Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Larger World-Visual Symbolism Part I

To understand how Star Wars became what it is, we have to understand where it came from. In an era dominated by rundown antiheroes and corrupt politicians, Lucas attempted to create an homage to the 1930s and 40s action serials that were rife with morality and strong central heroes who operated clearly within the precincts of right and wrong. To understand Star Wars is to know first that Star Wars is not a series of films—rather it is a series of films about a series of films. It is an homage, a throwback to the swashbucklers of the pre-war era.

But Lucas’s influences do not end there. The silent films of the 1910s and 20s, the Japanese aesthetic of Kurosawa, and the French cinĂ©ma pur, or “pure cinema,” all contribute in large part to the unique style and often whimsical, if not confusing, assortment of film references and allusions made in the Star Wars films.  Lucas himself has often said that Star Wars are primarily silent films and that the dialog is more musical and thematic than it is necessary to the plot. Star Wars is visual filmmaking, which may sound obvious, but it takes the concept exponentially further than the majority of commercial cinema.

To claim master over this style is Lucas’s overriding love of symbolic storytelling. Symbols are everywhere in Star Wars. Some of these symbolic gestures are blatant, while others escape the notice of almost everyone who sees them, perhaps even the creator himself. But this is unimportant as the very nature of symbolism is subliminal. It adheres to a basic human understanding of events and the meanings of them. In the Star Wars saga, and particularly the prequels, Lucas exercised his toy-mongering CGI in an orgy of visual symbolism, not in an attempt to mask a lack of story, but to tell the story.

Visual Symbolism - Circles

“You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle. What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this.” Obi-Wan Kenobi

I’m not going to waste time by discussing the colors of Coruscant’s sky or the black and white of the imperial color wheel and their bastard child, grey. These are easy, and anyone reading this far into a fanboy analysis of a fictional world has probably already figured them out. No, I want to get soggy and slough through the quagmire of highly debatable and wholly unverifiable symbolic meanings. I will start with circles.

Yes, circles. These geometric shapes have given the world the wheel and pi, and yet their greatest value is not in rolling or confusing middle school boys, but that of symbolism. Symbiotic circles to be exact. Star Wars presents us with the idea that all events and characters and places are related to one another, that “what happens to one of you will affect the other.”

In the very first shot of Episode I, we see the ships of the Trade Federation, or at least what we believe are the ships of the Trade Federation. The actual "ship" is just the ball in the center, the ring around the outside of the ball, we find out later, is a docking area for other ships. Why would Lucas do this? Well, aside from the interesting visual design, the ring on the outside of the droid control ship isn't a ring at all, or at least not completely. It is a broken circle. It is Star Wars' first bit of visual symbolism.

The representation of the Trade Federation with a broken circle makes more sense as we get to know more about them. In the film, they are presented as the embodiment of greed and rampant capitalism’s victory over compassion and common sense. They are themselves a symbol of a corrupt galaxy. Their ships, probably built at the hands of small Neimoidian children, are a symbol of a broken system—a galaxy that is not living in harmony, or balance, with itself. From the outset we see that the galaxy of Star Wars is not a happy place.

Nowhere is the circle theme more pronounced than it is in the Senate chamber. This spherical construction holds the entirety of the galactic representatives. In theory, a sphere has no top and no bottom. Every point is equidistant from the point opposite it. It is the shape of equality and wholeness.

What George is trying to tell us is that things that happen elsewhere are no more or less important than things that happen right next to us. We’re all in the same circle. Eventually what affects someone else will find its way around to us.

The circle motif continues as we venture into the Jedi Counsel chamber. Twelve Jedi Knights sit in a circle wherein each member has equal status not unlike Arthur’s Round Table. The Jedi by their nature and code are to be “protectors of peace and justice in the galaxy.” Their chivalrous nature is presented to the viewer from the opening of the film—Jedi do not fight, they negotiate; they do not attack, they defend; they follow the will of the force, they do not command it. Ideally, they are the noble sword monks who defend the galaxy and its people from corruption.

But there is another bit of symbolism that The Phantom Menace presents to show us the Jedi are not as connected with the rest of the galaxy as they think they are. Cloistered high in their literal ivory tower, the Jedi remain distant from the needs of the galaxy’s citizens.

When Queen Amidala decides to go to the capital to garner the support of the Senate, the Jedi Ambassadors are right in tow. When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan return to Coruscant, however, the only information they seem to be interested in relaying to the council is of their mysterious attacker on Tatooine. Nothing is mentioned of the plight of the Naboo people, or the oppressive nature of the Trade Federation blockade. The Jedi are now more concerned with their own internal affairs and the threat a Sith return would present to their own powers than they are for the well-being of the people of Naboo. Even at the beginning of the Saga, we see that the "heroes" of Star Wars are not infallible.

The Jedi maintain a circle, but it is a circle of their making. They are not living in symbioses with the rest of the galaxy. They are above—gazing from their lofty towers of knowledge and wisdom, holding themselves aloof, secluded from the needs of the many to maintain the power of the few.

In essence, I would go so far as to say Star Wars is all about circles. The word itself is surely mentioned enough in the scripts, and its meaning is certainly large enough to merit that type of importance. The circles of father and son, master and apprentice, war and peace, life and death, hate and love, and compassion and dispassion are what the story of Star Wars is really all about. Space battles are just a really fun way to tell it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Larger World-Prologue

"I could feel something. I could almost see the remote!"
"That's good. You've just taken your first step into a larger world."

For me to answer the riddles of Star Wars is to enter a fanboy purgatory—one, despite my ardent attempts at resurrection, I have entered into myself. This is a no man’s land of nerdtosterone-fueled vitriol and outrageous claims like “George Lucas raped my childhood,” and “I invented the question mark.” To enter into a discussion about the finer points of the prequels is to go absolutely nowhere.

As a matter of course, there is only one person we can blame this on: writer, director, producer, and all-around supervillain George Lucas. Had he, like so many other directors, force-fed the audience his concepts and philosophies with longing looks and expository dialog, I would not be in the position to defend anything about them. But understand I am not attempting to make anyone like these films; I am simply recording the facts as they are stated in the movies and speculating on facts where no actual facts exist. My point is not to make anyone like Star Wars, but to have them understand Star Wars.

The many myths and meanings of the Star Wars films have been evaluated and cogitated upon for the better part of thirty years—by scholars, students, and, more recently, anyone with access to an internet forum. In the decade plus that I have belonged to this community, I have heard many arguments for the merits, or lack thereof, of the prequels, their director, their actors, and their writers. Some of these diatribes are coherent and intelligent and others are redlettermedia. I am attempting intelligence.

In doing so, I hope to answer many of the criticisms of the prequels that have been lobbed, or in some cases hurled, I believe unfairly at my beloved franchise. We will know once and for all why midi-chlorians did not ruin the force, why Jar Jar did…everything that he did, and why George Lucas was too busy commentating on the blind absurdity many fans demonstrate to rape anyone’s childhood.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Star Wars Essay

In honor of the upcoming Blu Ray release of the star Wars Saga, I am writing a little multi-part essay about the films. The introduction, which I will put out tomorrow, will tell you all the details on what is to come, but this mostly started as a response to many a heated argument between me and my friends. It has turned into a labor of love compiled from fifteen years of knowledge and research on my part. For those who would tell me to lay my lightsaber aside, I say only that this is about understanding Star Wars, not liking Star Wars. I feel these films need no defense, and defense is not the purpose of my essay. With that in mind, I encourage everyone to read the essay as you may learn some things about these little popcorn movies you never even knew were there, and if nothing else, you may learn to appreciate the films even if your dislike of them continues.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Existential yet Accessible

As an avid video game fan, I have watched many interesting developments in the medium over the past twenty years. I have seen Mario run in 3D for the first time, and fumbled about with those new dual analog controllers. I have even lived (hopefully) to see Duke Nukem Forever get released. But by far the most interesting development has been the ongoing evolution, and debate, of games-as-art.

I guess that the only way to answer whether games can be art depends largely on what “art” is. How do we define it? What are its parameters? At what point does art simply become too entertaining and accessible to be called such? I have spent the last couple years of my life trying to answer these questions, and I am not any nearer to answering them now. I find most attempts at doing so futile and meritless, because ultimately, I believe the argument is circular: art is art because it is art. You may claim otherwise, but I claim artistic agnosticism.

So if the definition of art is indefinable, can video games be art? Perhaps a better way to evaluate the question would not be to define what art is, but to identify the purpose of art. Answer not: what is art? But why is art?

American Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson argues that “the condition of life and production will be reflected in all activity, including the making of art.” In this sense, art is a commentary on life, if not, in fact, an imitation of it. Video games have an uncanny ability to imitate life. Anyone who has played The Sims, or Harvest Moon, or, you know, Second Life knows how videogames can imitate life. But do they make any commentary on it? Other than letting you live out all your lesbian neighbor fantasies, I think not.

Games that often come up in this debate are Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bioshock. I am a particularly big fan of the latterI feel it was the first to use the interactive medium of gaming as a storytelling device as opposed to cut scenes or talking heads, which exist in mediums already accounted for (film and comics). But I feel at times that there is an over-reliance on storytelling in videogames. Are the poems of Sandburg or the Sonnets of Shakespeare not art because they have no story to tell? Are the symphonies of Beethoven less worthy because they didn’t come with program notes? I don’t think so, and I am sorry for you if you do.

Art is a statementIts meaning known only to its creator and inferred only by its audience. In this way, I believe some videogames are art, and some, which have not yet been recognized, are older than you might think. I believe the first art game ever made was not Final Fantasy VI, or even Out of This World, but Tetris.

Think about it. The blocks are the continual grievances and tribulations, the “tiny tragedies” as John Mayer would put it. Think fast enough and you can clear some of them away, but eventually a part of your life will come tumbling down and find no place to fit until it is just sitting there, taking up all kinds of space best left for square pegs, and other problems will compile on top of it until you are out of space. Either find a way to deal with the problem, or it will ruin everything.

Tetris is as addicting as life; it is the need to keep going, to try and make the pieces fit, to try and solve the puzzle. Perhaps it is better not to ask "why is art," but instead "why is life?" ....damn. The meaning of life? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

For the American Student

Grain rolls softly on a wooden desk
shingled in diccionarios y maracas
and white out 
to correct mistakes made by those who offer
and believe
the blinds in the back
should be open
for everyone to see

Friday, January 21, 2011

With the Beatles III

A Hard Day's Night arrived at one of those special times in pop history, like Star Wars, or Michael Jackson. Things that are so ridiculously of their time they could not have come from any other era, and seem perpetually contemporary because of it. This album marked the transition into super stardom for The Beatles, and a further refinement in the musicality of their songwriting.

This, the third Beatles album, and soundtrack to the coeval film of the same name, is the first that is wall to wall Beatles -- no filler or covers. A Hard Day's Night also marks the emergence of Lennon and McCartney as lyricists. From the wordplay of the title track (inspired by a so called Ringoism), to the dark humor of John's "I'll Cry Instead," and the earnestness of Paul's "And I Love Her," this album is more "Beatles" than anything that has come before.

Musically, we are seeing much of the same work as on With the Beatles, sometimes literally as in "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," which had its chords ripped whole form "It Won't be Long." The cadences and harmonies stay close to what has come before perhaps suggesting a trend. Whatever happens, it is apparent that The Beatles have gone in search of a sound culled from the library of R&B, rock and roll, Motown, country and western, the blues and even English madrigals (as in "And I Love Her"), and in A Hard Day's Night they seem to have found it.

This album reminds me of a childhood summer spent under a cover of starlight and fireflies who's beginning and end become indiscernible. If a Hard Day's Night is only of its era, then it seems to me timefull--existing only in the age to which it is listened.

Monday, January 10, 2011

With the Beatles II

"It was only after a critic for the {London} Times said we put 'Aeolian cadences' in 'It Won't Be Long' that the middle classes started listening to us. ... To this day, I have no idea what 'Aeolian cadences' are." John Lennon

I'm fairly certain that this critic meant the more appropriately named "deceptive cadence", but still, he was on to something. In With the Beatles, the second Beatles album, we see a move toward, if not more mature musical composition, at least more interesting tonalscapes

The plagel and perfect cadences of Please Please Me are replaced with odd flat submediant to tonic, diminished fourth to tonic, and ,of course, dominant to submediant (deceptive) cadences. Apparently, Paul and company discovered the C# minor chord in the six months between the first album and this one as it appears in almost every song they wrote on With the Beatles.

John Lennon may not have known what an "aeolian cadence" was, but he understood the language of music enough to know that throwing one in every now and then was musically interesting. What The Beatles show with this album is a natural gift being developed not in the class room, but in the studio, on tour, and in plain old practice. Put simply, they may not have understood the words, but they understood the meaning.

Unfortunately, this evolving ingenuity didn't transfer to covers. Songs like, "Please Mister Postman," and "You 
Really Got a Hold on Me,' do little for the album, and seem -- almost...silly. Compared to the covers, the original songs on With the Beatles seem like the work of prog rock wunderkinds. They were clearly in a transition time. Even had I no knowledge of later Beatles music, I would be able to hear that, but they aren't quite to where ever it is they're going. 

"Aeolian Cadences" or no, I think there is a strong album here buried under Motown and 50's jukebox filler. I look forward to the next "It Won't Be long," but it's time to leave the covers behind.