Thursday, November 24, 2011

Culture Shock 11.24.11: 'Star Wars' fandom is like a dysfunctional family get-together

It was around Thanksgiving in 1978 that "The Star Wars Holiday Special" aired for the first and last time.

George Lucas supposedly hates the special so much it remains the only part of the "Star Wars" saga he hasn't marketed, merchandised and re-released multiple times in multiple formats.

And this is a man who still defends Jar Jar Binks.

That tells you two things. One, "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is bad in ways no brief plot synopsis can convey. (I will say Bea Arthur is in it, and she sings a song that is not even close to the worst thing about it.) Two, Lucas didn't have anything to do with it. His name isn't even on it. And it's much easier to disown something you're not responsible for.

Perhaps overcome by their devotion to their ancient religion, some "Star Wars" fans track down bootleg copies of "The Star Wars Holiday Special" — a much easier task now than years ago — and muddle through.

For some, this is a holiday ritual, and, truthfully, it's no more painful than most family gatherings, especially if your family is the Manson family.

Being a "Star Wars" fan is a lot like being in a dysfunctional family.

One day Uncle George gives you a timeless story about a boy, a girl and a universe, then the next thing you know, you're watching Chewbacca's family grunt at each other — without subtitles — for 20 minutes straight. (Again, this is much like human holiday gatherings.) It's one thing for some one-off TV special that Lucas disowns to let you down. It's another thing for the man himself to do so. That's an entirely different level of disappointment.

For an idea of what I mean, see Alexandre O. Philippe's 2010 documentary "The People vs. George Lucas," which recently made its way to DVD and video on demand.

In this case, "the people" is a subset of "Star Wars" fans who think the original trilogy belongs as much to them as it does to Lucas.

Think of them as Occupy Skywalker Ranch, only without the occupy part.

These are fans who have made themselves at home in that galaxy far, far away. The more enthusiastic of them make their own fan films set in the "Star Wars" universe, a practice Lucas even encourages when other copyright holders might unleash their lawyers.

Unfortunately, that sense of "fan ownership" runs into reality whenever Lucas — a tinkerer since boyhood, Philippe tells us — decides to tinker with his trilogy.

Lucas isn't just tinkering with movies. He's tinkering with memories.

Yet this sort of revisionism is common, particularly when it comes to sci-fi. Ridley Scott unveiled his "final cut" of 1982's "Blade Runner" in 2007, while Robert Wise's "director's edition" of 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" made its debut in 2001.

The difference is Scott and Wise improved on what was originally screened in theaters. If Lucas did that, few would complain. But every time Lucas changes the "Star Wars" trilogy, it's for the worse. We end up with new scenes that serve no purpose, digitally inserted characters who wander aimlessly into the frame and spoil the composition, new dialogue looped into scenes for no good reason, and "improved" special effects that don't mesh with the original.

Like Darth Vader says in "The Empire Strikes Back," "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

At least I think Vader says that. He did in the original, anyway.

Even as a lifelong "Star Wars" fan, the best I can manage is weary ambivalence. Despite silly, overly entitled notions of fan ownership, "Star Wars" belongs to George Lucas, and he can do whatever he wants with it.

But as a critic — and a fan — I can't ignore where he goes wrong.

Sure, blame others for Bea Arthur. But blame George Lucas for Greedo shooting first.

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