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Reissues and controlling cinematic creations

Marty Schroeder | Friday, September 15, 2006

The “Star Wars” cash cow just never seems to run dry and George Lucas has been milking the franchise since “A New Hope” was released in 1977. Not that anyone blames him – the series has been wildly popular and if you can make the money, go for it.

However, with the reissue of the original theatrical editions of “Star Wars” on individually retailed discs after Lucas supposedly released his definitive versions in a box set two years ago, a major question arises that can be applied all over Hollywood and the American film industry – where does the artist’s role end and when does the audience become the determiner of what a film should be and continue to be?

The question does not stop with Lucas. In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola released “Apocalypse Now: Redux,” which added many scenes to the well-known 1979 “Apocalypse Now.” Certain scenes that were deemed too politically charged were added in “Redux.” All in all, 49 minutes of extra footage were added in this re-release, not only on home formats but also in cinemas, which was very similar to what Lucas did with his special editions of the original “Star Wars” trilogy in the late 1990s. This allowed the director to give the audience what he thought was the definitive edition of his opus – some audiences liked because it tackled issues better, others hated it and felt cheated out of the “Return of the Jedi” experience they cherished. This is the crux of the matter.

While Coppola was filming “Apocalypse Now,” his marriage almost fell apart, he suffered a nervous breakdown and almost bankrupted his production company and himself in the process. Typhoons destroyed the sets and they had to be rebuilt, the helicopters he leased from the Philippino government were constantly being recalled for actual fighting and his lead actor, Martin Sheen, suffered a near-fatal heart attack during principal shooting. Marlon Brando was also notoriously difficult to work with as he showed up on the set overweight when his character was supposed to be emaciated and he refused to learn his lines.

Can a director make what he wants to make when he’s faced with difficulties like these? What gives directors the power to go back and change films from their initial theatrical offerings? How would we as an audience react if we found out that Michael Curtiz was going to go back to the end of his famed “Casablanca” and change the ending? Some people would be rightfully angered.

The notion that a director can return to a film with their name on it at any time and change things however they see fit is a mindset that grew out of the 1970s. Beginning in the early ’70s, a group of American filmmakers graduated from this new-fangled education called “film school.”

They were familiar with the French New Wave – a group of French filmmakers and film critics whose ultimate goal was to make films that were driven by the personal vision of the director. Based at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, they claimed that art in the cinema sprang out of the artistic drive of the director and only he could drive his piece of art forward into greatness. Men like Welles, Hawks, Lang and Hitchcock made the films they wanted to make and their personal styles emerged as a stamp on their films. According to the French New Wave, the film was the sole brainchild of the director and through his screening of it to a cinephile audience, a recognition of the influences and methods of the cinema would occur – there was art.

Men like Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola, all household names in this day, brought this idea to America and changed the face of American cinema. When Spielberg directs a film, you know it’s from Spielberg. If the guy who brought you “Jaws” and “E.T.” had been around in the ’30s or ’40s, we would have never heard of him.

But because we now know who directors are and these “auteurs” are noted for their achievements, we have a slew of DVDs that are released under the headline “Director’s Cut.” It is impossible to get the original theatrical version of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The only available DVD is the director’s cut. If we had seen this movie in theaters when first released and wanted to have that experience again, it would be impossible because Scott says that’s not the version we should be seeing, but instead, we should see this version. Where do directors get the gall to do this?

Part of it could be the studios trying to make more money. The strategy of releasing a barebones DVD right away and then releasing a super-deluxe DVD with all the whistles and bells afterwards is going to bring in much more money than just one DVD release. Again, going back to “Star Wars,” Lucas released the original trilogy in its original form on VHS tapes. Then came along the Special Editions in the late ’90s on VHS. Then we had the box set a few years ago and now we have the 2004 versions plus the original theatrical cuts on three separate releases – and no box set.

Which one is the definitive version and who says so? It all depends on what you grew up with. The generation that saw “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and the “Indiana Jones” trilogy in theaters would probably gobble up the chance to get these versions again. However, for a younger generation it may be another version their parents got for them because they could not get the original versions. “The new “Jaws” DVD has a different sound mix than the original – which mix is better is left up to the audience.

For the cynical mind, all it comes down to is money. A brand spanking new version of the “Apocalypse Now” DVD was released not a few weeks ago by Paramount Home Video. They are calling it “The Dossier Version” and it includes both the 1979 and 2001 version of the film, much the same way as the “Star Wars” DVDs that were released this week.

Maybe the studios are finally heeding the voices of audiences saying they are sick of all the changes and just want one version that they can enjoy and remember. The studios, hearing this plea seem to be going through a phase where they are releasing all the versions in one package. Here is everything – watch the disc you want.