Deleting History

Star Wars, Director’s Cuts, and Multiple Permutations

The release last month of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD was greeted with considerable teeth-gnashing. The biggest complaints are old and tired, dating back to the “special editions” that George Lucas prepared for theatrical and video release back in 1997 — most notably, the shockingly pointless new Jabba the Hutt scene and the Greedo-shoots-first issue in A New Hope. Other whining is fresh: Some have bitched about Lucas’ decision to insert Hayden Christensen in Return of the Jedi, while audiophiles (and John Williams devotees) argue that the music in A New Hope is badly mixed.

King George made dozens of changes, of course, some modernizing the movies (sound mix, special effects), some changing the content (Greedo, Jabba, etc.), and some falling in between (the background details added to Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back). Few will complain that special effects have been cleaned up or that the movies now feature aggressive surround sound with deep bass. But you have to take the good with the bad: Because Lucas is in charge, you can’t get the 5.1-channel mix without the content changes and the other things George wanted to alter.

Fundamentally, the (mostly rhetorical) question raised by Lucas’ changes is at what point a movie is “finished.” Or: Is there a version of a movie that should be considered the definitive version? If so, who gets to decide?

Of course, this isn’t really about which permutation of the Star Wars trilogy is better; the special-effects fixes — essentially a high-tech restoration — are great, but the new material adds absolutely nothing from a narrative standpoint, disrupts rhythm both real and remembered, and makes most people cringe.

The more pressing issue at this juncture is whether Lucas has an obligation to release the original theatrical versions of the trilogy in a state-of-the-art format. That might or might not be a moot point, practically speaking; as Lucas tells it, the 1977, 1980, and 1983 films no longer exist. If true, the battle to save Star Wars for posterity and from the whims of its creator was lost at least seven years ago.

Lucas’ justification for not releasing the trilogy in its theatrical version is hilariously condescending and selfish:

“The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. ... I’m not going to spend the — we’re talking millions of dollars here — the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore. [Note the echo of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s half-truth to Luke that Darth Vader ‘betrayed and murdered your father.’] It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”

Lucas actually makes a good point: As the primary author of the movies, it’s his prerogative to alter them however he sees fit. Everybody else can go fuck themselves.

But casting the debate as George versus fans misses the larger issue. Lucas has not just wronged people who loved the trilogy as they first experienced it; by failing to preserve the originals in a public way, he has destroyed a key cultural artifact of the late 20th Century. A New Hope, for better and worse, is undoubtedly an important event in the development of the modern film business, and an early template for the contemporary blockbuster; its special edition is nothing historically, except an example of how best to milk a franchise for all it’s worth. That we don’t have — and presumably never will have — pristine copies of the original movies in a readily accessible digital format is a crime against the history of cinema.

Lucas, of course, was not the first filmmaker to release a preferred cut of a movie that’s different from the one that initially played in theaters. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was hacked to bits by the studio. Men in suits also forced Ridley Scott to add a voice-over to Blade Runner. The good folks at Criterion offer an obsessively complete three-disc set of Brazil with both versions, while the theatrical cut of Blade Runner (usually considered inferior to the director’s cut) is not yet available on DVD.

And in fairness to Lucas, he’s not the only director to essentially destroy the theatrical version of a movie. Peter Weir and the Coen brothers released director’s cuts (both shorter than the theatrical editions, by the way) of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Blood Simple, respectively, and those are the only versions available on DVD. The originals are most likely lost to time, and both are important films, albeit cult classics. I don’t see anybody calling for their heads.

The DVD boom has resulted in an explosion in alternative versions of films that’s now bordering on the ridiculous. Oliver Stone seems to have released 16 different cuts of JFK, for instance, and the practice of “double dipping” means many more-recent movies get initial releases (in widescreen and full-screen, and in rated and unrated versions) followed by special-edition packages followed by really special-edition packages. The “ultimate edition” of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (roughly the movie’s 95th incarnation on DVD) includes three cuts of the film, not to mention the original mono audio along with a new 5.1-channel mix.

But that’s not all. In getting prepared for home video, movies often undergo extremely subtle transformations. Check out the bonus features on the “platinum edition” (of course!) of Se7en to see how the movie was given small but not insignificant changes in framing, color, and sound. Line for line, shot for shot, it’s the same movie that was shown in theaters, but it’s also very different. And keep in mind that some directors — Stanley Kubrick, for example — want their movies to be released on home-video formats in aspect ratios different from their theatrical releases.

While all these choices and versions are confusing, they’re also good for consumers. In the end, assuming that the viewing public has access to all these options and is well-informed, the audience becomes the final arbiter of the movies in their myriad versions. Some people might prefer the “Love Conquers All” cut of Brazil, while others want the director’s vision — different strokes and all that.

Steven Spielberg learned this lesson when he originally planned to release only the altered, neutered (no guns!) version of E.T. on DVD. Consumer backlash prompted him to include the original theatrical cut, too. It was a smart business decision, but also a victory for the historical record.

Are you listening, George?

I wonder if Lucas ever saw that great South Park episode where the kids try to stop him and Spielberg from mucking up Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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