Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Star Wars - an enduring work of art and commerce?

All right, so I've been wanting to discuss this for a while: I read an article in Vanity Fair of all places in which George Lucas so presumptuously claims that in the future, people will be discussing the Star Wars films as an important and nuanced work of art containing great depth and worthy of much discussion, not only in terms of how innovative it was for it's time, but also how long it has endured. Lucas is basically claiming that his Star Wars films will inspire more questions than it can possibly answer.

The thing is: I kind of agree with him.

I'm no Star Wars Fanboy. I do like Star Wars, but I've hated the last two (first two?) movies. However, consider this: Star Wars is deeply entrenched in at least five or six major literary and philosophical traditions: it's a Christ parable in the form of a father-son savior dynamic, it heavily references Arthurian legend in it's relationship between characters (Luke as King Arhtur, Obi-Wan as Merlin, Leia as Guinevere and Han Solo as a sort of Sir Lancelot), it contains many elements of Samurai philosophy and aesthetic within the application of the Force and its parallel in Bushido as well as the duel being the preferred battle-style and the appearance of the characters, especially the Jedi (Darth Vaders/stormtrooper's helmet), it borrows from and builds on the tradition of fantasy myth and it also has an underlying political complexity that while, byzantine and overly idiosyncratic, is a relatively accurate portrayal of the way such a power struggle is conducted.

No doubt, references abound in Star Wars. The fantasy and Sci-fi elements are perhaps its most enduring and endearing qualities. Like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars creates it's own language, logic and politics. The creative genius behind such a juggernaut is without a doubt a "Force" to be reckoned with. Even the story itself is kind of complicated. Just try to explain the plot with some brevity to someone who hasn't seen it (finding one of these people can be a task in and of itself) and see if you can clearly and accurately convey it without including much of the details. Hell, I've seen the original round of movies several times each and I'm not sure that I can tell you what they're about. And I know I can't recount the plot of the latest round, partially because I'm not sure if I understand it myself.

In addition, it's widely held that Star Wars was the first of the blockbuster films that so many film critics have widely decried in the last thirty years. George Lucas widely retained the merchandising rights in anticipation of a huge spin-off campaign. This led to a new business model for marketing films and related spin-off products that is still very much in place to this day.

Then there's the many cinematic innovations Lucas and his team developed while creating the films, which has led to an adjunct business for Lucas and an ever-evolving new genre of digital effects films. In a twist of irony, though, the reliance upon digital effects has largely been responsible for the widespread dissatisfaction with the new Star Wars releases and the re-releases of the originals, that is, other than the C-level directing in the case of the new crop.

Perhaps what's most compelling is just how many different ways the Star Wars films can be analyzed critically. In one of my first film classes, a professor argued, much to the dismay of the students, that Star Wars was inherently racist and even borrowed scenes from a classic Nazi propoganda film. Here is a link to another, more politically-oriented analysis that may be just as shocking, as the author argues in favor of the Empire: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/001/248ipzbt.asp

All things considered, George Lucas may be right, the Star Wars vehicle might be pondered for generations to come. Unfortunately it may not be the cinematic power of the films that is remembered, but the many levels on which the foundation was constructed.

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