This article was originally written for TheReelists.com, published January 12th, 2011. It has been slightly revised and updated.
This September, for the first time ever, the entire Star Wars Saga will be released in one complete package and in Hi-Def. That’s right, this coming September you can purchase Star Wars on home video, again! A Blu-ray set of all the Star Wars films sounds like a great proposition, and as a wholehearted supporter of the Blu-ray format I should be over-the-moon excited about this. But I’m not. Not only am I not excited about Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray, I think spending any money on the set is willful participation in destruction of film as the most culturally important artistic medium of the modern age.
Film is a physical medium. Many people forget this. Film is viewed as an illusion they see thrown on to a movie theatre screen or a TV or even an iPod. I suppose that in the new age of digital filmmaking the line between film being physical and virtual is getting blurred, but in the end the film must exist somewhere and that somewhere is always on or within a physical object. The disconnect between the perception of film as ethereal and the reality of its physicality is one of the foremost challenges facing the preservation and growth of film as an art form. For how, in all honesty, can we think of film as the art form that it truly is when it is also thought of as insubstantial, or even disposable?
To a large extent music has already succumb to this fate, but there are enough historical ties to records and CDs, and the small digital file sizes and easy availability in the digital age have kept music ubiquitous as both a pop culture token and an art. Even still, that same ubiquity and the ties to pop culture have made most popular music into something that is viewed almost exclusively as disposable, and only accruing long-lasting value through nostalgia. Film has long straddled that same line, but classics like The Godfather and new films like Inception that placate the urge for pure entertainment while also providing necessary cultural stimulus have kept film the predominant artistic form right through the last century and into the new one.
The more permanent and physical the perception of an art form is, the more it is perceived by the public as “art” rather than mere entertainment. A good example of this is sculpture and painting. Paintings are hung in galleries and museums. They are preserved from disintegration and frequently restored to prime condition. These practices are seen as culturally valuable to the point where allowing a painting to be defaced or lost to time is considered practically criminal. That’s wonderful, but then why do we allow so many films to languish and to be treated without the respect they deserve? Why do we accept George Lucas altering his classic films and then refusing to make the original versions available to the public, sometimes going as far as to claim that the original negatives have actually been destroyed in the process of creating the Special Editions? Why do we allow this?
Now, I guess I have to state at this point that I am not some Star Wars fanboy. Let me be clear about this: I am a nerd, and I love the original Star Wars films, but I am not some crazed fanboy who thinks the Special Editions are a crime against humanity. I don’t care for the added CGI effects at all, though I actually like some of the more subtle, Blade Runner The Final Cut-style alterations. What I take issue with is Lucas’ refusal to make available the original versions of the films. The last time those versions were properly preserved and restored was in the early 90s, with technology that was hardly appropriate for archival purposes. Worse yet, if his claim is true that the original negatives themselves were altered to the point of making the original versions impossible to retrieve—I highly doubt this, but let’s take his words at face value—then what Lucas has done is just as criminal as if someone had thrown drops of acid onto the Mona Lisa.
You may think I’m being melodramatic, but I’m not. Star Wars is a cultural and artistic touchstone as important and recognizable as the Mona Lisa. Maybe it doesn’t seem as important to most people, and maybe some people don’t even look at Star Wars as art. I assure you it is. Star Wars is a film that has touched the lives of millions, maybe billions of people all over the world, and it has been adopted into the culture in a way that is more pervasive than even da Vinci’s famous painting. Star Wars is a work of art of the utmost cultural importance and it should be treated just as any important painting hanging in a museum. You would think that George Lucas of all people, the man that created the character who shouted the famous line, “it belongs in a museum,” would understand the importance of film preservation for the sake of culture over his own need for total directorial satisfaction.
You see, art, once it breaks its way into the public consciousness, is no longer the property of its creator. Copyright laws say otherwise, of course, but at this point the American laws of extended copyrights have only done more harm than good. It has been estimated that 90% of all silent films, and 50% of all pre-1950 talkies have been lost forever. This is the case for a variety of reasons, including the lack of importance placed on films by the companies that owned them. Those films are destroyed and gone forever. Almost more disheartening is the thought of all those films still under copyright due to copyright extension law that studios are just sitting on. Thousands of films that have rarely been released since first run decades ago are literally fading away without any incentive for their owners to preserve them. If only the public could have unlimited access to these piece of art there might be a chance for them to be preserved, restored and even made available again. But the reality is, unfortunately, that though the public may be the rightful owner of modern pieces of art just as much as their creators, the law gives full control solely to the “authors”. It is the responsibility then of the owners of copyrights, the studios and creators of films, to do that preservation and restoration work that is so necessary in maintaining film as an art.
The rise in the “Director’s Cut” has been a real problem here as well. Directors and producers put together a new cut of a film many years after release that they now consider definitive. This is fine, and in some cases I personally prefer the newer cuts. I’m a fan of Apocalypse Now: Redux, for example, as well as the Final Cut of Blade Runner and Amadeus: Director’s Cut. Yet I recognize the value in maintaining the availability of the original versions, the versions that the public originally adopted and have come to own over time. Luckily the studios behind Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner understood this value, and their most recent restorations have been released on Blu-ray and have included all versions, original and re-cut. Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray is also the first time the film has ever been released, in any cut, in its original theatrical aspect ratio on home video. This is great, and it further cements the role of the Blu-ray format as the biggest incentive for the proper preservation and restoration of films of all kinds. Amadeus, on the other hand, while receiving a Blu-ray release recently, was not further restored to optimal quality, and the release only included the Director’s Cut of the film. Now I may prefer the Director’s Cut of Amadeus, but many people do not, and beyond that, the film that won all those awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture was not Amadeus: Director’s Cut. Amadeus, in its original cut, is the film that the public adopted and made its own. To not work to preserve that cut, and to not make it readily available in the best possible format is downright irresponsible on the part of Warner Bros.
The same is true of George Lucas and Star Wars. Only in this case we are dealing with three films of even greater cultural value, and original cuts which have only been released on DVD as a special feature in terribly poor quality and sourced from a 15 year old transfer. Not making those original cuts readily available, allowing them to become lost to history, is a debasement of our cultural heritage. Star Wars may not be in a museum, but it should be. In fact, Star Wars, and recently The Empire Strikes Back, have both been selected for preservation under legislation by the American Library of Congress. Technically it is now illegal to contribute to the destruction of those two films. Yet George Lucas still gets away with barring them from release, and his lack of will in preserving them is despicable just as it may even be illegal.
Now you may think, “well I can’t do anything about that, Lucas is a jerk, and he won’t change his mind,” and you may be right. You may be. George Lucas is a controlling figure, and his rationale has not always made sense to everybody or anybody. Maybe Lucas won’t change his mind, and under current copyright law he does not have to. You’re right, you probably can’t “do” anything about it. But you can “not do” something. You can not give him your money. You can stop feeding the beast. I’m hardly one to call for a George Lucas boycott, and in many ways I think corporate boycotts are silly in this day, but I know that I have principles. And my principles tell me that buying yet another edition of Star Wars that does not include the original versions properly restored is morally wrong. My principles tell me that contributing more money to the same source that is actively allowing a treasured piece of art and cultural heritage to be lost to time makes me a participant in that destruction. So I may love Star Wars, and I may love High Definition, and I may dream of seeing some of my favourite films in stunning quality on Blu-ray, but I also stand by my principles. I will refuse to purchase any more copies of Star Wars until those original version are made available. And not just made available, but preserved and restored as well. I will not be buying Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray, and frankly, if you have any love for Star Wars or film in general, neither should you.