Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Images of Power Part III: Radical or Conservative Imagery?

Is Anakin Skywalker evil?
Our "Images of Power" mini-series uses Professor Jeffrey A. Hart's "Images of Power in Hollywood Films: The Example of Star Wars" conference paper as a springboard for discussion about the imagery of power in the Star Wars movies. Hart identifies several strains of power-based imagery throughout the Star Wars saga, most of which focus on the conflict between good versus evil. Today, we conclude with: Part III: Radical or Conservative Imagery?

Near the beginning of his article, Hart raises an intriguing question: is the imagery of power in Hollywood conservative or radical? Not in the sense of partisan politics, of course. Rather, does Hollywood imagery challenge political norms or reinforce the status quo? Unfortunately, Hart never fully answers that question for Star Wars, but it's a great springboard for discussion.

First, the imagery of power in the Original Trilogy is in many ways very conservative, at least as American as apple pie. When evil is depicted, the films use historical motifs from America's enemies, such as the Nazis and Soviets. The good guys are young, white, and innocent, while the bad guys are faceless and irredeemable. The Empire Strikes Back introduces some moral ambiguity by revealing that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. However, the final image of Vader in Return of the Jedi moderates the potentially radical nature of this revelation. When Luke removes Vader's helmet, Anakin Skywalker is severely damaged and malformed. As Joseph Campbell notes, Vader an incomplete human, both physically and morally.

The imagery of good and evil in the Prequel Trilogy is potentially much more radical. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker is not simply a deformed human being, but rather a young, handsome, "the all-American boy". When Anakin commits his greatest crime - slaughtering younglings - he is clearly physically complete, if morally incomplete. Anakin's physical deformation only comes after he turns to the Dark Side and only because he was defeated by the good guys, namely Obi-Wan Kenobi, on Mustafar. Likewise, during much of the prequels, Palpatine, secretly Darth Sidious, appears as a kindly old man. In other words, the imagery in the prequels suggests that evil is not so easily identifiable. Becoming evil is a choice that anybody can make, including those who fit the typical Hollywood image of the "good guys".

As noted last week, Star Wars also subtly critiques the Cold Wars arms race, most notably through the imagery of the Death Stars. However, the Death Star could easily be taken to represent the dangers of nuclear weapons on both sides, not as a critique of American Cold War policy. After all, only the Empire, the "bad guys", use those "technological terrors". Moreover, as Hart points out, Star Wars was not the first movie to criticize the arms race, and not even the first to use science fiction. Dr. Strangelove, coming during the height of the Cold War, was arguably much more radical. By the late 1970s the anti-nuclear movement was no longer marginal in American politics.

The Vietcong?
One scene that Hart unfortunately does not mention is that of the Ewoks versus the Stormtroopers. The Battle of Endor was obviously patterned after the Vietcong fighting American G.I.'s during the Vietnam War. The "good guys" are portrayed as native insurgents against an "evil" superpower. This imagery had the potential to be extremely radical, especially during the early 1980s. However, Lucas downplays the radical nature of this imagery by clearly identifying the "good guys" and "bad guys". The Ewoks are cute and cuddly while Imperial troops resemble Nazis. The imagery does not create moral ambiguity or challenge political norms directly. While some fans might not like galactic Teddy Bears, the Ewoks did help Return of the Jedi to retain its core "David vs. Goliath" message without alienating American audiences.

So, is the imagery of power in Star Wars conservative or radical? The Original Trilogy in many ways contained radical messages but used conservative visual imagery to depict them. By contrast, the Prequel Trilogy was much more openly radical, but its philosophical message might have been hampered by artistic decisions. In many ways, the prequels are some of the most radical mainstream American movies to have come out since the Original Trilogy. The prequels attempted to challenge audiences and their preconceived notions of political power. After all, when was the last time the "good guys" in a blockbuster movie not only lose but also become the "bad guys"? It will be fascinating to see whether Abrams continues to push the more radical approach of the Prequel Trlogy or adopts the more conservative imagery of the Original Trilogy.

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