A “New” New Hope: Film Preservation and the Problem with ‘Star Wars’

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In an episode of The Big Bang Theory (a sitcom lampooning modern “geek” culture with varying degrees of success), physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper refuses to watch the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series before the Clone Wars movie. He explains, “I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.” Though likely unintentional, this offhanded remark reveals the central dilemma of the Star Wars fandom.  Does the franchise “belong” to Lucas or does it “belong” to the public, as an artifact of cultural history? With the 2011 release of the 6-part Star Wars saga on Blu-ray came the announcement that the version of the trilogy available in the set would not be from the original theatrical prints, but the 1997 “Special Edition” versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which include additional scenes and updated technology. Many fans of the franchise see this decision—coupled with the critical backlash stemming from the three Star Wars prequels—as evidence of George Lucas’ transformation from an innovative filmmaker into a profit-seeking businessman.

There may be a more pertinent problem at stake. As the years go by, the original theatrical print of the trilogy has become more and more difficult to access. The original version of Star Wars has a loyal and prolific fan following, including the website Save Star Wars, a space promoting the preservation and distribution of the original theatrical prints of the trilogy. But what constitutes an original art object in film? With regards to this issue, Star Wars presents a unique problem—what the fans consider the original work of art has been actively suppressed by its creator. In an interview in the February 1997 edition of American Cinematographer Magazine, Lucas stated: “What ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember.  The other versions will disappear.  Even the 35 million [VHS] tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years.” From this, it appears that Lucas intends for the Special Edition of the trilogy to supersede the original versions, eventually taking their place in our collective cultural memory.

Which brings us back to the question—what is the original work of art in film? Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction explores this issue by examining the implications of reproducing a work of art, and “the art of the film.” He explains the differences between the ritual (or cult) value and the exhibition value of a work of art. The ritual value of an original artwork (ie, a painting or a sculpture) is directly tied to its physical existence in a physical space. The phenomenon one experiences when physically encountering a work of art is what he terms the “aura,” which becomes the mark of a cult object’s authenticity. Alternately, a work of art that has been mechanically reproduced (ie, photography and film) possesses an exhibition value—and therefore, according to Benjamin, has no aura: “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” Questions concerning the original work of art in film and photography are made irrelevant by their reproducibility. If the presence of an original marks the authenticity of a work of art, where does one locate the original in a medium such as photography?  Any number of identical prints can be made from a negative, and as Benjamin points out, “to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”

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Benjamin’s critique of the status of the original work of art in film and photography is not without its problems. Indeed, his definition of the aura is difficult to grasp. His evocation of words such as “ritual”, “cult,” and “magic,” suggest a kind of ephemeral quality. The aura is a transient experience, buoyed by a spectator’s subjective experience. Thus, it is difficult to provide evidence for its existence in the materiality of an art object. The context in which the original essay was written is also noteworthy. Arguably, the status of film as art has progressed, and efforts have been made to protect essential film artifacts since 1935. Most notably, the National Film Preservation Act was enacted in 1988, instructing the United States Library of Congress to establish a National Film Registry to preserve and archive films that have been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

In a published transcript of discussions between professional film archivists and curators from 2008, entitled Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums and the Digital Marketplace, Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein engage with and argue against Benjamin’s thesis on a number of different points. For example, Horwath tackles the values that inform museum and archive practices today, which suggest that “[only] the vintage print of a photo touched by the hand of the artist can be counted as an original.” Of course, with regards to industrial cinema, this “touch of the artist” is difficult to pinpoint. As Horwath states, there is “never a discussion of huge values attached to the object or of a vintage print touched by the hand of Louis B. Mayer or Stanley Kubrick.”

Horwath rightly points out that the film strip is not the art object, but only a part of the work of art. The performance of a film (unlike traditional art or photography) is durational—the film experience can only occur within a limited timeframe. To preserve film as a work of art, one has to preserve “not just (but also) the strip, not just (but also) the apparatus, not just (but also) the screening space; what needs to be transmitted into the future is the set of relations between them while they are in performance—the working system.” Noting that film has “never been a fixed process or system,” Horwath also does not see the move from analog to digital film technologies to be a problem: “I call them “film works” because the point that defines the work for me is the point when it becomes a public fact. If, for whatever reason, the producers or artists have decided that they want a 35mm print to be the shape in which the work reaches the public, then it’s that 35mm film we should be able to represent to the future.” This suggests that the role of the audience in this working system is not to be discounted. If what is to be preserved is the version of a film as it was first presented to an audience, then it stands to reason that the 1977 theatrical 35mm print of Star Wars would be the original work of art. And indeed, it was this version that had been inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989.

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However, according to Michael Kaminski of Save Star Wars, the NFR has never possessed a copy of the print. Following an anonymous email tip from a film restorationist, Kaminski travelled to the Library of Congress to examine the NFR’s copy of Star Wars himself. He was told by librarian Zoran Sinobad that “while both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are on the National Film Registry, the Library has not yet acquired new prints of either one. When the request was made for Star Wars, Lucasfilm offered us the Special Edition version.”

Another influential fan-based initiative for the preservation and public distribution of the original cut of Star Wars is the online petition at OriginalTrilogy.com. The current version of the petition reiterates that authorial agency and cultural responsibility are not mutually exclusive—while Lucas has every right to alter his films, he has an artistic obligation to preserve the original version for future generations. The website has also published a letter from a Lucasfilm PR rep, responding to the site’s original petition. It is damning evidence for Lucas’ continued suppression of the original trilogy: “The negatives of the movies were permanently altered for the creation of the Special Editions, and existing prints of the first versions are in poor condition. [...] Since these movies do not represent George’s artistic vision, we could not put the extraordinary time and resources into this project as we did with the Special Editions. [...] We want you to be aware that we have no plans—now or in the future—to restore the earlier versions.”

The argument that the updated version of Star Wars constitutes Lucas’ original “artistic vision” is not entirely cohesive. Such an admission implies that, had computer generated graphics existed in the 1970s as they do today, Lucas’ original version of Star Wars would have more closely resembled the Special Edition. However, this argument is historically and technologically deterministic—that Lucas was somehow destined to make the Special Edition at any point in history. Films as artifacts are a product of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic limitations, and as such, the original Star Wars theatrical prints should be preserved as a representation of science fiction filmmaking in the late-70s and early-80s.

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A particularly strange wrinkle in this debate was put forth by George Lucas himself on March 3rd, 1988. In Washington D.C., Lucas was one amongst a group of filmmakers and Hollywood personalities (including Steven Spielberg, James Stewart, Woody Allen, John Huston, et cetera) who spoke before Congress, protesting the colorization of classic black-and-white films. The arguments Lucas puts forth are eerily close to those who speak in favour of preserving the original Star Wars. Lucas (circa 1988) believed that “American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history.” Lucas makes an impassioned plea for the protection of cultural artifacts, a position that directly contradicts his future actions: “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.” Lucas implored for the preservation of original prints of films. “In the future,” he presciently cautions, “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.

Out of this and other protests before Congress came the creation of the National Film Registry as a new branch of the Library of Congress. As mentioned previously, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back have been singled out for preservation by the NFR (the third film in the series, Return of the Jedi has yet to be inducted) and (at the time of writing) the NFR does not possess workable copies of the original versions of either. Lucas’ prediction that the “other [original] versions will disappear” and the DVD versions will be “what everyone is going to remember” is gradually becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With the purchase of Lucasfilm by The Walt Disney Company in March 2013 and the subsequent announcement of new sequel films, the fate of the original trilogy may not yet be a foregone conclusion. As the 2015 release of Episode VII has drawn closer, mainstream interest in the original films has continued to grow, which has led to assumptions that Disney may capitalize on this renewed attention by remastering and re-releasing the original trilogy. But such an idea at this point is mere speculation. And the notion that the preservation (and dissemination) of an original work of art is now in the hands of a corporation that values “brand deposits” as a creative marketing strategy presents its own set of troubling problems.

The central point remains: the serious implications of Lucas’ handling of the theatrical cuts of the Star Wars original trilogy are exactly what he warned about in 1988—the rewriting of cultural history. Government-mandated agencies such as the National Film Registry are unable to preserve (or even possess) working copies of the films on their list without the consent of the author and/or copyright holder. George Lucas’ actions have set a dangerous precedent for film preservation—potentially, authors are able to manipulate their work, and present the altered copy as the “new” original—an effacement of history that Lucas once called the actions of a “barbaric society.”

– Mallory Andrews



By Mallory Andrews

Mallory Andrews is a Toronto-based writer and Submissions Editor for cléo, an online journal of film and feminism. Her areas of interest include documentary, animation, performance/bodies on film, and Star Wars.

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5 Responses to A “New” New Hope: Film Preservation and the Problem with ‘Star Wars’

  1. Brad July 30, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    It’s far too convenient to call out Lucas on the altering argument while ignoring that it’s his own work. His arguments before Congress were about commercialization outside the purview of the creator (colorizing, putting Fred Astaire in a vacuum cleaner commercial, etc.).

    I also have virtually no patience for anyone over the age of say, 35 complaining about access to what they regard as the “original” version of the movie, because it was pressed to virtually every kind of media ever created during their child and adult lifetimes.

    Reply
    • Rick August 1, 2014 at 5:08 am

      Brad, I hope you’re being sarcastic because what it seems like you’re saying is that an original version of a cultural phenomenon (we’re not talking ‘Teen Wolf’ here – this is ‘Star Wars’) can be permanently erased from our shelves and can never be experienced the same way again (and you’re cool with that) because Lucas gave it so he can taketh away.

      What I see and many others see is that Lucas and company were richly rewarded for the art he gave us and now he deems that audience flawed somehow for loving what was a grand entertainment as it existed then. How is it that there’s no room for both versions?

      You have no patience? Sounds very true, hope you foster some in the future, it’s not such a bad thing.

      Reply
  2. serpico009 July 25, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    That whole bit about “aura” and the experience of watching the film is off the mark regarding film, especially in the context of the original cuts of Star Wars. We’re not talking about the experience of watching or even watching the original film print, we’re talking about the content and structure of what’s being watched.

    So, we’re not talking about whether you see the Statue of David online or in person, or if you’re seeing a photograph of the Statue in a book. We’re talking about seeing a Statue of David (in any context) with three testicles and a set of horns, and being told that the Statue of David has been ever thus.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Mantil July 25, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Good points. Restore the original releases without the CGI

    Regards the NEW new sequel, is 6 not enough with tv cartoon series on top!!??

    Sick of sequels and remakes and bla blah blah.

    Hollywood should make more intelligent original science fiction.

    Reply
  4. Louis Bornwasser July 23, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    “He was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.” reportedly said by Gary Kurtz.

    Reply

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