Can We Even Think Like This Anymore? Composing, 11/01/2016

I used to be a pretty serious Star Wars fan. As a kid and a teenager, I had the video games, the novels, the reference books, and the movies themselves. I loved this world, its depth and complexity, and how much space there was in the world of Star Wars for so many amazing stories.

George Lucas could very well be a cinematic visionary,
in a good way. But his ambitions are so beyond what a
modern audience can understand that he'll probably be
perennially misunderstood. When I said, "beyond," I
didn't mean they were any more advanced than most
people's understanding today. They're simply in a
different world. And George's films suffer from his
Then I saw the prequels, and I tired of the whole affair. Now, I’m quite pleased that there's a new Star Wars film out that's actually good. This is the limit of my excitement. 

That excitement is still there for Doctor Who, as I was giddy all through this year’s Xmas special, The Husbands of River Song. Even if there’s a terrible era of Doctor Who in the future, it wouldn't turn me off the show altogether because it’s always open to new creative voices coming and going. 

Any decline in Doctor Who’s quality I know would be temporary, and definitely not essential to the nature of the show. If Toby Whithouse turns Doctor Who into some grim male angst soap opera, I know it'll only last a few years, and that Doctor Who itself isn't ruined. 

It wasn’t that way with the Star Wars prequels. George Lucas remained the supreme creative voice in the franchise. Even in the media where George himself had no creative input, his personality predominated because the novels and comics – let alone the Clone Wars television show – were designed with loyalty to his vision.

In a few words, the George Lucas aesthetic vision of Star Wars: Utterly earnest pulp adventure with the tone and gravitas of epic poetry in a fantastic sci-fi setting.

I haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, but I know what happens, and I've read enough reviews to know that it's good. It’s a solid action film with beautiful imagery and interesting ideas. 

Consider Natalie Portman. I actually
liked Padmé's character quite a lot in
The Phantom Menace and Attack of
the Clones
. She was one of the only
entertaining parts of these films,
because she was such a powerful,
assertive, noble, heroic woman.
The film leaves enough suggestions and plot threads hanging to populate not just the current trilogy, but an entire universe of what I'm sure will be very lucrative franchise movies. In that way, it recaptures that feeling of how expansive the Star Wars world is.

And yes, this is basically a retread of the same basic story structure as A New Hope. But it's remixed for modern sensibilities. It puts a woman and a black man as the central heroes of the story, itself a new centre for the Star Wars story that offers wonderful new creative possibilities.

Most notably, this is a historic epoch for Star Wars because it’s the franchise’s first step out of George Lucas’ dominion. For almost 40 years, Star Wars has been the vision of one person.*

* What I love about Doctor Who: the show’s first primary vision ended after its first two years when producer Verity Lambert left. There are a lot of ways to slice it, but I divide Doctor Who into 20 distinct aesthetic visions of a primary creative personality. The incantation, everyone: Verity Lambert, John Wiles, Donald Tosh, David Whitaker, Innes Lloyd and Derrick Sherwin, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, Graham Williams (feat. Douglas Adams), Christopher Bidmead, John Nathan-Turner, JNT and Eric Saward, Andrew Cartmel, Peter Darvill-Evans, Rebecca Levene, Big Finish Audio, Lawrence Miles, Justin Richards, Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat with Matt Smith, and Steven Moffat with Peter Capaldi.

Now is the test to see if Star Wars can remain distinct without its one aesthetic vision. If the singularity of Star Wars can remain now that there can be more than one kind of Star Wars story.

The revival of Star Wars has caused a lot of prequel revisionism. No one is really saying that they were good. No one can ever say that. But people are reconsidering the prequels for redemptive readings at last. 

We can take an attitude to the prequels that's more dispassionate than the hangover of our initial disgust at them. Redemptive readings of the prequels have taken them as noble failures. George was trying out interesting things, and so are valuable for their ambition and potential at least.

Probably the most powerful redemptive readings of George Lucas' prequels was this long essay, The Ring Theory of Star Wars

But Revenge of the Sith reduced her to a barefoot-and-
pregnant whiner who cried all the time. George reduces
character to function, and the function isn't even one we
usually accept, like subordinating character singularity
to plot. Instead, he subordinated the characters to his
poetic framework of repeating and mirroring
images in the ring structure.
Mike Klimo argues that George composed all six films as literally epic poetry, with narrative structure that was common in the ancient Greek epic. The ring. In short form, it’s literally composed as poetry, with repeating rhymes and phrases at different points. The meanings of each repeating phrase change with the context of each appearance: what surrounds it when it appears, the weight and legacy of the story that's come before.

Except instead of rhyming words and repeated phrases of language, Star Wars is an epic poem composed of rhyming and repeating images and narrative situations. Read the entire essay later – it's fascinating and brilliant. And, I think, actually true about what George intended.

The problem is that this ring narrative form is practically dead. It's disappeared from the literary and art works any human culture consumes and creates today. Nobody knows anymore how to recognize a ring structure when we see it, and engage with the story on its terms. We’ll mistake it for something else, look for more common narrative frameworks, and fault the work for their absence. 

In the prequels’ case, we’ll look for character-based narratives, casually-spoken dialogue, maybe some ironic winks at the audience, and naturalistic acting. We’ll see none of this, and we’ll fault the movies for it.

Yet I can't fault George for having made a film series with such incredible ambition. But it’s also such an insular ambition. Composing a blockbuster film series with the same framework as ancient Greek epic poetry, but read as a series of images.

I wish I could remember where I first heard that all the Star Wars movies are better with all sound but the music removed. The problem is that so few people will be open to watching or understanding a film this way. 

If they were, such few films as these which ever get made wouldn’t be nearly so remarkable.


  1. So I found this post particularly interesting, because it touches on some concepts I've been thinking a lot about lately myself.

    Now I'm far from a Star Wars fan as you likely know, but for one of my numerous ill-advised writing projects, I've been researching the history of abstract film, in particular the avant-garde style of Cinéma pur. The proponents of Cinéma pur argued film should be "elemental": That is, emphasizing things like movement and rhythm (often accompanied by music) and downplaying, often to the point of outright excising, narrative and characterization (the argument went that not only were these things fundamentally bourgeois, but they also belonged to art forms that were not film, and thus film should not concern itself with things derived from Aristoteleanism). Going by that description, this is basically the kind of art I want to make.

    Anyway, the reason I mention this is because according to my research George Lucas is cited as being possibly the biggest contemporary filmmaker inspired by Cinéma pur, and Star Wars is cited as an influential modern example. But the thing is I absolutely cannot see it in Star Wars, or at least I couldn't until you pointed out the argument Star Wars would work better with no sound except music. That's actually pretty close to the kind of visual art that inspires me the most, but I have a hard time seeing Star Wars as a great example of that for the very reason that Lucas *does* seem to rest so heavily on the pulp serial tradition. I mean if you're going to take out things we would conventionally recognise as plot and characterization (which I'm personally not opposed to, though I might not go to quite the extreme as some)I'd imagine you ought to replace them with something else that's better, and I'm not convinced Lucas ever does with Star Wars. Defaulting back onto pulp serials feels a bit like phoning that part of the job in to me.

    (Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture has this problem too, and though I tend to think it's a far better shot at the Cinéma pur ideal than Star Wars, the pulp stuff *really* kills it. I have a very contentious relationship with that movie.)

    Furthermore, I have a really hard time seeing George Lucas' directorial and cinematographical style as being particularly abstract: When I look at Star Wars, it strikes me as frankly rather pedestrian-Golden Age Hollywood throwback stuff if anything. I dunno, maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't get it.

    So I'm not sure what the point of any of that was, but it's neat how we seem to be thinking along the same thematic wavelength at the moment.

    1. You touch on another reason why, in a weird way, I'm glad George has moved on from the Star Wars franchise. I mean, I discuss in the post that now the aesthetic possibilities of Star Wars are now free to creep beyond Lucas' shadow and legacy. But now, Lucas is also free from Star Wars.

      He can devote himself to making the proper, weird, experimental Cinema Pur films that he's always been inclined to make since his early days. Literal image poetry. They'd be much more exciting to see than more developments of Star Wars, simply for no longer being constrained by the necessity to pay lip service to the narrative conventions we know as a culture.

  2. I just rewatched Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, with a mind to really trying to like them. But Attack of the Clones was actually much WORSE than I remember it being. Revenge of the Sith, though, was quite a bit better. I didn't have it in me to watch The Phantom Menace again. i just couldn't bring myself to do it.