Friday, September 2, 2011

Thinking: What is it you don't 'get', George?

One the stories the seems to be all over the Internet this week is more "tweaks" to the Star Wars Saga once it hits Blu-Ray later this year. Amongst the many things that don't need to be messed with, we are getting a new Yoda for The Phantom Menace, blinking Ewok eyes and most bizzarely of all, new audio for Obi-Wan Kenobi driving off sandpeople and extra "dialogue" for Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. As you might expect the internet is mostly up in arms about more tinkering to the trilogy but I can't really get angry anymore, just increasingly sad.

New Dialogue: "You know Father, I've always felt you're not expresive enough. The odd outburst at key moments will make you more relatable"

So lets talk about the "big" scene in question - as the Emperor is lightning-bolting Luke into oblivion, Vader now screams "Nooooo" (because it worked so well at the end of Revenge of the Sith?) as he lunges forward to sacrifice himself to save the Galaxy for good and riteousness and Ewoks and all that Jazz. Theres a couple of things to say here. Lucas has a lot of form in tweaking all the films every time he gets a chance too - it's more common now mostly I suspect because it's easier for him, and like any film-maker there will always be scenes that he feels were compromised or imperfect and he wants to change. And there are scenes in the Classic Trilogy (lets not talk the prequels, thats a whole other story) that are clunky, and effects scenes that have aged badly or weren't great even at the time, and once you have the tools to fix that I can see the temptation being hard to resist.

But this scene? There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, its a great example of some of the things that make Star Wars great.

One of the most interesting things about Vaders final switching of sides is that it's a scene that in many respects should struggle to work. There is no "acting" going on - Vader pretty much just stands there and looks, wearing a full-face-mask whilst the light reflects across it's surface. What makes the scene work, where it draws it's power from, is the build up to it in the story of the film and the lighting and most importantly John Williams' score, almost singing Vader's internal turmoil and feeding the audience it's emotional cues. That sort of dialogue free communication is something the Classic Trilogy does several times and for the life of me I can't think why you would want to change it. It's not a good change or a bad change, it just doesn't need doing.

The other thing that bothers me is more fundamental, and that's Lucas' almost Stalinist campaign to retcon his own legacy. A bit of film history - in the early 1970s the old Hollywood studio system, which had run a very tight ship for decades, came close to financial and artistic collapse, and as a result a lot of new blood, out of Film Schools and steeped in the idea of Cinema As Art, found themselves making big movies with a lot of money. Names like Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich and many others burst onto the scene and the idea of the Auteur Director took hold in a way it never had before. Commercially however, you get a lot of great films, but a lot of great films that were challenging, or edgy, and when Steven Speilberg comes along with a flat out crowd pleaser like Jaws and then Star Wars came along the tide shifted back away from the Auteurs and onto the start of the Blockbuster culture we still live with today.*

Through the Force things will you see; other places,
the future, the past, old versions of the film long gone.

The point here is that Star Wars is critical to a point in cinema history that is both hugely important, and in many ways hugely divisive. The idea that the way forward is to make roller-coaster entertainment that spoon-feeds your audience it's emotional cues is anathema to the sort of film go-er who likes his films straight from the art-house. But I can't see the film that opened in Mann's Chinese Cinema because no-where else would take it, the film that people queued around the block to see again and again. I'm not allowed. It's gone, edited slowly away and even if it was being turned into something better that is part of our cultural heritage being lost.

George Lucas is the man behind Star Wars. He created it, and he can mess with it as much as he wants. If he wants to digitally replace all the actors with characters from The Muppet Show, thats fine with me. But the theatrical releases of these fims, and Star Wars particularly, are important films not because they're part of my childhood, or because I really like them, or because I never really grew up and like to let my inner 8-year-old out for to play every now and again, but because this is one of these rare films you can point to and say "that film changed things", and it deserves to be seen.

*This is very condensed and it's a fascinating period. I would recommend Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders. Raging Bulls" and Tom Shone's "Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom Town"