Nov. 7, 2004
Memo to George Lucas:
RANCH -- FRONT OF
BUILDING -- DAY
the Lucas Films
editing studio, a FIVE MAN
SWAT TEAM rappelles down on ropes from a jet black helicopter
overhead. A gecko looks on.
EDITING ROOM -- DAY
Step away from the Steenbeck and no one has to
EDITING ROOM -- DAY
Must... fix... Hutt...
SNIPER watches Lucas
through the scope
on his rifle.
Jar Jar One to Nerf Herder,
I have a clear shot. Repeat -- I
have a clear shot. How do
you advise -- over?
EDITING ROOM -- DAY
reaches for some
His hands are shaking.
BUILDING -- DAY
SWAT TEAM LEADER is
indecision. In his headphone, the SNIPER urges...
Nerf Herder, how do you advise? Should I take
the shot or not -- over?
Damn it, that's George Lucas you're
talking about! Not Tim Burton!
No, I haven't bought a copy myself and I probably never will, even though I really would have liked to see those movies in pristine DVD editions, dammit! The thing is, having previously made changes a few years ago to the original Star Wars films when they were put out as Digitally Mastered VHS versions, now apparently Lucas has seen fit to make yet more changes -- including undoing some of the changes he previously made which we didn't want him to make in the first place!
Heavens to Murgatroid, when will it end!?!
Let me make something clear from the get-go. No, I haven't seen the newest versions of the Star Wars trilogy. No, I can't judge whether these latest changes improve the movies or not. Maybe they do, I don't know. But, as far as I am concerned, whether these changes improve the movies or not is beside the point. The question we have before us today is this: Does George Lucas have the RIGHT to keep altering the Star Wars movies?
Cruising the Net, I've found a lot of Star Wars fans are pretty miffed by these latest changes to their beloved trilogy. But, miffed or not, one argument -- in Lucas's favour -- seems to crop up again and again. Whether they love the changes or loath them, just about everyone seems to agree that Lucas has the right to do what he wants because THEY ARE HIS MOVIES.
He is their creator and he has the right to do whatever the hell he wants with them. The fans can howl, they can weep and gnash their teeth in despair, but at the end of the day, Star Wars belongs to Lucas, not to the fans, and he can do what he wants. End of story.
Or is it?
First off, I would challenge the basic claim itself that Lucas was "the creator" of the Star Wars trilogy. True, he came up with the basic story and he originated the project. But consider this. While Lucas wrote and directed the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, he directed neither of the two sequels. Empire Strikes Back was directed by Irvin Kershner and Return of the Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand. Nor can he claim to have written the screenplays for those two films. Empire Strikes Back was co-written by science fiction heavy-weight Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (who went on to considerable acclaim as a director, as well as scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark). Kasdan then shared credit with Lucas for the Return of the Jedi screenplay.
Now, if you've been reading my Rants and Raves, you already know how I feel about the question of screenwriters verses directors and who deserves the real credit for a movie's "vision". But even if we do accept the common wisdom that a movie is the product of its director, Lucas directed neither Empire Strikes Back nor Return of the Jedi, so on what basis can we claim those movies "belong" to him? And yet, I think it's a safe bet Lucas didn't ring up Irvin Kershner and ask his permission before making changes for the DVD release of Empire Strikes Back. And since Richard Marquand died back in 1987, it seems a pretty scuzzy thing to mess with Return of the Jedi now that its director is no longer around to defend his work.
At the end of the day, Lucas's claim to "ownership" rests on the same problematic ground as any film producer. And it raises the same questions. Who should have the final cut? The director or the producer? Directors frequently complain when their film is taken away from them and they find themselves locked out of the editing room by the producer. The producer counters that he/she organized the financing and therefore should have final say. The director has sentiment on his/her side. The producer has the law.
Who is right? I don't know...so let's move this thing along.
Let's give Lucas the benefit of the doubt and accept that, artistically, he "created" the Star Wars trilogy. The accepted widsom says that Star Wars belongs to him and he can do anything he wants with it. And certainly, that is the way we usually treat personal property. If Lucas bought a new PT Cruiser, no one would object if he wanted to paint it a bilious shade of puke green. It's his car -- he paid for it, he owns it, it belongs to him.
The problem as I see it is that ownership of a movie trilogy isn't the same as ownership of a PT Cruiser. Especially, it isn't the same when the movie trilogy itself has had the cultural impact which the Star Wars trilogy had. If Lucas wanted to lens the Star Wars trilogy for his own personal enjoyment -- at 10 mil a pretty expensive personal enjoyment! -- if he wanted to watch it alone, seated in the darkness of his own private screening room, I would agree he can make all the changes he wants. But the moment Lucas released those films theatrically, he gave up certain rights commonly associated with "personal property". Those movies became a part of other people's lives and, for many, a fairly important part.
To be sure, if Lucas wants to make changes to the Star Wars trilogy, I wouldn't object -- provided the original versions remained readily available. But there's the rub. Some years ago, Lucas announced that, not only was he planning on making changes to the trilogy, but that henceforth, only the altered "Special Edition" versions would be available to consumers. Now, with the release of the further altered DVD "Special-Special Edition", the same deal applies. I managed to sneak in under the wire and buy the original versions on VHS just before Lucas made his original changes and they disappeared from stores. But what about kids today? A lot of parents want to sit down with their progeny and share the Star Wars experience -- but how can they do that knowing the version they're showing their kids isn't the same as the version they saw in their youth? (All this will seem eerily familiar to Robert E. Howard's Conan fans. In that case, the late L. Sprague de Camp took it upon himself to alter some of the original Howard stories -- which wouldn't have been such a problem if the unaltered originals had remained available to consumers. But, until recently, they weren't.)
But, when all is said and done, is there really any reason to make a fuss about a few changes to a movie (or three movies)? Those who defend Lucas's changes frequently descend to name-calling, They claim that the changes aren't that big a deal except to a few "die-hards". They're "just movies", they say. The Star Wars "fan boys" need to get a life.
And yet, if it isn't important, why is Lucas doing it? Well, partly he's doing it for the publicity. At least he's made sure everyone is talking about the DVD release -- right? But I also think he is making the changes for a more disturbing reason. Lucas is trying to rewrite history. For years, we were told that the Star Wars trilogy marked a turning point in filmmaking and in special effects. Bit by bit, however, special effects have moved on and, inevitably, Star Wars was left behind. Other films took up the mantle, each one adding its own contribution to the science of filmmaking, and that is driving Lucas nuts!
And that is what bothers me most about these changes. By incorporating modern special effects into the Star Wars trilogy, Lucas confuses the question of who invented what, and when. For example, among the original changes made to the VHS Special Edition Star Wars was a cool explosion effect when the Death Star blows up. A sort of ring of fire whirls away from the heart of the explosion. I've seen that effect in countless recent movies, but the first time I saw it was in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country -- which came out years after Star Wars: A New Hope. By incorporating that effect into Star Wars Special Edition -- by essentially back-dating it -- Lucas confuses the issue, implicitly suggesting that he was there first. At the moment, this may not seem like such a big deal, because we are still close enough in time to recognize the changes made by Lucas. But what about twenty years from now? Fifty years?
For many of us, Star Wars is important because it marks a moment in cultural history. It happened. It was a part of our lives. Sure we enjoy it today for its entertainment value, but, we also enjoy watching it because it brings back memories. Now Lucas is messing with those memories. He is altering history, taking credit for other's achievements, and back-dating the entire science of special effects. And that, Faithful Fiends, sticks in my craw.
This question of messing with history came up some years ago when certain millionaires got it into their heads that they should "colourize" classic films originally filmed in black and white. Arguing against colourization, filmmaker John Huston speaking before the US congress said: "The truth is what is at stake here, historical truth. That truth is being cynically distorted for future generations by those for whom the truth means nothing."
On the same topic, another noted filmmaker said this: "I am very concerned about our national heritage, and I am very concerned that the films that I watched when I was young and the films that I watched throughout my life are preserved, so that my children can see them." That filmmaker was none other than George Lucas himself.
Last seen in the company of Howard the Duck...
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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