The American Society of Cinematographers

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the revised versions of movies that have been popping up since the technology has facilitated seamless digital alterations, and I’m starting to wonder what we’re ultimately going to leave the next generation. I’m not talking about reconstructions, like the marvelous work done to restore Fritz Lang’s original cut of Metropolis, but rather the compulsion to create something different with the material to accommodate changing tastes, morals or technology. Altering creative works is nothing new. For years, many of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were re-edited to remove potentially offensive racial depictions. I object to those kinds of alterations because they mask the historical and social influences on the creation of those works, but what I’m discussing here is something else: altering movies simply because we can.

Star Wars is an obvious example because so much has already been written and debated about the changes George Lucas made to the original three movies. When I saw the movie for the first time, in 1977, at the Esquire Theater in Chicago, you could hear a collective whoop from the audience when Han Solo shot Greedo in cold blood. It was a funny moment, and the matter-of-factness of how it was played gave Solo an edge. It made his departing line, “Sorry for the mess,” iconic in a classic Western way. I’ve seen the versions where Greedo shoots first, or where they both shoot at the same time and Greedo misses, and it’s just not the same experience. And because it completely changed Solo’s character, it irked me more than all of Lucas’ other tweaks to the film.

The technology used to make such changes possible has also accomplished great things in the restoration of movies that were long thought to be irreparable. And some great filmmakers have taken part in creating new versions of their films. David Lean played an active role in Sony Pictures’ reconstruction of Lawrence of Arabia, and in the process, he removed several minutes of footage that he felt was extraneous. That “new” version has been widely hailed as the definitive one for two decades. Similarly, Walter Hill was instrumental in re-creating The Warriors to include comic book-style transitions, and Peter Jackson’s extended editions of The Lord of The Rings trilogy fleshed out many themes and characters.

But what is our responsibility to preserve the version that made the film a classic in the first place? And should the work be altered and adapted for a new audience just because we can? Is a motion picture as malleable as Cristo’s Running Fence, which relied on changing weather conditions and different times of day to create unique emotional experiences each time it was viewed? Would we be as willing to accept alterations to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye? Would it be acceptable to create a version of The Graduate wherein Benjamin reaches Elaine in time to stop the wedding?

For more than 60 years, the mysterious announcer played by musician Deems Taylor in Disney’s Fantasia has led the audience into that film’s brilliant mix of music and images by being a compelling presence, someone you should listen to because he is opening the door to new wonders. Taylor’s distinctive voice gives the shadow figure humanity even though you can’t clearly see his face; in fact, it’s all the more effective because you can’t see him. For the latest home-video incarnation of the movie, two minutes of footage featuring Taylor were found and restored, but the sound was missing, so another actor was brought in to dub over his vocals. And the picture was brightened so Taylor’s face can be seen clearly. Gone is the mysterious presence, and with it went the enigmatic style of the film’s presentation.

With classical music, we tend to prefer the first rendition we hear of a piece because it carries our memory of experiencing it emotionally for the first time. From that perspective, it can be argued that a new generation will find what they deem of value in a new version of a film because it is a new experience for them, and that previous, never-seen incarnations will not matter.

But for me, Han Solo will always shoot Greedo in cold blood.


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