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"Star Wars" Dialogue: IV. The Griffith Legacy

The dialogue on "Star Wars" continues with a discussion over the influence of D.W. Griffith and silent cinema on George Lucas's films.
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: Considering the influence of silent cinema on the Star Wars films, how might we read Lucas’s series as it relates to D.W. Griffith’s work? I’m thinking very broadly here about some of the formal echoes between the climatic finale of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and that of A New Hope.
ISIAH MEDINA: In principle, there is nothing that cannot be reversed, there is no cinematic tactic or strategy that cannot be re-appropriated. Or, as Lucas would have it, there’s nothing that cannot be revised for and with future technological breaks. Okay, let’s say we have a Birth of a Nation ending mixed in with a Triumph of the Will (1935) award ceremony in A New Hope. You can imagine a scene of a student handing in a school project late and cross-cutting the teacher about to leave the class and then the student misses the teacher but finally stops the teacher as they leave the parking lot. Next scene there’s an award ceremony and the student wins a math award. I would not say this is now a racist, fascist scene “at the level of form,” nor would I say there is a subversion of Griffith and Riefenstahl. To inflate cross-cutting or high angle shots of organized crowds to be in itself loaded with reactionary politics is really a tired critical exercise. These techniques are flexible and are always in excess to the purpose of their original usage. There can be pure and applied cinema.  
CHELSEA PHILLIPS-CARR: Using Griffith’s principles and ideas in a different way does not necessarily equate subversion. I take it the conflict here is the taking up of Griffith’s editing, while denying his white supremacy. I would challenge that Lucas does much to really challenge white supremacy, which would be necessary for a subversion here, or that, if he is taking up Riefenstahl, as Isiah brings up, he is doing anything actively oppositional enough to be subversive. Rather, it all feels passive.
A more generous reading would be a denial of Griffith’s power and influence. The Birth of a Nation is considered the great first in editing, but when you watch films made earlier, you can see that so much of what Griffith was doing was already in place (like in the films of Lois Weber, for instance), or at least percolating. He didn’t spring up out of nowhere as a lone innovator, he came out of a consistent progression of cinematic technique. He certainly had one of the biggest impacts, but the lasting influence of Birth speaks as much to an audience’s desire for racist spectacle as it does to his singular talent or skill, while Griffith’s own influence is based on that contemporary reaction, mixed with the loss of so much early and silent cinema. This is not to say that the film does not have merits, but that the merits—and a film as a whole—become huge because of the popularity solidifying its place within cinema history, above other films with similar technical merits. If we look at Griffith in this way, I think we can say that Lucas is taking up supposed silent or “retro” editing style (and as an aside, while Lucas does employ certain techniques, cross-cutting is something that is quite frequent since the silent era). It definitely has its roots there, but it was in no way left behind, so ultimately, I would challenge the significance of Lucas’s formal drawing on older modes, especially when he seems most remarkable for his technological innovation; his use of cinematic pasts seems superficial by contrast. In Lucas’s deployment of (supposed) silent editing, he is not necessarily engaging in the Griffith-editing, since Griffith isn’t the sole originator of that style. But if we go for the auteurist reading, that Lucas is using silent-esque style because of Griffith, then the films are much more uncomfortable, as he does almost nothing to work against Griffith’s politics of hatred and white supremacy, which can be inextricable from the formal qualities of some of his films.
NEIL BAHADUR:  I recall bringing this up with you, Mike, about a year ago—thinking that the trench run from A New Hope was the ultimate distillation of Griffith’s form: temporal momentum without crosscutting.  In the year since, this makes little sense to me: why would Lucas make such a distinct formal innovation only to revert to Griffithian crosscutting in Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace?  I realize now that the answer once again actually lies with Eisenstein: in his 1940 essay “Griffith, Dickens and the Cinema Today” (still a relevant text), that Eisenstein writes that the key difference between the Griffith and himself was that of tempo and rhythm, Griffith personifying the former.  Yet, it was through rigorous examination and distillation that Eisenstein broke down Griffith’s form to get to his rhythmic one.  Lucas is not subverting anything here as much as he is simply mimicking Eisenstein—but I should note he is not yet mimicking Eisenstein’s rhythmic form until Revenge of the SIth (where he also, finally, expands on it), but mimicking the Eisenstein still working towards it in Battleship Potemkin (1925):  the final sequence of that film, the battleship’s charge, is temporally identical to that of the trench-run: it works rhythmically - even the key-change is identical: the opposing sailors join rather than fight/Han Solo flies in at the last second.  If Lucas is subverting or, more likely, distilling Griffith, it is nothing that Eisenstein hadn’t already done.  And like Battleship Potemkin, this distillation had yet to reverse the good-evil Manichean dualisms of Griffith: that is why we get the prequels, and that is why we get Ivan the Terrible

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