Why Star Wars should be left to the fans
Fans of Star Wars are not happy. Someone has been tampering with their movie history, altering elements of those intergalactic classics, which some feel is akin to an act of vandalism.
The fact that the perpetrator is George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, only seems to make matters worse.
"Yes Darth says No" Lucasfilm recently confirmed, according to the New York Times , which corroborated the story by posting the scene from the movie in which the 'event' occurs.
For those of you not fully conversant with the drama that is Star Wars: Behind the Scenes - or The People v George Lucas as a recent documentary put it - there has been an ongoing furore about George Lucas meddling with his masterpieces.
It all started back in 1997 when he gave the three original films - Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) - a bit of a makeover.
Not only did he clean up and repair the original prints; he also made several additions and alterations. Since when, an air of animosity between fans and founder has been circulating.
The latest revision by Lucas (putting the word "no" into Darth Vader's concealed mouth during a tense scene during which he had previously been mute) elicited this angry (and strongly-worded) Twitter response from Simon Pegg, the Shaun of the Dead writer and star. The self-proclaimed nerd, like many Star Wars fans, has been profoundly affected by the franchise as he explains in this short conversation with Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 Live.
It is this level of emotional connection to the original movies that has caused both Lucas and the movies' fans, so much grief.Rewriting history
The fact that George Lucas has made changes to the original films is not the root of the problem (although there are plenty who wish he hadn't). It is the fact that he is not making those original versions available, which is causing all the fuss.
Lucas is quoted on the Save Star Wars website as saying in a 1997 interview with American Cinematographer magazine that he thought "the other versions will disappear". He said: "Even the 35 million [video] tapes out there wont 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 [Special Edition] version."
He argued, as quoted in the Guardian, that "films never get finished, they get abandoned" and that he thought it the "director's prerogative … to go back and reinvent a movie". Which it appears to mean replacing the old version, not adding a new one to complement it.
Han shot first
A 1997 alteration to a scene in the original Star Wars, featuring reckless space smuggler Han Solo and an alien bounty hunter called Greedo, is the focus of intense controversy and for some Star Wars' fans and film purists epitomises George Lucas' tinkering ways.
In the scene, a blaster-brandishing Greedo has finally caught up with Han at a bar and - like all movie baddies - is spending just a little too long relishing the moment.
But, unbeknownst to the reptilian bounty hunter, Han has stealthily retrieved his own blaster beneath the table.
In the original 1977 version Han shoots Greedo without the bounty hunter ever firing a shot. But in the 1997 remake Greedo shoots first, before Han responds in kind.
Further changes to the scene have been made in subsequent releases, but the 1997 tweak is still regarded by some as Lucas' biggest transgression, sparking online petitions, websites and t-shirts all bearing the slogan 'Han shot first'.
The changes remain in the most recent release, much to the annoyance of hardcore fans.
And yet the Save Star Wars website also says George Lucas made a speech to the US Congress in 1988 about the preservation of film in which he proclaimed: "American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history... In the future it will become even 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."
Of course the idea of re-writing, updating or altering is not new. Authors do it all the time, presenting a revised second edition and letting the first edition slip quietly out of print. Nor is the idea of re-working old material, it happens all the time, even with classics. Kate Bush did just that with her album Director's Cut earlier this year.
But in most cases enterprising fans can find a copy of the original version, or, if there's enough consumer demand, original versions are made available by a publisher who will typically own the rights. Not so with Star Wars. The rights belong to George Lucas. But should they?
I'm not talking about the ins-and-outs of who did what on the early movies (of the three original films Lucas only directed the first, the other two were directed and co-written by others), but a broader question about the role the public play in the creation of a work of art.Faltering vision
"Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity."
He then goes on to argue that the artist is merely the medium for his or her work; that he or she is not fully conscious of what is being produced, much of which derives from intuition.
This is a concept that I've heard many times from authors to artists, where they tell me that their words or thoughts come to them unconsciously or from an unknown source.
Building on this idea of artist-as-medium, Duchamp then introduces the idea that the audience has a vital role in validating something as an artwork:
"'The artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History."
In other words it's not for the artist to decide whether his or her work is any good, it is the job of the spectator, which in turn makes them part of the creative act.
Duchamp describes this as "transference": the moment when the artist hands over control of his or her artwork to an audience.
He also points out that there is an inevitable gap between intention and realisation.
This is George Lucas's argument for altering his original films; that the technology was not available for him to fully realise his vision (which doesn't account for adding to the script, but let's not dwell on that) in the late '70s early '80s.
Too late mate, according to Duchamp.Profound view
The artist concludes with this:
"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
"This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists."
Such as Van Gogh for example, who was not remotely successful or sought after during his lifetime. Duchamp's argument is that the spectator is part of the creative act and therefore shares ownership - and authorship - of the artwork with the artist.
Duchamp would contest that Lucas didn't know what he had produced back in 1977; it wasn't for him to judge back then, it's not for him to judge now. And by denying the public access to a work of art that they helped create is not within his rights, even though he owns the rights.
Bob Dylan has always complained that people read too much into his songs, just as Chance The Gardener was bemused in the film Being There when society decided his simple utterances were profound aphorisms.
In short, the artist is probably not the best person to judge their own artwork, and - in my view - Lucas should probably listen to his fans and allow all versions of the films to be seen (even if that means spending a few quid digitising the originals).