Monday, December 28, 2015

STAR WARS: some thoughts on the franchise

This isn’t a review in a traditional sense, but an attempt to articulate one possible way of seeing the STAR WARS films. While I recognize that there are myriad ways to come to these films and make sense of them, I am here staking my claim. To avoid confusion I refer to the original film as STAR WARS (1977) and the overall franchise as simply STAR WARS.

The great tragedy of STAR WARS (1977) is that it only had a brief moment to be just another film. It is and forever shall be part of a universe of multimedia installments; a synergized empire of merchandise, nostalgia, and imaginations. To think of STAR WARS (1977) as only a film is a near impossible task. It is always already wrapped up in the polemics of cultural prophesy or political hysteria; it is either a reflection of the human narrative spirit or the harbinger of a blockbuster dystopia. So let us imagine STAR WARS as a relic that is little more than a shabby film from 1977, not very good but somehow enchanting. Let us attempt to meet it where it is without all the emotional guide-rails telling us what it's supposed to be.

Contextualizing anything is a series of choices: what to consider and what to ignore. Here I’d like to provide a single avenue for achieving this, one that has no interest in nostalgia, cultural phenomena, or the ideological battles of taste. What if STAR WARS where considered a part of a wave of films and not the unique strike of lighting that its legacy engenders? This isn’t very hard to do. The well-rehearsed narrative of its social context takes us through the dramatic reorganization of the Hollywood studio system in the 1960s, what some call a total collapse. New voids were filled with fresh talents, young alumni of the “film school generation” and counterculture mavericks that are better understood as a wave of technically proficient cinephiles. The United States and France (to name but two) saw waves of filmmakers who were joyfully, recklessly, mining cinema’s half-a-century of industrial production and STAR WARS (1977) was part of these movements.

Cinephilia has long been a celebration of idiosyncratic viewing methods and esoterica, and enables us to keep this heritage alive. But as far as pop culture and popular taste is concerned, the films of this era have been shot, stuffed, and displayed as abstract figures removed from their environs (what we call classics). Martin Scorsese made films in the punchy, visceral manner of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks while Steven Spielberg motioned toward the mediated formalism of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Even Coppola’s untouchable GODFATHER films were constructed from the visual tropes of the silent film genres of immigrant stories and white slavery morality plays. In France—if you’ll excuse my ignoring the coveted Nouvelle vague for one essay—the silent cinema was reanimated with Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati making modern mutations of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin films while Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Franju conjured the specter of the crime serial conventions of Louis Feuillade. Like all great periods of cinema it was a wave of innovation anchored by pastiche, homage, theft, and even a little pedantic derivation. But what beauties it gave us.

Taxonomically speaking, STAR WARS is closer to Franju than to Spielberg. They both coveted the aesthetic pleasures of the film serial. It’s well known (and well worn) that the germ for STAR WARS (1977) was a failed attempt at making a FLASH GORDON film, but too often this is treated as mere lore; as the humble origins of the cultural phenomenon. Instead, STAR WARS (1977) as a cinephile homage to early cinema should be more celebrated as the idiosyncratic and personal vision that makes it of any interest at all. Like Franju’s JUDEX (1963) or NUITS ROUGES (1974), STAR WARS’ aesthetic and thematic pleasures derive from the simplicity of their source material. This isn’t to suggest they lack complexity, both the surrealist psychology of Franju and the intricate composite production design of Lucas are both fascinating for their layers of depth. There is a sheer pleasure of the fabricated image, of the persistence of an artificial vision that evokes and echoes psychological landscapes and a trickster's imaginative play. These are the things that made the silent cinema such wondrous experiences. Yet Lucas never fully embraced the visible seams of the fantasy’s construction, which is the very element—intentional or not—that makes STAR WARS (1977) and NUITS ROUGES bold visions from the era of vérité.

The over-production of the STAR WARS (1977) sequels is immediately apparent, weighted down with an expanding universe, but held together by a similar moxie. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) trade the nearly surreal serial wallpaper of STAR WARS (1977) for a greater emphasis on world building, an adolescent concept in the early 1980s that now has a hegemonic stranglehold on industrial cultural production. Both sequels still feel like serial installments and excel at transforming rickety production design into celebrations of trickery and fantasy. They're also bloated and the narrative excesses weight down the breezy momentum that feels partially embalmed within each sequel. They mark a movement away from the hokey cinephile passion of their predecessor, one that presents a type of openness that allows for more pathways into its aesthetic world than the sequels and their narrative preoccupations. EMPIRE and JEDI are at best intriguing messes.

Post-1980s STAR WARS is a strange contradiction of cultural constructions. One the one hand, a cottage industry has begun to calcify dedicated to erecting STAR WARS as a cultural phenomenon while obscuring the complex industrial processes that maintain its visual dominance of American culture (such as merchandise licensing). STAR WARS is not allowed to be a product of its time, but it must now be timeless, and all manner of pseudo-empirical data and horseshit Joseph Campbell scholarship emerges to maintain this newfound cultural position. But at the same time, Lucas’ constant tinkering with his own films incurs a gut rejection of aesthetic attempts to refuse the film’s origins. Lucas’ infamous Special Editions visually manifest all desires to make STAR WARS timeless, that is, to remove it entirely from the cultural, political, and technological contexts of 1977, 1980, and 1983. Lucas’ position as a mainstream narrative filmmaker creates unique repercussions for this incessant tinkering. Experimental filmmakers do this all the time: rework their films over the years to create something new or different. Consider the projection histories of Stan Brakhage or Ken Jacobs. But something about the shared nostalgia or "timelessness" adds an impenetrable dimension to how many come to view STAR WARS as something more than mere cinema. To be fair, I never liked the Special Editions for the very reason that the changes are not aesthetic or thematic, but merely narrative: it’s just more world building.

Perhaps here it is more useful to consider Lucas as a pioneer in the vein of Thomas Edison. It’s important to note that pioneer carries with it no moral evaluation or seal of quality. Pioneers enable new forms, but frequently produce lackluster products. Edison forged new technologies, new modes of human communication and expression, but he was also a businessman as rooted in his immediate legal supremacy as he was in any conception of “the future.” He also curated the ideas and inventions of a team of laborers that allowed him to achieve his vision. Without Edison, there would be no Edwin S. Porter or even D.W. Griffith, and vice versa. Lucas, the founder of multiple companies, technologies, and workflow practices, forged a new mode of filmmaking, a mode for the twenty-first century. His green-screen phantasmagorias became a standard practice for genre cinema and coincided with the movement of fan culture (or geek culture) from the margins to the center of popular tastes. He opened the door for a return to a golden age studio artifice in the era of photorealism and planned obsolescence. Also like Edison, Lucas’ own productions—content for his delivery systems—are not the paragon of the form. He’s not the avant gardist or auteur that scavenges new mediums and exploits their abilities and limitations for artistic effect. But that does not mean his prequel trilogy is nearly as bad as their hysterical detractors make them out to be.

The prequels are unique visions that often share the same vulgar attraction to spectacle and banality that the Lumière brothers projected, or that Edison copyrighted. The notions of auteurism or even intent are worthless here: the images have qualities that render them mesmerizing as cinematic objects. They’re not great films, but nothing about STAR WARS was ever great, only at best mesmerizing. If you’ll forgive the slight oversimplification, the prequels get a bad rap because they’re victims of dichotomous comparisons: this is not that. That being an older mode of studio filmmaking that has become fetishized as somehow more authentic, an attitude that was mercilessly exploited for THE FORCE AWAKENS marketing. Among critics and fans they were hardly—if at all—considered as their own films, but faulted for their differences from a by now mythologized trilogy of films. By severing the shackles of nostalgia, willful childish ignorance, and the dictates of fandom, one is better positioned to approach the prequels as what they have always been: just films. While I hesitate to present some vulgar auteurist reclamation of the prequel trilogy, I do wish to defend their distinct pleasures.

If STAR WARS (1977) was Lucas’ attempt to recreate the FLASH GORDON serials, then the prequels were his ultimate victory in achieving verisimilitude. His use of new technology created distinct visual tableaux and cosmic vistas that balked at realism and embraced the cardboard flimsy of his inspirations. If anything, the prequels are too good at replicating the metabolism of the old serials: they’re dry, wooden, and frequently boring. THE PHANTOM MENACE is perhaps the slowest feeling of the lot and ATTACK OF THE CLONES is by far the most batshit in its consistently ugly imagery. REVENGE OF THE SITH is the late mastery of this new form. It’s easily the most consistent and beautiful of the prequels. It is Lucas’ magnum opus of emotionally wrought space opera, as silly and earnest as anything in the original films, and though punctuated by clunky moments of failure and incoherence, it has a visionary flavor that makes it a standalone experience. But credit where it’s due, this might be largely because Spielberg was given the reigns on several sequences, but let us not forget the reverse was true of JURASSIC PARK.

The pleasures of the prequels are largely due to the sense of vision that holds them together. Despite all the yucks at Lucas’ expense that paint him as a billionaire Magoo, he envisioned both a cinematic universe and the technology to bring it to life. The prequels are digital variations of the STAR WARS (1977) aesthetic, one of slapped together environments that are breezed through with building momentum. Taken as a trilogy, Lucas layers elements on top of the foundations of THE PHANTOM MENACE: textures, characters, and moral ambiguities. His is a cinema of transformation where classical narrative elements are situated in a constantly mutating political and visual landscape. He recklessly weaves an ever-expanding tapestry of intrigue, loss, and a strange cosmology of figures. This is what space opera is. For all of its faults and failures, it is the work of a single maverick working outside of homogenized production standards. But those who could only compare the mise en scene of the prequels to the originals dismissed them for their differences, interpreted as betrayals, and pleaded for a homogenized standard to take the reigns of their beloved toy commercials. Cinematic empiricists may balk at an auteurist cinephilia that favors termite art over some sense of perfection, but the shoddy and mangled vision of an impassioned individual will always be more stimulating, more human than filmmaking by committee.

It is this personal vision, however hackneyed and clunky, that gives the prequels their sense of gusto and exactly what THE FORCE AWAKENS lacks. The production of STAR WARS is no longer in the hands of a dedicated technical visionary. Disney's purchase of Marvel and STAR WARS have reorganized how films of this type are made. Both brands are overseen by a "story group" that maps out the trajectory of the narratives, plot points, and characters well into the future. Disney does not produce individual films, or even franchises in the traditional sense, but thousand year plans of work-shopped loss-mitigated synergized installments. Creative teams are plugged in as needed, but if you believe that J.J. Abrams created this film in a manner anywhere near that to the Lucas model you’re fooling yourself. THE FORCE AWAKENS was produced by committee, statistics, and marketing strategies and its myriad problems reflect this model. This could simply be a new form of studio production, a new workflow, a new structure for artists and auteurs to exploit. But the lifeless output of Disney’s tent pole films suggests otherwise.

The pleasures of STAR WARS derive from the clarity of its dime store vision where perspective and framing are key. You can almost see the duct tape and strings: perspective, both narrative and visual, is achieved from tight physical construction. Even when computer technology dramatically reoriented how narratives and ideas could be visualized Lucas remained grounded while experimenting with new forms. His figures stand in front of matte paintings and digital tableaux, movement is kept to a minimum. Cuts and montage still create perceptions of depth and spatiality, as in the opening space battle of REVENGE. ATTACK OF THE CLONES sees a few moments of visual experimentation where the “camera” is unhinged and the perspectives, textures, and ideas mutate around the unfixed lens. Most of these are the weakest moments in CLONES: the disgusting droid factory and the battle of Geonosis, whereas the “classical” moments, like everything on Kamino, are simply gorgeous and sleekly coherent. REVENGE sees a fuller embrace of this distinctly twenty-first century mode of cinematic production where mutation and change are the anchoring visual ideas of the film. While REVENGE is certainly a masterpiece for Lucas, it never reaches the levels of brilliance as the masters of this form: Paul W.S. Anderson, Bay, Verbinski, the Wachowski’s.

THE FORCE AWAKENS exists in a holding pattern between these older and newer modes of perspective. At times it fetishizes a classical mode of composition and at others it hurtles its displaced digital camera into the abyss. Its hesitancy to commit to either produces a prolonged murk of events, typical of an Abrams directorial effort. Abrams has never understood conflict or tension or character, only loud obstacle courses that characters (and viewers) must slog through. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III are the worst offenders of this trait, and while THE FORCE AWAKENS is easily Abrams' most palatable film, it suffers from this unchecked impetus. To speak in the simplistic jargon of a screenwriter's workshop: there is nothing at stake here. The film leaps from set piece to set piece, with no interest in connecting the sequences or building any emotional or thematic depth. Abrams has no sense of space or time, resulting in a hackneyed greatest hits approach to narrative filmmaking. And despite the rapid pace with which THE FORCE AWAKENS progresses, there is no investment in serial filmmaking, in the breezy movement through adventure serials. Instead, things appear at random, out of nowhere, functioning only as cheap macguffins or even sillier deus ex machina (the introduction of the Falcon) only to be mercilessly discarded when no longer needed.

Abrams has never figured out how to build anything with a cinematic toolset, he can only show you what something looks like. He is a multi-billion dollar metteur en scene, and a shitty one at that. As always, Abrams is in a rush to get to the fight scenes, which ironically, are the most visually and emotionally incoherent sequences of the STAR WARS franchise. They are little more than visual noise, not unlike the algorithmic horrors of THE HOBBIT trilogy. The ground battles were awkward, uncertain of the point of them other than showing battle. Abrams does not grasp the possibilities of a cinema of mutation like REVENGE OF THE SITH, RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, THE LONE RANGER, or SPEED RACER, nor does he understand classical narrative story telling. He is a man without vision, perfect for filmmaking under this new Disney model.

The film is not without its pleasures: the opening fifteen minutes were a thrilling serial adventure opener and the thematic treatment of the original trilogy as a mythology bound to sacred objects provided some much needed depth. But this is a film without a sense of what it is. It's a film made out of fear and hesitation. While all STAR WARS films are predicated on homage and pastiche, THE FORCE AWAKENS leans on successful formulas out of fear of failure, which is odd since the film makes its profits off of merchandise long before it even opens. It might seem odd, even stupid, to criticize a STAR WARS film for lack of originality. STAR WARS (1977) cannibalized the imagery of FLASH GORDON and the narrative structures of THE SEARCHES and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS to provide entry points into its world; to follow specific figures as they enter into massive cosmic mobilizations. The prequels ditched Ford and Kurosawa in favor of the slow unraveling of serial installments and used the central players of conspiracy as the entry points into a crumbling world order. THE FORCE AWAKENS has no cinematic reference points other than STAR WARS itself, merchandising, and fan service. It recreates exact proxies of the previous films, but adds nothing to the mix, no new ideas, no personal vision, no perspective. All we're left with is the crass repackaging of one film as something else, like THE HANGOVER 2 or Mast Brothers chocolate.

I'll end on this note: it isn't that I dislike comic books or STAR WARS, far from it. The reason Disney super hero films and THE FORCE AWAKENS are mediocre at best has nothing to do with their source materials and everything to do with their inhuman modes of creative production. I continue to hope that a prophet will born into this system, one who knows these modes of production and can manipulate them to her own vision to create a truly visionary work of cinema, like Neo in the nu-studio matrix. But that day is not today.

No comments:

Post a Comment