Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts on Episode VII: Delirious Coruscant

Opening, Star Wars (1977); Ken Ohyama, Interchange (2007)
What could be more shocking that seeing Luke Skywalker don Vader's helmet? The opportunity of Episode IV, is to revisit the shock that the original opening shot delivered to audiences in 1977. The equivalent of an endlessly huge Star Destroyer passing directly overhead. Although they had never seen anything like it, that was an image audiences were prepared to understand. While the huge scale and crystalline shape of that first Star Destroyer was mind-blowingly new, it was encrusted in white machine parts in the familiar style of a "2001-type spaceship." Lucas had morphed the look of Stanley Kubrick's spindly NASA futurism into an "overwhelming show of force." Immediately following the Episode VII opening text crawl, what at first appears to be the traditional background of star flecked outer space, should be revealed to be the reflection in a filthy puddle. As the shot climbs the audience will understand that we are looking up from the lowest depths Coruscant, the city-planet explored in the Prequels. But unlike the Prequels, the art deco towers we saw in the Episode I, II, and III, are now dwarfed by layered canopy of intersecting mega-structures. And the reflected stars are the flickering tiny lights of the megastucture's darkened under sided.

The shock that Episode VII can deliver is to show the Star Destroyers of Episode IVV, and VI stretched into a planet choking urbanism; to see the delirious super-city of Coruscant reduced to an abandon downtown; to see that the World of Tomorrow is now just one more Detroit. By showing the art deco architecture and pre-war Manhattanism of Coruscant over-written by a High Modernist "utopia", Episode IV could, thirty years later, deliver exactly that brand of shock that Episode IV did: the shock of once again seeing American superpower reflected back as an galactic superpower. The shock of the first was to see NASA futurism and Modernist urbanism recast as an oppressive industrial Empire, this time the shock is to see the ultimate triumph of that Industrial Empire. That before the Sith were defeated, they had forever mutilated the Republic. 
John Hancock Center (1970); destruction of the Super Star Destroyer "Executor" (1983)
Rather than randomly evolving the machines and machine worlds of Star Wars to make things look more advanced the things we saw in the first 6 films, the maker of Episode IV should to honor the first film's conceptual origins as described by George Lucas: "A lot of my interest in Apocalypse Now was carried over into Star Wars" explained Lucas. "I figured I couldn't make that film because it was about the Vietnam War, so I would essentially deal with some of the same interesting concepts that I was going to use and convert them into space fantasy..." That is how Lucas explained Star Wars not just to himself, but to all those around him when he was making the first film.

Before Star Wars became a blockbuster, or a even trilogy, much less a multi-billion dollar corporate franchise, everyone who worked on the film knew they were making a scifi film that cast American Modernism as a fascist Empire. It was a film that glorified rebellion, but it also evoked an Old Republic - a time when Rebels had ruled the roost.

Coruscant as imagined in the Star Wars prequels; Raymond Hood, Proposal for Manhattan 1950 (1929)

In Star Wars art deco stands in for that earlier age of promise for a number of reasons. First because it is undeniably the visual bedrock of scifi - a sediment that Lucas and his crew were expertly mining. Toward the end of Gates of Eden, Morris Dickstein's 1977 book about the upheavals of the 1960s, Dickstein admitted “It didn't take long for us to become nostalgic for the thirties, when we hadn't even been born.” Dickstein and his friends, “looked back wistfully at the excited ideological climate of the thirties, about which we knew next to nothing.” Lucas is four years younger than Dickstein. He, his friends, and his young crew were very the same generation as Dickstein and his young friends. And although its unlikely that Lucas and his friends knew any more about the "excited ideological climate" - they looked back on it with the same sense of nostalgia. In his essay, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Fredric Jameson argues: 
One of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that grew up from the '30s to the '50s was the Saturday afternoon serial of the Buck Rogers type - alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliffhanger at the end whose miraculous resolution was to be witnessed next Saturday afternoon. Star Wars reinvents this experience in the form of a pastiche: that is, there is no longer any point to a parody of such serials since they are long extinct. Star Wars, far from being a pointless satire of such now dead forms, satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again. 
HG Well's Things to Come (1936); Star Wars (1977)
The art deco urbanism of Coruscant isn't an aberration. If anything it’s a cliché. That "excited ideological climate" is the cradle of cinematic scifi. Starting with Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927), and the decidedly less classic, but no less influential Just Imagine (1930). The cityscape of these films, as well as Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939) serials, which repurposed Just Imagine's cityscape footage (and directly inspired Lucas to make Star Wars), were themselves inspired by the architecture and urbanism of interbellum New York. 

A generational cohort of Lucas and Dickstein, the architect Rem Koolhaas, calls that period of skyscraper building “Manhattanism." In his 1978 book, Delirious New York, Koolhaas argued, “The fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence. Manhattan's problem is the opposite: it is a mountain range of evidence without manifesto.” Koolhaas calls his book a "Retroactive Manifesto," explaining: "Manhattanism, whose program – to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e., to live inside fantasy – was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated.” 
Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929); Metropolis (1927) 

But that isn't entirely true. While the architects most responsible for "theorizing" Manhattanism as a cluster-fuck aerial fantasyland of skyscrapers, stacked roadways, and pedestrian bridges, never published manifestos articulating their aims the way their European Modernist counterparts did, but they did draw cities of the future, and those aerial views well know and widely circulated. 

Hugh FerrissRaymond Hood, and Harvey Wiley-Corbett are the stars of Koolhaas' book, and its not overstating things to say these men invented the future. But future they envisioned are very particular ones. Worlds of tomorrow are often described as either Utopian (good non-places) or Dystopian, (bad non-places). The urbanist reformer Jane Jacobs denounced the European Modernists (and their American imitators) as "Utopian minders of other people's leisure." Ever since the hair-shirt wearing celibate, St. Thomas More, coined the neologism "utopia" and beneath it's rubric imagined denuding the hustle and confusion of late 15th century London as a monastery, Utopians have been designing cities without the crass commercialism of markets places, the temptation of bars, and the menacing shadows of alleys. The congested fantasies of Ferriss, Hood, And Corbett, that Koolhaas dubbed "Manhattanism," have no progressive socuial agenda. They were all about leisure, congestion, and un fettered commercialism. Because they had no moral program they are Dystopias. The problem, if you can call it that, it that they look like a great deal of fun. 
Harvey Wiley-Corbett, City of Tomorrow (1913); Just Imagine (1930)
There are very few cinematic Dystopias that are truly Dystopic. There are plenty of seemingly good places that turn out to be oppressive and evil (Logan's Run and THX-1138 come to mind). John Hillcoat's The Road was the rare Dystopian-Dystopia; a film that offered no carrot, all stick; a truly bad non-place. Even Alfonso Cuarón's critically acclaimed Children of Men had bits of promise (Britons finally having the opportunity to collect all the world's great art in one place). A although Blade Runner is held up as one of the great cinematic Dystopias, it was hardly Dystopic at all. (How bad could things really be if there are flying cars?) But because the city of Blade Runner isn't "imbued with puritanical and Utopian conceptions of how people should spend their free time" it is a Dystopia, with a glum alienated protagonist as it's most well known citizen. 

Scifi movies continue to be dominated by the delirious pre-war urbanism the Manhattanists developed: a compact core of towers rising from a low flat plane (see everything from The Wizard of Oz to Looper). This despite the fact the reality of actual urban development has turned out to be nothing like the Manhattanists expected. The reality has been exurban sprawl radiating outwards from hollowed out cores of abandon downtowns (see Detroit, St. Lewis, Baltimore). But while visions of the doughnut model of development doesn't get much screen time, it has gotten some.  
The Wizard of Oz (1939); Looper (2012)

In both Len Wiseman's Total Recall and the Wachowski siblings' Cloud Atlas we are shown visions of doughnut-urbanism. In Total Recall chemical warfare has forced earth's entire population into two small areas: the Colony (Australia) and the United Federation of Brittan. The two mega-cities are connected by a hole, called the Fall, that passes through the earth's core. In Cloud Atlas we are shown the consumerist Dystopia of Neo Seoul - a dense crescent of flashy towers built around the drowned remnant of the "old" city. The urbanism of the two couldn't be more different. 

In Wiseman's Recall is a realization of a whose-who of visionary 60s architecture, most notably the Brutalism of the Smithson's mashed up with Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 and Constant Nieuwenhuys' New Babylon. The Watchowskis meanwhile, populated their cored Seoul with "futuristic" towers borrowed from today's skylines of places like Hong Kong and Dubai. Of the two, Recall made for a far more singular futurama. Again, because of flying cars, I have a very hard time judging either of there's as pure-Dystopias. Utopia/Dystopia are not a binary system, but a spectrum. The original 1977 Star Wars occupied a unique position on that spectrum: because the bad-guys occupy the Modernist "good-places" (the Death Star Was the most perfect Utopia ever imagined) and the good-guys occupy the "bad-places" (both the moisture farm and the Millennium Falcon were slums). 
Total Recall (2012); Cloud Atlas (2012)
While it is riddled with nostalgia for the trappings of n earlier machine age, Star Wars is an artifact of the machine age that we now call "High Modernism." The late 1960s and early 1970s were dominated by the clean lined aesthetic of pre-war Europe "Utopians." Those continental Modernists had valorized more than an aesthetic however, their ideas were born of an ethic of economy, utility, and promised social and material progress by design; by decree. In the chaos of the early 20th century they had developed a plan to "bring order" - if not to the galaxy, but to the chaos and confusion of urban congestion. The modernists had found the cause of the world's problems, and in the US they found a regime ready to implement their ideas on a global scale. 

As we see can in Kubrick's 2001, the Modernists' "style" had become associated with the American Cold Warriors' ethics of black box compartmentalized secrecy, rock ribbed intransigence, and air of authoritative competence. In 2001 reflects an ambivalence about the Cold Warriors. Their Utopia is shown in full flower with space shuttles, video phones and huge moon bases. But the ambivalence is their. There are nuclear weapons in space. The Cold Warriors themselves are robotic, almost inhumanly so, but they are self assured, competent, and most importantly: they are still the good guys. In Star Wars was made, everything had changed. As John Barry explained, "you are in your conventional 2001-type spaceship - and then the door blows down and in comes Darth Vader - black against a white hallway!" 
The prewar authoritative competence of Modernism in HG Well's Things to Come; Modernism's paranoia and corruption in Empire Strikes Back

By the time Star Wars came out, High Modernist design had, around the world, become indelibly associated with bellicose US absolutism. Intransigence had become unthinking violence (domestically, but also on a global existential scale), secrecy had morphed into paranoia and corruption, and the air of competence had given way the stink of dogmatism. Lucas and his crew forever cemented that association by making the once progressive "white world" of Modernism home to Imperialist Nazis and their Stormtrooper henchmen. But the Nazis weren't Germans (or Brits), and weren't stand ins for the threat of communism. As Lucas explains, they were Americans; they were stand-ins for the threat of America to Americans: you'd have essentially a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters or human beings... a small independent country like North Vietnam threatened by a neighbor or provincial rebellion, instigated by gangsters aided by empire... The empire is like America ten years from now, after Nixonian gangsters assassinated the Emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election; created civil disorder by instigating race riots aiding rebel groups and allowing the crime rate to rise to the point where a 'total control' police state was welcomed by the people. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Star Wars (1977) 

America is less violent and less racist that it was 40 years ago when Lucas began imagining the Star Wars universe. But the fact remains that our politics are still shaped by racism, and while we are far less violent a nation than we were, we kill each other and make war on others more readily then any other industrialized nation. We are the Empire. 

While Darth Vader was fighting the Rebellion on-screen in backwaters like Tatooine and Yavin, his Master, the Emperor, was busy doing something else off-screen. If the Sith were half as ambitious as their Cold Warrior counterparts, Palpatine was working with civil engineers and architects to make good on the promise to "bring order to the galaxy." Between the time we last see Coruscant in Episode III, the Sith would have transformed the city-planet capital as entirely as the Cold Warriors that inspired them had transformed the America that inspired the Empire. 

Empire Strikes Back (1980); Ken Ohyama, Interchange (2007)

To be clear: I don't mean brutalist Dystopia, I mean full-on Bauhausler social engineering executed on the scale of Eisenhower-era ambition. A perfect white-world to rival those Lucas and his crew created for the original movie: the native environment of both Princess Leia and Darth Vadert: think Koolhaas' OMA's repeated proposals to build massive Star Wars-Modernist structures in the Middel East

It is impossible to overstate how much of our today's urban environment is the product of post-war belief, and actions founded on those beliefs. Episode VII is the opportunity to re-imagine the future as the aftermath of very particular Utopia. A puristic moralizing effort to remake the world as it should be. The new trilogy should show a world in the midst of a recovery, but also on the brink of falling back into despotism and civil war. Episode VII should open with a ship flying into, and blowing a hole through, the Sith mega-structure that girds Coruscant. That the blow struck should be understood to be a blow against the heirs of the Sith Empire: the New Republic. 

Robert Smithson, Terminal-feat.-Cloud City; Cedric Delsaux , Dark Lens 

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