Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thoughts on Episode VII: Wish Upon A Death Star

Wish upon a Death Star

I am a sculptor. I consider what I do Fine Art, and believe it is a serious undertaking worthy of dedicating one's life to. Although I work to very hard to make what I consider High Art, quality can, and is, found everywhere. It's not just possible for Disney to make a Star Wars sequel that measures up to the original, it is important that they do so. This does not entail choosing an "auteur" with a powerful vision to helm the project, it requires the construction of a creative team.

I've made my case in the past, that movies (not films) are the art of our times: that large blockbusters are our era's what altarpieces, cathedrals, large scale history and landscape painting were to their eras. The main opposition that I got for this idea, was that because movies are made by committees ("filled with sharks"), that without a single "free" artist (or auteur), Art is not possible. This view is not only solipsistic; it is retardataire. Corporate "personhood" is settled law. Corporeal Art is a thing of the past (see Death of the Author), and Corporate Art - art made for an by great masses of people, intended, not for an intimate experience between on viewer and an "autonomous" object, but instead as a "projection" to be watched in large public settings by a boisterous crowd, is the Art that most perfectly fit to the modern moment.

Term of Use Crawl

It is long over due for the corporate class to take their model of cultural production more seriously. This is not just a matter of corporate citizenship (stopping cultural pollution) it should be a matter of corporate civility. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street it is imperative to prove to young people that "personhood" can be a positive feature of the modern cultural landscape. Before his recent disgrace and exile, Jonah Lehrer published an excellent piece on Groupthink. In it, he reports "The most frequently cited studies in a field used to be the product of a lone genius, like Einstein or Darwin. Today, regardless of whether researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics, science papers by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those by individuals."

It may be that reports of The Death of the Author have been greatly exaggerated, and that what we are living through is death of the lone-author. But that does not make all Groupthink equal. Just as there are weak minded individuals, and strongly creative loners, some groups are more creative than others. Lehrer sites a study by the sociologist Brian Uzzi on the make up of successful Broadway musical production teams to make the point:
“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.” 
Alan Ladd Jr.; John Lasseter

For corporate America to win back a generation that has come to loath corporations, they will need to pull talent from inside and outside the blockbuster mill. John Lasseter has shown himself able to shepherd a narririve through a trilogy without losing his way (together, the Toy Story movies are arguably the best Hollywood trilogy ever made). Cast him in the role of Alan Ladd Jr. - Lucas's guardian at Fox - and give him the job of guarding this production from his cohorts in management and his bosses on the board.

Disney should choose a young director, like Lucas was when he made the original. Someone with real potential, like Josh Trank, who has made one or two strong films, but who is still new enough to filmmaking that he or she can surprise us. Allow a young iconoclastic genre-geeks like Max Landis, Mark Millar, or Seth Green to shape the script.
John Williams; the RZA

John Williams is awesome, but this is the moment to pass the torch, the score should build on the past, be organic, but (although this cuts against everything Disney's legal department stands for) it should be a remix: the RZA.

Finally don't put Lucas Arts insiders in control of the film's look, as of it were a free standing element, separate from the rest of the story. Lucas believed that with Star Wars he was making a "visual" film; he was striving to work in the vein of Stanley Kubrick and Jaques Tati. Disney should give their director and crew the opportunity to do the same. Again, bring in a young designer from the outside, someone like Gavin Rothery, who is steeped in history of scifi film design.
Max Kozloff; Walt Disney

But if Disney executives hope to reproduce the original movie's cultural impact (and they should); if they hold out hope of winning back a generation that holds corporate culture in contempt (and they should), they must avoid any attempt at crowd pleasing with a veneer of progressive political themes. Engineering the next trilogy as an allegory for the war on terror, global warming, or any such topical material is a mistake. If multinational corporations like Disney are indeed the inheritors of powers that were once the sole prerogative of sovereign states, than Disney executives should take a page from the generation of rock-ribbed statists who stared down the Soviet threat, and make a film that vilifies corporate culture.
Corporate executives should emulate the Cold War anti-communists of the 60s, who had enough faith in the system they were defending that they risked showcasing the work of Left-wing intellectuals to further their Right-wing cause. In his essay, "American Painting During the Cold War" the art historian Max Kozloff argued:
Never for one moment did American art become a conscious mouthpiece for any agency as was, say, the Voice of America. But it did lend itself to be treated as a form of benevolent propaganda for foreign intelligentsia... It signifies a new sophistication in bureaucratic circles that even dense and technical work of the intelligentsia, as long as it was self-censoring in its professional detachment from values, could be used ambassadorially as a commodity in the struggle for American dominance.

The Star Wars Galaxy (ca. 1977); Jer Thorp's,  Avengers 1963-2011 (2011)

Finally, for the next Star Wars film to be as rich an artifact of the 21st century as the first Star Wars is of the post-Vietnam Cold War, Disney needs to entrust the project with a creative team, not only steeped in genre (the way Lucas and his original production crew were) but a team steeped in "franchise." The makers of Episode VII should have in mind the recent successes that have enlivened other long running corporate properties. For instance, the way Marvel has managed its expanded universe is a model for how to deal with all those Star Wars novels: borrow from them liberally and irreverently. No matter how violently the geek bray, don't stay married to the canon.

Obviously everyone expects (and desires) cameo appearances by Luke, Leia, and Han, but don't let those aging Baby Boomers run away the movie (JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot ground to a halt every time Nimoy was on screen). Look to the last few James Bond films when it comes to the question of how to handle all those lines of dialog Lucas insisted repeating (cut to bartender finishing vigorously shaking and pouring martini, Bond: "Perfect.").
Star Wars (1977); Skyfall (2011)

Star Wars was not "just another blockbuster" - it was the first blockbuster. It was made in the hopes of commercial success, but it was also made in emulation of non-commercial avant-garde film. It was made by the first generation of film school graduates and reflects the self consciousness and confidence of a group steeped in film as Art; from it's most avant-garde and esoteric to it's most lowbrow and commercial. In this way, Star Wars is a singular artifact, not just of the 70s, but of Corporate Art - art made by-and-for crowds.

Star Wars fans have shown that they will pour money on any product associated with the franchise, no matter how poorly constructed or lamely banal. Rather than use this as a excuse to feed us two more hours of meaningless crap, this should embolden Disney. If you make it WE WILL COME; so why not make it mean something?
Death Star tea ball; Mickey Mouse tea ball

Addendum: As I wrote my production-team-wish-list, I was acutely aware that I didn't have a string of talented young women I could pug into my Episode VII fantasy league. I have no doubt this has everything to do with how shallow my knowledge of the film industry is, rather than an actual deficit of female geeks. That I put my hopes on a team, and not a director, reflects my genuine belief that the reason the original Star Wars was such an extraordinary movie, was due to the constellation of creative people who contributed their ideas and attitudes. (“The Army of credits for this serious and delightful labor implies a creative community that stands for the benign side of technology.” wrote a reviewer at the time).

Because all of the sequels (and prequels) that followed still had Lucas at the helm (if not actually directing), but very different creative communities backing him up, we can make some assumptions about that first crew: it contained young woman who could stand up to Lucas and his male cohort who might have been more comfortable with a less assertive Leia. Had there been any influential African-Americans in that first crew, we may have had more "black" leads besides Vader. Disney seems good at making films that look like America, but this needs to be said: in order to make a movie that connects with a generation, the crew of Episode IIV should look like that generation.
Marcia and George Lucas; Mos Eisley extra

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