“STAR WARS” Versus My Ever-Growing Cynicism

With the arrival of the first teaser trailer for the new STAR WARS film (not due out till December 2015), I am reminded of just how little faith I have in both big-budget Hollywood cinema and the STAR WARS franchise itself.

Truth be told, on its face, there’s nothing in the teaser trailer that should make me immediately concerned. It looks cool. It’s a teaser. There’s not much to go on except that it feels like it has a chance of at least being better than George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy. But of course, there’s too little to tell for sure. The good thing is that George Lucas did not write or direct this version, so perhaps it won’t be god-awful.

Here’s a peek at the trailer for those who haven’t seen it yet:

If you know anything about me, then you know I have very little respect for the choices George Lucas made in the second half of his career. Whoever George Lucas was in the 70’s, that filmmaker died and was replaced by something else entirely by the 90’s. The Prequels were some of the worst-written, worst-executed films I’ve ever seen. Consumed by his love of technology, Lucas single-handedly stripped the STAR WARS universe of any semblance of actual life. Great actors giving wooden performances against an endless sea of green-screen and truly uninspired dialogue and plot manipulations. The films felt like an exercise in how to avoid everything that allowed the Original Trilogy to touch such a social and cinematic nerve.

star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope-limited-edition-20060720073933447-000But for me, the greatest travesty was Lucas’ insistent manipulation of the Original Trilogy. Not because the films were great films, but because they are a part of our culture, our social landscape; they are a bookmark and a window into life and art and technology in America at that time. They are films that strongly affected a lot of people and had a lasting impact on our culture. They not only act as a historical signpost, however, they are the stories we pass down from generation to generation. When someone creates a work of art, a work of storytelling, and the time and placement is just right that it strikes a resonant chord — in this case across the globe — I’d like to think that holds some value. In a culture known for tearing down the old to make way for the new, it is far too easy to lose sight of the importance of the past, of history.

Honoring and recognizing the value of such things is not impeding progress, but acknowledging where we come from, our roots, and therefore, our selves. We as people feel the need to return to and share those artistic, creative experiences that move us, that remind us of our shared humanity. Whether it’s listening once again to a favorite piece of music, looking even more deeply into a beloved photograph or painting, re-reading a favorite book or re-experiencing the emotional, visceral journey of a film. We also have a need to share those experiences with the people in our world who know us, who mean something to us, and in so doing, we offer them something of who we are, something that can not be translated into words.

As I’ve discussed in the past, Lucas’ desire to alter these films is not unique and not in-and-of-itself a bad thing, but his desire to rid the world of the Original Cuts is because it eliminates the past and alters not only our ability to revisit and share those precious human moments, but strips us of our opportunity to gain perspective and insight from them.

I’ve been attacked before for being too “precious” about art, but I’m afraid cinema is an important art for me and I do believe that art is, yes, precious. Anytime I sense it being devalued — and in the U.S. it is consistently trivialized — I feel the need to speak out as these attitudes reflect a cultural and political direction that I believe warrants some serious attention. I believe our art holds value beyond just being entertaining in the moment. I think anytime we attempt to rewrite history, as Lucas has tried to do with the Original Trilogy, we risk losing something of great value and importance.

I’ve had folks argue with me that what Lucas did was no worse, no more egregious an act than putting out a picture of the Mona Lisa with a mustache on her. The point being that art is not so precious that it cannot be mocked or altered to make another statement entirely. And I do agree with that sentiment. The difference for me is that you are altering a copy of the Mona Lisa. The original, thank the heavens, is still on display for anyone to take in at the Louvre in Paris. Sans mustache. If Lucas gets his way, the Original Trilogy, as it was seen by millions upon its initial release, would be wiped from the face of the earth for all time. No, it’s true, civilizations won’t fall as a result, but something would be lost nonetheless. And a message would be sent to future generations that technology and means usurps art and artistic inspiration. It is the “imperfections” in our art that also reflect us back at ourselves as much as the intentional aspects of those creations.

For more on Lucas and his self-obsessive desires, check out my earlier post SELF-PROCLAIMED BARBARIAN: THE ALTERING OF OUR CULTURAL & ARTISTIC HERITAGE.

But for the moment, back to the new STAR WARS film.

I have far less concern for what director JJ Abrams does with the next installment of films. They will, I’m certain, reflect our current cultural and social upheavals right back at us. They, like the Originals, will be a signpost. Whether or not I personally like the films is, of course, irrelevant to the bigger picture. After all, I’m one of the folks that was NOT impressed with what Abrams did to the STAR TREK franchise. Sure, some of the action scenes were intense and the concept was a pretty decent slight-of-hand for opening up the STAR TREK universe to new stories via the Original Series’ characters, but the films played more like any other contemporary action film and less like STAR TREK. The characters and stories had been homogenized. Only the names remained the same.

Now it’s true that Abrams was never a STAR TREK fan so he allowed himself some freedom to reimagine these characters and their world from a “fresh” perspective. And perhaps if his STAR TREK films actually felt “fresh,” I would have gone along for the ride without so many criticisms. But the problem was, for me, that the films felt like a recycling of other more recent films. Both in plot and execution.

Luckily, I have read that, unlike STAR TREK, Abrams WAS a fan of the Original Trilogy of STAR WARS films. So maybe he will be more able to maintain the “feel” of that universe, to stay true to its core nature. Assuming he wants to do so. And it would not be horrible if he wanted to change it, put his own stamp on it, re-imagine it. But if it feels just like one of his STAR TREK movies only with the names changed from Captain Kirk to Luke Skywalker, then I will be bowing out. And I’m certain no one will miss me at the ticket-counter. The films will do blockbuster business regardless of my feelings or reaction.

But my fear is that Abrams will not so much introduce a new generation to these characters and to this world, but that he will strip that world bare and offer something far less “human” to that new audience. Something more manufactured, something that undermines the creative exploration behind storytelling, the subconscious, the heart.

“STAR WARS” Versus My Ever-Growing Cynicism

Self-Proclaimed Barbarian: The Altering Of Our Cultural & Artistic Heritage

Let me begin by explaining here that I am not a rabid Star Wars fan. I did love the original film as a kid. I was, in fact, quite obsessed with it. But I was also 13 at the time. Now, at the ripe old age of 47, my desire to go back and see the original Star Wars films is one of nostalgia more than need or great passion. I think they’re terrifically fun films. But the reason I choose to write about these films and what Lucas is doing is simply because I strongly believe in preservation. I believe that film represents our culture. A time and place. Emotionally, sociologically and technologically. Lucas’ much reviled attitude toward fans of his work and his insistence on erasing history is as worthy a topic for my blog as it is for the many, many forums out there voicing their opinions on the subject. Certainly as worthy as Lucas himself bringing this same argument before Congress in 1988.

In that fateful year, George Lucas stood before Congress –with many other filmmakers by his side– and protested the altering of films and the resulting altering of film history. Since then, he has become the poster-child for such alterations with his constant reworking of his Original Star Wars films (though he only directed one of the three) and his insistence that the original versions not be seen. He did, under protest, release the original cuts to DVD years ago in low-grade, non-anamorphic transfers. The result is these films will disappear forever in this hi-tech world. And this is, according to Lucas himself, exactly what he wants to see happen.

Here is the transcript of his plea to Congress. How is it that one so passionate could lose all sense of self and environment to become the greatest transgressor of what he so articulately argued against?

My name is George Lucas. I am a writer, director, and producer of motion pictures and Chairman of the Board ofLucasfilm Ltd., a multi-faceted entertainment corporation.

I am not here today as a writer-director, or as a producer, or as the chairman of a corporation. I’ve come as a citizen of what I believe to be a great society that is in need of a moral anchor to help define and protect its intellectual and cultural heritage. It is not being protected.

The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created.

A copyright is held in trust by its owner until it ultimately reverts to public domain. 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.

These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.

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.

There is nothing to stop American films, records, books, and paintings from being sold to a foreign entity or egotistical gangsters and having them change our cultural heritage to suit their personal taste.

I accuse the companies and groups, who say that American law is sufficient, of misleading the Congress and the People for their own economic self-interest.

I accuse the corporations, who oppose the moral rights of the artist, of being dishonest and insensitive to American cultural heritage and of being interested only in their quarterly bottom line, and not in the long-term interest of the Nation.

The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests. And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.

There are those who say American law is sufficient. That’s an outrage! It’s not sufficient! If it were sufficient, why would I be here? Why would John Houston have been so studiously ignored when he protested the colorization of “The Maltese Falcon?” Why are films cut up and butchered?

Attention should be paid to this question of our soul, and not simply to accounting procedures. Attention should be paid to the interest of those who are yet unborn, who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself.

I hope you have the courage to lead America in acknowledging the importance of American art to the human race, and accord the proper protection for the creators of that art–as it is accorded them in much of the rest of the world communities.

I ask, most humbly, that George Lucas heed his own impassioned words and allow the original cuts of these immensely influential films to be restored to their original state so as to be seen by, as he so eloquently put it, “those who are yet unborn, who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself.”

Self-Proclaimed Barbarian: The Altering Of Our Cultural & Artistic Heritage