6 Critical Concepts We Can Learn From Star Wars

The Star Wars franchise with its multiple writers, directors, producers, editions, spin-offs, canon, expanded universe, and fan fiction allows us to understand some basic concepts established in critical theory a long time ago in an academic world that is not so far, far away.

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The Director is the Author

Photo by Joichi Ito (Creative Commons Attribution Licensed) text by Leonardo Flores / Via starwars.com

Auteur Theory suggests that critics and audiences should consider the director (and sometimes the producer) of a film to be its author. Just as an author uses a pen, a director uses cameras, actors, set design, sound, editing, and more to create something that expresses their vision.

By examining George Lucas' first and second Star Wars trilogies, and now J.J. Abrams we can observe differences in cinematic style, storytelling approaches, thematic concerns, and ideologies-- including how they handle questions of gender and race.

The Author is Dead

Image Credit: Michael Kovac / Getty Images for Dodge. Text by Leonardo Flores / Via usmagazine.com

Not literally! :-) As of this writing, George Lucas is alive and well.

Roland Barthes' influential essay "La mort de l'auteur" (The Death of the Author) argues that authors and their identities exerted tyrannical control over the interpretation of a work and that interpretation needed to happen between the text and the readers. This is an updated version of what the New Critics called "The Intentional Fallacy" in which they placed meaning purely on the text, advocating for close reading rather than trying to determine what the author intended through biographical and historical criticism.

Close reading is why fans and critics go through detailed frame-by-frame analysis to find easter eggs and formulate theories and interpretations.

Audiences participate in the creation of fictional worlds.

GIF adapted from ReplyGIF.net. Text by Leonardo Flores. / Via replygif.net

The films are simply a sequence of images and sounds and they only begin to function symbolically in the viewer's imagination (adapting Louise Rosenblatt's Reader's Response theory to cinema). Wolfgang Iser contributed to the theory by explaining how works contain "blanks" spaces that we fill with our own imagination, creating virtual texts.

From this perspective, there is some validity to all (well, most) fan theories, criticism*, fandom, and other aspects of participatory culture.

*Of course, you still need to make a compelling argument for your critique or theory.

Authorship is a property and can be sold.

Photo by beyondthemarquee.com. Text by Leonardo Flores / Via beyondthemarquee.com

Authorship is more than just about controlling interpretation of a work, however. In "What is an Author?" Michel Foucault explains that, beyond the discourses made possible by attributing a work to a person (real or otherwise), the author-function is linked to legal notions of ownership and codified under copyright laws.

By selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney, he granted them the right to determine canon, create new works, and have a say about which version of the original Star Wars trilogy is published.

Authorial intent changes and can lead to multiple versions.

Still image from Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Text by Leonardo Flores, with apologies to Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Textual scholarship and editorial theory have long been sites for discussion on how to best deal with cases of multiple drafts, alternate versions, and different editions of texts-- the result of multiple authorial interventions over time. Which version of the work best captures the author's intentions? How can we determine intent when it can change over time? Does authorial intent even matter?

George Lucas' revisions to the original Star Wars trilogy have been documented and denounced by fans, none more than the 1997 change in which Greedo shoots first and Han Solo shoots back in self defense, sanitizing him from any moral ambiguity.

According to textual theory, Han Solo both shot first and didn't shoot first, and the different versions are evidence of the fluidity of George Lucas' intentions over time.

This still leaves us with the question of what version of Star Wars we should watch.

Editorial choices should be foregrounded.

Still images from original and Blu-ray editions of Star Wars, Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi.

New audiences interested in seeing the Star Wars Saga may go to the iTunes Store, start with Episode 1, wonder what the whole big deal about Star Wars is all about and never see another of the films. The film collection sold there is offered without context or information as to which version of the films one is getting, and no indication as to the order in which they might be best experienced.

Fans have suggested different sequences to watch the films-- mostly the Original Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) and then the Prequel Trilogy (Episodes I-III), and the compelling "machete order." But what version should you watch?

I like a fan edit known as Harmy's Despecialized Edition, which creates a high-definition version of the original theatrical cut of Star Wars: A New Hope (see this brief documentary details the changes). The work done by Petr Harmáček (aka “Harmy”) and his team is serious critical editing work that foregrounds its editorial choices.

A parting Jedi mind trick

Via screenrant.com

And if you think none of these issues apply to the still-in-theaters Episode VII: The Force Awakens, think again.

* There are 2D and IMAX 3D versions, each one with distinct aspect ratios that will affect how you experience and interpret the film.

* What impact does the content of deleted scenes have in how you interpret the film?

* How do the script and novelization enrich our understanding of the film?

* If the author is dead, why are readers hanging onto every word uttered by J.J. Abrams?

Sorry folks. There are no easy answers to any of these questions, not even for a geeky English professor such as myself. And my answers are my own. :-)

You'll need to figure this out the hard way-- reading critical theory, dedicating years of study in the Humanities, and settling on your own stance on these issues.

May the Force be with you.

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