Speed, immensity, dreaming

“George Lucas, according to his biographer, Dale Pollock, wanted to recapature the romance of space that had been kindled in him by early NASA missions, and “Star Wars,” too, follows the rules that Asimov helped set down. But “Star Wars” and the “Foundation” stories, despite the many things, that they share, have fundamental differences: “Star Wars” is about speed, faith, and fairy tales, and the “Foundation” is about size, science, and history. The differences are profound. I remember as a twelve-year-old already steeped in Asimov (and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, and the rest of them) being terribly disappointed by “Star Wars”; it seemed to lack any feeling for the things that made science fiction so important to me.

“I am mellower now, and can see that Asimov and Lucas were striving for different effects in different media. “Star Wars” is an essay in acceleration. Its iconic moment is the jump into hyperspace, the stars themselves accelerated to a vanishing-point blur. In all three original “Star Wars” films, it is the speed sequences that stick in the mind- the final assault on the Death Star, the ice skimmers attacking the great walking AT-AT tanks. While speed is not intrinsic to filmed science fiction (Stanley Kubrick delighted in the apparent slowness of his spacecraft in “2001”), it seems crucial to Lucas. His films before “Star Wars”–“THX 1138” and “American Graffiti”—reach a climax with cars moving at high speeds.  According to Pollock, Lucas’s key direction about almost everything was “faster and more intense.” The new “Star Wars” film, “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” has a set-piece drag race.”

“Written science fiction prefers size to speed. There is an authentic thrill in imagining big things – an odd sort of purity. The  French writer Gaston Bachelard, in “The Poetics of Space,” caught it beautifully: “Immensity is a philosophical category of day-dream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” That mark is one that written science fiction endlessy aspires to. It delights in artificial vastness; not just galactic empires but vast structures built out of the raw stuff of space and time, cities and nations uprooted and floating free, cyberspaces that offer infinitv inside a microprocessor.

“The printed word is much better at conveying this sense of immensity than film is. We have to be told, for example, that the Death Star is vast, because usually it looks no bigger than a beachball. The battle station’s interior offers – no vastness at all; its exterior is simply a backdrop against which to measure the speed of smaller spaceships. The “Foundation” series, on the other hand, clearly bears Bachelards mark of infinity. It’s  true that when Asimov tried for size that could be measured or enumerated he could let himself down. Numerically, his twenty-five-million world Empire, covers less than a tenth of a per cent of the galaxy’s hundred billion suns; Trantor, presented as a single city covering a world, is less crowded than Bangladesh. But such slips do not really matter. The sense of scale that drives the “Foundation” series resides in its ideas. The Empire is not just a set of places and planets: it is humanity’s sum total, a great entity that only history can describe and only science can contain.”

Oliver Morton, “In Pursuit of Infinity”. The New Yorker, May 17, 1999. p 87

Image: Azerbaijan Death Star Hotel

Old Republic

coruscant

“Like adding New York to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, then squaring the result. The capital of the Old Republic takes urban sprawl to the extreme and realises the vision of Greek City planner Constantinos Doxiadis of an ecumeonpolis: a single city that covers the whole of a planet. The ‘New Architecture’ style common to the Senate Area of Coruscant is characterised by Manhattan-like skyscrapers nestled among blade-thin obelisks that resemble the soaring minarets of Cairo…”

Top 10: The architecture of Star Wars, Architects’ Journal .

Du lac Dulok

080429-Sandcrawler

“It would appear that the Star Wars Universe owes another debt to architecture. A reader sent in the above image with a note saying that the Hotel du Lac in Tunisia may have served as the inspiration for the Sandcrawlers used by the Jawas to travel across Tatooine. Another visit to Wookiepedia […] tells us that filming for A New Hope largely took place in Tunisia, so it’s entirely possible that this building did, in fact, have an influence on the production design. BONUS: a little trivia for you Extended Universe fans — “du Lac” was the origin of the “Dulok,” the natural enemies of the Ewoks. Obvs. But wait, there’s more!…”

080429-Sandcrawler2

Rem Koolhaas, Tunisia, and Sandcrawlers, Life Without Buildings

Off screen

Bottles

“Toward the end of the film, the hero (Robert Duvall) attempts to escape from his underworld city (called, in the title of the student version of the film done by Lucas at the University of Southern California, an “Electronic Labyrinth”). It is an escape which will bring him finally to a huge ventilation shaft and from there into real daylight for the first time. On the way he breaks into a video monitor room, annex of the central computer bank, and in an act of ultimate counter-acculturation takes the controls himself. He punches out the necessary code and then focuses in on a full-screen shot of the bottled fetus to which his just-dead mate’s ID number has been reassigned. Too long trapped in this encaved prison house of images himself, he cannot help but read this last image—the only one he has chosen for himself to call up, the one that makes visible to him the end of what human place he could claim in this subterranean world—cannot help but read this fetal image, or at least we can’t help but read it for him, as a symbol. The hero will become now in his own shaved person just such a newborn identity, out the long tunnel into the light. In escaping from the actual detention center a few scenes before, the prison within the prison—an overexposed sterile space bled of color and without discernible walls or angles, as if it were the two-dimensional space of his own video-monitored entrapment on an engulfing white screen—he is led out by a fugitive hologram, no less. This video refugee, one of the figures nightly used to pacify the masses, is a mirage tired of being ensnared in his monotonous digital circuit and aching to break free into bodied reality. When asked by the hero for the direction out, he points straight off the screen into the camera and so at us, at a palpable world elsewhere, the world itself…”

Garrett Stewart, “Videology.” Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction Film. George Slusser & Eric S. Rabin eds. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1985. p 176.

No such thing

“When I went to do Star Wars, the real challenge was that I wanted to make a much more active film [than 2001] – which meant more shots, more cutting, more movement, more work. It had never been done before. I looked at this story I wanted to do, and said to myself: ‘Well, can I make this movie? How am I going to do this?’ And being young I responded: ‘Well, sure. I’ll figure out how to do it.’ At school I had a lot of experience in animation and that sort of thing, so I had a vague idea of how to approach some of this stuff from my animation background. Also, I had worked as a camerman and as an editor. I thought: ‘I think I know how to put this together.”

Lizard

“It was a bit like my first film, THX 1138. Walter Murch and I had to present it to the studio, and we put together this presentation showing that it was going to be a futuristic and outlining how we were going to be shooting it on location and such. And we put in there that we were going to develop this very unusual reality using ‘rotary-cam’ photography. We said: ‘That sounds good. Let’s put that in there.’ Fortunately, nobody at the studio asked what it was – because it was nothing. There was no such thing as rotary-cam photography. We thought it would make them believe that we could create this whole world with some wonderful new technique, when all we were going to do was shoot on locations and overexpose a lot.”

Don Shay, “30 Minutes with the Godfather of Digital Cinema”, Cinefex #65. March 1996. p. 58.

My time… is your time

“In the tradition of films like Metropolis, Things to Come, and Logan’s Run, all works that carefully stylize their futuristic worlds and, in the process, set their reality at a safe aesthetic distance from our own, THX 1138 too reaches for a distinct visual scheme, a highly stylized rendition of this other place. However, instead of the sort of monumental look we find to some degree in most utopian/dystopian films, it turns in another direction, offering a stark simplicity: cubicles and bare walls that frame the individual within severe rectangles, imprisoning the subject but also replicating the film frame itself and thereby rendering the person as doubly a “screened” image. In a further development of this design scheme, seen especially in the futuristic prison-without-walls to which THX is consigned, it emphasizes horizonless, open space that has the effect of reducing dimension, turning the self into a two-dimensional figure. More pervasive, though building to a similar effect, is the monochromatic color scheme. The constant white-on-white, recalling the initial descriptions of the future world in Huxley’s Brave New World, not only suggests a sterile and lifeless world but also diminishes the individual by making the subject blend into the background and again appear two-dimensional. Individuality and individuation simply have no place here. The overall effect of this visual design scheme is to consistently frame subjects in an abstract space, removing them from a conventionally real world and, in the process, reconfiguring them as part of a derealized environment.

Praying
“In keeping with this effect, THX 1138 also brings into the foreground the very role of representation here and its implications for future life; for from its start this film manifests a kind of self-consciousness, evoking the mechanism of the movies and asking us to consider the effects of that mechanism. We see this impulse in the constant iconography of video screens, computer terminals, and surveillance technology, in the whole mechanics of reproduction on which the genre so often focuses. Of course, that sort of imagery hardly seems out of place here, since such icons typically fill our science fiction narratives. As Garrett Stewart notes, these various “mechanics of apparition,” through their omnipresence, have indeed become a kind of generic signature.”

Telotte, J.P. “The Science Fiction Film as Fantastic Text: THX 1138.” Science Fiction Film.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pp  130.

Minimalism Mash Star Wars

“In a 1967 essay on minimalism, Clement Greenberg, America’s most influential critic, could have been describing Star Wars: “Everything is rigorously rectilinear or spherical. Development within a given piece is usually repetition of the same modular shape, which may or may not be varied in size.” Greenberg rejected minimalism as pedestrian. “Minimal works are readable as art,” he wrote, “as almost anything is today, including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.” Perhaps because of its fantastic nature, the Death Star has never been recognized as an essential work of minimalism—but it is one.

anewheap

“Its destruction has never been acknowledged as a turning point for modernism—but it was one. Lucas unabashedly emulated the visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),which incorporated the principles of modernist architecture (spare, utilitarian, evenly lit spaces) and the presence of a minimalist slab (colorless, drab, depersonalized, inscrutable non-art). The only ornamental flourishes in the film were borrowed from NASA (whitewashed modular construction pocked by latches, struts, and access panels) and corporate furniture design (steel, leather, powder-coat enamel, and blobby red Dijinn).

Lucas hired so many members of Kubrick’s team that their subset of the Star Wars crew was dubbed “The Class of 2001.” But he borrowed selectively. Kubrick’s 2001 environments were cohesive and balanced, informed by architectural theory and late-’60s aesthetics; they upheld the distinction between the astronaut modernists and the alien minimalists. By contrast, Lucas willfully mashed together minimalism, modernism, and NASA design. Two visual rhetorics are at war on-screen: The first is that of an industrial superpower; the second is that of a rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches…

Star Wars: A New Heap – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Death Star, John Powers, Triple Canopy