I finally got around to watching the last trilogy of the Star Wars sequence (nine movies in all plus a few extras films, e.g. Solo…). I enjoyed it as I always have with SW films (I recall seeing the first Star Wars film the week it came out, sometime in the 1970’s or so, 1977?), even the first trilogy (which came after the second original trilogy, google that, there’s a complete list of the whole sequence in the right order) which many didn’t like. This last one gave the feeling of trying to escape the self-inflicted fate of the whole series, and had many good points, the figure of Rey as a girl Jedi was brilliant in its basic conception and rescued the trilogy from the idiocy of the first trilogy. (Note however the way that the first trilogy stages Darth Vader as a villain, yet very close to being a tragic figure in the original sense).
But with Star Wars films, strangely I never actually watched them directly, there was the popcorn and then…the movie: I was mostly thinking of something else, as a visualization from the film: my years (years ago) of studying the Iliad in Greek and Greek tragedy, and Shakespeare’s ‘amateur’ super-success in the tragic genre … Very high-brow stuff, quite hoity-toity on my part. But always I would snap out of it to see the reality of the movies which never in nine efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars and oodles of squandered talent ever reached a real aesthetic. In fact the series could never even reach the level of decent plots, something Hollywood is generally able to do: the well-made play and its basic story is Hollywood’s specialty. The first of them all, Star Wars IV comes close and (along with to a certain extent the second two in the second trilogy) created a mystery of its own audacious neo-mythology. But the flashy plots to a close look were incoherent. They promise profundity but then never deliver. The reason is the muddle of pseudo-spiritual concepts, e.g. the Force, the key to the enigma, and yet a botched dramatic element. In the first movie that came close to working but it promised more, yet it went no further and was in the end a parody of itself in the midst of endless technological gimmickry. That often happens in sci-fi, and in SW it proves fatal to the effort.
No use crying over spilt milk. The gang here made staggering amounts of money, and probably don’t care one way or the other: this is Friday night at the movies and everyone goes home with a brief high and something from the side trade in SW toys and gimmicks is another bundle, which no doubt explains the core problem: commercialization. Easy to sermonize here and we have heard this a lot from, well, people like me. In fact, I am worse and would conceive of locking up the perps here, speaking as a socialist. This is capitalism at its most incompetent competence, expropriate Hollywood. But the commercialization aspect doesn’t really explain what’s what here. Shakespeare, unlike the Greek tragedians, was commercial to the dime yet that never blocked his effort.
The problem here is a mystery, but we can see that while Hollywood efforts can’t reach the level of, say, high tragedy, noone else in conventional theatre can either. The clue lies perhaps in my own reaction: the SW films made the mistake of unwittingly invoking what it could not realize: a core tragic theme, perhaps. The Obi Wan Kenobi snapshot in the first film gives that away. And that’s not a personal failing or a lack of talent. It is a vacuum in modern culture (as the notable critic George Steiner pointed out in his The Death of Tragedy) and a double vacuum once you throw in the obsessive capitalist motive that rushes into that empty slot and makes the effort laughable slick commerce. Note the way that Alec Guinness with a trained voice (ditto for Darth Vader) generates a ‘poetic level’ in the first episode: that’s a far cry from poetic verse, but the difference in speech elevates the episode to the kind of ‘voltage’ effect of verse drama. The public is ignorant of poetic drama, nonsense, their instincts are there waiting, from vestiges of nursery rhymes. The effect emerges briefly then vanishes.
This is the wrong expectation on my part perhaps, but my own reactions I think suggest one is onto something. Perhaps the flaw lies in the film genre as such. The dependence on cinematography is misleading. It looks poetic, but never is, really. For some reason, the poetry can’t be eliminated, and the tragic emerges in a poetic drama, a strange beast of both reason and feeling. In Greek epic and drama, the poetic dimension is prodigious but resurfaces in Shakespeare (and Marlowe, et al) and Racine, perhaps Calderon, and later German plays,with whom I am not sufficiently familiar. English is a lucky language: it lacked the depth of Greek poetics, but in blank verse it had a medium that could rise to the level of real art as tragedy (and tragicomedy/comedy, the duality must be another clue), and from Gorboduc (the forgotten first Elizabethan experiment in blank verse tragedy) through Marlowe to Shakespeare the medium shows itself a rival to Greek poetics. And the same must be said of Racine and the French Alexandrine, less familiar to an international audience, but almost more elegant than blank verse).
There you have it: I sat through SW imaging another the idea of an epic poem or a tragic drama and the dialogue in blank verse (raw blank verse is easy to generate, the level Shakespeare something else). But the dialogue in SW is so atrocious that it barely reaches the level beyond doggerel. Even Hollywood should have been able to do better.
The moral here is the historical mystery of poetic genres, commercial theatres, and the mystery of the death of high drama. And the age after the creative starting point losing its energy and becoming the game of capitalism toying with aesthetic rubbish.
(As a kind of aside, as a student of the eonic effect I see the clue to this: tragedy at the highest level is correlated with the sequence of transitions in world history, the Greek and the modern Elizabethan/French early modern all correlate directly with the creative impetus of eonic evolution. Then by the nineteenth century the whole game is a lost art, despite endless efforts at blank verse. Check out WHEE and its discussions of this. No use beating a tired horse. it needs a rest).
As noted, Hollywood is good at plots, so why was SW not even able to reach a decent plot, let alone a tragic level? I dunno, guys, but my guess, as noted above, is that the unconscious tragedy meme garbles thinking) the scriptwriter stumbled into the tragic genre and was bewildered by what he saw there. And the idea of a Hollywood movie in blank verse is ridiculous to say the least (but a cinema yarn in blank verse is entirely possible, save that the art is lost in the false poetic mash of post-Shakespeare, blank verse is completely at home in ordinary language). History has declined here, and has also moved on. Someday in the far future it may find its resurgence, ever brief.
And yet a sophisticated civilization that put men on the moon should be able to recover a tragic plot and the verse to go with it. C’mon guys, it’s not that hard. But it is of course ‘out of time’ and strange mystery of the scriptwriter(s) of SW that they blundered into the tragic realm and failed where simple melodrama could have been enough, in fact the outcome in the end. A strangely fortunate disaster that we can learn from. And. yep, I have a SW toy on my book shelf, a little plastic sculpture of R2D2s. It is somehow strange that our hi-tech civilization is so crippled here. Centuries ago primitive Greeks before Homer had a thriving oral/bardic epic tradition and the larger Homeric corpus beyond the Iliad and the Odyssey gives a sense of that, a lore rich in potential, far beyond anything we can do today. Then presto in the transition of archaic Greece either Homer, or ‘Homer’ as some unknown editor, created the Homeric masterworks we now know. And these gave birth to the dramatic apparition of Greek tragedy in the fifth century. Perhaps between shlock Hollywood and the sci-fi junk novels a mythology of the future will emerge.