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Once more, for the last time?

Marty Schroeder | Monday, March 26, 2007

When George Lucas released the “Star Wars: Special Edition” films in the late 1990s, he promised that we could see these epic films “again, for the first time.” A new generation was able to see perhaps the most famous trilogy in film history in theaters for the first time. Once more, for the first time, was enough.

However, this was only the beginning of Lucas’s OCD in regard to the films. With the plethora of DVD releases – each with their own new changes – and the upcoming 3-D theatrical releases, we’ll be able to see them again, and again and again. When is enough enough?

I recently purchased the original trilogy Limited Edition DVDs, which include not only the 2004 re-mastered transfers but also the original theatrical releases from 1977, 1980 and 1983 of “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” DVDs. When I first played the discs, I was confused. The original releases – the primary reason I waited to purchase these editions – are included in the Bonus Features of the second disc. The first disc, containing the version from the 2004 DVD “Star Wars” box set, is the one that has the “definitive” version of the film. I put “definitive” in quotation marks because on each of the three films, Lucas made all of the changes himself. This brings up some very important issues in regards to film authorship and what the roles of the director and the producer are after a film has been released. In other words, who “owns” the movie?

In 1977, Lucas wrote and directed the first installment in the ‘Star Wars” saga. Called “A New Hope,” it quickly became one of the most popular films in history and spawned two sequels, three prequels and a host of books, toys and fanatic fans. No one, including myself, questions Lucas’ claim to “A New Hope” – he both wrote and directed the screenplay. However, he did not direct either “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi.” Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand can claim that credit on these films, respectively. Lucas didn’t even write the two films that complete the original trilogy. The credit he claims in regard to these films is that of the executive producer. He fronted the money, and the basic story of the entire “Star Wars” narrative did come from his imagination. However, the creative force behind both “Empire” and “Jedi” came from different people. The story goes that Lucas showed up on the set of “Empire” one day and was irate over the direction Kershner was taking the film. Kershner had the final say (in 1980) and did what he wanted – in opposition to Lucas at the time. Does Lucas then have the right to go back to these films and make changes to decisions that he never had any part in?

The answer is a resounding no. Consider famed American director Martin Scorsese. What if, 30 years from now, the executive producers from “The Departed” decide that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character isn’t really needed, and they are going to release a new “definitive” version that fits more in line with their vision of the film – completely disregarding the wishes of Scorsese? Granted, this is an extreme situation that isn’t going to happen, and the situation with “Star Wars” is slightly different since Lucas is the imagination behind all of the films. However, the point is that Lucas is hijacking two films that are not his to hijack. He is disrespecting Kershner and Marquand’s role in the creation of the “Star Wars” mythos and the influence the creative and technical teams of these two films had on a generation of moviegoers and their children. I am certainly one of those in our generation that grew up with the “Star Wars” many of our parents loved dearly.

I am not trying to argue the ownership issues that arise between the creator of art versus the audience that consumes it, for art is just another commodity at its most basic level. I am merely arguing that the creator of a work of art should be respected in our time. I may hire someone to paint a mountain. I may pick the mountain that is to be painted and pay for the painter’s supplies. But unless I paint the mountain myself, I am not an artist; I cant put my name down in the corner of the finished result. So too with “Empire” and “Jedi.” The end credits of “Empire” do not say “Directed by Irvin Kershner (and George Lucas too! … but for only a few scenes which he thought were necessary to change, and other than that it’s all Kershner).”

And the release of the Limited Edition DVDs, with their 2004 and original versions, is not the end of the battle. A theatrical release of all six of the “Star Wars” films in 3-D is slated to begin this year. Lucas directed and wrote all three of the prequels and the first of the Original Trilogy. I have no problem with him doing whatever he wants to these films – even though I think showing films in 3-D is one of the worst decisions anyone could make. He has the creative control; the films are his. But to release “Empire” and “Jedi” in 3-D is taking these excellent films and pandering to a fad. Some may call me backwards, and I’m sure if 3-D becomes the standard, the voices crying foul will sound akin to those looking for blood when silent film became the talkie and when Dorothy walked into Oz and color took the reins from black and white.

However, “Empire” is considered the best film in the “Star Wars” franchise and one of the finest pieces of American cinema in the latter half of the 20th century. To take a respected American film and pander to the way a 10-year-old would want to watch movies is a gross foul in regard to cinema as an art form and any notion of authorship needed to protect credibility.

I may be a dinosaur, but I’ll be reveling in the un-mastered, stereo sound, non-anamorphic widescreen of the original trilogy. Lucas isn’t giving us museum relics the filet – we get the scraps from the “master’s” table. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.