Friday, November 30, 2012

Thoughts on Episode VII: Learning from the Used Future

Aquitania (1910); Millennium Falcon (1977)

In 1977, George Lucas changed the future in a single movie when he introduced audiences to the "used future." If all Lucas had done was make a 70s SciFi move, almost perfectly lacking in geodesic domes, that would be worth celebrating, but for the first time in the history of cinema Lucas introduced a future with a past. Before Star Wars all spaceships we conceived as totalities. The model was the Modernist Architect Corbusier's great admiration for oceanliners: "“The steamship is the first stage in the realization of a world organized according to the new spirit.” wrote Corbusier. For the Modernists, the ideal to be reached was "visual unity": as if a single hand had designed the entire world at a single sitting. Before Star Wars, all spaceships were Modernist; after Star Wars nothing was Modernist.

Without making any extravagant claims about the destruction of the Death Star marking the end of Modernism (but it was); it is not extravagant to point out that "visual unity" has been all but entirely replaced with an ethic that is very much like the "used future" we were first shown in Star Wars. Which begs the question: what exactly a "used future" is. Lucas told his set designer, John Barry, that he wanted the Millenium Falcon to look like a ship from Stanley Kubrick's 2001, "that had aged two hundred years."
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Ben Burt, the sound designer for all the Star Wars films, explains the "used future" further:
[Lucas] wanted the sounds to have a worldly quality. That they would sound like real objects, real motors, actual places. The doors would be rusty on the space ships or the places where people lived. The engines would sound like that they were maybe mis-tuned or would backfire once in a while. He wanted a used universe in a sense.
For those who will complain that Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running pioneered this sort of used-worldly quality, there is another, overlooked component to the "used future" that makes what we saw in Star Wars for the first time a break with all film scifi that preceded it. Ralph McQuarrie gives a clue, in an interview about his thoughts for what Coruscant might have looked like, had it appeared in the original trilogy:
I imagined it to be dark and spooky with enormous buildings and a metal surface and, down below, huge avenues like on Wall Street in Manhattan. George stated that he wanted a planet that was a city with endless built-up areas. In my mind it was built a thousand years ago, layer after layer." 
 Ralph McQuerry, original concept designs for Coruscant

The production design of Silent Running may have been a dingy sort of 2001, but every element of the world it projected was built at the same time. Like Kubrick, Trumbull had filmed an oceanliner in space; a world that was chronologically monolithic. 

The visual program of Star Wars is unique because it was chronologically stratified. Lucas borrowed from real machine age periods to give his cinematic future an immediately recognizable depth of time. We meant to see that the oldest elements of the film, like Obi Wan Kenobi with his Samurai robes, and Darth Vader - whose S&M neck gear harkened back to the Grande Illusion's Pre-WWI aristocrat, von Rauffenstein - were hold-overs from an older order: 
The Grand Illusion (1937); Star Wars (1977)
Because we never visited a cosmopolitan place in the original Star Wars, Luke's Landspeeder and C3PO stood in for what was clearly an entire machine age. We never saw Alderaan, and had to wait until Empire Strikes Back until we visited the Deco environs of Cloud City. 

The Landspeeder was the equivalent of an old Model T, suped-up, and kept alive by a teenager who could afford nothing else. C3PO was the equivalent of finding an once valuable bakelite rotary telephone still in use in a worn clapboard farm house. The droid was very consciously based on Maria, the rabble-rousing robot in Fritz Lange's Metropolis
Maria (1927); C3PO (1977)

Rather than an interwar period, the X-wing and Y-wing fighters was an obvious hat tip to the military surplus of the last Great War. Luke and his rebel cohorts were flying into battle in the Star Wars equivalent of an old WWII surplus. Like the Polish aristocrats who rode out against German tanks on horseback at the very beginning of WWII, we were meant to understand that the Rebels were hopelessly out-matched: "A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace."

The X-wings were of the same machine age as the equally hard-edged Star Destroyers. These crystalline fighters were obviously made to occupy the flight deck of those equally crystalline spacecraft-carriers. But while the Star Destroyers still served a purpose in the Imperial fleet, the X-wings were decommissioned relics:
Hell's Angels (1930); Star Wars (1977)

The most advanced technologies in Star Wars are the Imperial Death Star and the Tie-Fighters. Unlike all the other ships we are shown in the first film, these alone have no visible means of propulsion (the Death Star moves from point to point, but is never actually shown in motion). Again, to use the metaphor of military technology, the Tie-Fighters are jet fighters and the Death Star a nuclear submarine, in relation to the Rebellion's WWII surplus Grumman F3Fs and Bearcats. And the designers went to some pains to make these technologies stand out.

While geodesics, space frames and tensegrities were at the height of cool at the time the first film was made, the interior of the Tie-fighters is one of the few appearances of triangular tiles in Star Wars (there are geodesic of some sort mounted to the bridge of the Star Destroyers as well). It may be after seing Silent Running that the decision was made that domes didn't scale well. But whatever the reason, the choice not to use them holds an important lesson for the production designers of Episode VII: Imagine if the Death Star had been an enormous Geodesic sphere? Not only would it have dated the film, I doubt this blog would exist. 
Production still of Tie-fighter interior; Silent Running (1972)

The used future didn't use machine age history as a grab bag. Elements were used, not in spite of their original ideological context, but because of that context. That is not to say those relationships were straight-forward. Vader is less sympathetic and far less aristocratic than von Rauffenstein - in the first film Vader is little more than a brutish thug. The ineffective, a-sexual and fidgeting C3P0 is a direct decedent of the powerfully pneumatic revolutionary rabble-rouser Maria. In both cases, their original meanings weren't ignored or erased, they were thoughtfully reversed.

Lucas turned a sympathetic reactionary into sociopathic-thug, and a satanic revolutionary machine into a sympathetic Rebellion droid. He maintained and subverted the meaning of the visual tropes he was using. And while the Death Star certainly reflects Lucas' interest in mega-structures of the 60s and 70s (his first film, THX 1138 takes place inside an enormous underground megastructure), Lucas Didn't ape the look of visionaries like Buckminster Fuller or Paolo Soleri. The production team for Star Wars made an ultimate weapon that looked very much like a spherical Modernist office tower. The Empire had no whiff of Buckminster's progressive vision; it was all IMB's culture of conformity, command and control, and complicity.
Buckminster Fuller, Playboy spread; early Death Star cutaway. 

Addendum: Han Solo's space ship stands apart. The very first ship shown in Star Wars, which came to be known as the Blockade Runner, was originally built to be Han's ship, or what the crew referred to as the "Pirate Ship." Lucas' model maker Joe Johnson, explained: “It was supposed to look like a ship that had been assembled from other ships... George wanted it to look like it’d been hot-rodded, so we put we put bigger engines on it and stripped things off of it.” Lucas explained the original Pirate Ship's demotion to Blockade Runner this way:
The flying hamburger was my favorite design. I thought that the other design was too close to Space 1999 and too conventional looking. I wanted something really off the wall, since it was the key ship in the movie; I wanted something with a lot more personality. I thought of the design on the airplane, flying back from London: a hamburger.”
Space 1999 (1975); Star Wars (1977)

If the Death Star relates back to Lucas' first film, and its dystopian megastructure, the Millennium Falcon is best understood in relation to Lucas' second film, American Graffiti. The art historian Dave Hickey writes that, “In the beginning was the Car, and the Car was with art, and the Car was art.” The key to Hickey’s high regard is hot-rodding cars: “We also understood we were dissenting when we customized them and hopped them up—demonstrating against the standards of the republic and advocating our own vision of power and loveliness…” 

The Millennium Falcon is machine-age engine of dissent. Lucas stepped outside the canon, and dipped into another West Coast realm of vernacular Modernism. The asymmetrical spheroids of Charles and Ray Eames, the "Googey" Modernism associated with Las Vagas, the Jetsons, and flying saucers. Unlike the "visual unity" of Modernism, which brooks no dissent, the "used future" ennobles it. 
Charles and Ray Eames; Han and Chewy


  1. It always struck that the Millenium Falcon was asymmetric, but that's as far as I'd thought it through. I also knew Lucas was into cars. It just now struck me that the off-center cockpit of the Millenium Falcon should be taken as a direct and pretty obvious homage to the automobile. I feel dense.

  2. NO MORE WARS, to the next War that going at trenches: pontifices, monarchs and politicians, and fight among them, then rapidly rapidly rapidly NO MORE WARS