"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" - William Wordsworth
Recently, the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” digitally altered a rerun to feature an advertisement for an upcoming movie. I would not call the reaction online outrage so much as trepidation. There is a huge concern that this will become the norm in television. A revisionist history where the reruns, which act as a stored memory of the shows we once watched, or never got the chance to see, are subject to the whims of commercialism. What if all of the boxes of cereal in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment are changed to modern brands? What if the beers poured in Cheers are all adapted to modern brews? What if K.I.T.T. is suddenly a Camaro, since the Pontiac brand has disappeared?
Would this matter? I’m not sure. I think my opinion would vary depending on the level of change, and also my own level of affection for the original material. Which is, of course, how this got me thinking about Star Wars.
Actually, I was also thinking about Star Wars in terms of my son. He’s a toddler, and I just took him to see “Cars 2,” his first movie. I was wondering to myself if he would ever see a version of Star Wars where Han shot first. None of the current media formats feature this version of events. When the Blu-Ray version of Star Wars is released this September, the so-called “Original Trilogy” will be the modified re-release that Lucas heaped upon the world. Greedo will shoot first. Han will react. History will be changed forever.
Artists are crazy. I’m not being facetious; I think it’s a prerequisite for the job. Artists have a skewed perspective on reality, which is what makes them interesting. There is also a separation from reality that is not a byproduct of the art, but a necessary component of its creation. Building on my Wordsworth epigraph above, I think that artists create because their medium is a way of coping with the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to create a compelling piece of art that expresses those feelings while the artist is in the moment. Better to take a step back, let the moment happen, then begin the creative process in a period of recollection.
So, artists are necessarily removed both from the moment that their art expresses, as well as from their current reality. After all, if life is a constant stream of emotions, it would be impossible to find tranquility without some sense of remove.
This brings me to one of my favorite concepts in critical thinking about art. Once a piece of art has been created, who owns it? The answer may seem like it’s an obvious question of physical possession, but that’s not what I mean. When Wordsworth writes a poem, what is his relationship with that poem once it has been published and read? What is the level of his authority on its meaning?
Just so I don’t lose my audience, who came to read about technology and not English poetry, let me put the question this way: Does George Lucas have the right to change, and keep changing, Star Wars? In the Star Wars canon, can we now say that Greedo definitively shot first, or did Han? Or is it some mixture of the two? But more importantly, I’m asking what role, and what responsibility, George Lucas has to maintaining the integrity of his artwork.
The answer may seem obvious. The artist owns the art, right? Take, for example, Blade Runner. Ridley Scott was famously displeased with the way Blade Runner was finally edited and cut. He eventually released a longer, Director’s Cut version of the movie, and now you can still buy the two different versions. They are both worth a look.
In an interview with the UK’s Channel 4, Ridley Scott outed the main character of Blade Runner, Harrison Ford’s Deckard, as a replicant. Replicants are the robotic humanoids that Deckard is supposed to be hunting and exterminating throughout the film. The plot of the movie leaves open the possibility that after the story has ended, there is at least one more replicant loose in the world. But the movie is never decisive on this point. The movie leaves the question open, and in fact there is little compelling or supporting evidence to justify the conclusion that Deckard is himself one of the robotic creatures that he has been tracking.
But Ridley Scott just couldn’t leave it alone. He announces to an interviewer that Deckard is a replicant. This is separate from the movie itself. This is new information. The rumor is that Ford did not believe Deckard was a replicant (though I could not find the actual quotation supporting this). So, the actor portraying the character probably did not believe the a posteriori conclusion of the director who adapted the screenplay.
As an aside, don’t bother looking in the Philip Dick novella for answers. The book, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep,” bears little resemblance to the movie. This is true for almost every Philip Dick adaptation I have seen. “Minority Report” is nothing like the book. “Total Recall,” “Paycheck,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” all of them were completely different from the book. Inspired by, perhaps, but not close enough to be called an adaptation. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” comes closest. It captures much of the feel of the book, though it veers in the plot.
Back to “Blade Runner.” The actor disagrees with the director. Who is right? You might say that the director has the final word. After all, it is his movie. He created it, and he is responsible for its vision, its direction, as it were. You also might say Ford is right. After all, he is Deckard. Whatever Deckard says or does, it comes out of Ford’s mouth. Even if Ridley Scott had given him the direction to realize and believe that he was a replicant, if Ford did not play the character in such a way, if Ford did not believe this idea himself, it would not be represented in the movie.
My view is somewhat more complicated. I believe that both sides of the argument are correct. And none of them are. Most importantly, though, I do not believe that Scott or Ford has the right to some universal ‘truth’ about the movie. Just because Ridley Scott says Deckard is a replicant does not make it so. The movie now stands on its own. I can interpret it and enjoy it however I see fit. The movie only exists in my perception of it, anyway. Without my watching the movie, it is simply celluloid tape being run past a lamp. It takes an audience member’s eye to put all of the tiny pieces together. This is just as true in the perception of motion in a film as it is in the interpretation of the film’s plot.
Is Deckard a replicant? No. Nothing in the movie suggests that he is. I do not find the movie any more interesting believing that he is. It does not change his motives, and it does not alter the meaning of the film, for me. But I welcome arguments to the contrary. And, in fact, I’m more interested in hearing what other viewers have to say than hearing what Ridley Scott or Harrison Ford has to say.
Some artists just can’t leave well enough alone. I think it is the disconnect from reality that I talked about earlier. It is the necessity of removing oneself from the world, of finding a place of tranquility, that causes artists like George Lucas to feel that his art is never finished. Lucas is not the first artist to change his work after it has been released. He won’t be the last. I think the problem is that, in my mind, Star Wars was already complete. I could judge the movie based on what I have seen over and over again repeatedly since I was in elementary school.
Lucas, however, is removed from this finality. For him, the version of Star Wars that was originally released in the late 1970s was simply the best he could do in time to meet his deadline. It is the best he could create with the technology at hand. It does not match his vision, but poor George does not understand that this is the nature of art. It will never match his vision. He can tweak it each and every day until it becomes something completely unrecognizable. Star Wars now is like those actors who have so many plastic surgeries they look barely human. Star Wars is like Mickey Rourke. Still plenty of substance, but Kim Basinger isn’t going to let him feed her strawberries any time soon.
I’m going to say it here: Han Solo shot first. I don’t care what happened when Lucas changed the movie. Han’s character was defined by this action. Harrison Ford played the character, throughout the trilogy, with the idea in his head that this is a scoundrel who would shoot first. More importantly, though, the movies are more nuanced and more interesting if Han is dangerous. I don’t care what Lucas intended. The version where Greedo shoots first is a fever dream, and when I show the movie to my son, I’m going to skip over that scene.
He’ll ask: “Daddy, what just happened?” And I’ll say:
“Han Solo shot the green man.”
“Why did he shoot the green man?”
“Because that’s just the type of person he is.”
However, like I said, I’m much more interested in the opinions of other audience members than I am in George Lucas’ definitive answer.