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One of the defining thematic elements of the Star Wars films is ‘identity’. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, seeks the truth about his heritage; before him, his father Annakin is torn between destinies forged by the duality of The Force. Origins, influences and choices are central to their heroic journeys, just as they are to us all. STAR WARS Identities is a new exhibit that asks visitors to create their own Star Wars characters based upon key developmental stages – our genetic make-up, cultural influences, parental guidance, and adult belief system. Laela French, Director of Archives at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and one of America’s pre-eminent art historians, oversaw the exhibition from concept to creation and has brought over 200 original Lucasfilm artefacts to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum for the Australian season of Identities.

“It is an exhibit that communicates the story of us, of who we are,” she said at the launch of the event last Thursday at the iconic Powerhouse building. “It helps us explore the universal factors that helped shape not only the Star Wars characters, but also that shapes us.” Ms French sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss her latest project… 

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the concept for STAR WARS Identities take shape?

FRENCH: We’re always looking ahead, wondering what it is that we can do that’s new. When someone pitched the ‘science of identity’ within the Star Wars universe, the response was immediate. Annakin and Luke’s story arcs were a great through-thread, then putting the visitors into the experience and having them create their own identity took shape.

SCREEN-SPACE: There is a fascinating ‘meta’ element about the Star Wars universe peeking inside the minds of its fans…  

FRENCH: And every fan wants to step into Star Wars, that’s really the essence of their fan fascination. That’s why we have legions like the 501st and the fan clubs and that’s always been the focus of our exhibits. But the exhibits also have to be educational; that’s of paramount importance. Above all else, we have to ensure they are rooted in science, whatever we are working on. So we had a huge scientific committee, working from the perspective of psychology or biometrics, utilising every iteration of the human experience that we could think of. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Identities seems to particularly reflect the living, breathing ‘human quality’ of the Star Wars story… 

FRENCH: When you pick your ‘identity quest’ you get to pick your alien species. But there are no robots there, which caused a huge debate, with some arguing, “Oh, but the kids will want to be R2,” while others rightly argued, “But it’s an artificial intelligence, and this exhibit is about organic evolution versus exactly that.” So, it was decided that, well, the kids will be disappointed but there’ll get it. The aim was to help them learn about science by putting them in the driver’s seat of the ‘identities experiment’. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Put on your ‘art historian’ hat for a moment. When do ‘pre-production drawings’ and ‘conceptual paintings’ servicing a film cross the line into ‘contemporary American art’?

FRENCH: That line was crossed the minute the stuff was made. Back in 1975, when George had this idea to create a ‘space western mythology’, he was making art. Anytime a filmmaker sets out to make something, they are creating art. My argument is that this has always been artwork, and we are just letting everyone else catch up to that way of thinking. I’ve been touring these exhibits for many years and in the early days, we were getting slammed by the art curators. Every new museum boss would scream, “This doesn’t belong in a museum, it’s not art.” In the ‘Identities’ exhibit alone, there are 200 artefacts, half of which are sketches and paintings. How can anyone not call that artwork? Just showing people the degree of artistry that goes into every film, and preserving that work just like any museum would preserve a Da Vinci or a Rodan sculpture, is one of our main aims (pictured, above; Laela French, in the Lucasfilm Archive). 

SCREEN-SPACE: How has Star Wars defied the effects of time? Why don’t those 40 year old films seem overly kitschy or quaint?

FRENCH: The answer lies in George’s original vision. Like all true visionaries, he wove a few magic moments together. The timing was amazing; in the mid-70s, there was a kind of emptiness in films, a void where a strong imaginative vision should have been. No one was doing what George envisioned. The epic visual effects, which have been talked about to death, were off the charts. He refused to settle for what was good enough at the time, instead pushing his entire special effects team to ‘create’. The hidden ingredient that’s harder to see is that the design aesthetic – all the costuming, the planets, the vehicles, everything within his field of vision – was pulled from cultures across the globe. Even the smallest element has some tie to some culture from some point in time. That means they take on a familiarity, before you’ve even seen the film, and ultimately reflect that timeless quality you refer to. Of course, the story itself is the classic ‘hero’s journey’ and brings together all those associated archetypes, so its rooted in a traditional literary formula that stays viable and meaningful forever.

SCREEN-SPACE: How would define the term ‘narrative art’ as it pertains to the Star Wars universe?

FRENCH: Narrative art is simply visual storytelling. Lasco cave paintings? Narrative art. The Last Supper? Narrative art. As technology evolves, so does the type of narrative art that we share with each other. In George’s mind, film is narrative art, taken to an epic level by advances in technology. So that’s how this exhibits fits beautifully into the Lucasfilm definition of narrative art. It is why George has created a narrative art museum; he believes the museum world is stuck in a kind of 19th century mindset and, being the kind of visionary able to see a reality much further down our time line, he wants pop culture to be treated as great art, narrative art, that resonates and that humans will respond to for years to come. It’s what defines ‘pop culture’; not everyone responds to a contemporary painting, but millions of people respond to film.

STAR WARS Identities runs at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum from November 16. Ticketing and all venue details can be found at the official website

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