Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Restoration versus Cartoonization

Here is a slightly revised version of comments I posted to Amazon about the 2006 reissue of Star Wars on DVD, with the 1977 edition included as a "bonus disc." I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. It is not everything I feel I want to say on the subject, and actually needs to be shorter rather than longer to achieve that goal. But is starting to turn into an essay in its own right.


I am one of those geeks who was ten years old when Star Wars came out (note: it was not originally called "Episode IV.") I watched it in the theater perhaps a dozen times. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

This release contains two DVDs: the version that Lucas has been tinkering with, and on a bonus disc, the original movie in 4:3 letterbox, taken from the best-available videodisc masters.

About that "tinkering." The 2004 version of Episode 4 looks, for the most part, quite gorgeous. The _restoration_ that Lucasfilm did is impressive: the blacks are blacker, the whites whiter, the color richer, the contrast improved all around, and the soundtrack is great. The dirt and scratches are gone, the shaky color very solid.

However, at some point Lucas crossed over from "restoration" into making a new movie. That's fine; he has the right to do so. But for him to say that the original Star Wars is not really what he had in mind, when it was one of the most famous and popular movies in history and became entrenched in the culture -- well, I find that weirdly arrogant. And when he says, in effect, that his altered version _is_ "Star Wars" and the original _isn't_ -- well, hmmm. A movie is a historical artifact. There's a difference between preservation and tinkering. Mainly, that tinkering mostly is there to gratify the artist, while preservation serves the art -- and the fans of the art. Artistic creation is a fragile and uncertain process. For Lucas to assume that he knew exactly what made Star Wars great and presume to make it better misstates the amount of control that artists actually have over how their creations are received by the public.

Where you draw this line is slightly unclear. I think the cleanup of the backgrounds is fine. The improvement of the soundtrack to use the latest technology available is wonderful. I'm not sure why Kenobi's weird cry that drives away the sandpeople was replaced with a slightly different weird cry. He's redone some of the explosions twice now. I'm not sure why they all became pink in 2004. Why did he feel that Alderaan and the Death Star needed to explode in giant rings? Why do the lightsabers now give off blinding green flashes when they collide? Most of these changes are not improvements; they are just distractions. They tend to stick out like a sore thumb to fans who have seen the movie many times.

But there are more than just the small arbitrary changes, I'm not really happy with the addition of dinosaur-like creatures in Mos Eisley, and I'm really not happy with giving these little bits and pieces cartoonish _sound_ that sounds like it came from Episode 1. Star Wars, the original, had a different tone, a different mood, than Empire and Jedi and the whole prequel trilogy. It's a little darker. It's a world where rebels and stormtroopers are violently killed and Han Solo shoots first. Lucas is free to make that world happier and more cartoonish in his later films, but altering, and in some cases censoring violence from the original, is a very strange thing to do.

So, although I really admire the improvements to the image and sound in the 2004 edition, I generally prefer watching the original 1977 cut. For that, I'm sorry to report that the digital transfer, from the videodisc master, is only adequate. Many fans are griping that it is 4:3 instead of anamorphic 19:9. This means it isn't full-width on a widescreen TV. That doesn't particularly bother me, but I'm viewing it on an old TV, not a widescreen TV. It looks like a very good analog videotape, but we've recently -- and rather abruptly, in terms of years -- gotten used to DVDs of films that were transferred to the digital realm and mastered there. The audio is good, but again we now tend to compare it to all-digital productions. Negative comments on Amazon about the black level are on the mark; some of the space scenes make black outer space look brown, or gray. This is particularly evident when we see Vader's helmet in his tie fighter; his helmet is blacker than the black background of space. But that is true in the original film; it was noticeable in the theater on opening day. A number of the desert scenes have poor contrast and faded color; some of this is film deterioration, and some is because the contrast and color in some of the outdoor Tatooine scenes were never that good to begin with. There are noticeable scratches. The color is shaky in some scenes, particularly outdoor scenes, and it flickers a bit. It looks like a film that is considerably older than it is. I've seen older restored films that look a lot better than this one does.

Here's the thing: it didn't have to be this way. We would have considered it to be a fairly good video rendering at one point in time. But our expectations have been raised considerably -- and, in fact, Lucas himself is largely responsible for raising those expectations, because of his constant embrace of new technology for delivering films to audiences. The 2004 DVD release has all those black level problems fixed. There aren't any visible scratches. The contrast is excellent. The colors are vivid. The missing dialog is restored.

So which version do I want to watch? Well, the answer is neither. I want to watch a version that doesn't exist: call it "Star Wars: the Nostalgia Edition." That version would be fully _restored_, but not _altered_. And it would have things like Han Solo's scene with Jabba available as a "deleted scene" special feature, along with all the other so-called lost footage such as the scene at Anchorhead, which introduces (and makes sense of) Luke's relationship with Biggs. It would have been presented with respect for the original work, not as a bonus disc given no special treatment. Instead, Lucas has disowned that picture.

And here's the thing: I'd be shocked if Lucas didn't have every scene, unaltered, from the first film in beautifully restored digital form. After all, wouldn't a restored original film have been the starting point for this whole process of alteration that led to the 1997 and 2004 versions?

So, I'm not actually advocating that we give up the advances in restoration that are evident in the 2004 release. But don't bother with the tinkering. The fans don't care about it. Keep the original death star cell block footage. Sure, the tunnel behind the actors is obviously a matte painting, and the perspective is off kilter when the camera angle changes. But you know what? I saw Star Wars at least ten times in the theater and I never noticed the problem -- because it isn't a "problem," it's an artifact of the budget and technology that existed in 1977. You notice it if you are looking at the frame cynically, not when you are immersed in the story. It might be an irritant to Lucas now, but it is the effect we grew up with. For the "Nostalgia Edition," let Star Wars be Star Wars.

Then Lucas can go on with his director's cuts, turning Star Wars into a 3-D cartoon until the sun explodes, for all I care. Just don't make me watch Greedo shoot first!

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