Monday, January 26, 2015

An Intergalactic Balzacian: George Lucas and THE PHANTOM MENACE

Leave it to the French to stick up for STAR WARS. Specifically, THE PHANTOM MENACE, Even more specifically, Jar Jar Binks -- a character I will continue to vigorously defend, though the heavens fall. In THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS, a documentary that examines what led to the widening gap of appreciation between the filmmaker and his fans, a couple of French cineastes make some very acute observations, ones that counterbalance the widely held view that Monsier Binks is nothing more than a sad joke. What these dudes are really getting at is the interplay of tones that this film allows to bubble up, and it's this constant back-and-forth play between the serious and the silly, the mundane and the mystical, the action and the speechifying, that gives THE PHANTOM MENACE its curious shape and content.

People do tend to forget: THX-1138, AMERICAN GRAFFITTI and the first STAR WARS film all introduced brands of cinema that no one had quite seen before. EPISODE ONE's in-retrospect role as the first story of six is enough of an odd narrative ploy to necessitate a closer look, but it's the film's uneasy balance between the spiritual and the political, the alien and the royal, the upper-class and the grungy world of merchants, that makes this Lucas's own Balzacian world of galactical observation. Just as Honre de Balzac crafted interlocking novels that examined French society in all its various levels of exceptionalism and discrimination, so, too, does THE PHANTOM MENACE serve as the first part of a series of stories that examine how various species of being, whether they be crudely profane or religiously elegant, all somehow contribute to both the enforcement and destruction of an entire mode of life.

One of the French film critics in THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS points out that much of the dislike towards Jar Jar Binks probably revolves around the apparent incongruity of his presence -- what is this goofy, burlesque character doing in the midts of this fantasy space opera? Sure, the argument goes, C-3P0 and R2-D2 were comic relief in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar? Too dumb, too silly, too much. Yet this out-of-placeness is precisely what makes the character's role so important. While ultra-serious Qui-Gon Jinn is conversing with Anakin's mother, discussing all things potentially Jedi, Jar Jar is being a dink; this foolish Gundan seems to do nothing but goof off. The other characters treat him the same way they seem to always treat the droids -- as an annoying afterthought. (Think of the way that young Anakin so casually says goodbye to C-3PO -- a robot he practically CREATED -- when he leaves Tattooine, a shot  in the film that lets us literally view the encounter through C-3PO's eyes, as his master so indifferently takes his fnal leave. For the only time in the entire STAR WARS saga, we see through the droid's eyes, just as in REVENGE OF THE SITH we actually see through Anakin's point of view as Vader's dark mask is implanted.)

Jar Jar's role is that of a subservient goofball, one who provides the comic kick that young children adore, but he's also key to understanding Lucas's thematic intenet when it comes to these films. As another French film critic points out in the documentary, Jar Jar's presence serves to combine the burlesque and the serious in the same narrative flow, a tone and contrast which was not appreciated very much by true fans of STAR WARS. In my mind, it's this very incongruity that highlights the societal critique that Lucas is undertaking.

THE PHANTOM MENACE introduces us to various life forms on different planets, among them: the most distinguished royals and government officials occupying the same territory as the oversized underwater creatures on Naboo; an array of esteemed Jedi Council members in the hallowed halls of Coruscant; Jedi masters and apprentices and junkyard scavengers on Tattooine, in addition to a slave woman and her son borne of a divine birth. This is not one society, but several, each unknowingly interlaced with the other.

We thus have an extremely odd mix of societal strata -- the solemn, suitably stiff exterior of the Jedi and Queen Amidala; the nutty silliness of Jar Jar Binks; the focused discipline of the Master and Padawaan Jedi on their appointed task; the directly exuberant joy of children at play; the scheming scavengers and their practiced deception; the version-one Stormtroopers and their basic mechanical movements, devoid of advanced armor or strategy. This is a film that allows all of these extremely divergent styles of characters to ineract with a kind of controlled abandon. Lucas is exploring a universe in which the political, religious and peasant/serf classes (and their adjacent capitalist ilk) co-exist within the same frame of an SF fantasy epic. That their presence -- embodied by the varying acting styles employed to represent their different economies of expression, from the dry matter-of-factness of the Jedi council, to the rather stoic delivery of the Jedi, to the gee-whiz stylized exclamations from the children of Tattooine, to the exaggerated mannerisms and vocal ranges of the Gundans, all wrapped up in a straight-faced sense of grandeur appropriate to an overblown serial's delusions of thematic grandeur -- makes for an uneasy alliance within the same frame is illustrative of how this universe operates, how it allows such contrasts. We witness the highest and the lowest of the universe, their parallel  stories constantly cross-cutting, while the characters themselves often occupy the same scene of engagement. That these aliens come in different forms of audienceendearment is to be expected; that they embody different thematic and narrative purposes might take a little sorting out.

Much of the criticism directed against THE PHANTOM MENACE has to do with racial stereotyping -- that Jar Jar Binks is a black-slave stereotype, that the junkyard merchant Watto is an Arab (or even Jewish) caricature, that the trade-envoy aliens are Asians in blatantly shoddy disguise. (That last accusation I still can't see for one second, and thus won't address further.)

 One can't deny that Jar Jar is a goofy servant of some kind, or that Watto is unsavory and suspiciously not-to-be-trusted, but rather than see these as emblematic of grotesque caricatures swiped from real life, I view them more like archetypal  representations of familiar storytelling tropes. These (extremely) other-worldly beings come fully equipped with exaggerated features, strange voices, ungainly shaped bodies, but to reach out and apply these distorted physical representatios to real-life racial groups seems, for me, to ignoe key aspects of what the characters embody in the ultimate function of the narrative.

Do Jar Jar's people, the Gundans, resemble African tribesmen? Perhaps, but only partially. Does Watto's voice sound distinctly accented? Yes, but with good reason. These particular examples of aliens repesent characters who lie at the heart of their own worlds, but nevertheless live and are relegated to the societal fringe. It takes the triumph of their final battle to give the Gundans' some above-water recognition, and Watto's role as a junk-dealer (and slave owner) has relegated him to where the buisness is most brisk -- the dusty, seedy markets of backstreet Tattooine. In this univese, whether it be on Naboo or Tattooine, it is the marginalized aliens that, for good or for ill, cause the most ruckus and reform. A critique of modern-Earth cultures, or an examination of science-fictional realms of exclusion?

 It is themtatically telling that the final battle features so-called 'primitive' tribes, like the Gundans, defeating the electronic battle-droids, and that Watto must make a living trading slaves and selling junk to survive on his planet. Any real-world racial similarities to these alien characters, one could argue, might actually have a point, one of cultural commentary  -- that these various planetary societies only allow certain kinds of lifeforms to gain entry and exit to various chambers of power and legislation.(We see that the Jedi Council is comprised of various odd-looking aliens, but the universe is vast, and perhaps it's discrimination of some kind that's kept Blotto in the illicit world where he resides, and forced the Gundans to remain under the sea.)

In EPISODE II, Jar Jar, so instrumental in the final battle of EPISODE I, unknowingly casts the vote which allows Senator Palpatine to take power. The innocents of society, brave in their good intentions, are often abused by the process and exploited by the wicked. I see these filmic depictions of alien servants and illegal money-makers as examples of how various strata of society delegate, abuse or ignore those who might actually have something to add to the culture as a whole. Jar Jar Binks is a hero at the end of the first film, and a dupe by the middle of the second; Watto is a slave-trader who merely fulfills the role that all around him -- including visiting Jedi and merchants -- expect those of his ilk to embody. Do Jar Jar and Blotto hint at real-world racial types? That's debatable, and perhaps worthy of debate. I'm simply arguing: These aliens and their visual broadness identify them most clearly as 'other', and it's this 'otherness' that the so-called 'noble' characters like the Jedi and politicians take note of and dismiss. For me, these widely-sketched beings are less of a 'racial' stereotype, and more of a subtle depiction of 'racism/alienism in action. (Not unlike the droids being excluded from A NEW HOPE's cantina, with nobody else 'normal' around giving much of a shit.)

You can definitely argue that the aliens in the STAR WARS films do, in fact, have some kind of specious relationship to real-world miniorities -- although that's a a charge that I'm not altogether inclined to accept, seeing them as less of an allegorical commentary on current or past racial relations (a la STAR TREK's style of current-times storytelling) and more as an example of how, along with the droids, it is the marginalized groups on various planets in these movies who often have the most wit and facility, and are thus penalized for such skills. The droids, the Ewoks, the Gundans, Watto, the Wookies -- all of these supporting characters ultimately play essential roles in the fate of the universe. The Jedis and royalty constantly overlook the importance of the so-called 'lesser' classes, but the narratives themselves continually look to them to stitch together or unravel the fabric of their times.

It's ironic that the CGI-effect oriented nature of the prequels is often looked on with disdain -- all that glossy sheen on the screen, those too-crisp-and-clear-sparkling worlds.These episodes are designed as the first three films in a story that depict the ultimate disentegration of a carefully orchestrated galacatic reign of Jedi and government; thus, this necessitates a kind of glittering scope that then allows Episodes Four through Six to appear all the more gritty and base. A shining republic will fall, giving to underground rebel hideouts and makeshift battle plans. The prequels illustrate a staticly rigid society, and the visuals reflect that detailed confinement.

As Lucas states in one of the first production meetings featured in the official documentary on THE PHANTOM MENACE, Anakin's final space battle purposefully calls out to A NEW HOPE, its call-back structure like that of a poem -- the first stanza rhyming with the third, and so on. Episode One gives us a look at intersecting societies filled with goofy aliens and dead-serious Chancellors, stoic Jedis and scheming junk-merchants, a motley of 'people' from different worlds endlessly interacting and colliding with each other's intentions. Rather than a botched mess, THE PHANTOM MENACE is, instead, the first carefully orchestrated chapter in a story that establishes all that will fall in the two films to follow.

The last shot of the film obviously parallels that of a A NEW HOPE, with a slave boy and Jedis, royalty and sea creatures, politicians and common folk, all standing as one to enjoy their great communal triumph. This seemingly celebratory moment of rapture is both a) on a broad, galactical level, the first (and final) visual integration of all these disparate societal strata into a single frame, and b) on a personal level, an eerie portrait and foreshadowing of all the main players in the saga, those who will soon enough fiercely love and quarrel and even kill one another, unravelling and destroying forever the fragile bond they've just formed, and this single tableux provides a moment both warmly inclusive and inevitably chilling, an interplanetary society finally coming together for one shining moment before it's brutally dissolved with great force by their own greed and ambition. That's all there in this final shot (and this film), depending on long you look.