WHISTLING IN THE DARK:
George Lucas and the Limits of Creation
I have been listening to George Luca’s commentary on the older trilogy of Star Wars movies. In the commentaries, Lucas speaks quite often about the technological limitations he faced in realizing his ideas about the series. In fact, he gripes about it pretty consistently. “Of course now, we’d just use computer animation,” is his standard refrain. Now, of course one of the things about this is that I believe it locates the commentary in time quite a bit – the commentaries were recorded around the time that Revenge of the Sith was released, I gather – so these issues are obviously at the forefront of all the commentator’s minds. I wonder what kind of commentary Lucas would have provided for it fifteen years ago, or fifteen years from now?
But regardless, as it is recorded now, Lucas’ commentary leaves one feeling that he looks back on those first three movies with quite a lot of bitterness, really – quite a lot of regret. And that is the strongest impression I’ve taken away from this: that the man who created a series of texts that were so important to me as a child, should look back on them and see mostly dissatisfaction and frustration. That the series that matched his vision considerably better was the one I found underwhelming at best.
It goes without saying that all art exists as a compromise between the vision of the creator and limitations placed on the creator by the medium in which they work. Nowhere is this more true than in film making, I suspect, because few other artistic forms require such extensive co-operation between such a large group of people (well possibly in architecture, but for the same reasons). But I think this compromise exists even in the art forms that I would consider least mediated, like writing – I know from experience with The Novel that there are ideas that I have that are beautiful in my mind but are just that little bit too abstract to express properly, so I’m left making gestures towards what I was thinking. These are gestures that I’m not at all certain anyone else would interpret in the same way as me.
But what I learned from Michel Foucault is that limitation and creation are, in most respects, the same process. To make something is to not-make something else. Any art form is the process of taking a concept and making it into something that can be shared outside of your own mind. To render the infinity within your own mind into something finite and therefore portable/sharable must necessarily involve putting some limits on it, making it finite enough to be portable and inevitably, reducing it from the unrestrained sublime. Limitations placed on art serve to give it structure as well as to restrict it’s conceptual potential. What I’m trying to get at is a much more radical iteration of the principle that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’: I’m trying to say that I don’t think it’s correct to think of art as flawed because it imposes limits on the artist, but rather that turning something from a vague idea you had that-was-so-beautiful-in-your-mind-and-dude-have-you-ever-really-looked-at-your-hands-man into something that is subject to the limitations of a finite artistic form is the very essence of art. Art is as much the destruction of other potential forms that your idea could take as it is the creation of the form that it finally will take.
So what? You ask. Well the thing is, you see, that I liked the old Jabba, I liked the old Yoda and I liked Wicket. I like the fact that the old Yoda was restricted in his movement, in his emotion. I read it as dignity and reserve. It made his lifting of the X-wing out of the muck on Dagobah seem all the more sublime because of the simple gestures he used to accomplish it. Do you remember Wicket’s tongue? Wicket expressed a lot of emotion by sticking out his tongue in various ways. Lucas points this out in the commentary – noting how the Ewok costumes allowed very little mobility in the face (“now, of course, we’d just do them all as animations – have a few costumes for some principle performers, but the rest would all be animations”). He also notes that Warwick Davis (who impressed Lucas so much that he would go on to build Willow around him) solved this problem by sticking out his tongue strategically to give the feeling of mobility and emotion. To me, that made Wicket seem both bizarre and very human at the same time, which was perfect: he seemed both alien and yet easy to identify with.
The point of this is that those two impressions became significant character notes for me – especially Yoda’s reserve. Interestingly, in the scenes with Yoda on Dagobah, where Luke is training, Lucas talks about the complicated process by which they arrived at the idea of Luke carrying Yoda on his back as a way of giving him some mobility – making it possible for Luke to move around and still interact with Yoda. Lucas says that ‘now, of course, we’d just have him hopping along from tree to tree’ (as in his lightsaber duels in II and III). I think it’s really interesting that the element of Yoda’s character that largely defined him for me, was, in Lucas’ mind, a failing of the technology. So much so, that I find Yoda’s lightsaber duels in II & III kind of… lame and fan-service-y. In fact, even more jarring than the lightsaber duels are the scenes of Yoda’s telekinesis: consider the effort that Yoda visually exerts in those moments – puffing and grimacing and groaning – compared to the relative grace with which he lifts the X-wing out of the swamp in V. His melodramatic posturing always seemed wrong to me, but clearly that is more like what Lucas had in mind from the beginning.
It’s considered a truism that you are always your own worst critic, but I wonder if that is not a manifestation of a deeper paradox in artistic creation. The creator of a piece of art is the only person who is bound to see it as a compromise between what they imagined and what they were able to create given the limitations under which they operated. Anyone else approaching a piece of art is obliged, in some sense or another, to appreciate it as something somehow coherent and complete – something they may like or dislike, something that may do what they want or alternately, fail to achieve some goal that they think would be appropriate, but either way a discrete piece of something.
I’ve said before that I don’t think an artist should necessarily be considered the final authority on the interpretation of their own art. But I am beginning to wonder if, on some weird level, an artist might not be the very worst person to speak to interpret their own material – precisely because they will always be interpreting the final product through the lens of what they originally imagined, because they are the ones who will always experience the limitations that they ran into as external forces, rather than seeing the compromises as integral elements of the creation.