Tuesday, November 3, 2009

a theological question from THX 1138

I'm going to talk a bit about the CGI additions George Lucas made to his films prior to reissue on DVD, particularly THX1138. This is a contentious issue, and I don't think I'm speaking too strongly to say it is essentially a theological question, so it might take a little while to get where I'm going. To clarify: when George Lucas reissued his films, many of them had new material primarily made via computer-based motion rendering more commonly known as CGI. This isn't a new interest for Lucas, who helped create Industrial Light and Magic as a workshop for various special effects, and who worked in computer graphics from the beginning of his work in films, including a number of games made via Lucasarts. The most notable CGI change in Lucas's films are a series of changes in the Star Wars trilogy, leading to cries of HAN SHOT FIRST. A comparison can be made with the changed Steven Spielberg made to ET in which the guns held by police were exchanged for cellphones, creating an obvious anachronism. I agree with these claims, though I think Lucas is not blithely making these additions but attempting to make a statement on storytelling and the quasi-illusory nature of mediated reality, a statement he makes most effectively with his additions to THX 1138.

Attempting to explain THX 1138 to someone who has not seen it is pretty much beyond my abilities, so I'll just say it's a somewhat dystopian (though ultimately, as is often the case with such films, hopeful) sci-fi fable attempting to explore the change of individual consciousness from meaningless cog in a decadent and futile societal machine good only for the production of meaningless product designed exclusively to mediate humanity's understanding of itself and its surroundings into a state of illumination through a series of increasingly complex trials. The character of THX (played with incredibly impressive subtlety by Robert Duvall) gradually and arguably accidentally begins to see the flaws in the system which surrounds him primarily through his increasing attraction to and love for the character LUH. He is hounded by the character SEN, played amazingly by Donald Pleasance, who can be considered THX's doubts and fears, or in a theological sense as Satan. The word Satan is very complicated, as it has a whole series of distinct meanings depending on context, so let me say I mean Satan in this case as the Adversary, the force which stands between the individual and God which is, in truth, part of that individual, the portion which has limited the individuals understanding in order to function and adapt to society. SEN works in conjunction with the society as a whole, which attempts to control THX through medication, exhaustion and a simulacra of religious faith (THX confesses publicly to an icon of Christ connected to an automated response system) which only leaves him feeling more isolated and hopeless. THX continues to resist this system and search for LUH (which is to say love) and as his awareness grows he physically moves through a model of consciousness, discovering he is physically controlled by the society who can physically turn him on and off at will until he finally enters the studio where his reality his manufactured, or as Burroughs would say his break through into the grey room. The entire film takes place with a minimum of conversation over a constant (and absolutely stunning) bed of sounds and drones produced by Lalo Shifrin and Walter Murch, who co-wrote the screenplay. It's a very difficult film, and it's not difficult to see why it isn't very popular compared to Lucas's other films, but I think it's very much worth watching. I should also note that while I'm going to focus on a Christian comparison here, the film is filled with ideas and images from a number of theologies and philosophies, from Javanese dance and puppetry to Jewish mysticism to Gnostic notions of Manichean duality to nods towards Orwell and Huxley.

The first complaint against the CGI additions is that they stand out, and are not subtle. Some critics feel this is just sloppiness, but it's easy to see that the film constantly and intentionally breaks the fourth wall and draws attention to its unreality -- it is a parable, and the parable is not to be mistaken for a factual event. The theological ramifications of this are hopefully clear. The second, and more interesting complaint, made by people like Damon Packard (not exactly a slouch in these matters) is that films were (and in many ways still are) individual events, some of which form the bedrock of our childhood memories, and to tamper with them in this way is fraudulent and damaging. I'd generally agree with this, and I don't know if I see a way of arguing that the changes made specifically to Star Wars (which involve fundamental plot shifts, essentially telling a different story than the original films) make the film worse, though it's important to keep in mind the original films are readily available alongside the director's cuts -- I think this is important, and deliberately demonstrates the multiplicity of stories in this universe, that there is not one core truth taking place, and through the comparison and contrast of these options we are engaged in seeking deeper meaning in the work, Rashomon-style (or, to keep with my comparison, in the style of the Gospels). In THX 1138, however, this schism is key to the plot of the film, and the film attempts at nearly every turn to make this split clear to the attentive viewer, so it seems only natural that Lucas would take the opportunity to add chronological incontinuities at the time of rerelease. The entire film works via Brechtian principles of defamiliarization, which I suspect influenced Lucas via the French New Wave directors such as Goddard -- it's not hard to draw a parallel between Alphaville and THX 1138. The film falls into Brecht's notion of Epic Theater, in which the goal of a work is not storytelling in which the audience identifies with a specific character but a method of self-reflection in which the entire film is a sort of funhouse mirror, intentionally distorting itself in order to allow the mind to grasp its ideas. There's a lot to be said for and against this idea (many viewers find this kind of self-reflection pretentious and dismissive), which we won't get into here, but I do feel it's safe to say that was Lucas and Murch's goal, and a work deserves to be considered as a success or failure according to its own goals in addition to our opinions as an audience.

To bring this around to more TODF-related media, Jean Rollin claimed a difference between horror (which is "scary" because it convincingly mimics reality) and the fantastic (which is not "scary" and attempts to illustrate its own phantasmagoric unreality, thus letting the viewer "in on the joke"), claiming his works as the latter. There's a spectrum between these two poles, however, and while we'll get to mimesis next semester in the graduate series I think it's important to at least acknowledge that distinction as a big part of my thinking on these films, and on the notion of "seeding the subconscious of youth" (or blowing your childhood goofing off and watching weirdo movies) in general.

I have a comparison to make between these additions after the fact and the schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches regarding the inclusion of the word filioque (roughly meaning "and from the son") to the line "Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit" in the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed, but first I gotta scrub the hallways.

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