"Star Wars" Dialogue: V. Revision

The dialogue on "Star Wars" concludes with a discussion over George Lucas's continual revision and re-releasing of his own films.
Mike Thorn, Isiah Medina, Chelsea Phillips-Carr, Isaac Goes, Neil Bahadur

Star Wars Dialogue is a 5-part dialog between Mike Thorn, Isiah Medina, Chelsea Phillips-Carr, Isaac Goes, and Neil Bahadur about George Lucas's first six films in the Star Wars franchise.

MIKE THORN: I’ve taken to the idea of assessing these six films on their individual terms from time to time, but there’s also a lot to be gained from putting them into conversation with one another. What is gained by looking at Star Wars as a single work, spanning four decades and multiple entries?

Further, I’d like to hear your thoughts about Lucas’s obsession with retroactive revision—not only did he drastically adjust his original trilogy for a 1997 theatrical re-release (the original “Special Editions”), but he has also made emendations to all six films in every one of their successive releases on digital formats and home video. Personally, I see this as a radical gesture by an auteur who seeks to reinterpret art as subject to perpetual change and evolution, rather than as an object-medium fixed in time. Again, with Lucas it so often comes back to temporality…

ISIAH MEDINA:  To see Star Wars as a single work is a challenge precisely because its multiple, multidirectional tensions become clear for all to see. All these questions of anachronism and futurity, classical and avant-garde, art and technology, original and revision, as individual movies or single film, become restated in the main opposition of Jedi vs. Sith who are “alike in almost every aspect” and “there are heroes on both sides.” It is popular to speak of reversibility of blockbusters that support contradictory ideological leanings as an example how films can be manufactured to appeal to the broadest audience for greater profits. But this reversibility can itself be reversed as it is only the greatest artists and philosophers who contradict themselves since they approach a real tension that cannot be dissolved into the morality of their time. In 1995 Kiarostami said he believed in ‘a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer, [so that] all of a sudden, we have a hundred films.’ How many hundreds if not billions of films did Star Wars viewers creatively complete in their mind?

So here is one I have completed in my mind: when viewed in the chronology of their production, we end with Revenge of the Sith (2005) in a similar problem as one we saw in Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001)—does adulthood exist? Or do we just pass from youth to old age, from Anakin to Darth Vader? In this order it is clear that our divisions and binaries must be revised, and in a Kantian way, diabolical Evil has the same structure as the Good. To fulfill the prophecy, Anakin had to pass through both Good and Evil, the Jedi and the Sith, to make explicit what was false, and true, on both sides. But it is not the question of safe distance and finding the right balance from afar. One must act in the world. Hearing Anakin say "In my point of view, the Jedi are Evil" is liberating. To break with preconceived certainties is the first step for the Good to be nothing but Evil's self-sublation. In Return of the Jedi (1983) he breaks with the Sith out of love for his son and in Revenge of the Sith (2005) he breaks with the Jedi out of love for Padmé. True adulthood, then, is both a return and a revenge that chooses love against the social order, twice. More than CGI additions, it is the relation between Good and Evil itself that is finally revised.

I’ve personally never seen the movies in the chronology of the story so I cannot offer any ideas of what the experience of the Evolution of a Skywalker Family could be like. Perhaps all the formal rhymes will be even more clear like an infinite play of identity and difference, an ultimate work of Tumblr screen capture criticism, showing the difference between repetition and reboot. In the same sense that cinema has yet to be invented, one can perhaps say Star Wars has yet to exist if there is going to be perpetual revision. The image and sound can change but the ideas will remain. What would be more radical is if their ideas themselves are revised. Imagine a revision out of idealist cycles of history and into periodizations. We’ve seen Lucas add full scenes, and not only change the images. It would be exciting to imagine a future revision that finds a way out of the democracy/dictatorship dialectic and escapes the family as a form of love. It’s not to deny an eternity to artworks, but the eternity of artworks is in the eternity of the revision of its meaning. Isn’t this what critics do, and when Godard says the only way to critique a movie is to make another one, is this not what Lucas does in his Special Editions? Maybe one day he will recut it as a meta-historian, create what a future tradition needs, maybe we will get Lucas’ Eniaios. With Lucas we have seen that movies can be an art, a story, a commodity, a continual technical breakthrough, or today it can be a winter holiday, an intellectual property that may include more and more excluded peoples into its franchise, a 4 billion dollar academic study on the prior works. It’s like Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), whether it’s 50 cars or 6 movies, it doesn’t matter, all that matters is the idea. And Lucas offered some ideas of what cinema can do.

CHELSEA PHILLIPS-CARR: In chronological order (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3), they provide an interesting progression to me. The films from the 1970s and 80s have such a different aesthetic than the ones from the 1990s and 2000s that they feel like a time capsule. But politically, it shows a lack of progression. Yes, there is more about the senate, about authority, and politics very broadly, where the originals focus on fantasy and adventure. Still, we have the original trilogy coming in the wake of the feminist and civil rights movements, and characters like Leia and Lando often feel like very shallow lip service. Leia can be puppeted around as a Strong Female Character (she holds a gun, she has sassy comebacks to her romantic interest, she holds the title of a position of power), only to be, basically, a damsel in distress (in a gold bikini). And Lando, who is presented as cooler than even Han Solo, is still a betrayer. You get these inklings of change in representation that ultimately cannot break from the bonds of historical misogyny and racism.

Then you have the prequels which, while made about 20 years later, show little movement. It is incredibly depressing to see a blackface stereotype like Jar Jar Binks on screen (I don’t know if I need to elaborate on this more, but Patricia J. Williams outlines the racist elements of Jar Jar very well in her article “Racial Ventriloquism”). In terms of Padmé, we see her calm, and hear of her skill (much like Leia), but what we mostly experience is her over-commented upon beauty. So, much like Leia, we focus on her looks, her romance, and in a mild version of the gold bikini, her shirt is ripped to reveal her midriff in Attack of the Clones (such lazy objectification hidden under the guise of “But it could really happen in battle!”) We are informed that Padmé is more than a sexist stereotype, but never really shown it. That same courtesy isn’t even extended to Jar Jar.

I do feel that there is a lot to be taken from viewing the films as a single work, and considering their place in our time. But I don’t see progress. I see it in the way that I see Nanook of the North (1922) as a documentary about colonialism and the bias of the filmmaker. So here, despite the engagement with politics in terms of the turmoil within the Star Wars world, I think the greatest political value is held in a reading of all the films within our own society. 

ISAAC GOES: As I mentioned earlier, revision and confounding timelines run deep through the entire series, and I’ve always viewed these cosmetic revisions in a similar light to the initial revision of the series, i.e. the prequels. Perhaps the revisions of the DVD releases take into account a change in our relationship to cinema as a medium we can interact with at home, similarly to how CGI provides a cognitive revolution between filmmaker and image there is a revolution in the relationship between viewer and image. It’s interesting that Isiah mentions screencapping in his response, as this is obviously a direct consequence of home media, of being able to pause and reflect on images suspended from continuous motion.

This also has a lot to do with the collective cultural fascination with Star Wars over such a long period of time. There has obviously been a continuous immersion in the Star Wars world and by the time these revisions took place the series had already become deeply embedded in our cultural conciseness. Being as they are wholly cosmetic, these alterations change the narratives of these movies very little and leave the import of these stories fully intact. It becomes a relation once again of multiple timelines, of technology advancing alongside us in the real world and the narrative timeline of the films remaining constant, with these retroactive revisions inserting a projection of the future into the past and vice versa.

NEIL BAHADUR: Like Isiah, I’ll answer these both as one.  Lucas states that these films should be seen as one work—for what reason should we not?  Our own personal connection to the material?  What would be the point in that?  Why the hell else would Lucas go back and adjust the old films?  There are three reasons for this: tests for The Phantom Menace; secondly, so these films do not appear formally discordant; but most importantly, so that it reworks the previous material into the story Lucas has decided his work should be about—the series is about Anakin/Vader, not Luke or Leia.  Why should anyone stop him? The original excepted, these were works created with unparalleled independence and freedom within the slave market of American cinema—and people want to tell an artist how to do their work?  What form of stupidity is this?  Lucas’s re-edits are a remarkable Kuleshovian act on not single shots but three whole films: each film’s primary function is altered (though when seen in the order of the narrative—if I can go in the order in release it is because I am already acquainted with the work). A New Hope, a wacky adventure movie that is little more than a playground for technology, becomes a family soap opera in microcosm: Vader, Luke and Leia all cross paths and enter conflict all unaware that they are of the same family.  The Empire Strikes Back, previously little more than a remake of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with some kind of Jedi metaphysics thrown in there, takes on an immense pathos within Vader’s character—previously an abstract cipher/image of evil, we now see only a sad and pathetic man who only wants to see his son.  Return of the Jedi changes the least, but only because I presume Lucas had decided the series backstory by this point.  Yet, it contains my favorite of all the changes: replacing the other actor in the final moments with Hayden Christensen.  We can now recognize Anakin from Revenge of the Sith, we see that this is the same man, and, standing with Alec Guiness’s Obi-Wan, realize that it was their story all along, and sometimes such drama will only be resolved after death, and I find that intensely moving.  

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