[The following originally appeared on GlennFrazier.com.]
My wife and I watched The Phantom Menace this evening on VHS—the first time since seeing Attack of the Clones.
Each time I watch one of these films, I am struck by something different. This time around, I was particularly aware of the fact that in the five Star Wars films made so far, we are seeing essentially the same images, over and over again. Each time through, they are placed in different contexts, used in different sequences, but basically Lucas is telling stories from a very basic visual vocabulary.
Lucas more than many creators, I believe, truly gets that film is storytelling with moving pictures. What else would it be, you ask? At the dawn of cinema, a basic view could descirbe film as stage plays on film. Much as early television was radio you could see, early filmmaking was just an old form placed in a new medium. Even today, many films are either novels or plays, merely acted out in front of cameras. True, there is some “art” here and there, sometimes within some rather bizzarre forms. Very rarely, though, does a creator make a film whose story is built specifically for the screen without losing the interest of the average audience member.
Flights through trenches, severed hands, faces screaming as they watch the death of a father figure, faceless minions marching in uniform lines clad with sterile armor, almost snarky glances exchanged in the midst of pompous ceremonies—over and over, film after film, we see the same basic image sequences. Each time through, though, a different story is being told, and the images take on different meanings, on one level.
Of course, on another level, these “scene phonemes” have very basic, almost visceral meaning to all of us. Lucas draws upon a motion picture syllabary a typical movie-goer walks into the theater already possessing before seeing the first Star Wars film.
These films, dialogue-wise, are often thin. Cinematographically, I’d be hard-pressed to say they are shot “artistically”. Some filmmakers can frame a scene that in angle, shadow, composition, suddenly draw out and hold your breath captive until they have passed. (The end of Ran immediately comes to mind for me, here.) The Star Wars films don’t really do that.
But these are films that we can all get, immediately, without explanation. We bring our own subtext with us and are ready to receive from the opening scene.
When Darth Vader first strode onto the screen, black cape flowing, we saw evil. His choking of minions, over and over and over again, sometimes directly, sometimes across a room with a gesture, sometimes across space with hardly an effort, is repeated because it says what it says with no need of explanation. The victim, hands clasped to their own throat in that universally recognized gesture of panic and pain—it’s a powerful image and it works.
The zooming of vehicles through narrow obstacle courses, whether pod racers through canyons, x-wings across the face of the Death Star, The Millenium Falcon among spinning asteroids, or speeder bikes among the trees of the moon of Endor, have a universal effect on the audience, establish a mood, speak of the pilots skills, powerfully connect the scenes that flow before and after; they thrill us and we love them.
You could criticize Lucas for pandering to our common base, for feeding us mere imagery because it’s what we want. Personally, I’m more inclined to praise him for it.