A Cyclical Aesthetic: Futurism, Fascism and Modern Film
The past century has witnessed horrors and destruction on a scale unparalleled in human history. The death struggles between communism, fascism and capitalism resulted in the defeat of the two former movements at a cost in terms of human suffering that is almost unimaginable. The century also gave birth to a bewildering array of artistic movements such as futurism, cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism. It is perhaps not surprising that artistic movements should model themselves upon the "ism"s of political ideologies, for in the course of the past decades the distinction between the two has often been blurred.
This paper shall review some of the artistic and political revolutions of the past century. It will be argued that the art of the century cannot truly be understood without reference to its political structures, and vice versa, for the two informed each others structures and patterns of development. Indeed, as will be seen, the deep structure of aesthetics in this century is cyclical and may be seen to have – at century's end – determined the triumph of the fascist will in aesthetics five decades after the ideology was crushed in Europe.
The Empire Strikes Back
One of the strangest aesthetic echoes of the twentieth century occurred in the late 1970s when the American director George Lucas launched the phenomenon known as Star Wars. The most successful franchise in cinematic history, Star Wars tells a basic story of good versus evil between broadly-drawn characters dressed in white and black. Towards the end of the movie, after the destruction of the Death Star, the three heroes enter a vast hall to receive their honours from the leaders of the rebellion.
Any cinephile in the audience would have experienced a jarring sense of deja vu at this point. The three heroes march down an avenue between massed ranks of rebel soldiers – who turn with military precision as the heroes pass – to a raised podium at the end of a vast stadium. This image is a clear quote from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which captured on film Albert Speer's spectacular set and production of the sixth Nazi Party Conference in 1934. In place of Luke Skywalker and his two companions, Riefenstahl's shows Hitler, Himmler, and the new head of the Nazi stormtroopers march down the avenue. Indeed, as stills from the rally show, Lucas even echoed the vertical swastika flags behind the podium at Nuremburg with rows of vertical columns behind Princess Leia (Winston, 132-33).
While critics might argue that there is a symbolic layer of significance here, a more troubling possibility is that there is no direct relationship between the politics of Star Wars and that of Triumph of the Will. Rather, as a free-floating image – divorced of any overt Nazi connection – Lucas' cinematic quote is particularly disturbing as it is a celebration of power in and of itself. Indeed, from the opening of the first movie when the vast starship moves over the heads of filmgoers, through John Williams' compositions of imperial marches, to the special effects of dazzling speed and light, Lucas defined the aesthetic tastes of a generation. That he did so by recycling across time and disciplines the iconography of a fascist empire that has come to represent – in the view of history – one of the lowest points of human civilization, is probably lost on most of the audience.
A Futuristic Fascism
One of the ironies of Lucas' quoting Triumph of the Will is that the Nazi iconography was itself a quote. Underlying the Nazi images was an earlier aesthetic – that of Futurism – which informed Italian fascism and probably contributed to the display of military power that was the Nuremburg rally. In the Futurist Manifesto (11 September, 1916) Marinetti and his compatriots argued that the era of books and learned was past. Society had evolved beyond the need for words; all that mattered now was sensation, speed and war which would be incarnated in cinema:
The Futurist cinema . . . will become the best school of youth: a school teaching joy, speed, strength, courage and heroism . . . . The Futurist cinema will thus take part in the general renewal, supplanting the literary review (always pedantic) and the drama (always predictable), and killing the book (always tedious and oppressive). (Marinetti, 25)
Although it took a century to come to pass, it may be argued that we are now living in the "future" depicted by Futurism. Young people today are schooled by cinema and media more profoundly than by our education system. Since Star Wars the dominant cinematic vehicle has been the "blockbuster" which, invariably, seems to consist of heroes with big muscles driving things that move really fast, and blowing up other things and people in really big fireballs. The popularity of books, and indeed of written media in general, is declining dramatically in comparison to the power and speed of newer media such as cinema and the World Wide Web.
Star Wars may thus be seen as fulfilling the promise of Futurist cinema in many respects. It did mark a sort of renewal of American film and the end of a brief period in American cultural life when the media, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, questioned the political and social status quo. Complicated intellectual analyses were ignored in favor of easy distinctions – white/black; United States/Soviet Union; us/them – that came to define the presidency of Ronald Reagan only a few years later.
Given the interdisciplinary flow of ideas from culture to politics and back again, it is not surprising that President Reagan employed the terminology of Lucas' films in labelling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" (although it was, in many respects, an empire and certainly evil under Stalin), against which he employed his Strategic Defense Initiative that quickly became known in the popular media as "Star Wars" (Ryan, 228-37). None of this is, of course, to say that Lucas was a Nazi or a supporter of Reagan. However, when Lucas took Nazi iconography and stripped it of its overt ideology, he was left with an essentially Futurist construct.
Lucas' celebration of speed, power, and war as a force for renewal may be seen to have had a direct impact upon the American socio-political context. This was in keeping with the Futurist vision of the ultimate purpose of drama: "We therefore believe that the only way to inspire Italy with the warlike spirit today is through the theatre" (Marinetti, 23). Certainly Star Wars coincided with a renewal of American confidence in the capacity of the military, through technology, to conquer any foe. This may be seen in the American defense buildup throughout the 1980s, which culminated in the Persian Gulf War where American laser-guided bombs destroyed a Baghdad which, lit by waves of anti-aircraft fire, presented a striking visual echo of the Death Star battle from Star Wars over a decade earlier.
The Empire of the Senses
It is fatally easy to represent the Star Wars films as a simplistic merchandising franchise, without appreciating how much of their power is borrowed from artistic work in other disciplines. However, it is important not to demonize Star Wars as the single cause of this modern fascination with speed and power, for important elements that contributed to Lucas' vision – and 6 thereby to the Western socio-political mainstream – already existed within our social context as figured within other media and disciplines.
Consider, for example, one of the most disturbing aspects of the Star Wars movies: the staggering body count of the imperial dead. This may seem like a trivial issue – the imperials are the bad guys after all – but the scale and the dismissive nature of the slaughter dwarfs that of comparative treatments of war in, for example, Hollywood propaganda films of the Second World War. There, at least, the Nazis and Japanese had faces; although all too often these were caricatures. In Star Wars the enemy, except for a handful of figures, are faceless soldiers who die in their thousands without blood or pain. In a sense this may be seen as the perfect fulfilment of the Futurist cry for a "great hygienic war" (Marinetti, 25).
It is easy to dismiss this issue with the response that it is "just" an action movie. However, cultural constructs – especially those with the demonstrated mass resonance of the Star Wars films – are never simply "movies". Indeed, Star Wars has had such an impact that other movies – such as the "indie" film Clerks where in one scene the characters debate the morality of killing "innocent" imperials – situate themselves with respect to it as a cultural reference point.
If we thus perceive Star Wars as not a singular work but as a component of a cultural continuum, then the slaughter of the imperials represents simply a stage in the gradual reduction of 7 the human body (of others!) as an object whose destruction and mutilation stirs our jaded senses. J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg argue as much in an interview explaining their controversial aesthetic vision for the movie Crash:
JB: I was writing against a background of a sensationhungry media landscape that seized on all the violent imagery emerging from Vietnam, from the Kennedy assassination, from civil wars in Africa . . . I was writing about the way in which sensation had usurped the place previously occupied by some kind of sympathetic engagement with the subject. ("Body Work", 39)
As Ballard and Cronenberg contend, movies such as Star Wars and Crash interact and engage with social attitudes in complex ways. It may be argued that Star Wars made the objectification of a faceless enemy – at the end of a missile arc, not face to face – popular in the West. The slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqi troops thousands of feet below allied aircraft, or the bombing of Serbia by NATO in the recent Kosovo crisis, was acceptable to Western public opinion only because of our cultural objectification humanity in works such as Star Wars. Like this paper? PhDify.com provides professional academic writing help. We know what you need.
Decades ago, the bombing of Guernica by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War shocked the conscience of a world, and led to Picasso's painting of one of the most masterful works of protest ever created: Guernica (1937). Today, in an environment constructed by a sensation-hungry media and informed by the "hygienic war" of Hollywood, the bombing of innocents has become "collateral damage" and elicits barely a yawn in the general public. As we have seen, the distinction between cultural production and socio-political context is an artificial one. From the Futurists to the Fuhrer to the Hollywood blockbuster and modern air war, art has both reflected society and revisioned it. We can no longer perceive or study cultural productions divorced of their context for, as we have seen, it is the context that often invests our productions with their significance. All types of writing tasks you can order at PhDify.com
- "Body Work: Andrew Hultkrans Talks with J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg." in Course Kit: Arts and Ideas. York University, 1999: 33-40.
- Marinetti, Filippo, Bruno Corra, and Emilio Settimelli. "Futurist Manifesto: Futurist Synthetic Theatre 1915." in Course Kit: Arts and Ideas. York University, 1999: 23-24.
- Marinetti, Filippo et al. ""Futurist Manifesto: Futurist Cinema 1916." in Course Kit: Arts and Ideas. York University, 1999: 25-26.
- Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
- Winston, Brian. "Triumph of the Will." in Course Kit: Arts and Ideas. York University, 1999: 132-36.