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"Star Wars" Dialogue: II. Avant-Garde vs. Classical

The dialogue on "Star Wars" continues with a discussion over if (and how) George Lucas's films can be considered avant-garde or classical.
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: Of particular interest in the Star Wars franchise is the relationship between Lucas’s avant-garde roots, and the way his experimental tendencies work with (and/or against) classicism. Do any of you think these films should be read more intently in terms of either one formal category or another (classical or avant-garde)? That is, do you think they’re “more” avant-garde than classical, or vice versa? Would your answer differ from film to film?
ISIAH MEDINA: Continuing the theme of revision, what is avant-garde can be revised as well, but I don’t think there is value in calling Star Wars avant-garde other than a provocation. It’s classical through and through.  In terms of artistic movements within moviemaking, I do think there needs to be other forms of relating what is avant-garde outside of decisions of film programming, as the same films included in one program can often been seen as classical in another context. A self-determination in regards to what is avant-garde within artistic creation also entails the ability for filmmakers to be critical and not rely on those outside to do that labour. Jean-Marie Straub may say that Stagecoach (1939) is the most experimental film of all time, but what is crucial is that the very division between classical and avant-garde is decided within artistic practice and not outside—the effects of such a decision are internal to how the artist re-thinks what comes before.
The true ‘avant-garde’ move by Lucas is his proposed museum of narrative art: to create a museum to say narrative art is over. It will relegate narrative art to the past, to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s avant-garde when he talks about wanting to make non-narrative montage work and carry on where the Soviets have left off and show it only to other filmmakers. Which is to say, he wants to experiment and subtract both the audience and the critics from the discussion. He made a popular film that shows the downfall of democracy as a children’s movie, so perhaps what is avant-garde is inventing a post-democratic form of art distribution and creation.
Since Plato we’ve known there are two ways of knowing, one of cognition, and one of narrative. I am moved that Lucas’s narrative work is absorbed in the religions of the world, in family, in toy models of democracy’s inevitable turn to tyranny. But as Ray Brassier notes, curved space-time, the periodic table, and natural selection are not comprehensible in narrative terms. Maybe non-narrative montage work can comprehend types of patterns in nature which are responsible for patterns in thinking and moviemaking can provide us with a new manifest image of the world. There are resources in the rigorous patterns of colour-coding, composition, et cetera throughout the series as a whole that can inspire future filmmakers wanting to leave mythology behind, or find a new model with neither father nor vote nor ancient religion. Let’s call picture-making of that type classical, but by enforced recollection it assists in a turn towards a future that may be cognitively avant-garde.
Straub relates a story where Godard said, “technical innovations go hand in hand with such an artistic regression that they no longer have any importance,” but I think instead we should stratify our categories and clearly see the different types of mixtures that can come about. To jump ahead a little, the split between avant-garde and classical should be placed within the question of art and technology. Let’s say there can be art that is avant-garde or classical, and its uses of technology can avant-garde or classical and we can generate different types of movies through a distributive function. To be artistically and technically avant-garde is rare but all permutations play a part in a spiralling trajectory of what movies can be. Is the knight coming out of the stained glass in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) or the morphing in Willow (1988) avant-garde technical moments in a classical story? Or when Kip Thorne provides theoretical equations for engineers at Double Negative to write the code for the CGI representation of gravitational lensing (which lead to insights published in a scientific paper) in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), I wondered what could be more avant-garde than cinema producing a new accurate representation of curved space-time? This again comes back to a Lucasian relation to the real as being one of toy models and I think the legacy of ILM will continually unsettle ‘classical’ relations between the classical and the avant-garde, institutionalization and independence, construction of new workflows and plastic experimentations, invention of forms and the very base those forms appear on.  
CHELSEA PHILLIPS-CARR: I agree with Isiah: I do not find the Star Wars films to be avant-garde. Though there are moments of experimentation or distanciation, they are over-all quite normative. I think that the use of certain formal tricks on occasion isn’t enough to render them “avant-garde,” really. But I am also in disagreement with the general trend of critics who call blockbuster films “avant-garde” or “experimental” (such as, recently, the newest Transformers, but even in the example that Isiah mentioned, of Straub and Stagecoach).
If we regard Star Wars as avant-garde because of Lucas’s roots, I would say it’s a simple association rather than evidence of style or mode. It possible for a director to encompass both classical and avant-garde in their oeuvre. Philippe Garrel’s first films are nothing like his latest ones, for instance, and it would be remiss to call Lover for a Day (2017) avant-garde in the same breath as The Inner Scar (1972)—just because a filmmaker has dabbled in both does not mean they are consistently both. Lucas engages so heavily with classicism in Star Wars, and I see little of tangible avant-garde within his films. But perhaps I am thinking more of consistent experimentation. In terms of doing something new and different, I’d say I find him to be over-valued, while the idea of doing anything new isn’t necessarily what I’d use as a criteria for avant-garde. Lucas’s engagement with classic style, historical reference, and pastiche to make a conventional film doesn’t feel avant-garde to me.
ISAAC GOES: Once again, these conflicting tendencies you point out, between the avant-garde and classicism, could also be said to be reflected in the films investigations of republicanism as an unwieldy binding together of contradictory impulses to form a somewhat unstable unity. Neil has pointed this out before, but the way in which Lucas uses CGI in the prequels in these sort of renaissance tableaux is very similar to the images produced by rear projection and a lot of other methods of rendering illusory spaces that made their first appearances in silent cinema and which still structure the way we go about thinking of special effects and illusion. So, on the one hand, Lucas is pushing the form forward, and making technological advances while doing so, but also doing so from a perspective that is in-line with the angle we have classically approached these issues of creating new worlds on-screen. I think this angle is something that is inherent to cinema, and the avant-garde insofar as it pertains to a particular art form needs to align to with a classical vantage point in order for it to advance the form it wants to push forward, otherwise what we see isn’t advancement, but the creation an entirely new form.  
NEIL BAHADUR: My answer would be that the films remain more or less the same form from A New Hope to Revenge of the Sith.  As Isiah said, putting an artist movement in a museum implies that that movement is over, so too we can really say at this point in history that narrative art is complete, and with the Star Wars prequels, Lucas finished it himself.  Yet innovation is not something normally associated with narrative art, and with the prequels Lucas created whole new worlds, something that had never been before achieved in any visual movement.  But while these techniques never rise to the, say, ‘avant-garde,’ nature of something like THX 1138 (1971), I agree with Issac that these technological advancements are necessary to the development of the form, and the one compromise Lucas made with his films was that he had to do it make them within a stunted artistic movement.  

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