"Star Wars" Dialogue: I. "A Long Time Ago"

The start of a 5-part dialogue between critics and filmmakers about George Lucas's first six films in the "Star Wars" franchise.
Mike Thorn, Isiah Medina, Chelsea Phillips-Carr, Isaac Goes, Neil Bahadur
Star Wars Dialogue is a 5-part dialog between Mike Thorn, Isiah Medina, Chelsea Phillips-Carr, Isaac Goes, and Neil Bahadur about George Lucas's first six films in the Star Wars franchise.
MIKE THORN: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about George Lucas’s work, especially his Star Wars films; I hold this six-part series in extremely high regard, especially the prequel trilogy. In my Bright Lights Film Journal article “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas’s Greatest Artistic Statement?”, I discuss the breadth of Lucas’s extratextual reference and his brazenly unique sensibility. In “George Lucas’s Wildest Vision: Retrofuturist Auteurism in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002),” I pay serious mind to Lucas’s interest in cinematic form and his avant-garde background, unpacking the ways in which his early experimental projects inform his later work.
For the purpose of this dialogue I wanted to hear input from several of my favorite film critics. I categorize Disney’s spin-off entries separately from Lucas’s work, given the corporation’s decision to disregard his existing outlines, but some of the contributors acknowledged the new films’ relation to (or distance from) the existing saga. I decided to pose broad, open-ended questions about these films, hoping to open up the possibilities for conversation as much as possible.
I’ll start with an obvious entry point into discussion—the anachronism of George Lucas’s Star Wars. This is a concept that I bumped up against in both of the articles I wrote for Bright Lights Film Journal. What do you make of Lucas’s decision to engage so persistently with the past? Not only does he set his saga “a long time ago,” blurring futuristic sci-fi design with real-world historicism, but he also incorporates so many silent and early cinematic references into his own work. I’ll get into his retroactive revisions later. Specifically, what do you make of his anachronism as it relates to form-pushing and aesthetic futurism (which is also, in its own way, reflecting cinematic antecedents like Eisenstein, Ford, Griffith, and obviously Kurosawa)?
ISIAH MEDINA: The idea of what is and is not anachronistic is revisable, and from the Special Editions to the prequel trilogy, how we revise what came before us will determine how we construct the future. Progression isn’t necessarily linear and any straight line we draw is often retroactive. There are of course filmmakers who continue on like Jean-Luc Godard, Hollis Frampton, or Abbas Kiarostami never happened, like philosophers who ignore Kant. Yet there are filmmakers like Eisenstein or Chaplin who didn’t immediately adopt sound and yet in their patience they were artists who truly saw sound’s potentials. So sometimes what at first appears anachronistic will in fact be a way towards the future since it will break with a simple extrapolation with what presently exists. What appears most anachronistic in Lucas is in fact what makes him modern: he did not want to make ‘an angry social film’ but instead a film for children.
Modern, because it is pre-Freudian to claim that our stages of development are natural and simply resolve with the passage of time. So rather than ‘angry social film’ which one can imagine being what an adult artist and audience would desire, he made a children’s film. And what do children play with? They play with toys. Lucas said George Cukor didn’t want to be called a ‘filmmaker’ because it is too close to toymaker—he wanted the title of director. But Lucas prefers filmmaker and claims if he didn’t make movies he probably would make toys. But what if, not only at the level of merchandising for economic independence, but even at the level of movies, he makes toys in a broad sense? What if, with the focus on family in the original trilogy and politics in the prequels, we have two toy models, radically simplified forms, subtracting fields, dimensions, and variables, to gain understanding of a mechanism, or show underlying symmetries? Lucas originally wanted to do documentaries, but what if the way to secure a relationship to what is real is not a recording of sense experience organized for a political message (he once said he might’ve made documentaries that ‘shake the system’), but by creating a toy model? Lucas is a type of inventor, using the form of movies to make toy models for children. I find the claim that people only like Star Wars because they are stuck in their childhood to be in bad taste. When a violinist enjoys Bach when they are young, or a chess player or mathematician finds joy in their place of thought both in early and late age, we do not criticize them as simply idiots lost in their childhood. Forms do not discriminate against age. If art in anyway relates to eternity it would not only be in the work’s survival throughout history but throughout the history of individuals’ re-experience of it through a lifetime. Many adults say the prequels are failed films because it is impossible for children to understand taxation, democracy/dictatorship, and the like, but the theme of children beginning their education too late is a constant in the series. The prequels are explicitly about the frustrations and joys of a child prodigy, and also has teenagers deeply involved in politics—to assume that those same children who watch these aren’t able to take movies out from the library or find them online is self-defeating. I hope there is a young person watching the prequels and finding the names “Griffith, Eisenstein, Ford, Kurosawa,” and begins a wonderful adventure, rather than watching these films when they are in university, “too old to begin their training.” 
CHELSEA PHILLIPS-CARR: To me, I read it as a warm-hearted pastiche based in nostalgia. I find that Lucas takes the best of other filmmakers in diverse ways and re-does them for his own means, to varying success. But I also wonder if his entrancement with the past could be related to what I see as his very regressive politics. The misogyny and racism (in particular) of his Star Wars films feels at odds with the futuristic setting…which is not actually the future. So does that make it more logical? Is he consciously depicting a pre-Civil Rights, pre-feminist, pre-everything intergalactic society? Contrasting Star Wars with Star Trek, these politics mark a huge difference. Where Trek is concerned with a utopian future (as imagined by a white man in the 1960s), Wars is concerned with an almost proudly oppressive past. But while this is part of the text, with the iconic “A long time ago,” I question if this was the intent. The racism, sexism, whatever is too in-line with contemporary issues, rather than going back to, say, how things would have been in feudal Japan (for example, given how much Lucas has drawn from Kurosawa’s period pieces). And in the Camille Paglia article which we discuss later, she goes into great detail over how Lucas is unconcerned with politics (and even narrative, to an extent), caring only about form—which is a tension I think we have to deal with given the pull between seeing Lucas as a political genius for adding in government, economic, or capitalistic issues into children’s films, and seeing Lucas as a formal genius for how he draws on Ford, Griffith, or Eisenstein. So is it possible that Lucas was ever trying to do something politically subversive in his play of temporality, and if he was, could it have been at all successful?
If Lucas is using pastiche to explore his own interests in a way which does not do too much which is necessarily changing or updating that which he references (I recall some arguments against his use of Japanese cinema as appropriation, as it becomes more a theft of something distanced from what it was originally, rather than a working with that original productively)—is Lucas’s use of the past auteurial genius, or masturbatory self-indulgence?
ISAAC GOES: To start, I think it’s necessary to address the prequels, as they are to a large degree concerned with fleshing out the underlying diplomatic relations which spurred the conflict driving the original films, and in many ways are more about rendering clearly the minutiae of various fictitious cultures than advancing a narrative. Something that has always drawn me to science fiction is its role as a window into the ways in which we conceive of other possible worlds, our limits and abilities in this area of the imagination. In imagining new worlds we can really only work with what is and has been given to us; it’s impossible to conceive of new worlds and cultures entirely apart from those which have existed previously and continue to exist, so it becomes a process of fragmenting and suturing little pieces of broad cultures together in order to create something new, a piece of venetian architecture here, kimono-esque costuming there, and so on and so forth.
This of course accounts for most of the more crude appropriations which have been a cause for offense for many, as when certain things are taken too wholesale or in a caricaturesque way reflecting Western estrangement and willing misrepresentation. This issue is something I think is useful to approach in the context of the way American popular culture functions on the whole, what this juxtaposition of cultures removed in both time and custom says about the way Hollywood views and represents cultures outside of its own, especially with recourse to science fiction.
The question of anachronism is then reflected not only in the time that these movies are set in (which is in fact a doubling down of the past, as a prequel to an event which already took place ‘long ago’), but also in the sort of cultural conglomeration evident in the design and customs of the fictitious cultures we are presented with. Watching the prequels before the original trilogy is interesting in the sense that the design in the prequels does look older than the design in the original trilogy, the droids do in fact look like obsolete technology measured up against the storm troopers and empire ships, et cetera, and the fact that they were created by cutting edge computer graphics figures into this this doubling down of the past in an interesting way.
In my previous writing on the prequels, I wrote of Lucas’s usage of CGI as an example of hyperstition e.g. a projection of the future within the limits of the here and now. In a world in which technics enter into our daily lives at an ever-increasing rate, I think the degree to which science fiction informs the design and functions of what we produce cannot be understated. Basically all consumer technology strives to be futuristic in one way or another, and the images of the future we aim to reproduce for the most part come from cinema; I’d venture as far as to claim that if 2001: A Space Odyssey had never been made, the computer I’m typing this on would probably look a little different.
What’s interesting about the prequels in this respect has to do with the above mentioned doubling down of the past. An initial projection of a “past,” which in reality is representative of the futuristic yearnings of an era (the late 1970s) is taken up again simultaneously as past and future. Past in the sense of effects and style, but future in the sense of narrative, design and all else this entails. The anachronisms you see in the movies are representative of fragments of culture separated by time colliding with one another across somewhat scrambled lines of flight, sort of warring with one another in an attempt to form a new sovereign fiction. So in a way, the very idea of creating a fictitious world isn’t so far from the republicanism the films aim to critique.
NEIL BAHADUR: I think if we’re going to talk about Star Wars’ relationship to anachronism, firstly I think we should start with Lucas’s own relationship to the entire six films: past and future remain undefined or rather reversed. We can watch Episodes IV to VI and then I to III and see more than just the development of technology—that’s why Revenge of the Sith (2005) ends on such a triumphant note, rather than the success of evil. We end the series with Luke seeing the two suns of Tatooine for the first time, knowing full well the next time we see him doing this it will be the spark of what sets him off to reverse the action of his father.  Now, let’s look at Eisenstein as an antecedent: Lucas has always spoken of his influence, and we know that he had his team intently study Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958) for Revenge of the Sith.  Eisenstein’s film was supposed to be three parts, and we only got two—just like Lucas and his three trilogies.  But the two films we have from the former and the six films we have from the latter nevertheless feel like complete works in their supposed incompleteness: Eisenstein’s notes describe the ending of Ivan, Part 3 as Ivan standing triumphant toward crashing waves, speechifying of the successful defeat of his enemies and a triumphant Russia, before cutting to the reverse shot: a decimated Russia behind him. Yet, this juxtaposition of shots is clear by the juxtaposition of Ivan the Terrible,Parts 1 and 2. The same goes for a third trilogy from Lucas: we already have the answers, a third film or third trilogy is as unnecessary as a third shot—the answer is clear by the collusion of two rather than three. The sequel trilogy we have now is mainly useless— I wonder if this is something Lucas had realized as he had sold the property. We now know that The Last Jedi (2017) used unused narrative threads and ideas from Lucas’s treatment of Episode VII, yet the ideas which remain—“To think if the Jedi dies then the light dies is vanity,” Rey and Kylo’s reversing of sides, the ending of the Jedi—all these things are clear from the six episodes watched in order of production. Whatever ideas the sequel trilogy needs to bring to the fore is already defined by when Obi-Wan and Anakin wield the same colored lightsaber as they fight in Revenge of the Sith.
If anything, Lucas’s engagement with the past is spurred by his awareness of historical repetition—we are truly fools if we believe that our world of today is that much different from that of the Greeks.  By projecting the past into the future, Lucas clarifies our position in the world, depicts its folly: projecting into the future is a preventive measure for society.  That is one of the key purposes of science fiction or science fantasy, whatever one would like to call it.


DialoguesGeorge LucasStar Wars Dialogue
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.