While I presume that most of you have seen the Star Wars prequels, I expect that many of you have not heard of Camille Paglia, who thinks that Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is the greatest work of art in the last thirty years. My ignorance is great, and therefore I hadn’t heard of Paglia until Sonny Bunch referenced her in a confession of his ten biggest blown judgment calls from the past decade. The interview to which he linked is long on art snobbery and short on art discussion; nerds the world over excerpted Paglia’s comment that asserts quite a place for George Lucas on the Iron Throne of contemporary culture:
Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.
The interview was conducted in the wake of Paglia’s book, Glittering Images, which concludes with a chapter aggressively defending and reframing Lucas’s stature as an artist and his life’s work as a cultural touchstone. In reviewing the book, New York Times Sunday Book Review critic John Adams retorted:
There is something deeply depressing about having to argue over the cultural dominance of an immensely successful and beloved filmmaker like George Lucas in the context of art history. In anointing Lucas, Paglia has signed on to a currently popular thesis that blames serious artists who, because of their arrogance, have lost touch with the general public and brought about their own marginalization. This argument claims that the conventional fine arts have diminished in significance, leaving only those innovators who have “embraced technology” as worthy of our attention. This is a thin thread on which to hang the appraisal of a living artist. A “technology” is no more than a way of doing something, a means to an end, and throughout history artists have been stimulated by new technological and conceptual ideas. […] What matters is not the technology itself (and your 9-year-old will tell you that the original “Star Wars” films look fairly clunky by today’s standards). What speaks to us in a work of art and makes it resistant to the passage of time is the depth of the humanity it expresses. There is entertainment, and then there is something infinitely richer: what we call “the sublime,” the true record of our spiritual condition that we get from serious and complex artworks. The films of William Kentridge, the serene Land Art of Andy Goldsworthy, the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, “Einstein on the Beach” — all these are sublime. “Star Wars” is not.
At first glance, this entire micro-conflagration threatened to overflow the banks of the River Pretension into the Flood Plain Bullshit. Neither Paglia’s Vice interviewer, Sean Craig, nor Adams bothered to press the case for or against the film itself. It was simply taken for granted by Craig that Paglia must be onto something when she asserts that Episode III is one of the greatest works of art ever made, just as it was taken for granted by Adams that, simply put, it’s not.
I’m fully aware of the stakes within geekdom. On my side are the haters, those who have a myriad of problems with the prequels, much of which is borne of an overattachment to nostalgia (the original trilogy was better because we imprinted on it first), but a lot of it stemming from Lucas’s hackneyed handling of cliches he did so much to inject into the mainstream. A big sticking point with me is that Anakin’s conversion to the Dark Side never feels authentic; it is a plot point shoehorned into by plot necessity, with weak writing undercutting character development at every turn. On the other side are those who either genuinely love the prequels (and many of them are younger, never having grown up with the original trilogy like my generation did, and who are utterly besotted with the digital f/x while being turned off by the dated look of the Episodes four through six) or who forgive their flaws because… well, those battle scenes are freakin’ sweet. Or so they say.
Then, of course, there are those who patrol the murky waters of academic criticism, like Paglia. Opponents in that realm are much more attuned to larger ramifications like Lucas’s famed reliance upon world mythology or the implicit critiques of our various political systems. Generally speaking, Lucas has enough fans across the spectrum — low, middle, and highbrow — to ensure that all six parts of the Star Wars saga will remain ensconced in the minds of at least another generation or two. My side has effectively lost this cultural skirmish in populist terms, even though I suppose the ivory tower set has our back for different reasons.
But even the biggest fans of the prequels would rarely venture to say that Episode III is, like, the best thing EVER (in living memory), which is why Paglia’s comments in interviews (like this one) generated heated discussion. What I needed to know was why the hell such a mediocre film grabbed a famous art critic’s attention and blew her mind. Fortunately, a simple Google search sated my curiosity (as it often does). Paglia published an adapted excerpt of the Episode III chapter from her book in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she states her case that Lucas’s wedding of technical innovation to his artistic imagination is essentially a perfect union of vision and craft; though she doesn’t acknowledge it as such, it is a strikingly auteurist piece of criticism, with all the strengths and drawbacks that entails.
Note that it’s not necessarily the entire film that raptured Paglia to fangirl heaven, but the climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in particular:
A miniature set (at 1132 scale) of Mustafar’s craggy black landscape was carved out of foam on a massive platform, which was raised so that the 40-foot-long lava river (composed of 15,000 gallons of the translucent food additive methylcellulose, tinted bright yellow) could be under-lighted to glow fiery red and burnt orange. Then the entire platform was tilted so that the river, recycled by a pump system, would flow. Clumps of ground cork simulated floating lava crust, while real smoke was fanned overhead. The result was a collaborative triumph of modern installation art.
The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by the sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggressive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: Wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with nature’s brute primal power.
We could debate the validity of Paglia’s interpretations of the mise-en-scene. The way she Armonds the production design into a nature/civilization dichotomy is an interesting tangent that she doesn’t bother to justify, as are most of her observations about the film. That said, it’s apparent that she’s given the matter a lot of thought, and as criticism, it’s a great performance. Especially if considered from an auteurist perspective, it’s easy to understand why George Lucas, of all people, emerges for Paglia as the most significant figure in contemporary art. The man’s impact on pop culture has been seismic, and, narratively speaking, the Mustafar battle is arguably the lynchpin of the works for which Lucas will be remembered. Couple that with Paglia’s implication that the industrialist figure is an artist of a peculiarly late-capitalist kind, turning mass production and technological advance into his palette, with postmodern society as his canvas, and you do have a pretty strong (if unintentionally cynical) case that Lucas is the pre-eminent artist of the most pre-eminent art form of the early 21st century. Only a cineaste Tony Stark could have created something like Episode III’s climax, therefore Iron Man is the filmmaker of the century. Or something to that effect.
It’s an incredibly Marxist argument, even if it subverts every conclusion you might expect a Marxist to draw from the success of the Star Wars saga. For Paglia, the pudding’s proof is in the detailed litany of material factors at play. The cameras, the models, the toys, the Lucas family history, the worshipfulness of consumers… Paglia’s essay is a sort of masterpiece of interpretation factual material details as artistically significant in themselves. But she neglects style. For someone whose background is art history, the lack of detail in her discussion of things like composition, the juxtaposition of edits, the significance of the sound design — it’s all a bit vague. It’s like she’s aware that all these things exist, yet what’s most important is her idiosyncratic understanding of what Lucas is “saying” with Revenge of the Sith’s climax. It’s the sort of thing an amateur blogger like me can sort of get away with, provided nobody out there has the energy to call him on it, but it’s not the sort of thing a renowned academic — especially one so assiduously contrarian — can or ought to get away with.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may very well be a the supreme (or sublime) expression of George Lucas as an artist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film or a great work of art. Hundreds of shoddy or meh films have been made by unique artists; the singularity of an artist’s vision doesn’t guarantee greatness or quality, even if it is of interest to those who find such a vision to be appealing or fascinating. It’s telling that Paglia’s apology of Episode III concludes not with a summation of the film’s artistic strengths, but with a biographical gloss on the relationship between the saga and the man who wrought it: “The exquisite tenderness with which strong men handle babies here surely reflects Lucas’s own experience as a single parent who retired for two years to raise the first of his three adopted children. “Expand our universe!” Lucas commands his artists and technicians. He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.”
Absent the protestations of a true believer (who would likely argue for no more or less than for the prequels being solid entertainment), there are two prevailing defenses of the Star Wars prequels offered by thoughtful fans at the moment. One, the auteurist defense, argues that because the films adhere to or explicate Lucas’s grand artistic vision, they achieve greatness. This appears to be Paglia’s quintessential argument. Two, the relativity defense, argues that the prequels may not be masterpieces (especially in relation to the beloved original trilogy), but they’re not as terrible as haters make them out to be, and Episode III is the best of them.
The Star Wars prequels have certainly raked in tons of money, and tons of people enjoyed forking over cash for tickets and rewatching them on DVD. McDonald’s has probably served more cheeseburgers than any other restaurant chain, but any beef connoisseur will tell you that, yes, 22 billion people can be wrong. The success of McD’s is a testament to the shrewdness of Ray Kroc’s business model, not his skill as a gourmet. Just as a chef is not judged on the value of his personality, but the taste of his food, so Lucas’s films are not judged on the basis of his supposed “vision,” but of their quality; and praising Episode III for being the best of the prequels is like praising a bowl of soup for not being served with a fly in it.