The greatest postmodern art film ever.

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Nov. 1 2005 3:21 PM

Star Wars: Episodes I-VI

The greatest postmodern art film ever.

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A Jedi Master-piece

With the release of Episode III Revenge of the Sith on DVD today, George Lucas' audience can finally see all six Star Wars films back-to-back, as a single text. This is how Lucas himself regards the series, often joking that, including his 1973 hit American Graffiti, he has made only three movies in his career. One of the surprises in store after a marathon viewing is how much of the young Lucas, the self-conscious avant-gardist of THX1138, is actually visible onscreen, peeking out from behind the endless sequences of digitally enhanced space battles and ritualized light-saber duels. Looking at these familiar films with fresh eyes, unfiltered by the lens of nostalgia and sentiment—and it was, admittedly, a resonant moment this summer to watch the final episode with my father, who had taken me to see the original film in 1977 when I was 8—we start to see just how deeply weird they really are. Three decades on, the kids who grew up playing with Luke Skywalker action figures and carrying Princess Leia lunchboxes may be startled to discover that Star Wars is really just one big elephantine postmodern art film.

Star Wars, at its secret, spiky intellectual heart, has more in common with films like Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books or even Matthew Barney's TheCremaster Cycle than with the countless cartoon blockbusters it spawned. Greenaway and Barney take the construction of their own work as a principal artistic subject, and Lucas does, too. "This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level," one of John Ashbery's works begins. Star Wars, we might say, is concerned with plot on a very plain level. Everything about the films, from the opening text crawls to the out-of-order production of the two trilogies, foregrounds the question of plot. As an audience, we grapple with not just the intricate clockwork of a complex and interwoven narrative, but, in postmodern fashion, with the fundamental mechanics of storytelling itself.

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As Star Wars works to make us aware of its own narrative structure, other odd things about the films start to come into focus. Most significantly, we start to notice that the films are an elaborate meditation on the dialectic between chance and order. They all depend upon absurd coincidence to propel the story forward. Just what are the odds, in just one of near-infinite examples, that of all the planets in that galaxy far, far away, the droids should end up back on Tatooine, in the home of the son of the sweet (if annoying) boy who had built C-3PO decades before? Throughout all six films there are scenes of crucial serendipity. Such dependence on unlikely coincidence isn't unique to Star Wars. As literary critics have long pointed out, the arbitrary yoking together of events in the service of storytelling is one of the fundamental characteristics of all narrative. R2-D2 needs to hook up with Luke on Tatooine, just as Prospero's enemies need to wash up on the shores of his island, and Elizabeth Bennet needs to marry Mr. Darcy, for the narrative requirements of those stories to be fulfilled. The audience's willing surrender to narrative coincidence is demanded by the story's need to conclude itself.

But Lucas takes this self-consciousness about narrative artifice a step further: He makes explicit his theoretical interest in the mechanics of plot. As viewers, we take pleasure in the implausible events that must happen for the narrative contraption to snap shut in a satisfying way. But the characters come to understand that there is another agent, external to themselves, that is dictating the action. Within the films' fiction, that force is called … er, "the Force." It's the Force that makes Anakin win the pod race so that he can get off Tatooine and become a Jedi and set all the other events in all of the other films in motion. We learn that Anakin's birth, fall, redemption, and death are required to "bring balance to the Force" and, not coincidentally, to give the story its dramatic shape. The Force is, in other words, a metaphor for, or figuration of, the demands of narrative. The Force is the power of plot.

If the Force is Plot, then what is the difference between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force? As Qui-Gon tells the young Obi-Wan, "Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts." Obi-Wan instructs Luke that the Force "binds the Galaxy together," and Yoda teaches him that the Force manifests its power most strongly "when you are calm, at peace, passive." Luke puts this doctrine of existential surrender most famously into practice when he turns off his targeting computer and "uses the Force" to blow away the Death Star. The Light Side of Plot, then, seems to involve the willing submission to chance, to imagination, to inspiration—a formula familiar from epic narrative, where poets like Homer announce their surrender to the possession of "the Muse" in the service of a story beyond themselves.

The Dark Side, on the other hand, is all about conscious control, structure, order, and design. Emperor Palpatine, the embodiment of the Dark Side, taunts the despairing Luke in Return of the Jedi, "Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design," and we are led to understand in Sith that it was Palpatine himself who set the entire plot in motion by manipulating the Force toward Anakin's virgin birth. Palpatine is the emblem of the artist as clockmaker or puppet master, the omniscient manipulator of his hapless characters for the purposes of a satisfying narrative payoff. At the end of Jedi, in a scene out of Pirandello or one of Ashbery's own plays, the characters assert their autonomy and kill their author.

Every text depends on the balance between inspiration and authorial control, and Lucas makes that tension the principal subject of his film. Lucas, like every author, is Luke to his own Palpatine—both the surrenderer to chance (as in Harrison Ford's memorably ad-libbed "I know" in response to the scripted "I love you" from Leia), and the rigorous, arranging schemer (as epitomized in the films' elaborate special effects). Anakin is the tension-filled creative midpoint between the two: "the balance of the Force." And if we want to critique Lucas' own text, we might do so using the theoretical terms he himself has set up and suggest that the parts that are least successful are the moments when the artistic balance tips too far toward either the Light or the Dark Sides. For instance, the much-deplored dependence on computer animation in the prequels, which opened up spectacular vistas at the expense of feeling and characterization, can be seen as Lucas tilting dangerously toward the Dark Side. There's no place for serendipity in a pixilated galaxy, since every digital detail must be planned and plotted and programmed. And similarly, Jar Jar Binks, the films' most notorious misstep and an explicit signifier of bumbling whimsy, looks like an error of unbearable Lightness.

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Slave to film-school enthusiasms

Characteristic of these films' dizzying self-reflexivity, Lucas even seems to acknowledge these stumbles toward excess within the structure of the films themselves. It's Jar Jar's chance collision with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in the jungles of Naboo that inflicts his continued presence on the screen for the rest of The Phantom Menace. But by Clones, his role is reduced to that of a deferential stooge of the nefarious Palpatine, and in Sith he gets only a single line of dialogue, suggesting a certain balancing out of Jar Jar's irritating disturbance in the Force. More important, we are made to see how Jar Jar's apparently coincidental meeting with the Jedi needed to happen, since it is his misguided vote that allows Palpatine to take control of the Senate, leading to the death of the Republic. The clown becomes the villain, and balance is restored.

Likewise, in Clones there's a fascinating instance of cinematic self-consciousness that speaks to Lucas' awareness of the imaginative costs of all-digital filmmaking. Amid a riotous and panoramic battle-scene on a desert planet, the film frame suddenly starts to shudder as it zooms in on a close-up of a clone-filled combat vehicle. As viewers, we recognize the jerky camera movement as that of a hand-held camera, familiar to us from news footage and war movies, and the shot gives a kinetic, you-are-there edge to the chaotic scene. Until, that is, we realize that the entire scene exists only in a computer hard-drive, that there is no hand-held camera, and that Lucas is using a computer program to mimic the authentic touch of the unsteady human hand. It's a startling moment, where the film calls our attention to its own technological artifice. Lucas is firmly committed to digital cinema, but in this single shot we see him acknowledge, perhaps a little sheepishly, his technology's erasure of a fortuitous or exciting human accident.

Lucas now says that he's finished with popular filmmaking and wants to return to the experimentalism of his early career: "I love doing Star Wars, and it's a fun adventure for me, but I'm ready to explore some of the things I was interested in exploring when I was in my late 20s." As Obi-Wan would tell him, the Master's nostalgia for his artsy youth is misplaced. That Force has been with him, always.

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