by Erin Ward
Dan Starling’s experimental film, The Chorus, follows the re-emergence of the chorus – a popular feature of ancient Greek theatre in which a group of several often unidentified characters serve as narrators – as they attempt to find a role for themselves in modern cinema. Exploring themes like the nature of identity and the relationship between art and politics, the chorus as a character is at once profound, endearing, and whimsical. What is perhaps most striking is the power the insertion of the chorus into Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith has to make the viewer reflect on their own relationship to film. In many ways, this experiment is a deeply fascinating success.
The film includes a full screening of Revenge of the Sith projected onto the stage back-drop in a theatre, which periodically freezes as the chorus takes the stage. They make their first appearance wandering in from either side of the projection wearing colourful patchwork jumpsuits comprised in part of images from political campaigns, carrying glowing light sticks, and wearing headlamps that look like antennae. They appear disoriented from their long hiatus from the entertainment scene and begin by questioning their disappearance. They explain that they have long been searching for a narrative that will have them. Revenge of Sith, it turns out, will do just that.
The Star Wars film provides a fitting backdrop for exploring the connection between art and politics, given both the transition from one political system to another that occurs in the film, and the criticism Star Wars has received for glorifying problematic colonial narratives.
Inserting the chorus serves to simultaneously draw attention to the underlying themes in the film as well as to illuminate the nature of the viewer’s own immersion into the narrative. By breaking that immersion, the chorus prompts the viewer to consider the broader cultural and political implications of uncritical absorption into a problematic narrative.
Starling uses the character of the chorus to reflect on the ways in which changing political systems influence the way art is made and received. Members of the chorus in Starling’s film consider that their initial disappearance is the result of the transition from democracy to monarchy, suggesting early on the link between the structures of art forms and the dominant political structures of the time. As one chorus member says, “the technique contains the politics.”
The chorus, as a character in ancient Greek theatre, consisted of a group of actors who would speak in unison to interpret the events on stage and fill in key information. They essentially represented spectators who understood the meaning the play was meant to convey and reacted accordingly, demonstrating what the audience’s role was meant to be.
In the film, Starling contrasts this contemplative role of the spectator in ancient Greek theatre with mainstream modern cinema in which a kind of Dionysian immersion is the goal – the viewer is meant to abandon critique and to be fully absorbed into the world created by the film – and considers what this reflects about the current political structure.
At first uncertain of their place, the chorus disappears into the darkness after speaking, lying on the stage as Revenge of the Sith plays. Gradually, they become emboldened, first sitting up so that their silhouetted heads are visible along the bottom of the projected film, then leaving their lights on, forming a semi-circle around their seated bodies, then standing so that they block part of the screen.
At times rambling through loosely connected ideas and progressing through plays-on-words, and at times entering into profound discussion, the dialogue of the chorus in Starling’s film conveys the chaos of being lost as well as the journey of forging a new identity.
By the end of the film, they have accepted a new role. Dancing to heavy, trance-like dance music and speaking in unison they accept that the role is now to “get out of your head,” and in so doing they mirror back a change in the role of the modern spectator from contemplative engagement to total absorption.