George Lucas
Really? Haven't you done enough? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Or, Lucas, You Smug Self-Satisfied Bastard, Stop Ruining my Childhood

If you are like me you were probably plunged into the same bottomless black pit of intestines-extracted-through-the-nose despair at the recent announcement that George Lucas is going to be releasing the Star Wars trilogy (and three other marginally related movies) in 3D.  This is disturbing on a number of levels.

It is, first of all, further evidence that there is nothing Lucas will not do to wring the last shekel out of the Star Wars franchise.  In addition, he is still laboring under the delusion that there are more than three Star Wars movies.  Therefore the 3D(e)ification of the Star Wars franchise will begin with The Phantom Menace (which, by the way, I am going to copyright as the title for Lucas’s biography).  Releasing that movie in the first place was a bad idea.  Re-releasing it in any form is simply a terrible idea.  A turd in 3D is still a turd, only now it is disturbingly lifelike and sitting much too close to your face.

The aspect of this I find most distressing, however, is that it proves that even someone as apparently savvy about movie history as Lucas really doesn’t know jack about movie history.  When it comes to the potential of 3D for movies and electronic games–and it is a technology that I believe has great potential in both these areas–this is very bad news.  It indicates, in fact, that most people have missed the fundamental lesson of the juggernaut that kicked all of this off, James Cameron’s Avatar.

Gut Feeling

Now I admit that it is a lesson that was very easy to miss given the almost unbelievable amount of hype surrounding the film.  So many people went liquid in the loins over the idea of the technology that they failed to take note of how it was actually being used in the movie.  Since the movie’s release things have only gotten worse.  The technology is being discussed primarily as an engineering mechanism.  The problem with this is that enables you quite happily to talk about 3D as a mechanism for enhancing visual spectacle, or for selling more movie tickets, or for selling more (any) 3D TV sets.  What it doesn’t allow you to do is talk sensibly about using the technology to foster meaningful engagement with a media form.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been discussion concerning 3D and participant engagement, but it is almost always limited to the idea of perceptual, physical engagement.   Everyone is familiar with this kind of discussion of 3D: dodging oncoming spears, reaching out a hand to touch something, or even the more general idea of an enhanced sense of presence (as if you are really “there”).  This sense of physical, visceral, engagement is certainly important when discussing movies and it is even more important when discussing games.  The problem comes when you see a movie-making or game-building technology as only addressing these visceral aspects of the experience.  Because great movies and games have never been only about the visceral thrill, and that is true even of those movies and games that affect us on the most visceral, physical level (The Matrix).  Very, very few of our forms of recreation and enjoyment could be said to be only about the physical sensation.  Our experience of art and entertainment is fundamentally about our imaginative engagement with the artist/creator/designer’s world.  That engagement is intellectual as much as it is visceral.

Unfortunately, we seem to be living through a deeply anti-intellectual moment in the US (ironic, given that we’re being led by a president that is supposedly overly-cerebral and academic).  Now we academics love to complain that US culture is anti-intellectual and that no one really “gets” us.  We’ve been doing it for the better part of three centuries.  This is not, however, the garden variety anti-intellectualism that is so fundamental to US culture (the kind of thing that enabled Bushcheney to get away with their “This is not the war you are looking for” Dark Jedi mind trick, or that gives rise to the Tea Party).  This is an anti-intellectualism that manifests itself in the insistence that all our experiences should be primarily physical and driven by our guts rather than our heads.

Why George Lucas Should Be Confined to a Depth-Charged U-Boat

Film critic Scott Mendelson wrote a short piece for Huffington in which he got pretty huffy with those Star Wars fans who had reacted negatively to the news about Lucas’s latest proposal to jam their beloved franchise even further down the crapper.  He made a good point in noting that for Lucas this probably isn’t about the money; the man is already richer than God, although still not as rich as the man God calls “Daddy,” Bill Gates.  But Mendelson is as clueless about the reason for much of the outrage as you might expect of someone not even born when the first movie was released (and who was in fact the target demographic for Phantom).   This latest effort, he notes, is “more about him [Lucas] using his Star Wars films to play around with new technology, in this case perfecting the much-maligned art of 3D conversion.”  This, however, is precisely the thing that many people have against Lucas as a director: he passionately believes that the movie-making technology is the movie.  This is what was so abundantly on display in the prequel movies: massive shock and awe application of whizz-bang technology at the expense of plot, characterization, acting, directing. . .  The prequel movies are all about filling your sight; but they lack vision.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem: seeing technology simply as an end in and of itself.  A good movie is not simply a “technology.”  It is narrative, characterization, point of view, metaphor, patterns of myth, allusion. . .and all of that achieves an effect by being bound organically to a variety of technological mechanisms that allow us to engage with those elements.  Fundamentally, that mix of elements establishes a specific movie as a particular way of seeing (in both literal and symbolic senses).  The original Star Wars is the way it is because it was born of narrative and characterization that were dependent upon particular technological affordances to make them real.

Lucas’s greatest flaw as a director/producer is that he has completely bought into the myth that technological change automatically means technological progress.  True, there is something fascinating about the concept of art existing in a perpetually unfinished state, subject to ongoing modification, capable of being constantly revised and updated, never able to be locked up in a glass case or pinned to a gallery collecting wall for perpetuity.  Avant garde artists have played around with this concept to some degree.  Indeed, many works of art have been much less fixed throughout their history than you might think.  You could see this as quintessentially modern.  Or postmodern.  Or expostfactomodern.

There has been no shortage of movies that have been revised in later versions.  Sometimes this has been due to a desire to flesh out story and characterization in a way not allowed for by the restrictive time formats of multiplex release (the DVD versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy).  Sometimes it is to correct flaws in an otherwise good film that was screwed up by studio execs, focus group testing, etc. (The director’s cut(s) of Blade Runner).  And sometimes it is to explore the potential of a new technology to enhance the actual story.  An excellent example is the director’s cut of Das Boot (1997).  At the time of the original release (1981) theatres lacked the sophisticated digital sound systems that enabled you to address elements of the soundtrack to individual speakers in the auditorium (as opposed to a more general left/right/center stereo mix).  If you were lucky enough to be able to see the reworked film in 1997 (which also added some additional footage) it was an amazing experience.  When the U-Boat is being damaged by depth charges you can feel the popping rivets singing past your head.  I ducked several times.  Here, in fact, was a 3D filmgoing experience achieved without any eyewear.

So how is this any different to what Lucas is attempting?  Petersen was using the new technology to expand an existing element of the film that is crucial not just for the plot but for the psychological ambiance of the film and, more importantly, for the symbolic connections the film establishes between plot, character and setting.  In what is one of the best studies of the pressures of men forced into close proximity with one another, the sounds of the U-boat cracking and straining at the seams mirror the strain on the crew’s relationship with one another.  Moreover, (and the title of the film gives this away) the submarine is itself a character in the movie, evident in the way both crew and the movie viewer relate to it.   This characterization sets up the emotional climax of the movie in which the U-Boat makes it safely back to port only to be destroyed in her pen by Allied fighter-bombers.  The look on the dying Captain’s (Jurgen Prochnow) face as he watches his U-Boat sinking at her moorings is one of the great moments in war cinema.

Therefore, I think Mendelson has it right even when he has it wrong.  For Lucas, it is all about the movie as proof of a technological concept.  He wants to see if it is possible to master this iffy 3-D conversion thingy.  In the same way, the re-released versions of the original trilogy were primarily about the technical challenges: was it possible to take existing films and not simply re-edit to add new scenes, but to alter the image content of existing scenes.  Lucas proved it was.  Now I know quite a few fans who hated the re-engineered version.  I’m not one of them.  I think they added some interesting new elements to the film.   Some of these elements, however, were achieved simply by good ol’ fashioned bonus footage.  Thus adding the Luke/Biggs reunion just prior to the attack on the Death Star fills in a key element of Luke’s back story but also adds a nice touch of pathos when Biggs (otherwise a completely anonymous pilot in the original version) gets waxed in the Death Star trench.

Of the new digital elements the only ones that really made an impression on me in the way that Petersen’s re-worked sound technology did were the way in which the interiors of the Bespin gas mine were opened up to reveal glorious exteriors, and the reworked battle above the Death Star.  In the first case, the effect was to mitigate the way the interior in the original had looked like just another anonymous space-age interior (are we on the Leia’s cruiser?  the Falcon) and establish it as its own distinctive space, a place of beauty, an enclave away from the Imperial presence, and thereby enhance the tragedy of the Imperial invasion.  The reworked battle above the Death Star greatly enhanced the feeling of the savagery of the ship-to-ship combat in a way that underscored the life-and-death nature of the struggle and more effectively set the stage for the individual heroics.

Here’s the thing though: all the films were/are just fine without these extra elements.  Moreover, while I am tempted to say that the additional elements are shadings, but don’t fundamentally change the nature of the film (in the way that the reworked versions of both Blade Runner and Das Boot do, for example) this is, regrettably, not entirely true.  One of the things that struck a chord with so many people about the original Star Wars was its central message: not a simplistic humanity versus technology story, but rather the need to bend technology to serve human ends as against the soulless use of technology for its own sake (see where this is going?).  The technocratic Empire, apart from being a place of unbridled corruption and lust for power, is a morally simplistic universe.  Its iconography often mirrors its morality as a place where things are black or white, something imaged most starkly in the military face of the Empire, its stormtroopers.  By contrast, the Alliance is a place where the contradictory and conflicted find a home.  The terrible irony and high tragedy of the Star Wars franchise, then, is that the more technology Lucas gets his hands on, and the more he employs it in his movies, the more morally simplistic the universe becomes.  This was already becoming evident in the re-engineered movies (the infamous “Greedo shoots first” scene), but reaches its apotheosis in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  As the quantity of technology on display in every scene rises (thereby drawing attention to the massive technological apparatus used to create it), the human component diminishes and the moral ambiguity of the Star Wars universe diminishes.  Until finally we’re subjected to visions of Anakin and Amadala rolling around in a grassy field in a scene that any hack romance writer would be reluctant to claim as their own.  (The only way this scene gets better is a) to cut it, b) to have Anakin reach into the folds of his conveniently loose-fitting Jedi robes and say, “Hey, Queenie, ya ever seen one of these?”).

The icing on the cake, however–and I am certainly not the first to take a lick only to spit it out in disgust–is that Lucas actually believes that the technologically enhanced versions are better.  Hence the attempt to have the reworked trilogy replace the original films completely.  Hence his oft-stated belief that the prequels are better than the original trilogy.

3D?  Hell, We’re Still Making Games and Movies in Black and White!

The lesson that Lucas is unable or unwilling to learn (and in Hollywood he is hardly alone in this) is something that game designers have known for some time.  Of course, game design has the collective memory span of an ant, so it is a lesson that needs continually to be relearned.  It isn’t about the engineering.  Gaming is justly infamous for its willingness to race headlong after the latest technology with all the enthusiasm and complete lack of self-respect of a body-painted frat boy chasing after a beer bong.  Mainstream game development has been locked into a technological arms race for so long that it is hard to think that the world could be any different.  A new graphic rendering algorithm is developed, developers discover they can use it give players the ability to see their avatar’s face reflected in a gun barrel, players discover that this has in fact been their deepest desire all along, video card makers rush to create a card capable of using the new rendering algorithm, players rush to buy the new graphics card, the new card causes the internal temperature of the player’s PC to rise to 300 degrees and uses so much power that it causes brown outs in the neighbourhood, players rush out to by a NASA-grade nitrogen cooling system and a backup generator.

Players then discover that the game using this new rendering technology is an unplayable piece of dreck.

Developing games as proof-of-concept pieces contributes in no small part to our overflowing landfills.  The largest quantity of games sharing mud-space with discarded dishwashers, toxic waste drums and used baby diapers are those where the “concept” has been an “enhanced” visual (usually) or aural (more rarely) experience.  The problem with this is so obvious in retrospect that the only really interesting question is why so many game developers don’t see it before it is too late: these kinds of enhancements are not fundamental to the experience of the medium.  Electronic games are not primarily things we look at or listen to in the way we do television, they are an activity in which we actively participate.  So, unless the new visual or auditory enhancements are seen as serving the ends of compelling gameplay they are soon to be irrelevant gimickry.   More importantly, at a fundamental level, they indicate a game designer’s deep distrust of their player-audience (and themselves): the designer believes player’s won’t play an interesting, challenging game, unless it is filled with high-fructose eye candy.  This is, alas, certainly true of many players.  However, proof to the contrary is afforded by the legions of people playing graphically simplistic casual games on the web and on a variety of portably gaming devices.

This lesson about technology-as-proof-of-concept is one that Lucas hasn’t learned.  However it is one that he doesn’t want to learn.  Because, fundamentally, Lucas doesn’t trust his audience either.  Maybe he did, once, but he has grown increasingly distrustful as he has got older.  You could argue that the pursuit of visual and auditory sensation for its own sake that has doomed so many games to the remainder bin is entirely appropriate in a primarily visual/auditory medium like film.   Yet, while film isn’t participatory in the interventionist manner that games are, it is still participatory in the imaginative sense.  Film is at its best when its visuals cue our imaginations into over-drive, when it encourages us to fill the screen with all kinds of content that isn’t explicitly rendered there.  This, however, is exactly what Lucas doesn’t trust us to do.  And this is what I mean when I say that the new content of the re-released trilogy was unnecessary.  I didn’t need to keep glimpsing the skies of Bespin through windows to know it was there and for it to be imaginatively present for me in every scene.  It was, after all, set up in a series of gorgeous establishing shots (the Falcon approaching Cloud City, etc.).  That is why you have establishing shots in the first place.  So you don’t need “reminder” shots.  Likewise, (and especially in my young mind) every time I watched the battle above the Death Star in the original version, that sky was filled with many more whirling, dodging, dying star fighters than were actually portrayed on the screen.  Lucas, however, no longer seems to believe in those powers of imagination in his audience.  So those spaces need to be filled for us.  Sadly, as there is less blank space (literal and metaphoric) on his screens, there is less activity required of us as viewers, and our attachment to the action on screen diminishes and fades.

I See Blue People

Which brings us, finally, after the inevitable tortuous detour that is my preferred way of working, to Cameron’s Avatar.  That film stands as definitive proof that Cameron understands not only the fundamentals of film-making, but the heart and soul of his medium much better than Elder Lucas.

Ironically, Avatar itself has become a victim of an anti-intellectualism that is attempting to establish a kind of intellectual cred.  I have started to notice people who are quick to say “Oh, I didn’t like Avatar, the plot was so lame.”  This may in part simply be a desire to resist, for once, the avalanche of hype about everything that surrounds us everywhere all the time.  I suspect, however, that it has more to do with the perception that criticizing something that was phenomenally popular is a way of joining the “too cool for school” crowd and making yourself appear to be smarter and above the base appeal to mere enjoyment presumed to be offered by a pop culture schlockmeister like Cameron.  Ironically, of course, making such a statement proves you to be not terribly smart at all.  Good plot has rarely been a concern in some of the greatest movies.  Think Once Upon a Time in the West.  Think Star Wars.

What Cameron understands is that if a new movie-making technology is to become integral to a medium in a way that is truly revolutionary it is not enough that it shows us something different or even makes us see something familiar in a different light.  It has to make us feel something different.  It has to facilitate our ability to forge new connections between the various elements of the film in a way that enhances our understanding and appreciation of the whole.  I realize that probably sounds a little pretentious, as if I am expecting that every film should be a Deep and Meaningful Experience, or that it should present a resounding critique of alienated labor in the face of the new world capitalist order, or some such.  Far from it.  Many of the films that we enjoy and which are, justifiably in retrospect, seen as classics, don’t make us think too deeply.  But they do make us think.  That thinking is in turn something very different from simply going “Ooooh.  Pretty.”

Cameron, very sensibly, eschewed most of the visual gags associated with previous attempts to showcase 3D technology.  So although one strand of criticism of the film sees it as typical over-the-top excess, what is remarkable is actually how restrained it is.  The film isn’t constantly screaming at you “Hey!  This is 3D!  Ain’t it cool?!” in the way that every other 3D film does (see Jaws 3D) and which has ensured that all of those films are relegated to a technical footnote in film history, filed under G for Gimmick.  Nor does the film constantly scream at you that its experience is a more life-like version of life.  Our perceptual field does not, by and large, for most people, look like that which is represented in Avatar.  It is its own kind of space, where things look kind of like our perceptual reality only different somehow.

If that was all Cameron did with this movie, he’d be joining the ranks of the technologically footnoted.  As I thought about the film after seeing it the first time, however, I asked myself this: what were the moments when the illusion of the three dimensionality of the space were most pronounced, most convincing, most evocative?  What was going on at those moments and in what way did those moments serve the film’s narrative or some of the symbolic patterns it was working to establish?

The first time I really noticed the 3D effect was the moment when Neytiri is leading Jake through the forest and they are stopped by a shower of the semi-sentient seedlings which all proceed to settle on Jake.  For me the 3D illusion was particularly strong at that moment; it was like all those seeds were there in the air, falling all about me in the theater.  Here the technology is in part serving as reinforcement for a particular plot point: Neytiri sees this as a portent from Eywa and it confirms her in her decision to trust the interloper and introduce him into the tribe.  At the same time the scene implicates us as viewers by placing us in that decision space.  This scene, however, is paired with another one later on.  The second scene where I was similarly drawn into the 3D realm of the film was after the brutal destruction of the home tree.  When Jake returns to consciousness, he finds everything destroyed and the air filled with falling ash from the destroyed tree.  Here again, I felt as if I was in the middle of an ash storm in the middle of the theater.

Notice what Cameron is doing here.  First of all, these moments are not when the effect is most “realistic” in one sense; rather, it is the moment when were are most aware of the 3D technology itself as an artificial imposition.  Yet this imposition is, in a sense, realistic because it is meshing with plot moment and the larger symbolic elements of the movie.  Cameron uses the technology to establish linkages, parallels and contrasts across the story arc.  The seeds have been transformed into ash, life into death, the fantasy of a human oneness with the world destroyed by its pathological need to dominate it.  Would these connections have been established by a conventional flat screen representation of those two sets of images?  Of course.  However I would argue that not only they does the 3D version create a more powerful representation of those linkages, but there is something interesting going on with the way in which the 3D effect, powerfully deployed, implicates us the viewers in those moments, draws us in, prohibits us from standing back and contemplating, as it were.  This, I think, is the real potential of 3D movie-making technology (and 3D-gaming technology), if intelligently deployed.

When I saw the movie a second time, I spent a fair bit of time peeking at scenes without the glasses, paying attention to what difference the 3D effect really made in scenes that were otherwise unremarkable (that is, unlike the emotionally loaded ones I noted above).  What I was interested in was those elements that explicitly suffered from not being rendered in 3D.  There are two sets of elements in the film that achieve a heightened reality in the 3D version.  The first is the flora of the alien world.  The other set of objects that stands out is the many and varied information screens that populate the human world.  In each case these elements stand out in a way that is decidedly non-realistic.  The screens in particular float luminously in the air in 3D in a way that is particularly striking.  Here, Cameron is using the 3D technology to establish a contrast between the highly technologized human world and the nature-centered world of the Na’vi.  That much, however, could have been done with conventional film technology.  The 3D technology adds two different elements to the storytelling, however.  First, there is simply the insistence of each set of elements: the screens and foliage force themselves on our attention that enhances the impression of their ubiquity in each world.  Screens and foliage are everywhere and the 3D technology calls attention to their dominance in a way that is more effective than is possible with conventional camera work.  Second, the 3D rendering enables a particularly powerful rendering of another symbolic contrast: I was struck not just by how present the foliage was, but how material it seemed.  At the same time, the screens were glowing ephemera (emphasized by the way the characters use their hands to pull images from one screen to another) suggesting the way in which the highly technologized human world rests on a fragile, shadowy foundation.

It is easy to be cynical about success, and about Cameron’s kind of success in particular.  People love to point out that what purports to be a human story is told with the aid of millions of dollars worth of technology.  But the movies have always been dependent upon a highly developed technical infrastructure, even those films that offer themselves as a low-tech version (in fact, their relationship to film technology is arguably even more cynical, because they depend on our having seen a lot of schlock in order to find these low-tech films “refreshing”).  And you may be justifiably critical of the story Cameron is telling in Avatar.  But telling a story he is, and the 3D technology is not just a gimmick but integral to the particular story that he tells.

That is why Cameron understands film history in a way that Lucas, sadly, does not.  Those means of expression that we now take for granted in movies are there because they were not simply fascinating for their own sake but because they enabled new kinds of stories to be told through new ways of seeing and hearing.  To take just one example, in their very early days, movies were in fact borrowing most of their techniques from theatre and static photography.  Most very early films feature the action filmed from a static point directly in front; sometimes the action is even filmed on an actual stage, complete with proscenium.  Soon artists discovered, however, that you could do something with this new technology that was impossible with photography: you could move the audience’s point of view.  You could do this either by physically moving the camera (tracking shots, for example), or by moving the viewpoint “virtually” (zooming, cutting to a close-up, for example).  Such techniques, however, would have remained a mere novelty, however, if they hadn’t enabled film-makers to tell stories in a way that made viewers feel and respond in new ways.  Just think of the use of closeups that allow us to become intimately involved with a character’s reaction.

That is why Lucas’s latest effort to use the Star Wars franchise to play around with technology is so offensive.  There is no need for it, first of all.  The first trilogy is great as it is, and no amount of digital wizardry can save two thirds of the prequels.  More fundamentally, however, it misses the point of new technology developments in movie-making.  New technology is not a coat of shellac that you add to the same old content; content and form are inextricably tied together.

I’ll Never Turn to the Dark Side!

All that said, will I go and see the new movies?  A New Hope?  Absofuckinlutely.  3D isn’t going to add anything to story in the way that I have been describing here.  But it could, potentially, add to the visceral appeal of many aspects of the movie.  Can you imagine that opening scene in a well-done 3D rendering?  You can’t tell me also that any Star Wars fan worthy of their name wouldn’t be a tad bit curious to see that run down the Death Star trench in 3D?  Empire? Probably.  Jedi? Possibly.  I see that film reaping the least benefit from 3D enhancement.

Phantom? Notafuckinchance.  Clones? Areyoufuckinkiddingme?  Nope.  Sith? Possibly.  I think I’d enjoy Yoda ripping the Senate chamber apart as he battles the Emperor.  Whom we all know is a stand-in for Lucas himself.