Open Thread: Let’s Talk About George Lucas

Once a work of art is released to the public, who does that art belong to — the artist or the audience? It’s a question that has occupied sociologists and critics for years, but one that has become particularly worthy of contemplation in light of the relationship between Star Wars creator George Lucas and that iconic series’ legion of fans — an alliance already contentious after 14 years of mutual acrimony, made newly heated by the forthcoming Blu-ray release of the entire series.

Back in January, the announcement of the Blu-ray release of the Star Wars films was greeted with a notably mixed reception by fans of the series (and of movies in general). Yes, of course, many were thrilled by the news — this is the most profitable and iconic science fiction series in film history, in high-def video and audio. But there was a catch: the Blu-rays would only include the “special edition” re-releases of the original trilogy.

Some background for those less consumed: In 1997, in preparation for his long-awaited return to the franchise (in the form of the “prequel” films, Episodes I-III, released between 1999 and 2005), Lucasfilms and 20th Century Fox re-released the so-called “original trilogy” (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) to theaters, in “Special Edition” form. This was nothing new; filmmakers from Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to Ridley Scott (the endless Blade Runner reissues) had been revising works they’d been unhappy with for years, to no real objection. Lucas took the opportunity to add in new computer-generated effects, background gags, and deleted scenes; he also altered the editing of certain sequences, most notoriously the encounter between Han Solo and Greedo in the first film, changing the scene that Solo was no longer cavalierly picking off the bounty hunter, but acting in self-defense.

Though the re-releases were hugely successful financially, hardcore Star Wars fans were infuriated by the Lucas’ disregard for the films as they remembered (and loved) them. The “Han shot first” meme was born, a three-word summation and rejection of the entire notion of the “special editions.” Some filmmakers might take in this outcry from their fans and reconsider their digital futzing and tinkering. Lucas, instead, doubled down.

When the original trilogy hit DVD in 2004, Lucas not only inserted additional changes and alterations to the already-vandalized “special editions,” but steadfastly refused to release the original, theatrical versions in the format at all. The Star Wars DVDs came with a bonus disc including hours of bonus features, but the original cuts were nowhere to be found; at the time, Lucas insisted, “The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it. … I’m not going to spend the, we’re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore.” In 2006, Lucasfilm finally acquiesced — or, perhaps, realized that they could make some more money — by releasing the original versions on DVD, though those discs eschewed the remastering of the “special edition” releases, instead using a thrown-together 2.0 stereo mix and non-anamorphic image that made the movies look like the red-headed stepchildren they were being treated as.

So no one was really surprised when the announcement for the Blu-ray discs made it abundantly clear that, in spite of the enormous storage capacities of the format, the original theatrical versions would not be included. And, frankly, no one should have been surprised by the slowly-leaking news, over the past couple of weeks, that Lucas has made even more alterations to the films—not only to the original trilogy, but to the prequels as well. But the anger and frustration of the fans boiled over once again, and for good reason; Lucas’ clear disdain for the wishes of his fans has become so entrenched that it has even sparked a documentary treatise on the subject. At this point, it almost seems as though he’s making these changes purely to piss people off.

So who is right here? To casual observers, the Star Wars kerfuffle may seem little more than whiny movie geeks engaging in an endless argument over inconsequential details with an increasingly irrelevant filmmaker. But film writer Scott Weinberg, in a smart and concise essay on the controversy, pinpoints exactly why this is a big deal. “Between 1977 and 1997 (the year the ‘Special Editions’ showed up),” he writes, “I watched and adored the original Star Wars at least 15 times. Like most hardcore fans, I know Star Wars virtually by heart — and that’s what makes all the ‘new’ stuff such an inescapable annoyance: I spot every change, every sound, every stupid addition as a reminder than I’m NOT watching the movie I love; I’m watching a version that was tweaked to get more asses in the seats for that damn theatrical re-release.”

But that’s not, it would seem, a concern to Lucas. “I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it,” he snarled in 2004. “But I want it to be the way I want it to be. I’m the one who has to take responsibility for it.” And that is a valid argument — as noted, previous filmmakers have had occasion to revise their works (though it should be noted that none have gone to the lengths Lucas has to bury their originals; check out the Close Encounters Blu-ray, which includes all of that picture’s iterations, even including a fancy chart to track the changes). And the films are, in fact, Lucas’ to revisit, if he chooses.

Or are they? Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars, and (to his detriment, really) the entire prequel trilogy. But he directed neither The Empire Strikes Back nor Return of the Jedi, and he only co-wrote the latter (he is credited with “story” on Empire). So are those his films to alter?

But even if they are, the original question remains. Whose art is it anyway? Does the snobbish, high-culture perception of the Star Wars pictures (as sci-fi popcorn movies for kids and overgrown teenagers who never move out of the basement) allow us to overlook the real and worrisome questions this controversy poses about the defacing of art? Once those films were released, did they — the films in that form, and the experience of seeing them — become part of popular culture, a part of our shared cinematic landscape? Or do they remain Lucas’, to do with as he pleases?

Here’s a quote that Mr. Lucas might want to read. It sheds some interesting light on the matter:

American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history. People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as ‘when life begins’ or ‘when it should be appropriately terminated,’ but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.

Well said! What thoughtful cultural guardian was responsible for that eloquent and impassioned plea?

Ah. George Lucas, circa 1988.

What do you think? Should Lucas leave his damn movies alone? Or should the Star Wars fans just settle down and watch their picture shows? Let us know in the comments.