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Is a Film Ever “Done” These Days?

I was reading last week about how George Lucas is planning yet another re-release of Star Wars in 2012. This time in glorious 3D. Glorious post-conversion 3D. Yes, that was sarcasm. It’s interesting that Lucas continues to push for editing and updating the saga, especially considering his earlier position on updating existing films (in this case arguing against converting black & white films to colour): 

“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,” he said. He furthermore remarked: “In the future it will become easier for old negatives to become lost and be ‘replaced’ by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.” 

And yet, he has repeatedly demonstrated over the past decade or so that he is devoted to rewriting his version of Star Wars, arguing that it is simply never complete – he’s moving it closer to complete with every update. In this era of directors’ cuts and special extended editions, is becoming commonplace to accept that the theatrical release of a film isn’t the “finished” or “completed” version. 

The infamous "everyone rocks out" deleted scene...

 

Lucas’ justification for continually updating the film is that his work should be treated as “a work in progress”

Occasionally, [you can] go back and get your cut of the video out there, which I did on both American Graffiti and THX-1135; that’s the place where it will live forever. So what ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20′ by 40′ screen with perfect quality. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s to go back and reinvent a movie. 

Given that the American National Film Registry archived a copy of Star Wars: A New Hope as a “culturally significant” film in 1989, before any of Lucas’ updates, one has to wonder if it’s fair to go back and alter the film retroactively. 

You could make an argument that Lucas’ point is a solid one were he limiting his updates to technical aspects – adding some special effects, upscaling the sound and video quality, that sort of thing (and, even then, there are those who would argue the addition of CGI is too much), but Lucas continues to add more material to the films. In the nineties cinematic re-release, he made numerous updates (most notably “Gredo shot first”), and he’s adding in at least one new scene to the upcoming blu ray release. However little these particular scenes may change the broad strokes of the story, they affect the way the audience reacts to the characters – as well as more subtle things like the way pacing and flow of the films. 

We have the technology... Should we rebuild it?

 

I honestly think we’re reaching a stage where the movie my father saw in the cinema is not the one that I am seeing, which is exactly what Lucas himself argued against. Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to lambast any change to the material or suggest that certain moments represent blasphemy, I’m just wondering if you were to compare the 1977 original release and the 2012 3D version, how different would the audience’s reaction to the material be? Could you call them the same film? You probably could, but wouldn’t that imply that the original (which kickstarted the whole franchise) was a “rough cut” or an “incomplete version” or some such? 

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this – I don’t know if I support it or oppose it, or am indifferent to it. There’s clearly strong artistic precedent for the idea that the art lives at least as long as the artist and can’t be said to be static even after the creator has passed way. We have no way of knowing what many of Shakespeare’s plays looked like while he was alive for example. You could also argue that each performance of a play or adaptation of a novel represents some sort of “updating” of the text, as that version is inevitably informed and affected by the modern world (using the same logic, you could argue that even reading an old book or watching an old film adapts it in some way – as, due to the way the world has changed, we won’t take the same thing from the core material as those reading or watching a generation ago would have).  

The argument is that text is living. Something that was prepared decades ago may have a different relevence in this day and age – even if the material itself isn’t updated, the principles upon which it is based are likely to have changed significantly. Social values move on so that films have meanings they wouldn’t intend – for example, The Song of the South was not excessively offensive to the sensibilities of a 1940s audience, but is so controversial today that Disney have effectively banned it. Hell, it can be as simple as the words used in the text taking on an entirely different meaning. So, if the context of an object (and what it means) can change, why is it such a crime to change the object itself? 

Speaking as a film fan, there’s a benefit to this approach. The re-released version of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was infinitely superior to what was seen in cinemas. His Blade Runner, the science fiction classic, got a well-deserved restoration and update only a few years back. Most film fans would typically agree that it’s these later versions of the films which are of greater significance and value than the original theatrical cuts. In other cases, I’m not particularly sure that a movie deserved to be restored or looked at (the string of “extended editions” with msot comedies count, and some would make the argument that Apocalypse Now: Redux is weaker than the original cut). 

They had to drop a lot of things from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner...

 

Then again, I wonder the point of debating the artistic merit of returning to the source material, when it seems apparent that is a money-making venture. The fact that “directors’ cuts” and “extended releases” for most films are already announced before the original is in cinemas (I’m looking at you, Watchmen) indicated that studios are looking at the bottom line financially rather than any underlining artistic or philosophical point. That’s why only cult films get this sort of longterm treatment. Ten years down the line, who will be looking for a version of Clash of the Titans which more closely resembled what Leterrier intended? 

I don’t know. We live in a world where the recently re-restored cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (which was released nearly ninety years ago) is doing a world tour and will likely see a prestige blu ray release. I guess I should be happy at least that these releases may raise awareness of films that would likely be forgotten (but I am likely kidding myself – who except film fans will queue up to watch a masterpiece of twenties German expressionist cinema?). At least I can buy the blu ray myself. Because, as the debate over The Three Stooges and the attempts to recolourise it prove, most studios are really only interested in their archives if they feel like they can sell it to a modern audience: 

Purists consider it desecration, while Sony executives say the process can help introduce Hollywood classics to young audiences reluctant to watch anything in black and white. 

And the more people you can sell something too, the more likely you are to see it released by a big studio – if they can make a classic film “popular” to a mass audience that wouldn’t be otherwise interested, you’re more likely to see it released. 

Maybe that’s something.

One Response

  1. This is such a well crafted post Dan! You done a smashing job here. If you haven’t already you should submit this to the IMDb Hit List boards. Well done!!

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