The 6 films from the George Lucas era Star Wars were Art and hence the acting and story-telling in them differs from the consumer-product that is the regular Hollywood film. What is maybe even more important, the way an artistic output is achieved is markedly different from how a consumer-product is produced. Much of the fanbase antagonism is perfectly understandable from a certain point of view.
Consumer products and ‘taste’
A hallmark of producing a consumer-product is that the maker seeks to satisfy the tastes and preferences of his audience or customers. It doesn’t necessarily mean that pleasing the many is the goal; some consumer products are targeted to a very specific and small audience, such as particular wines or cuisines. A consumer product that misreads its target audience’s tastes is thus a failure by definition because it did not succeed what it set out to do. Film studios first and foremost are producers of consumer cinematic content and hence in their operations that is what they continuously try to keep the tables on: consumer preferences and shifts therein.
Typically when a consumer judges the quality of such a consumer-product all they need to go by is whether or not the product satisfies their tastes. In the consumer-product market the consumer is led to believe she/he is ‘King’ and hence her/his tastes are the ultimate judge over whether a product is ‘good’. The only possible modification of that idea is that the consumer, instead of deciding something is ‘bad’ may opt for deciding she/he is simply not (anymore) in the target-audience of the product.
However many who love a particular brand of consumer-products will have the expectation that the brands products move along with the preferences of its target-audience. If that does not happen you get the typical rejections and anger you can easily observe in those instances. If brands seek to expand their target-audiences this regularly happens to a part of their original, more narrowly defined target audience. Then you get statements such as that ‘Apple is no longer as innovative as it was under Jobs’ or similar remarks along such lines.
Whether or not a product is a ‘consumer-product’ is not always easy to see and is very much in the eye of the beholder, at least in the short-term. Simply the fact that a product is successfully generating sales is just as bad an indicator then saying everything which is not successful in sales is evidently Art. The crucial element here is however this: consumer-goods take their value from what consumers are willing to pay for it. There is no longer-lasting or added value beyond that: the price.
Star Wars has been an extremely successful brand since 1977 and has persisted as a living brand across long stretches of time in which no associated cinematic product was coming out. The comparison with Apple (as a brand) is an interesting one given the evidently emotional attachment that clients of Apple feel to the products they acquire, not entirely unlike the emotional attachment Star Wars fans display.
Authors: Star Wars and Apple
So what are Apple and Star Wars, just consumer-products or forms of Art? There can be no doubt that both brands produce something that requires a tremendous amount of craftsmanship, that is based upon the vision of a very small number of individuals, perhaps in both cases on only one. It is well known that for Steve Jobs Apple products were not just about functionality and material quality but equally about innovation, interaction and about an aesthetic quality in architecture and design. If you ask an Apple-devotee the question of whether an IPhone is a piece of Art, you will probably get a ‘Yes!’ or at least a long struggling doubt whether to say ‘Yes!’ or just ‘perhaps’. But is this enough to make an Apple product a piece of Art? I don’t think so and will argue why, in contrast, Star Wars is!
Most of these products that seem to linger within the grey boundary between Art and consumer-products have in common that they have an Author. George Lucas is the Steve Jobs of Star Wars, no doubt there. Even his critics accuse him of pretty much the same flaws as the critics of Jobs do of their best-loved enemy. Everyone knows that though there was a lot of collaboration going into an Apple product of the ‘Jobs era’ there was also the profound influence of that ‘Author’ and his overall vision ranging from the broad swipes of the Apple brand down to some of the minute details of the individual products. As individual humans however, Jobs and Lucas could not have been more different.
Having an Author who is trying to realize or express a vision is thus not a signature hallmark of something being an Art product. Although artists usually seek control over their products or performances, there is something inherent to Art that limits that control. Now you will quite often hear artist say things that inform you that, in some mysterious way, the author her/himself is only a vehicle for the product to come into being. An astounding novel or sculpture, for example, definitely requires significant craftsmanship and vision for its realization. But often there is a sense in which it seems to produce itself through the hands of the artist. The artist, or author, is not merely following a well-planned and well-executed recipe that she/he drafted up at some point. But the results of the earlier stages of the work of Art seem to affect and mould the later stages, and these in turn generate revisions and modifications to the earlier stages. This is completely evident from the example of Star Wars itself.
If you want to apply this idea to Apple then this fails, with the possible exception of applying it to the company itself, rather than to its products. Sometimes you can view the structure of a company producing some kind of consumer-good as a work of Art, but their products are usually just that: consumer-goods. Consumer-goods revolve all around the ‘consumer-experience’ of the product and the product itself is only as ‘good’ as the experience it generates. In the consumer-goods world, it is the product’s the experience generates the value which is reflected in the price. Steve Jobs knew that! The Apple products generate the ‘Apple experience’ for the consumer and she/he then pays for that. Steve Jobs authored the Apple experience to be reproducible, not merely material but definitely controlled and reproducible.
If you want to apply this idea to Star Wars during the Lucas era then this fails. Star Wars is a product of Art and its value clearly goes beyond the realm of admissions tickets to the cinema’s displaying the movie. They 6 Saga movies so far have been undeniably successful at the box-office, but they have emerged not as a product perfectly tailored to the taste of a particular audience, not as the result of the execution of some perfectly thought-out production process. The 6 movies are the product of the vision of an Author, produced in more or less collaboration with thousands of others, but an Author who was as much in control of the work, as the work itself was in control of the Author. Why do we have the ‘Special Editions’? Some will say because Lucas can’t stop tampering with something that tasted perfectly in 1977-1983, others might say because the later parts of the creative process fed back into revising and re-adjusting the earlier parts … as if this Saga was an ongoing process of artistic creative work. Which is exactly what it was.
Star Wars was never about the ‘Star Wars Experience’. George Lucas has never proclaimed that his goal was to take people back to their childhood days, or anything along these lines. Lucas had a message and a vision of the form that message should take. George Lucas sought an ultimate form in which to express things he wanted to say about human nature. He was not looking to provide you with any kind of experience that would please you, he was wanting to tell you something he sought and saw as intimately human about our world.
Star Wars & Art
The six-film Star Wars Saga is a work of art and not a mere consumer-product. As a result the tastes and preferences of the consumers, no matter how important the consumers may think these are, are not ultimately guiding the artist. Instead the Author is guided by what the story needs and generates itself in response to its own creation. The Author is guided by a vision, usually changing and moving as the creative process happens, and influenced by all the ideas and stuff floating around at that moment. But to an extent the story of the Star Wars Saga has written itself, George Lucas being only the vehicle through which the story surfaced. If you approach Star Wars as a consumer-product that should be satisfying your tastes, then you will not be able to appreciate, nor often to understand, the resulting piece of work.
Star Wars is a work of Art especially in how it tells its central storylines. Much has been written about the influence of Campbell’s work as well as about Star Wars’ use of colour, the design of costumes and sets and props to further the narrative. An artist, whether she is a sculptor or a writer, always faces the constraints placed upon her/his (possibly vague) vision by the materials available. As Lucas has said himself, expanding the tool-kit in order to gain more control and wrestle additional options from the claws of those constraints is there for an essential part of an artist’s life. This is not just some geeky obsession with technology; it is at the hearty of h artistic endeavour. The materials and techniques you use do leave their imprint on the developing artistic work. As I said earlier, later stages of the work are influenced by earlier stages, but equally later stages induce modifications and adjustments to the earlier pieces of a work of art. The choice of a particular technology, technique or material at some point thus reverberates through the entire piece after its completion.
The perspective of Star Wars as a work of Art that has, in part, generated and engineered itself, is crucial when it comes to understanding and appreciating the important aspects of story-telling, plot and acting in the Star Wars Saga. I will not go into the first two here as much of the Ring Theory literature you can find online will cover vast quantities of those two
Star Wars and Acting
Viewing a Star Wars movie as a work of Art has consequences for how you assess many of its aspects. The particular aspect I want to focus on is that of the acting. There can be a ‘consumer-product’ approach to acting. In that case the actor’s role is to evoke the ‘experience’ in the audience that the maker of the film wants the audience to experience. Whether or not that acting performance actually serves the narrative or the message of the film is secondary, it is all about the audience’s experience. If you now say that “this is exactly what you’re paying for” then you are only saying you are approaching cinema as a consumer-good. Now of course any film wants to have an emotional impact on its audience, but consumer-products want to please the audience; which is one very specific kind of emotion. They want this because consumer goods derive their value from exactly that ability.
Such a ‘consumer-good’ view of acting would then mean that you want your actors to do whatever is necessary to make the audience feel good about what they see. One thing almost all humans like is being able to identify who is good and who is bad and … to be able to identify through empathy with the good ones. So if the good guy is in grief, the audience will be pleased if they feel that emphatically too. If the good woman is happy, the audience will be happy if they can be happy for her and share in this happiness. We all know that ‘mirroring’ is a strong influence humans can have on one another. When people around you yawn, it is very likely so will you. When people around you laugh, it is very likely you will to even if the clue of the joke eluded you. When people around you are angry, you will likely feel the seeds of anger burn in your belly to. Filmmakers and actors know this and hence when actor succeeds in displaying ‘real felt’ agony, love, laughter or sleepiness it is quite likely you will go along with that depiction. In a few lines this is what method-acting is all about, and this is what Hollywood feeds you in 90% or more of its output.
But there are ‘costs’ associated with this and some directors do not want to pay that price. When a method-actor plays character A crying over the death of character B, she might be thinking of her deceased granny and infuse her performance with that emotion and associated expressions. In reality this act is an imposition of an outside element (sorrow over Granny’s death) onto the story of the film or play. A director who would ask actor A to display ‘real sobbing’ might like the performance, but a director who would ask actor A to display ‘naturalness’ would want actor A to respond to actor B’s performance of character B’s death … these two things crucially are not the same. The choice between method-acting or naturalistic acting is one of the many choices of acting styles available. Method-actors tend to impose themselves, their feelings (originating from events unrelated to the story of the movie or play) and their ideas of such emotions on the ideas and narrative expressed by the movie. For consumer-good films this is fine, this is in fact exactly what you want. But for a film that is primarily a work of Art this could be exactly the wrong thing.
So what acting directions did Lucas give? Well if we have to believe the actors it wasn’t much beyond the stereotypical ‘faster & more intense’. From the divided response to the acting performances, especially from the Prequel era, it seems clear that Lucas wasn’t hell-bent on getting actor-performances that were solely designed around being ‘believable’ and that would generate strong feelings of satisfaction in the audience. Rather at times, some will argue, the actors seem encouraged to give a performance that alienates the viewers from the characters. Is this just bad direction? Or could this be a deliberate choice?
It is bad direction if you believe George Lucas wanted to please you, or should have wanted to please you because the consumer is King. It is a deliberate choice if you think George Lucas would have sacrificed anything to get his artistic vision on screen. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that it is of course the latter. If acting performances in the Prequels seem restrained to you, sometimes even artificially constrained then this makes perfect sense within the context of the kind of story these films are telling. The restraints are released the further we get into the prequels, as also in the story the emotions run out of control the deeper we get into the darkside abyss of Darth Vader. But even more important, the depiction of the emotion by the actor is not what Star Wars is about, it never was neither in the Prequels nor in the Originals. The actor does not carry the narrative in Star Wars but the scenery, the sound and the music do as well as the manner in which the plot unfolds. This is a story where destiny unfolds for humans with or without their conviction their destiny is as they see it. Anakin does not at any point in the story need to believe he is the Chosen One … a cold-hearted tide of destiny will sweep him there no matter what. A method-acted Saga would have seen the actors embrace these elements of Anakin’s story thereby effectively ruining the message of the story: the iron fist of unintended consequences.
Especially during Revenge of the Sith we constantly see Anakin resist the emotions that are driving him while also tearing him apart. It is deadly to totally method-act this because this character has gone beyond the point where the audience should identify with him, rather the audience should feel an alienation. The beauty of the story-line in Revenge of the Sith is that it does exactly this while at the same time evoking intense empathy for this destroyed soul that unavoidably hurtles towards his doom. This torn-nature of our response to Anakin is key to getting across a message about the deeply fallible and flawed human nature when it comes to love, hate and death. The actor alone can’t tell this story, this needs all the other elements ranging from the hellish lavascape of Mustafar, via the little plot point of good R2 waiting in the distance, the changing nature of Anakin’s eyes, the eclipsed sun and the sudden transition of Anakin’s “I hate you” into a face engulfed with pain from his immolation.
A need to embrace a larger view of reality
These choices are not just a Prequel era choices of Lucas. It is all over the first Star Wars films as well … it is infact a hallmark of the entire six-film saga that some brush aside as ‘wooden acting’ because they cannot detach themselves from viewing such films primarily as products that are there to please them. I feel sorry for such individuals because it seems they will never fully grasp that neither the Mona Lisa, nor Mozart’s Requiem or the artwork by Picasso were ever intended as consumer-goods dedicated to supplying them pleasure. When Star Wars the Clone Wars adopted one of Picasso’s painting for a Mandalorian wall mural that was not just a statement about Mandalorians massacring Jedi, but equally about Star Wars not being ‘just another joint serving cinematic fast-food’. Just like with certain culinary trends where you end up looking at your plate wondering where ‘the food’ is that matches your hunger; appreciating Star Wars requires you to look a little beyond your own mere desires, preferences and tastes and trying to tell what the overall picture is telling you. For a dish that can mean that only after doing that you start to see why the individual parts are what they are and why they were arranged the way they were. Sometimes the proof of the pudding is not just in the eating … but also in understanding it.