Is Revenge Of The Sith The Greatest Work Of Art Of This Generation?

I certainly enjoyed Camille Paglia‘s monograph on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, while also considering some of it a bit loopy. It certainly held my attention, however.

And now she’s got my attention again. Here’s a Q&A from a recent interview with Vice (via IGN):

Well, what about Revenge of the Sith? You say it’s the greatest work of art, in any medium, created in the last 30 years. It’s better than… uh, Matthew Barney or Rachel Whiteread or Chris Ware or Peter Doig?

Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.

But what is this inherent artistic value? I’d sure like her to elaborate on this emotional power too. And can we assume that global impact essentially means Revenge of the Sith was a huge international blockbuster?

So her comments here aren’t really that satisfying. Still, Paglia is only being asked this question by Vice because she’s published an opinion to this effect already, in her new book Glittering Images.

And so obviously I’ve just purchased a copy for my Kindle. I’ll read the whole thing later, but for now, let’s get right to the Sith.

She makes her first reference during the introduction:

The thesis of my final chapter – that film director and digital pioneer George Lucas is the world’s greatest living artist – emerged over the five-year process of writing this book. Nothing I saw in the visual arts of the past thirty years was as daring, beautiful and emotionally compelling as the spectacular volcano-planet climax of Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith.

That didn’t really help any. Now I have two separate claims, each needing substantiation.

Here’s the best of what that final chapter offers. You’ll have to tell me if this convinces you Paglia has a point or not. This is not a single quote from the book, but many of the key points, as I recognise them.

No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas. In his epochal six-film Star Wars saga, he fused ancient hero legends from East and West with futuristic science fiction and created characters who have entered the dream lives of millions.

Lucas was the digital visionary who prophesied and helped shape a host of advances, such as computer-generated imagery; computerized film editing, sound mixing and virtual set design; high-definition cinematography; fiber-optic transmission of dailies; digital movie duplication and distribution; theater and home-entertainment stereo surround sound; and refinements in video-game graphics, interactivity, and music.

Lucas called this fierce fight [at the climax of Sith] between Anakin Skywalker and his Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi “the turning point of the whole series.” Fire provides the sublime elemental poetry here, as water did on the storm-swept planet of Kamino in the prior film, Attack of the Clones. Lucas said he long had a mental color image of the Sith finale, “monochromatic in its red and blackness.” The seething reds and yellows of the great lava river and waterfalls (based on Niagara Falls) flood the eye. It is a vision of hell. As in Dante, there is an allegorical level: “I have the high ground,” declares Obi-Wan when he springs to the top of a black sandy slope. Hell, as in Marlow, Milton and Blake, is a psychological state – Anakin’s self-destructive surrender to possessive love and jealous hate.

As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with nature’s brute primal power. Lucas crosscuts to the delirious destruction on Coruscant of the Great Rotunda of the Galactic Senate, with its thousand round balconies in cool tonalities of grey and black. This twinned rumination of industrial and political architecture is an epic Romantic spectacle, like split parts of JMW Turner’s eyewitness painting of the burning of the British Houses of Parliament in 1834.

The sound mix, overseen by Lucas, is unnerving; a tempest of roars, hisses, splutters, clangs and splashes goes shockingly blank and silent when Anakin’s arms and legs are severed midair.

And she moves on to the birth of the Skwalker twins:

The exquisite tenderness with which strong men handle babies here surely reflects Lucas’s own experience as a single parent who retired for two years to raise the first of his three adopted children. “Expand our universe!” Lucas commands his artists and technicians. He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.

Okay, I’m not buying it. It’s not that I can’t see how her readings actually do relate, to varying extents, with the audio visual content of the film, it’s just that I’m not impressed. Yes, some artefacts of civilization fall foul of nature in this movie. Yes, some burly men and tender with kids. But it all adds up to not-so-much.

Honestly, can’t we perform a reading like this of dozens, if not hundreds of films from the last thirty years (Paglia’s specified window, not mine)?

I’d love to sit her down in front of Avatar, say, and see what she can get out of that. Seems to be that it would tick a lot of her boxes, anyhow.

I’ll meet her in the middle, I guess. I’ll agree that Revenge of the Sith has resonances, and that they’re often sincere. I’m just not going to see it as extraordinary for this.

Right, back to page one of Glittering Images, I think, for Paglia’s take on Queen Nefertari… not really any of our business at Bleeding Cool, but I do think the book is going to be a zippy read and fun for my inner monologue to comment on.

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