Thursday, June 7, 2012

Star Wars & Modernism: An Introduction

Earlier this week on twitter I 'tweeted' what might be thought of as an 8-bit art history lecture. By "8-Bit" I mean that, in the same way an 8-bit portrait is accurate, if radically simplified, this is a blocky generalized history. I was spured to give this lecture after Todd Florio passed on the artist, Tom Sachs' observation that "Darth Vader IS Hitler. Yoda IS Buddha." Sachs owns Foamcore, police barricades, and can make an almost entirely air-tight claim on NASA, but Star Wars is mine. Sorry Tom. The "slides" I tweeted yesterday come from a "primer" I assembled as a joke while working on an essay for Triple Canopy a few years ago. Just as Florio spurred me to tweet, Dan Phiffer has spurred me to blog (he assemble the tweets into a blog post before I had a chance to, happily forcing my hand). Just as I broke up the tweet-lecture into three parts, I'll repost the slides here in three "episodes," starting with Episode IV (you haven't missed anything, thats where it starts - and no, there will be no be prequels). For twitter I introduced each slide's link with a short phrase, which would be a little redundant here. Taking advantage of the blog format, I've added some text to this intro and Episode IV that explodes twitter's 140 character limit. Like all lecturers, I look forward to questions and comments. For those interested there is also an archive of my posts on Star Wars here. Enjoy.
George Lucas' life long loyalty to Joseph Campbell's ideas of archetypal mythic figures and narratives have retarded any-and-all discussions of Star Wars; freezing it where it began: as a "modern myth." The greatest disservice this does is it frames the film in terms of heros from ancient myth like Theseius, religious figures like the Buddha, and looming figures from history like Hitler - figures from the old world: "people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble." But George Lucas was a young guy from Modesto CA - a product of New World of hotrods and AM radio. Likewise the great majority of his crew were Californians, most, like Lucas, realatively fresh from film school. They might be dressed in the drag of the aristocratic General Rokurota Makabe and Calvery Captain von Rauffenstein, but Star Wars is peopled with characters that would have been familiar to a young man growing up in the 1950s and 60s in small town America; not despots or Buddhas, but uptight conformists and monkish intellectuals.

Darth Vader was not a German Fascist, he was an American fascist (lowercase f). He is the Ugly American - a rigid Cold War ideologue. The inside of his helmet stinks of Brylcreem, gin, and Pall Malls. Yoda was not the Buddha, he was an old Leftist like Obi Wan - black-listed progressives; out of work in the wake of McCarthyism, one-time culture warriors exiled from the bright lights of Hollywood and New York, licking their wounds in back-waters like Modesto CA. Lives that were once public and grand, were wrapped in moth eaten tweed, crowded into three-room bungalows, hidden behind ratty overgrown lawns, reduced to serving Nescafe to the random teenager looking for an abandoned past of radicalism and fame: "I haven't heard that name in a very long time..." 

The problem with Campbell's reading of the Star Wars is that it is purely literary. Film is not literature, however, it is an audio-visual medium - more akin to the sorts of installation art that Tom Sachs is famous for than the myths retold by Roberto Calasso in his incredible book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Movies (especially ones as sonically and visually sophisticated as Star Wars) have to be treated as objects in order to be fully understood. Objects made in particular places by particular people. When we stop reading Star Wars as a incidentally visual story telling and start looking at, and listening to, the story it is manifesting we begin to see a story that coincides with the story of the political rise and fall of American Modernism.

America's Postwar embrace of the NEW was absolute following decades of economic depression and war time sacrifice. But by the time Lucas began filming Star Wars, the patronizing authority of the Modernists had worn thin and was giving way. Darth Vader isn't an archetype of the "Dark Father" he is the cold sadism of Robert Strange McNamara, the absolute unquestioned power of Robert Moses, and Michael Fried's "sad devotion" to formalism. (Continue Reading Episode IV)

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