there to save his bacon.
Now this isn't just stupid, it's disappointing. Scalzi is a very intelligent man. He knows the value of a good editor--hell, he extols it elsewhere in the same collection of blog entries. But somehow, he completely forgets that film is a collaboration and that strong editorial voices make your work better when he has the chance to take a baseball bat to someone he doesn't like already. Of course, Lucas' work isn't as good when nobody can tell him where he's going wrong! Twenty years off from writing and directing probably didn't help much either. But to suggest that this means that the movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them, shows an absolutely staggering ignorance of the basics of film-making.
Yes, Lucas hired other people to do important work on the movies. That's kind of the nature of film-making; the number of movies that can be made by one person can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But his role on the film was to provide guidance and direction to the "hired guns" that Scalzi apparently thinks did their work in the dead of night, having possibly tied Lucas up to prevent him from interfering with their attempts to rescue his film from mediocrity. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan didn't turn up with a finished script for Lucas to delight over, then hand off to Irvin Kershner to film; at every stage, from the initial script conference to the two-page brief to the outline to every single draft of the movie, they got copious notes from Lucas on what he wanted changed. And when they finally got around to shooting, it wasn't like Kershner did his work in a vacuum, either.
Lucas was responsible for everything that happened in the Star Wars movies, because that was his job. The man created an entire new company, staffed it, and helped them revolutionize the entire special effects industry because he had a very specific idea of what he wanted his movie to look like and the technology wasn't there yet when he started filming, and we're supposed to believe that the end result of the original 'Star Wars' was "unintentional"? (And anyone who says, "It just had good special effects" misses the point so completely that they've pretty much disqualified themselves from the conversation. 'Star Wars' created a whole new standard for special effects based on the visual aesthetic that Lucas wanted to create--it wasn't just that they were "good", it was that they created an immersive effect that no other film had tried to create before. They were an artistic decision, not merely a technological innovation.)
Ultimately, I feel like there's something fundamentalist in the assertion (not unique to Scalzi) that the Star Wars movies were good despite Lucas, not because of them. The fan mentality simply cannot cope with the idea that the same people responsible for works of staggering genius like the original trilogy can make something so staggeringly inept as the prequels. So in order to preserve our belief in a Towering Auteur Figure Who Can Do No Wrong, we make the brilliant genius someone else in the process and insist that it's them who did all the great stuff. (Which may be the other reason why 'Empire' has become the Official Good Star Wars Movie...although you don't exactly hear people lauding Kershner's other films like 'Never Say Never Again' and 'Robocop 2'.) We don't like our creative idols to have feet of clay, and we don't like to think that studio interference makes movies better, not worse. Lucas' reputation is a casualty of that mindset.
Or, if none of the above convinced you, I can put it another way...Scalzi's essay is the equivalent of arguing that the 'Sandman' comics wouldn't be nearly as good if Neil Gaiman didn't have any editors, and if he drew it all himself. Sure, it's true, but it's meaningless, and anyone who would actually try to present it as an argument for a lack of talent on Gaiman's part would be an idiot.
Sorry, better Scalzi that up a bit, just in case he reads this. "Would be a spastic lemur with the brains of a syphilitic toad." Hope that's a little more entertaining.