The Epic of Return
Epics take time. It now looks as if Star Wars will take about as long to produce as its core action takes to happen. At the current rate of production the nine episodes will emerge over a period of about 30 years. The movie's technological complexity here serves its larger epic intentions, which must work themselves out through a palpable sense of elapsed duration. A sequence of widely spaced chords is crucial to the experience of an epic. Epics are long stories that return upon themselves, stories which continually predict and echo their emerging shape. In Paradise Lost the Fall keeps happening over and over, and the effect of this, when the actual "Fall" occurs, is that we experience it as an earned legacy, a consequence of our humanness which the poem repeatedly asks us to act out. These frequently spaced falls not only convey a sense of inevitability but of the beneficence of time itself, of the mercy of the medium through which we are able to recognize patterns and so move from innocence to knowledge. In its extended and repetitive structure, the epic makes one of poetry's best arguments for the redemptive possibilities of life in a temporal world.
The central epic of our culture—the Bible—tells a story of falling, wandering, returning. The pattern is a psychological and a cultural one: as Adam strays from, loses, and then returns to his best self, so the children of Israel betray, abandon, and eventually reunite with their God. It is an epic of return. In the epic of tragic fall—in the Iliad—the plot traces a parabola instead of closing a circle. Epics of return set out to undo loss, and they take their impulse from the refrain word in the Odyssey, nostoi, nostalgia, longing for home. Plot here complements the repetitiveness of structure. Both return upon themselves to confirm our belief that order and recovery are possible in human life.
It now seems clear that Star Wars will be an epic of three generations. Darth Vader—Luke Skywalker—"another": this is one probable line of descent. In fulfilling such a pattern it will echo Homer's epic of homecoming. The Odyssey ends with Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus, after many wanderings, standing together defiantly in league. When Laertes says
Ah, what a day for me, dear gods!
To see my son and grandson vie in courage!
we feel that not only a poem but a human cycle is complete. What we see in this moment is an ingathering of the familial circle, a recovery of the far-flung. It has been said that the working unit of human time runs from the youth of the grandfather to that youth as remembered in the mind of the mature grandson. The epic of return confirms such an interval as the one in which urgently memorable history occurs.
The unfolding generational pattern in Star Wars would predict that the full story will begin with the youth of Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi and end with the coming to maturity of the as yet unborn child. Star Wars offers itself as a tessera, a deliberate fragment designed to lead us on. Conjecture about the whole may be unnecessary; Time magazine tells us that the sequence will look something like this:
|II||Fall of the republic and the rise of the empire|
|IV||A New Hope||}|
|V||The Empire Strikes Back||Skywalker|
|VI||Revenge of the Jedi|
|VIII||Rebuilding of the republic|
The order of presentation will be as follows: (IV V VI) (I II III) (VII VIII IX). The story unfolds in trilogies, and begins, as epics do, in medias res. It then doubles back to the beginning of the story and goes on to finish with its end. Such a structure emphasizes that the present—the middle of time—is first of all a function of the past and second of all an anticipation of the future. This elliptical order of presentation encourages an audience to explicate any one moment in an epic in the context of all the actually past and possibly upcoming moments. Even if George Lucas abandons Star Wars after completing the first trilogy—Revenge of the Jedi is scheduled for release in the spring of 1983—the project will have stimulated a tension between expectation and memory sufficient to establish the origin and end of the cycle as something possible to imagine, if not actually to be seen.
Epics not only uncoil a time-line within themselves; they station themselves within the historical line of earlier epics. Allusion is the strategy through which epics acknowledge and sometimes try to undo debts to their generic past. While it is most obviously allusive to fantasy classics like Dune (the desert planet and its messiah), the Foundation trilogy (the rise and fall of empire), the Oz books (the lovable, motley crew of heroes), and The Lord of the Rings (the burden of power), Star Wars achieves considerable resonance when it refigures themes and moments from our central literary tradition. In such scenes—as when Yoda plays Merlin to Luke's Arthur—Star Wars cannot help but assume its place in an imaginative line.
Star Wars is also a nearly apocalyptic summing up of the tradition of film; it gives us back the history of movies as if that history were over. Anyone who really knows movies watches these with a steady sense of déjá vu. We are treated to scenes from Tarzan, Fantasia, The Wizard of Oz—even Triumph of the Will. There is something like a Miltonic ambition to take up the materials and conventions of an entire art form so as to exhaust them for future use. (Such a prospect probably doesn't trouble George Lucas, who claims that his dearest wish is to return to the making of nonnarrative abstract films. ) Are the conventions taken up respectfully, or in a spirit of parody? I think the mood approaches what we find in the Westerns of John Ford, which would have to be felt as something between respect and parody—something like modern self-consciousness.
Ford's series of Westerns comes as close as anything in the history of movies to anticipating Lucas’ project. It can be seen as an epic which gradually discovers the myth of heroism to be a fiction. In The Searchers and especially in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford ranges back over his entire career to expose the promise of the frontier as based upon a communal fantasy or at best upon a willing suspension of disbelief. His willingness to see through a myth's illusions while cherishing them gives these valedictory movies their special force. They rescue, by binding all together in a self-explicating chain; even Ford's earliest Westerns form the impression of a myth uncritically embraced. Lucas says that "the last real fairy tale we had had was the Western." But when he returns to Ford and his tradition, it is with such self-consciousness that recognition nearly precludes response. Luke comes upon his burned homestead in the same way that John Wayne comes upon his brother's in The Searchers. But the scene fails to call up any of Wayne's sense of frustrated love and angry sorrow. The intellectual pleasure in catching the allusion does not compensate for the loss of unmeditated response. Unless Lucas intends simply to parody the tradition he refigures, he will have to find a way of alluding to earlier movies without emptying them of their emotional force.
Repetition assures us that a story can recover itself, that its times are all interconnected. Allusion assures us that a story can recover other stories, that we do not create alone. Both strategies keep time through patterns of return. Digression keeps time simply by turning aside from it. The major device for digression in verbal epics is the heroic simile. The simile can set up a counterplot which reminds us of the stable world the epic turbulence struggles to preserve. Star Wars uses visual asides to achieve something of the effect of simile. The directors have been careful to fill the screen. The snakes Luke flicks away as he sloshes through the swamp are a reminder of the fullness of the world which burgeons on despite any man's quest. The movie's abundant use of adventitious detail betrays its awareness of the need to digress from the relentless pace it has set for itself.
Star Wars has not mastered, however, the simple narrative swerve away from the main plot. We need more scenes of the "meanwhile" world, moments of quiet in which a possible domesticity could be imagined. They need not be frequent or extended, but they ought to image the Ithaca we keep always in mind. The movie has not yet dispelled the initial mood set by a restless Telemachus at home. We need to see homesteads (the stage directions do describe Uncle Owen's garage as having "a friendly peaceful atmosphere") through eyes not so eager to leave them. It is for a return to such places that all battles are fought and quests are made; Odysseus must eventually plant his oar. We do not easily forget that the most moving scene in the Iliad is the only one of a working family, Hector's farewell to his wife and child. The epic is a form which looks to a calm beyond its own capacities to sustain. Only when Star Wars formally incorporates Yoda's recommended patience into its narrative structure will it glimpse the stillness which is the promised end of the epic of return.
A menacing giant beckons to a man-child at the edge of the world. They have been fighting with swords. The physical struggle now gives way to mental fight. As the wind whirls upward through a vast cylinder, the temptation unfolds. Acknowledge my power: this is the beseeching command held toward the younger man. A hand reaches forth toward the hero's lost hand. The wounded son wavers, cries out, then falls.
The genius of Star Wars is to collapse, in its first major climax, the Satanic Temptation with the Recognition of the Father. "I am your father": with these words, Lucas's epic acquires a resonance which stations it in line with the imagination of the past. (Lucas knew that what Vader tells Luke is crucial enough that he refused to give actor David Prowse the lines. Prowse acted the scene with dummy lines. The voice of James Earl Jones was later dubbed in.) When Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader on the gauntlet, two central scenes from this tradition become fused in a suggestive and ironic tableau. One is Christ before Satan; the other is Hamlet before the ghost of his father. It is not necessary to prove the superimposition conscious in order to respond to it as a powerful refiguring of human origins.
Hamlet confirms his essence as an historical man through his obedience to the ghost's parting admonition: "Remember me." How should he begin to forget? The father's command transforms an inevitable psychic bequest into an obsessive obligation. (It is a stubborn ghost; the first thing he says upon return is "Do not forget.") This is a claim for acknowledgment which will nearly smother the surviving son: "thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain." The fact of paternity will now become the one unforgettable fact in Hamlet's world. When we hear Hamlet quoting his father's words back to himself—"'Adieu, adieu! Remember me'"—we know that he is becoming a hero of memory. His is a world in which identity is achieved by assuming one's place in a line.
The scandal of this scene is that we are not more shocked by it. The weight of sonship is heavy enough without also being sworn to it. The conflict between his promise and a son's inevitable rebellions against pure faithfulness eventually breaks Hamlet. His is a tragedy of sonship raised to a pitch of self-consciousness which no one could sustain. If the scene did not have such symbolic power for all of us, we might judge it cruel. But surely the ghost isn't actually asking this of Hamlet; it's what any good son would ask of himself. The scene simply formalizes what it has meant to be heroic in our tradition—the son carrying the father on his shoulders out of the wreckage of the past.
Horatio fears that the ghost is satanic, that it may "tempt you toward the flood, my Lord/Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff. . . . And draw you into madness." Hamlet too remarks the ghost's "questionable shape" and wonders whether its intentions are "wicked or charitable." There is from the beginning a suspicion that the scene is a forbidden one. What the father initiates is satanic enough, for it is by being actively sworn to prove his sonship through action that Hamlet condemns himself and his family to death. Shakespeare may already be beginning to wonder whether a world in which sons are so bound to fathers may not be a work of the devil.
Christ faces down Satan through an abundance of passive filial zeal. On "a high mountain" Satan shows him "all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time." The temptation in the wilderness is to become fully his own man, though it's obvious that in succumbing to it Christ would only indenture himself to another and a pernicious authority. Christ chooses the father by renouncing the offer of wordly power. His steadfastness is imaged by his standing firm on a great height. He proves that he is the son of his father by refusing to fall.
Star Wars literalizes the potentially satanic elements of the recognition scene. If it's the visual hommage (a light and dark figure dueling with words in a wilderness of space) which initially links these three scenes, it's the emotional resonance which binds them. The father doesn't just look like the devil; the father is the devil. So Luke must choose between the father and fall. Luke's "fall" captures his complex dilemma: no matter how true he is to himself in letting go, he betrays something primal in refusing Vader's hand. To stand with his father, to take his hand, would be to act against integrity, for the father. Luke chooses integrity and gets the abyss. He may return to Vader, but we feel that henceforth the claims of fatherhood have been radically compromised. We can't rationalize this scandal away by saying that Vader merely stands for "evil." The scene in which Luke cuts off Vader's head only to find it his own makes the point that all of us have our "dark side." Vader is not therefore reduced to a symbolic dark double of the hero. (These movies are full of suggestive doublings: witness the likeness between Ben Kenobi and the Emperor.) Vader is a character as well as a symbol and one who stands toward the hero in a uniquely privileged relation. The recognition scene is one of those which need not be further reduced or amplified. The scene goes to the heart of the movie's vision of human life.
Is there any other hero who so abruptly confronts darkness at the source? Huck Finn stages his own murder by killing a pig before he can float away from his murderous daddy; surely this is the most gruesomely achieved independence in our literature. Huck is about as lost—or free—as they come. He has no place to come to, and his story ends only once he hears the news that pap "ain't comin' back no mo'." His vision of the father is downright uncanny:
His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's flesh crawl—a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white.
The visual and aural ironies surrounding Darth Vader are just as complex. Luke's father is a white man—an ex-professional boxer—playing a "black" man and dubbed with a black man's voice. This designed darkness is scarcely as sinister, however, as the glimpse we get of the white seamed avocado pit that is Vader's head. This whiteness at the core of all this darkness insinuates, as in Frost's "Design," that we are in a world which beckons us with a chilling inversion of our moral categories.
Huck at least has some "pretty good times" with pap before he runs off. Luke enjoys these only with his adopted fathers, Ben and Yoda. Star Wars follows standard fairy-tale structure in delivering this "farm boy with heroic aspirations" (as the script describes him) up to Family Romance. What makes Yoda in particular a successful transmitter of sacred lore is that he is divested of all heroic glamour. He is the pure antidote to Charlton Heston—a Zen muppet. (Yoda is operated by the man who does Miss Piggy.) His visual presence—especially his wilting ears—tempers the sententiousness of his message. This is authority speaking with its tongue in its cheek.
Authority is of course the central fiction which Star Wars seems determined to undermine. The discovery that the father is evil only amplifies the premise from which the saga departs: that rebellion is by definition a privileged act. This is all supposed to have happened "a long time ago," but the revolutionary bias of the movie seems particularly appropriate to our historical moment, if not to our national history. Yoda's swamp is the only image of origins which the movie holds up as untarnished, and the image is too inchoate and primitive—too elementally maternal—to do anything more than remind us of the murkiness of our biological source. Star Wars is an attack on the entire "Remember Me" tradition: on fathers, history, and institutionalized power. The first thing said to Luke—by an old woman—is "I've told you kids to slow down!" If the past here fleetingly rebukes the momentum of the present, it prevents few of us from getting caught up in the movie's love of speed.
A self untrammeled by institutions or memory would be a new kind of self, and the psychology implied by the movie's repression of history accounts for the complaints about the thinness of its characters. (The Force is the one thing held up by the movie as worth preserving, but it is as yet too disembodied and fugitive really to root its disciples in time.) It's possible that the movie is simply adolescent, that it rebels against the past just for the sake of rebellion, Lucas told his scriptwriter for Empire that he wanted "no references to time." But we can also discern a serious fascination here with a nonhistorical man, a self to which the past has said, "Forget me." The self here is externalized as expertise; it is the sum of its special effects. Banter takes the place of conversation; jokes become a defense against self-revelation. The impression left is that there is no self to reveal; the movie seems to want to get beyond the notion of a psyche that can be tempted, bereaved, or guilty. The emotions aroused by Luke's encounter with Vader remind us of how thoroughly we have been enjoying an anaesthesia of the heart. The droids are like the family pet; they have the task of expressing almost the full volume of repressed human emotion. Pain is scarcely a reality in this world. Luke gets his hand back immediately after losing it, and Solo seems only mildly offended after being held over the empire's version of the kitchen stove. The most chilling scene in "A New Hope" is the one in which we are asked to look on impassively while an entire world is destroyed. Nothing has been done to make life on Alderaan real to us and therefore to allow us to regret its loss. Desire fares no better here. Is "I know" a credible response to the declaration "I love you"? Only if the declaration is flat enough. The triangle shaping up in The Empire Strikes Back will seem merely obligatory until the film comes up with some comfortable beds—this is a world of hard surfaces—and receptive women. Desire and loss station us in time, and Star Wars begins, for all its epic intimations, as a massive retreat from time into a fantasy of space. Space permits the illusion of detachment and distance: as SeeThreepio says about the receding Imperial Starship: "That's funny, the damage doesn't look as bad from out here."
The Death Star wipes out a planet the way Star Wars blocks out the past. "Except for us," Stevens says, "the entire past felt nothing when destroyed." It's up to us to put whatever value we can on human history and loss, and a movie in which we watch unmoved the liquidation of a world is one from which we may wish to withhold complete assent. Our blocked response to the loss of Alderaan raises questions about the genre to which the movie has committed itself. We care about loss in epics; in irony, there is nothing to lose. The movie seems nervous about its emerging epic structure. So far it has played epic ambitions off against ironic dialogue. We get the scope of Francis Ford Copolla and the sassiness of Howard Hawks (Lucas got help with the dialogue from Leigh Brackett, a veteran of the Hawks comedies. ) The discredited but still widely cherished myth of heroism is skillfully smuggled into the movie under the cover of farce. But a high romantic plot—one in which its characters have great power in relation to their world—cannot forever coexist with deflating rhetoric. The tension between the movie's epic structure and its ironic texture is the tension between long-term and "special effects." In Empire Lucas relinquished the directorial role. He is perhaps now free to disengage himself from production schedules, actors" personalities, and technical gadgetry in order to let his mind range over the vast sweep of the story. The question of whether Star Wars will unfold as an epic romance or as a parody of that tradition may be resolved by the very magnitude of the structure to which Lucas has now committed himself.
Technique and Vision
Star Wars makes a wonderful assault on the human eye. It also repeatedly calls eyesight into question. "Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them." This is as clear a directive as Ben utters, and he does so during Luke's first instruction in the Force. The more we learn about the Force, the less confidence we can have in the eye. "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." This is the movie's true subject, and it can only be seen through a camera darkly. The makers of the film have chosen to confront this dilemma head on. The treatment in Empire of episode IV's most stunning special effect reveals an intention to make the visible a little hard to see. Why is jumping to hyperspace an experience deliberately withheld in episode V? (The effect utilizes a camera trained on a backdrop of outer space dotted with stars. The film is shot one frame at a time, with the camera and backdrop moved forward simultaneously after each shot.) To inhibit, I think, our investment in a merely sensory event. After all the foreplay, the one belated jump proves anticlimactic when it comes. As the stars bleed past, the feeling of release is qualified by a sense that the visual thrill wasn't that much worth waiting for. It's like obligatory sex. Ecstasy here becomes insurance; by the end of Empire we care more about the achieved safety of the crew than the fanfare of deliverance. Such responses may make us wonder whether this is a movie fascinated with competence or concern. The growing knowledge of things unseen—of feelings and fictions that can't be filmed—puts increasing pressure on the machines which make these movies to render compelling the machines in them.
The ubiquity of garbage is here linked to the limits of machines. By being thrown into the Sandcrawler, Artoo Deetoo is reduced in one fell swoop from a computer to a piece of trash. In episode IV the heroes are nearly crushed with the garbage; in V, it provides their escape from the Star Destroyer with a saving cover. Star Wars makes the standard ecological point here: we are being buried by what once promised to save us. More interesting are the questions such juxtapositions raise about the human imagination and its material extensions of itself.
We come to these movies to see divinely inspired gadgets. But again and again starships which break down can only be fixed by a slap or a kick. The one ship that saves us faithfully is Solo's "piece of junk." There is a serendipitous relation between men and machines in which the human hand or foot remains an essential extension of all of its extensions. (Director Irvin Kershner claims that "Empire is not a machinemade film. It's a handmade film and it has all the imperfections of anything that's handmade.") Bad men simply dump their garbage, and their machines always work. They live in a wholly technological world—there is scarcely a curve or a pillow in the entire Star Destroyer. Theirs is an illusion that power can be fully embodied in efficient objects. Their fourlegged tanks show them reeling back, however, into the Jurassic age, dinosaurs grinding to a halt in a superfluity of armor. Only Vader stands apart from the empire's resolute materialization of mind. But as an official agent of the empire he seems reduced to fighting the Force with supremely welloiled force. He is unsuccessful in this largely because of the unpredictability of his opponents, a quality preserved by their tacit prizing of the hunch over the routine. Those of us who come to the movie for its technical wizardry must be surprised when we see what saves Luke on the snow planet: guts. If we come to Star Wars for the "special effects," we come, the movie seems to imply, for the garbage.
In creating a tension between its formal mastery of the technical and its deep skepticism of technique, Star Wars raises questions which it may never fully resolve. The technique most dramatically called into question here is that of movie-making itself. A movie is the central example in our experience of a technical artifact meant to be confused with a natural fact. The illusion of life is achieved through all sorts of devices in which the medium strains against its own limits. The problems of dimension and scale in Star Wars have called for special ingenuity. The full Death Star as seen from space, for instance, was actually no bigger than a soccer ball, while over sixteen hundred feet of simulated surface had to be built for episode IV's finale. The major challenge to the camera throughout these movies has been to achieve depth of field. In taking as its specific task the projection of dimension in space, Star Wars promises to become a somewhat rueful inquest into the ontology of film.
Movies project a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional plane. The image is suspended in an impenetrable space; as Stanley Cavell has pointed out, a moviegoer, in the presence of an image thrown upon a screen, is like someone haunting his own world. He resembles Emily in the last act of Our Town, present to a world he cannot enter. Why does Empire end with the assembled cast staring out of a window at space? We are reminded of how alien, unlivable, essentially incapable of acknowledgment space actually is. From the standpoint of human use, space is two-dimensional. So we end with an image of what we—the audience—have just experienced: witness to a space (a movie screen) with the illusion of depth which we cannot effectively occupy.
Two-dimensionality is not only a formal limit which the camera must try to overcome; it is a thematic issue to which the movie frequently returns. People here fend off the impression of depth. Gadgets glitter and whirr. Everything reflects light. The movie seems confident while filming a thing. But it can get hokey when it tries to image the life of the spirit. Ben Kenobi materalizes at key moments in a haze of static electricity, and this, we are given to believe, is a vision of Skywalker's. But these appearings and disappearings, glimpses of a dimension even beyond the third, belong to the technology of De Mille's Biblical sagas of the fifties. Perhaps they materialize mind in the way a movie must if it is not to abandon sublimity to a voice from offscreen. The deep truth is imageless—this Star Wars everywhere suggests—yet this is a medium of images. With all the technical know-how in the world, the movie has yet to photograph convincingly the reality of vision.
Technique versus Vision: this is a tension as old as America. Lucas might take example from the author of Walden, who ventures into the woods in the service of an ideal of transcendence and promptly embodies his vision in the building of a house. In this way Thoreau enacts a version of his major nostalgia: that a fact of the imagination (one's spiritual home) might be reduced to a fact of the understanding (Walden cottage). Walden is a triumph of the rooted sublime, of trying to bring the visionary down to earth. It, too, is engaged in a search for forms adequate to express the merging of realms, and perhaps its most ambitious sentence is also its shortest: "Sky water." This achieves a syntactic as well as a figurative union of the invisible and visible worlds. Finally happiest when he can station himself between these realms, Thoreau is a tonic example of the artist who makes his subject the compromises (see the puns on "dwelling" and "indweller") through which his project is carried out. His book is a model of the self-questioning artifact which establishes the power of the creating mind by unsettling even its most fully realized verbal incarnations.
As a visual rather than a verbal artifact, Star Wars is bound to have more trouble than Walden in sublimating its technical resources into vision. So far it has wisely avoided the direct representation of the sublime attempted in the light show at the end of 2001. Spin art won't do. What the movie needs, I think, is more images of the self alone with its own thoughts, "the vacant spirit," as Stevens says, "in empty space." Stevens’ image of transcendence was a man alone in a room reading a book. However uncinematic the prospect, the makers of Star Wars must move away from heroism as defined through physical trial. Aren't all those light sabers somewhat gratuitous anyway when Vader has the power to strangle you with a look? It's clear that the entire galactic struggle could have been reduced to Vader and Ben Kenobi staring at each other across deep space. The fascination with Vader is that he is, like Milton's God, a self-limiting power. One wants to know more about the story of his descent into form. His willed decision to work through matter may be an act of love: only by situating himself in time and space can he meet and struggle with his son without destroying him. It is in this dependence of spirit on matter that true mystery resides, the kind of mystery which Blake celebrated in proverbs like "Eternity is in love with the productions of time." Vader's predicament is also his creator's, who must continually straddle the gulf between being a visionary and an engineer. As Lucas continues to brood over this abyss, he will undoubtedly make it even more apparent that film is a medium which radically compromises, even while it powerfully evokes, his vision of the Force.
I have written about Star Wars as if it deserves our serious attention as well as our uncritical rapture. Its intentions may be more unconscious than I seem to suggest; the associations it calls up are for me nevertheless unforced. Its prerogative to intellectual scrutiny will no doubt be debated. But it makes a practical claim on us which we cannot easily ignore. The fact that Star Wars does and will mean a good deal to our children ought to arrest us. It seems prudent to respect their obvious fascination with these movies. We can protect this fascination from abuse by holding those who make these movies accountable for the full implications of their vision. Star Wars will help to create the future it tries to predict, and it will be a better one if we have not given up trying to connect its most deceptively packaged products with the best of the past.