Star Wars Dialogue is a 5-part dialog between Mike Thorn, Isiah Medina, Chelsea Phillips-Carr, Isaac Goes, and Neil Bahadur about George Lucas's first six films in the Star Wars franchise.
MIKE THORN: In her chapter of Glittering Images (2012) on Revenge of the Sith, Camille Paglia argues that, more than any other artist, George Lucas closes the gap between art and technology. How do you feel about this idea? In what ways are art and technology interacting with each other in these films, and how is Lucas cultivating that interaction? How has his innovation in this regard affected cinema since?
ISIAH MEDINA: Lucas claims that all art is, is technology. So the claim only works if we assume a gap to begin with. But more precisely, he says that one has an artistic problem, and then one invents a technology to solve it. In Heidegger’s Ponderings X he claims that technology is the history of nature. It makes sense to say that the history of nature culminates into an idea of beauty in art, freely determining itself. In the same way that for Hegel the painting of a tree will always be higher than the tree, the digital medium must be higher than the chemical medium, and I prefer the CGI in the prequels to any feeling of the apparently natural in the originals. That’s what excited me about Rogue One (2016) over The Force Awakens (2015): with the CGI resurrections I saw something I haven’t seen before. Any moral barring of this action of bringing the dead back to life is paradoxically a religious ban. The religious places limits on the history of our nature and how this nature appears to itself. With Lucas as a name that can be separable from the person, I see an idea where digital cinema is properly infinite, there is no limit to what can be seen or created.
With digital cinema Lucas says we have moved to painting rather than photography, and in Godard’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) we have a suggestive scene where photography has to pass through painting for cinema to become what it is. More than painting, what has happened is we may have retroactively always been in the domain of animation. I can’t unpack it all here, but I thought of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who says when they animate, there must be a reason. And then I think of Robert B. Brandom’s subtitle of one of his books,Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas.With CGI perhaps we will subtract from causes and only answer to the articulation of reasons. The workflows involved require a lot of planning and foresight and integration of many departments and team members. The frame by frame development shares elements of montage in all its directions. For some filmmakers, montage is seen to be the essence of movies. But shifting the ontological grounds to a frame by frame rather than shot by shot basis, what if animation is the true promise of movies? What if animation sublates montage—rather than finding ‘out there’ shots to later resolve dialectically, these ‘obstacles’ are themselves ‘drawn’ by us? To animate an idea, to sublate differences into identity arrows—maybe montage is too antinomic of a treatment of thinking and we need to go to animation to think with movies today. For what is digital cinema but the montage of 0s and 1s? I don’t even mean only CGI either—rather, at what point does our sense experience become animated by an idea on a frame by frame basis? His ambitions to return to experimental work, non-narrative montage, is perhaps transformed when what is being placed in montage’s system of identity and differences is thought, and thought alone. Heidegger also claimed that technology is a completed metaphysics. What constitutes Lucas’s metaphysics is something worth investigating. Yes, he works in myth, but a lot of rationalist philosophies resort to myth at the most difficult points of their system. We have the difficult point, so it’d be nice to weave out a rational other side.
Lastly, Lucasfilm’s computer division, development of the Pixar computer, laser scanner to convert photochemical film process to digital, Editdroid as foundation to Avid’s non-linear editing system, and digital projection, all partly democratized filmmaking. Yet Attack of the Clones (2002) depicts a slide of democracy into tyranny. Or again, one of Anakin’s difficulties is that he keeps looking into the future, which brings about his downfall but crucial to the process of making the film is another type of ‘seeing the future’: the digital pre-visualization for the special effects. Thus, rather than a closing of the gap, Lucas asserts the gap between his normative ideas in art and the technological base he creates with, denying technology to have sway since “it is neither good, nor bad, or even neutral.” Asserting the gap is its own synthesis, like Anakin embodying the very gap between Jedi and Sith.
CHELSEA PHILLIPS-CARR: Cinema is by its essence a mix of technology and art. I have a hard time buying Paglia’s argument as such. How is Lucas excelling beyond what others have done? I’m not denying his artistry, skill, nor innovation, but I feel that the conversation of art and technology is one that must be extended. I would argue for earlier work to be even more significant for their time within cinema’s history: what of the first experimentations with color, certain special effects, 3D, sound? Lucas’s mix of interest in the past with contemporary technology does not seem to me as remarkable as Paglia argues. It is the next step of other filmmakers who have consistently drawn from the history of art, but because all cinema is technological art, I do not know if I believe that Lucas is somehow more significant. He definitely has had his influence in the dispersal of CGI as something more common (I’d bet); but in terms of transforming the relation between technology and art? That’s been done since pre-cinematic toys. If I was to pick one filmmaker who truly, and most significantly, closed the gap between technology and art, it would be Georges Méliès.
ISAAC GOES: Like Chelsea wrote, cinema is in essence inseparable from technology, but the degree to which this relationship is fleshed out formally always varies from movie to movie. If we really think about it, this is something that’s obviously taken for granted given how accustomed we have become to motion pictures. But for me personally, the nature of the production of images entering our relationship to the cinema in a meaningful way is one of the most beautiful things our artform has to offer, this sort of revelation of artifice, of the hitherto invisible hand guiding us becoming apparent without losing its all of its effectiveness.
If you look at the main complaints the average person had about the prequels they all have to do with the quality of the GCI, how it didn’t look realistic. But in this same line of thinking, I think this lack of realism is something to be championed, especially at the time of its occurrence. Like Isiah points out, we have moved to painting rather than photography, and as backwards as it may sound this is the true technological advancement inhered in the prequels, this movement from thinking in terms of planning in real space first, which then must be photographed in order for it to become a cinematic image, to conceiving of the whole image in the first instance without recourse to real space. It’s like what you see with the first painters who broke from attempting realistic spatial representation, wherein the craft becomes as much about the surface of the canvas and the materials used to render as it is about the object represented. I think this is not only a huge formal revolution caused by technological advancement, but also a cognitive one, a total revolution of our relationship to motion pictures as images makers.
NEIL BAHADUR: I would not say that Lucas necessarily closes the gap between art and technology—Isiah already pointed out that Lucas believes that art itself is already technology. I am uncertain on where I would stand here on the position of art as a whole, but cinema is first and foremost a technology before it is an art or a business: the camera, then and now, is a machine. If there ever was a gap to be closed, it wasn’t Méliès—it was always the Lumières’. If it is even an art—as far as I know, cinema is only technology. Digital cinema is merely the logical extension of this. In any case, the relationship between art and technology varies throughout the six films, because the technology is always developing—I like that James Cameron pointed out that The Force Awakens was a bad film because it was the first Star Wars film that was not a technological innovation in itself. This is probably also true of The Last Jedi (though the CGI Snoke is rather impressive), but I’ll be a bit generous to director Rian Johnson’s craft. Nevertheless, the two trilogies actually serve the same function (even if by happenstance!) The world in Episode IV looks conspicuously similar to spaces we can already recognize—it’s only the aliens which bring us difference. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) seems like little more than an opportunity to begin developing the idea of creating the ‘unreal’—Hamill himself complained of being the only ‘human’ actor on set for months—this is the beginning of what Lucas has been working towards with CGI and will only fully achieve with Revenge of the Sith. Return of the Jedi (1983) gives us the world of the Ewoks—at first visually this seems like a step backwards, set in a nondescript forest. But The Empire Strikes Back only gave us unrecognizable spaces, not unrecognizable societies, and it is the collision of the two which brings us to The Phantom Menace (1999), a mammoth leap for the history of cinema. We get the underwater Gungan world, a completely CGI society which functions under its own rules—but perhaps more importantly, we get the Republic itself! It is clear why Lucas waited 16 years to make this film visually—but it is also not for naught that most of the film is devoted to the functions and machinations of the politics behind this society. As this episode actually does a considerable amount of the heavy lifting (I feel the real reason this was criticized so much was because of the sheer amount it does and achieves—a viewer is now expected to give more attention than they supposedly should to a ‘Star Wars’ film) in Attack of the Clones (2002)Lucas can turn his attention squarely to the visuals: a world in green screen. This settles the debate, invents the future: the camera is machine as paintbrush. The Phantom Menace was the leap but Attack of the Clones changed cinema forever—this innovation has affected cinema to an extent that is so inexorable that going around shooting your pictures on 16mm and editing on flatbeds may well be called counter-revolutionary. With the visual now defined at last, Lucas can now work to the full extent of his ability in Revenge of the Sith: the image has been redefined, the world has been explored—now we can tell a dramatic story. But I think Lucas is up to more here than just the visuals: look at how he cuts. Anakin’s narrative and the film’s political trajectory are always intersecting: so when political acts take place, we do not view them with distanciation as we did in the previous episode, but have emotional consequences as a viewer because of the responding narrative. This is an brilliant and innovative way of developing the concept of dramaturgy through the 20th century breakthrough of montage, a concept whose basic fundamentals most filmmakers are a slave to, without realizing that one can change the functions of narrative itself.
Notwithstanding the affection I have for the newest film in the series, the sequel trilogy is generally a step back, but I am with Isiah in that the CGI resurrections in Rogue One are the only innovative work within this otherwise reversion to antiqued constructs—to use cinema to bring the dead back to life is something I would have expected from Lucasfilm. To be offended by such things is to only assert ones slavery to Christian theology, or to simply admit that you are incapable of telling the difference between cinema and reality.
Returning to the Pagilia article as mentioned prior, the supposed gap between art and technology is an amusing thing to say, since cinema itself is the link between art and technology. In fact, I really don’t have a clue as to what exactly Pagilia is on about here—what strikes me is how Lucas has simply honed in on the images he was working on for a near decade with these, starting with the 1997 Special Editions. As mentioned before, the answers of the trilogy’s politics rest in the finale of Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin and Obi-Wan fight with the same colored lightsaber. But this is amplified by one’s emotional responses: Lucas’s cutting back to the lava, the colors of orange and red—this is the logical development of the expressionistic techniques of the 1920s, never furthered until this film. But also, importantly, the editing here is truly remarkable. Of course, we intercut the battle of Anakin and Obi-Wan with that of Yoda and Palpatine: in the latter section, we see the entire senate hall revealed to be Palpatine’s own political mise en scène, the room itself is used as a weapon. The politics of this sequence inform and continue into the crosscutting with Anakin and Obi-Wan: of course we fight with the same colored lightsabers, since we have just seen the traditional democratic delinations of the Left and Right to be revealed as a sham. This is most obvious in the shot-reverse shots of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s battle, rather than the beautiful choreography of The Phantom Menace. The shot/reverse-shot techniques encourage us to compare the two: two men waving around the same color. There is not much to be perceived as “difference” within the mirroring images.
Yet the cutting back to lava continues our knowledge of the films tone: anger, collapse, despair. It is simple, but colors show us what to feel. It brings us back to a cinema of physiology.