Who owns art? And by art I mean Star Wars

This past weekend, I jumped in the car with a friend to take a quick day trip to Philadelphia Comic Con. While we really just went in to the Matt Smith panel and didn’t explore much else, it brought up a few questions and Deep Thoughts from my friend who’s not quite as familiar with the rest of nerd culture outside of the Whoniverse. A few of those Deep Thought discussion topics included: What makes a nerd? Can people be nerdy about non-traditionally-geek things? And hey, what did happen with Star Wars exactly?

Ah, Star Wars fandom. As I’ve mentioned here in passing, I have a very conflicted relationship with the land of Jedi and Sith. Growing up I adored Star Wars. Posters were everywhere, extended universe books were kept meticulously on my bookcase in chronological order (based on the timeline, of course, not the publishing dates) and my Han Solo action figure was generally much more used than Barbies.  Then it was my Freshman year of high school and *cue dramatic music* The Phantom Menace happened. My issues lay much more with the “improved” DVD releases than Episodes I-III, though like any self-respecting geek I hated those movies with a firey passion reserved for the devastated fan.

Let’s first acknowledge the (IMO excellent) documentary which sums all this up with far more humor and tales of woe than one fangirl could express, which is of course The People vs. George Lucas. If you haven’t seen it, do, and if you have, stick with me while I sum up before we continue with our Deep Thoughts and add some Conflicting Opinions. Yes, Episodes I and II are miserable films. I personally think III isn’t terrible, entirely, but by that time the whole thing was just too far gone. And while those failures might have been enough for many of us to say “to hell with you and this whole Skywalker family saga” that’s really only part of the problem. The problem, oh, the problem, is those bloody remastered DVD’s of Episodes IV-VI.

I get ragey even thinking about it. And frankly, I haven’t been able to watch them in years. So please excuse a gif to express my feelings.

Yup. That. SO MANY FLAMES.

We know how it went down – dear old George slowly but surely made increasingly large edits to the beloved films, starting with remastered explosions and ending with absurd CGI alien dance scenes getting inserted for NO DAMN REASON. FLAMES. (Et-hem. Sorry.) He also made it nearly impossible to get the originals without the “enhancements” he decided to include. Yes, they can be found. But they’re expensive, it’s not even remotely clear which versions are which, and they are made to look as bad as humanly possible to discourage people from buying them.

Time for the Deep Thoughts and Conflicting Opinions. Here’s the thing. He’s allowed. He is. It’s his film, it’s his baby, *cough*it’s his cash grab*cough* , and he can update things as much as he likes. I do genuinely believe that George Lucas thought he was making these movies better. More in line with his original vision. He always said technology wasn’t fast enough for him, and in case anyone doesn’t believe him, see the fact that he started with Episode IV. But what are the moral implications of an artist changing his art after he’s previously closed the book and sent the canisters to the movie theaters?

I do believe films are art. I do believe sci-fi is art, and TV is art, and books are art, and frankly anything created to give our brains an emotional experience or inspire thought and analysis is art. Who does that art belong to after it’s put out into the world for public consumption? Authors can make updates to their books with new editions, and while that’s mostly reserved for nonfiction, there are certainly new editions of poetry and novels coming from past centuries.  As a Lit major I spent a lot of time analyzing the differences from one draft to another. No new edition is worth less than the first, or more, for that matter. It’s different, and worthy of analysis. That doesn’t stop the general art-appreciating public from declaring one version of an artistic product “better” than the rest. (See: The two variations of Hamlet from various folios.) Mostly we all look at these artistic variations and analyze them and debate over their merits. But no one argues that Shakespeare had no right to change his monologue from one folio to the other. And yes, I just compared Star Wars to Shakespeare. Stick with me.  I believe, with let’s say 90% of the analytic bones in my body, that George Lucas had every right to change his art as he saw fit.

It’s not that easy, though. Literary entries can only take the comparison so far. Generations of people, over hundreds of years, have read and noticed different versions of different stories. Storytelling can be living art. But cinema is inherently different. It’s a moment more automatically frozen in time. Plus, there are some things, some huge moments in our society, touchstones of our culture, that take on a life of their own. Star Wars was one of those touchstones. It changed everything. Cinema, sci-fi, effects, storytelling, myth, the concept of a blockbuster. I’d argue that sort of a sea-change didn’t happen again until The Matrix (another entry in the Deep Thoughts and Conflicting Opinions saga for another day). Star Wars is a moment in time that can’t be repeated, can’t be changed. It does belong to George Lucas – but it also belongs to everyone who saw it and was changed by it. Artists always want to make one more switch, one more edit, one more nip, one more tuck. But any artist worth their salt will also tell you there comes a time when you just have to walk away. It has to be done. And part of that is to acknowledge that it’s not just yours anymore. It’s out there, for better or worse, and you have to acknowledge the versions that came before.

Maybe that’s the part that troubles us so much. There’s no sense that George acknowledges the versions that came before. He doesn’t really talk about them, he doesn’t make it easy for us to access them, and as far as he seems to be concerned, they didn’t exist. Only his newer, shinier, truer versions are canon. But that’s just blatantly incorrect. We all know Han shot first. And we all love him for it. It’s not that George Lucas can’t say “hey, actually I made a mistake or have some new fancy technology and I want to change it” – it’s that he can’t stare at us all blankly and say “…what’s the problem?”

So who DOES the damn thing belong to anyway? (And DON’T say Disney, you know what I mean.) I’d say all of us. Including George. But just as much as it belongs to George, it belongs to everyone whose lives it touched. And we all just want to be acknowledged. You can have art without viewers appreciating it, if we want to get particularly pedantic about it, sure. I’m not trying to have an “if a tree falls in the woods” argument here.  Because regardless of who saw it or how many people interacted with your work,  on a more emotional level (which is what art is all about, right?) things aren’t just about who holds the ownership rights. Art gets questioned, and analyzed, and written about, and experienced, and a piece of it does go into every person who views it, for better or worse. That’s what makes it art. It’s complicated and messy and it should be. We all own art, and we all own Star Wars, and that doesn’t mean we all have to agree about it but it does mean that all of our voices, I believe, count for something.

The rumor mill has steadily reported that now that Disney owns the rights, they’ll re-release a proper DVD/Blu-Ray of the original films. I hope they do; I’ll happily pay them money and watch the movies again without all those pesky flames coming out of my face. In the meantime, I genuinely hope George (with whom I’ve apparently decided I’m on a first name basis) has found some peace knowing that the franchise, and any more of those “one last change” temptations, are finally out of his hands.

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