Star Wars, Da Vinci, and Playing in the Dirt

Darth Vader

One of the overarching differences between the new Star Wars episode and its most recent trilogy of predecessors is the use of physical set pieces in lieu of computer-generated imagery. Under J. J. Abrams, the studio employed an army of professionals to construct the Millennium Falcon, military base interiors, a desert settlement, and countless alien faces and bits of puppetry. The crew shot in exotic locations, reminiscent of the original trilogy’s scenes filmed in the Tunisian desert or near a Norse glacier. In a promo piece for the film, a scruffy but still youthful Mark Hamill rattles off dreamy sentence fragments about “real sets—practical effects” and “keeping one foot in the pre-digital world.” The use of such things not only bolsters the actors’ ability to play, it allows the audience headspace to identify with the movie.

There lies a tension between all the people involved in a film, including the audience, and the set pieces, shots, and lines—the stuff of the movie. This tension, to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wording, is the “willing suspension of disbelief.” We can, to a point, loosen our grip on realistic scrutiny and use our imaginations. It’s good for us to do so. Picasso pointed out the inherent humanity of imagination when he said, “all children are artists,” and Madeleine L’Engle reminded us that imagination is a requisite part of prayer and faith. Imagination is a source of tension, however, because it only goes so far.

If we don’t identify with characters, set pieces, and music on a human level, it is impossible to stretch our imaginations toward empathy, a crucial piece of movie-going (or any other engagement with art). Consider the Stormtroopers of Star Wars: with little exception, they are intentionally faceless. We get rare glimpses into personalities through bits of dialogue and the occasional removed helmet, but by and large, we don’t care about them. They are as dispensable to us as they are to the Galactic Empire that created them. Yet, we identify with BB-8 and R2-D2, robots with no faces but an excess of personality that supplies the humanity we require to feel empathy. Paradoxically, the physical sets and practical effects supply the grounds for empathy through their imperfections. While we appreciate excellent skill, it is the work’s minute yet important weaknesses that lend us space to meet it on a human level.

Physical sets do not glow like CGI effects. They remain marked by the un-cartoonish look of real light. Even with the most outstanding craftsmanship, the human eye can discern the difference between real matter and a computer model. Real dirt and real paint move with small inconsistencies under the bristles of a brush or the guidance of a human hand. A computer works with algorithms and cannot easily reproduce such things. Even humanity’s greatest achievements are marked by weakness.

I once had the chance to see the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, of course, including the wall upon which it hung, but the Smithsonian guard let people stand mere inches from the painting. This I did with elation. It’s oil on wood, over six hundred years old, and the most exquisite, delicate work I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that my eye for such things is amateur at best, but to me, Leonardo’s famous chiaroscuro was flawless, unbetrayed by even the rippled evidence of a brushstroke. The gentle gradations on Ginevra’s ivory cheek far outstripped anything I had seen, and I found myself near to disbelief that such skill could exist. How could anyone paint something so perfect? Yet, beyond the artistry, there were inherent flaws in the medium itself. Tiny cracks spiderwebbed across the surface, and minute bubbles hovered in the dark foliage behind the subject—the marks of time’s passage. If not for these, I would have held the painting’s authenticity suspect. It was these blemishes that allowed me to fully appreciate that the ingenious work before me was executed by a living, breathing person of unequivocal ability and passion. I could thereby enter into the humanity of that individual. What sort of commitment must one maintain to foster such skill? What suffering must one endure? What insights into the world are part and parcel to such a creative journey? These are questions posed only by the humanity of the Ginevra de’ Benci. Call it a human flaw or a product of fallenness, but we seem preconditioned to view deficiency as a kind of approachability.

Here in the wake of Christmas, and in light of Epiphany, we do well to remember the humanity of Christ. The oldest narrative in the Old Testament, the Book of Job, finds its titular character crying out for “[a] mediator between [God and man],” someone to “lay his hand on us both,” “one among a thousand.” “Then I would speak up without fear of him,” Job says, “but as it now stands with me, I cannot.” The approachability of God is in question here, not as an indictment, but as a plea. Christmas and Epiphany show us a God who is willing to embrace the consequences of the Fall: pain, temptation, weariness, sorrow, and eventual death. We see God with dirt on him, and we find the courage to identify with him, with the one who did not shun our limitations but inhabited them, bearing our griefs. This is what it means to tabernacle.

Subsequently, in the Christian disciplines, we are commanded to confess our sins to one another, revealing our own faults and personal horrors. As worldly people, what we expect to stem from our vulnerability is ostracism. It’s one of the lies we’re shown most often—and one in which we sometimes participate. Communities become mobs, sneering at and shunning those whose sins are particularly susceptible to human judgment. We do it on social media and see it on the news. Small wonder that we fear personal confession. Yet, in safe places and trusted groups—I think of the men at my church—confession and vulnerability allow for human connection between those humble enough to recognize their own struggles, inward or otherwise. I can empathize with people, and they with me, because we see the dirt on each other. We see the lightly dented sets and the cracks in the structures of our lives, and remembering our own weakness, we do not condemn.

The fanboy in me appreciates the same dirt in Abrams’ rendition of a George Lucas tale. Am I a Star Wars geek? Sure, I suppose. When I’m alone and waiting for an elevator, I raise my hand in a little Jedi maneuver, pretending to open the door with my mind. It’s fun, stupid, and proof that I’ve seen altogether too many movies. Geek or not though, the reason episodes four through seven of the series visually compel me is their reality, a reality recognized not in CGI glow and flawless corners, but in the humble imperfections and fault lines of physical sets and practical effects. It is the same with my family, friends, and neighbors. While we recognize failure as failure, thereby proving a desire for perfection, we also recognize weakness as human, establishing the ground for true relationships.

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