Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I lied (2)

Star Wars is a story. A guy goes somewhere and does some stuff. But lots of the stuff that he does stops making sense when you start to think about it. Fascist empires with crack troopers who are renowned for their pin point accuracy but can't hit a barn door at point blank range; cowboys who don't believe in magic even though the slaughter of the wizards took place, at most, sixteen or seventeen years ago. Military empires that show ever sign of having invented the wheel but persist in putting legs on their tanks. You know the drill. 

But what if it didn't matter that Star Wars doesn't make sense as a story, because Star Wars isn't a story, but a collection of sounds and pictures which were much more about making me feel a particular way – excited, nostalgic, patriotic, whatever – than about conveying information?

We know that George Lucas did, in fact have  collection of scenes and images that he wanted to use to put into his movie-film; and that those scenes and images came first, and the chains of cause and effect – or apparent cause and effect – which linked those images together kept changing, right up until the final cut of the movie. And for thirty years thereafter. And we know that George Lucas wanted us to attend to those images as images, because he considered making Star Wars a silent film, and he considered filming it in some foreign language, or some made up foreign language, or getting children to play the main characters to make it seem strange and distanced. It didn't greatly matter whether Luke stole the robots from his uncle or whether R2 just runs off into the desert, provided you have a scene where the hero left home and travelled through a dangerous desert. It didn't matter whether our heroes escaped into a sewer on Coruscant (at that stage confusingly called Alderaan) or a garbage shoot on the Death Star, provided they were caught in a garbage masher. 

I don't think we are meant to react to the opening moments of Star Wars by saying "How long ago? Aren't all galaxies are long way away? Would it have made a difference if the story was contemporary, but in far away galaxy, or if it took place a long time ago in a galaxy which was in astronomical terms, realtively close." I think "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away" means "I want you to feel as you did when you were very small and someone you loved was about o tell you a story" or more simply "This is fairy tale". * I don't think that the opening fanfare primarily conveys the information that the film was manufactured by a company founded by William Fox. I think that says "I want you to feel as you did when you used to go to the movies in the olden days, before there was any such thing as TV, or as you imagine that Dad did when he used to go to movies in the olden days" or more simply "This is an old fashioned film." 

And so on: the opening crawl ("it is a period of civil war") convey very little information. It is supposed to convey very little information – it is supposed to confuse you, to make you think "hang on, slow down, which Empire, what rebellion, princess who, have I come in in the middle." But it's primary purpose is to be anachronistic. No film has started with an opening caption like that for forty years. It says "feel as you did when you used to watch repeats of Flash Gordon on BBC2 during the school holidays". 

I am pretty sure that you could go through the film, scene by scene, note by note, and dissect it in this way: not in terms of a character called "Luke" who is making decisions and choices which are plausible based on his personality and the possible world he find himself in (he isn't and they aren't) but in terms of a film maker creating a visual symphony. Wondering who owns the ships and why it has come out of hyperspace near Darth Vader's home planet is a category mistake on a level with asking where the man in the bar found the leprechaun and what pieces of string do with their beer. The meaning of the opening scene, surely is that it a great big ship is "eaten" by a much bigger ship. You are meant to say "wow! big...big...big...even bigger!!!". If you say "that's a class CR90 Corellien Corvette, you know" then you have missed the point. It is not a co-incidence that the opening scene of Star Wars is a direct lift from the opening of the Jupiter sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- a scene that also set out to impress you with the Jupiter probe's size, or at any rate, length. "Remember the huge, huge ship in 2001" it says "Look! We've just swallowed it like a whale swallowing a bad tempered ladybird."

I think that a lot of the "plot" of Star Wars is transparent glue which is only there to glue one part of the visual and emotional collage to another part of the visual and emotional collage. If Darth Vader is really tracking the Millennium Falcon, why doesn't Han Solo at least try to find the bug and remove it? Or fly to some location other than the Secret Rebel Base? Are we to imagine that the Stormtroopers who are shooting at Luke and Leia as they swing across the chasm are under orders to miss? Someone complained that the invention of midichlorians retrospectively destroys the first three Star Wars movies. If you were interested in narrative logic, this scene would do a much better job of retrospectively destroying the first hour and a half of Star Wars. But it doesn't, because the Empire didn't really "let them go" because the Empire doesn't exist and its only a movie. Leia little speech "They let us go, its the only explanation for the ease of our escape" as a bit of noise which gets us from "the scene which is a bit like one of those old movie serials" to "the scene which is a bit like one of those old world war II RAF films" as quickly as possible.

Is this the only way to watch a movie? 

No, of course not. In fact, if you were thinking about this kind of thing while you were watching the movie, then the movie isn't doing what it's meant to be doing. 

Does this approach come much closer to describing and explaining what watching a movie is actually like than any number pseudo-historical works which explain why building the Death Star was a perfectly logical military tactic and where the toilets were on the Millennium falcon? 

I think it may do. 
 
Would it work for all fiction?

No. I think that a lot of Great Big Novels depends on us pretending that we are, at some level, watching real people in real situations doing things because those are the things they really would do. I think that the emotional power of the Great Big Novel depends on us feeling sympathy with Dorothea Brooke or Jean Valjean as if they were friends of ours. (Although how that works: how we can think that Dorothea is a "real person" and believe that there is this invisible "author" floating around her who can jump from one person's head to another is a question for another dissertation.) 
 
But I think it applies much more often than you'd think. 

I think that when confronted with pictures or sounds or words the human mind will think that there is a connecting thread -- a story or an argument or a chain of course and effect or some logic -- even when there isn't.

The relevance of this to the Daily Mail is, I hope, perfectly obvious.

5 comments:

lizw said...

I think you're right about how to watch Star Wars. I don't tend to much like fiction that's meant to be consumed like that, but that doesn't mean that people who do like it are wrong.

Unfortunately for me, I think much of this season's Doctor Who seems to have been designed for people who do like that kind of fiction.

I. Dall said...

So; what makes Star Wars effective is its narrative rythm, not the Jungian mythology? Does seem likely, considering the quite persuasive arguments
http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2010_09_01_archive.html
For Dr. Jung being wrong.

Mike Taylor said...

The truly astonishing thing is that, despite all the boneheaded manoeuvres that Lucas came this close to perpetrating, Star Wars does, somehow, work amazingly well. I imagine the amplitudes all his different dimensions of doofosity varying sinusoidally with different periods, and the monstrous stroke of good luck that meant Star Wars got made at the very moment when they were all at their minima.

Certainly subsequent revisions and sequels tend to confirm that Lucas really was at the very top of his game when he made the original Star Wars.

(Relevance to the Daily Mail: I don't get it. I could make a couple of credible guesses, but I wouldn't be confident of any of them.)

culfy said...

"Military empires that show ever sign of having invented the wheel but persist in putting legs on their tanks"

I'm not sure but aren't legs actually more stable than wheels, especially navigating over uneven terrain such as snowy landscapes and dense jungles?

(Relevance to the Daily Mail: I don't get it. I could make a couple of credible guesses, but I wouldn't be confident of any of them.)

I imagine that the point that our esteemed host will make is this....
Star Wars is a good story provided you treat it purely as a story. Once you start poking holes in it, it falls to pieces.

Just as 'The PC Brigade are really engaged in a marxist plot to destroy Western civilisation' is also a good story, but again falls to pieces if you examine it closely (or even cursarily).

Sam Dodsworth said...

'The PC Brigade are really engaged in a marxist plot to destroy Western civilisation' is also a good story, but again falls to pieces if you examine it closely (or even cursarily).

That's the best case. Worst case is the story gains traction and you get witch hunts. And even without that, as long as people aren't examining the story closely - which they'll tend not to if it supports their prejudices - they'll support measures that serve the interests of (say) large employers who'd rather not pay workers' compensation or newspaper proprietors whose web strategy is threatened by the BBC as long as the "PC Brigade" is invoked as justification.