Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Episode VII: Return of the Nerd

It's time to blog about a controversial topic. I've been putting it off ever since the DVDs came out, but as the end draws near I can avoid my destiny no longer. It's time to talk about Star Wars.

Like most kids of my generation, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is of my 5th birthday party, 2 months after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, at which my presents included no fewer than four Luke Skywalker X-Wing Pilot action figures. Though I was too young for it in the theater, I must have seen A New Hope 100 times on HBO by age ten. In elementary school my friends -- not even all giant nerds! -- and I would reenact scenes in the park. But then after Jedi, when hope for prequels or sequels faded away, so did Star Wars. I didn't read comic books, and there wasn't the promise of a new video game release every six months like there is now. We didn't own a VCR until I was 12, and by then I had "outgrown" the action figures, most of which went (this still pains me) to the synagogue rummage sale.

Then, in tenth grade, I had a crazy English teacher who showed Star Wars in class in connection with our reading of The Odyssey. She was a rotten teacher, reviled by all, and except for the overall ideas Lucas borrowed from classical myths I've never seen any connection between the two (Ms. Mace was fond of saying "search for the father, search for the father" like some sort of well-read parrot, but neither Odysseus nor Luke actually set out to do that...or search for anything for that matter, both were fighting wars and one was just trying to get home) but watching the film again as a teenager was my downfall. By this time I had accepted teenage nerddom, but I guess I was a little surprised to discover how much I still enjoyed Star Wars -- possibly more than I had originally!. I rented the others, and the darker Empire, which had never quite grabbed me as a child, quickly became my favorite. It was all over. I was hooked and there was no turning back.

Now, I'm a pretty big fan and a pretty big nerd, but certainly not as big as those guys already lining up outside the Ziegfeld in their homemade Jedi robes. Big enough though to be able to listen to the score of A New Hope and recite dialogue in the right places ("If they traced the robots here they may have learned who they sold them too and that would lead them back...home!" cue the landspeeder string section). Big enough to have always called it A New Hope, even before the new films came out and made such things, um, fashionable.

But I'm actually not a hardcore purist. Yes of course I wish the films I'd grown up with were on DVD as I grew up with them, but I don't think the rereleases are a travesty at all. In 1997 I was thrilled simply by the prospect of seeing them in the theater again. The changes I object to I object to because they're bad filmmaking, not because they're changes. The added Jabba scene in Episode IV, for example, was cut from the original film because it's a bad scene! Adding a CGI slug (and a poorly-animated one at that) doesn't change the fact that the scene goes nowhere and repeats -- practically word for word -- dialogue and exposition we've just heard elsewhere. I have no problem with the expanded ending of Jedi, and since the people who do are also generally anti-Ewok (I am not, though remember I was 8 when I first saw the movie), I'd think they'd be thrilled that the little furballs no longer sing! (Yub nub, ichub yub nub...) The changes I love though are the ones you hardly notice. Empire, where no scene was added or significantly changed, fares best, with cosmetic fixes like windows and balconies in Cloud City where there were once blank white walls, and new sound effects on Hoth and the Asteroid Field. And the thing is, in the age of DVDs, we're so used to director's cuts and alternate endings, I'm not entirely sure why everyone reacts so badly to "tampering" with Star Wars. Why is an altered re-release of Donnie Darko treated like the second coming, but Lucas is the anti-Christ? Okay, you wouldn't go and add a scene to Casablanca, but a) Star Wars ain't Casablanaca, and b) you would clean it up for a new release, and in the age of big budget special effects pictures, this is what cleaning it up means.

Lucas kind of won me over in an Entertainment Weekly interview about the DVD, so here's a rather large quote: "Film is so expensive, and it's run by corporations. They just take it away from you, and it's frozen in time at the point where it got yanked out of your hands. I've been lucky enough to be able to go back and say 'No, I'm going to finish this the way it was meant to be finished.' When Star Wars came out, I said it didn't turn out the way I wanted -- it's 25 percent of what I wanted it to be. It was very painful for me. So the choice came down to, do I please myself and [finally] make the movie that I wanted, or do I allow the audience to see the half-finished version that they fell in love with? ... Nobody seems to mind the [idea of a] ''director's cut.'' But to go the next step and say, had they given me another week's shooting, or another $50,000 to finish these matte paintings, this is what the film would look like -- well, it's not a matter of changing your mind. Star Wars was not meant, in the end, to be seen more than once in a movie theater. It was designed to be a large theatrical experience that, if you saw it once on a giant screen, would blow you away. But this was before there was such a thing as DVD. If you went down and sort of analyzed it and looked at it frame by frame, you can see the tricks that are going on. There's a lot of stuff that's very thin, as in any old movie.... I fall 100 percent on the side of the right of the artist to alter it."

He's undoubtedly arrogant, but I can't say I argue with his logic, or with his right as an artist to alter his work if he chooses to do so. Georges Seraut painted over parts of "La Grande Jatte" after it had already been displayed, and nobody reviles him for it! True, a painting is hardly a thing of mass media consumption, but conceptually artists have being doing what Lucas has done for centuries.

Anyway, taken entirely on their own merits, the DVDs pretty much rock. The movies look and sound spectacular, and the bonus features are certainly in-depth (it's a wonder anyone ever went to the movies at all, trailers in the 70s and 80s were so bad). Only a few changes have been made between '97 and now, almost all of them related to the new movies. Lucas has always stated a desire to make prequels. Had he made them in the 80s, I'm not convinced he would have made these prequels, but then if he'd made his first draft of Star Wars, Luke would have been 60 and named Starkiller. Anyway, with 20 years between trilogies, and the technology to do so, why not go back and make it all fit together better, as it would have done if he had made 1-3 as originally planned? No amount of CGI revision can take away the spirit and life of those films (in other words, he can't turn them into Episode I no matter how hard he tries).

I'm a stickler for continuity anyway, so I can't really complain about a change like inserting Ian McDairmid into the brief scene in Empire in which the Emperor appears holographically. Sure, it sucks for the original actor (or his heirs) but it's McDairmid's performance in Jedi that defined who that character is, and if you're watching the movies for the first time in order from 1 through 6 (as Lucas would like you to), it's actually quite important that you recognize the Emperor as Palpatine. And I'm not sure, as a kid anyway, I ever knew who that guy who appears with Yoda and Obi-Wan at the end of Jedi was, since we'd never seen an undisfigured Anakin. So now it's Hayden Christensen, which I have to admit makes more sense.

I'm actually surprised he didn't change more. I'm curious that he's striving for continuity but didn't re-score anything. The music in the new films is John Williams' best work since...well, Return of the Jedi, and makes up for the sins of Harry Potter. But (major nerd alert), for example, Yoda's theme and the Imperial March weren't introduced until Episode V, the Emperor's theme until Episode VI, yet all are featured heavily in the new movies. Since Star Wars' music has always been an integral part of its storytelling, I think it will be weird when these themes drop out. Or, for that matter, when Anakin's doesn't return at the end. There's so much material at this point that they probably could have even done it without having to hire an orchestra to record new stuff. That does, I suppose, back up the argument that for Lucas it's all about him, and Williams' work (like those two bit players who wound up on the digital cutting room floor) is irrelevant to his "vision."

Oh well...I still have my old pan-and-scan videotapes of the original original trilogy, and my letterboxed edition from 1997. I haven't had time to sit down and watch the whole thing yet, but I'm thrilled to have it on DVD at last, altered or not. I got kind of tangenty here, and I'm not entirely sure what I set out to say. Tomorrow, thoughts on the new movies (spoiler-free, of course!).

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