Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Re Definition

Wasn’t there talk some time back about Jaws getting a makeover, replacing the mechanical shark where it looked particularly dodgy with a spiffed up computer–generated version? Maybe it was just an idea casually thrown out and given more credence than it deserved, or maybe it really was on the cards until someone quite rightly concluded that it would be a rather pointless exercise.

If the latter was the case then it’s good to know that a small oasis of common sense still exists within the Hollywood system. However much the continual failure of the mechanized shark to perform impacted on the production back in the 1970s, keeping it out of the frame and leaving so much to the power of suggestion ultimately played an integral part in scaring the absolute bejeezus out of the audience back then.

Judging by the content of most of today’s movies, few seem to take that onboard as they indulge a younger audience of largely unimaginative cretins who want everything up on screen and in their face. Because of that we get served up utter nonsense like Renny Harlin’s typically gormless Deep Blue Sea which was like having lukewarm dog vomit smeared over your eyeballs. The movie’s CGI “super sharks” were so godawful that it made me pine for the ropey old shark that once terrorized Amity, even when it was bizarrely leaping onto the stern of Quint’s Orca.

I can understand the absolute need for actual, proper film restoration, the likes of which has been carried out by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz on Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and even The Guns of Navarone. Putting J. Lee Thompson’s classic Boy’s Own adventure back together the restoration team only did what actually needed doing like reinstating dialogue and turning a day for night shot back from day to night. When the massive guns are blown out of their cliff top emplacement in the explosive finale at no point did they decide that the obvious models needed to be digitally replaced.

If it’s no longer on the cards, maybe the enthusiasm for rejigging Jaws fizzled after the 20th anniversary reissue of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial arrived first in cinemas then on DVD. With its own selection of digital nips and tucks, the revised version was rightly criticised for rather absurdly replacing shotguns originally wielded by the government agents with walkie-talkies to make it, I assume, less threatening and more kiddie friendly. Dicking around with the shark simply to gild the lily is one thing, but pandering to cloying political correctness is something else altogether.

When it comes to putting things back to the way they were intended, how far should filmmakers go before it turns into needless tinkering? The prime example of this shameful doodling has to be the “special editions” of the Star Wars films, squeezed out into cinemas with much hullabaloo during the first quarter of 1997. Apart from spiffing up large portions of the effects work, crowding out scenes with unnecessary incidental characters and installing windows in the Cloud City, what did the rejigged versions of George Lucas’ fantasy trilogy actually achieve?

They didn’t make either the plots or dialogue any more bearable. Even the infamous Jabba the Hutt scene, reinstated in the first film, trumpeting the siren song of nerd nirvana, was utterly redundant however much it made their nether regions flutter at the thought of seeing it. Though pleasing those dedicated fans it showed a contempt for narrative by going over exactly the same ground as in the earlier cantina sequence, which created it’s cause for controversy amongst the nerd herd. Then again I suppose coherent storytelling wasn’t what the special editions were about.

On one hand, with The Phantom Menace on the way, those revised films served as a reminder to the short attention span fans who had since latched onto the next, next, and next big things that this was one of the original big things. Alternatively, their arrival was also an exercise in supreme narcissism on Lucas’ part, when he probably should have spent the time more wisely, making sure the new films, which that were all that remained of a stalled career, actually engaged the audience.

While we wait without baited breath for their next irrelevant incarnation – apparently in 3D – as further evidence the series has become Lucas’ own Forth Bridge that he keeps furiously repainting, Paramount picked up the torch, giving the original Star Trek series a makeover. Having originally come out in late 2007 as an HD DVD boxset (for those unlucky enough to have put their faith in that particular format) and then shown on American television, the remastered show is now out on Blu-ray and bog standard DVD over here.

Having been distracted of late, I’m not sure how long these DVDs been available but it’s remarkable that they’ve appeared just in time for the imminent arrival of the new JJ Abrams-directed Star Trek movie. The more jaded amongst us might see this as a cynical ploy by Paramount to get their hands on whatever Lucas left behind after repeatedly raiding the piggy-banks of fools from whom money is easily parted, and they’d no doubt be right.

When it comes to proper restorations, studios are obviously doing everyone a favour by overhauling much older material that hasn’t been properly taken care of and therefore not in the best of shape. But in the back of their minds every of them knows they can always make a fast buck appear even faster if they target the socially maladroit fanboys who remain blissfully unaware that surplus cash should be wisely spent on drugs and hookers.

The first time I saw Star Trek was probably when it was repeated on the BBC sometime toward the late 1970s. Usually fun to watch, even most episodes didn’t always live up to expectations, if there was one other let down to exploring all the new worlds with their gaudy colour schemes, it was that the brief optical effects never really seemed up to snuff simply because I had been brought up on the more elegant effects work produced by Derek Meddings and later Brian Johnson for the Anderson-produced shows like Thunderbirds and UFO.

While they had been created mostly in camera, Star Trek, with its marker pen-thick matte lines, always looked particularly ripe by comparison. Judging by the promotional videos for the remastered series that are floating about on the internet, they’ve been the first to go. Ahead of the spruced up background plates and the more garish colour schemes toned down, the big selling point is that they’ve junked the old effects sequences in favour of rudimentary computer generated replacements that don’t than awkwardly jar with the modesty-budgeted production designs of the 1960s.

Rather perversely, the last time I stumbled across one of the original Star Trek episodes those ropey old effects actually added to its appeal, but I suppose that’s not the point. As home entertainment is herded forcefully toward High Definition everything is going to need to look its best in 1080p. Does that mean a hearty scrub and a quick coat of slap or an aggressive makeover that will reawaken childhood memories with something you don’t remember?

Ultimately I don’t care what happens to Star Trek or Star Wars either in content or format because neither are going to get my money, but when it comes for something like Universal Pictures’ marvellous old Flash Gordon serials to get a wash and rinse, the studio better not touch those wonderful Art Deco rocketships that fizzled across the screen.


At 10:41 am, Blogger Laura Anderson said...

I love the idea of the Star Wars franchise being Lucas' Forth Bridge.

I think that for while the 'updates' to the original Star Wars trilogy were annoying (with Greebo shooting first rivalling Jabba in a New Hope for annoying me), the way that ET was fiddled with upset me far more. By replacing guns with walkie talkies the sense of danger was ripped away. The whole nature of the chases changed, and not for the better. It's such a shame.

At 1:27 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

The whole thing really has become an albatross around his neck, although I can’t say I’m sorry for the man. Maybe he should have stuck to his little art films because while the narratives are basic, there’s no clue about character.

Han Solo was this great roguish space pirate in the mould of Errol Flynn and in the fiddling a lot of that was taken away. I haven’t seen any of the films or ages so I don’t know if it really matters. I guess the problem with these changes is that because they jar with your actual memories of first seeing the film it pulls you out of the moment.

I saw ET when it first opened and have never watched it again. It was probably the first film I ever saw where, sitting in the audience, I could feel that it was so blatantly trying to manipulate me emotionally. It’s safe to say that I didn’t feel too pleased about that.

Well before ET there was all the hooey over the Close Encounters of the Third Kind Special Edition. That was probably the first time I saw a director fiddling around with a film to get it the way he wanted, although as it turned out it was a compromise with the studio, which meant there would ultimately be a third version.

Really there was nothing wrong with the original cut. It did what it set out to do. Every further cut simply became a distraction.

At 8:56 pm, Blogger qrter said...

That's the thing - when watching the original trilogy now, you're spending a lot of time wondering whether what you're seeing was always there or was added (although most of the added stuff is pretty obvious, as it was done so badly).

I have to confess I didn't mind his THX 1138 Redux as much - some of the added stuff really did, well, add something.

At 2:04 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

I'm in agreement with you all about the distraction which arises from wondering what has and what has not been re-worked - and sometimes why other moments didn't equally fall into the need for a re-hab category.

But I am most concerned by the Political Correcting of movies, something of which Disney have been particularly guilty in the last few years: excising the feuding hillbillies ('The Martins and the Coys') from Make Mine Music, digitally removing Pecos Bill's lip-dangling cigarette in Melody Time and actually zooming into certain shots in 'The Pastoral Symphony' segment of Fantasia so as to avoid the black girl/zebra centaurette being seen and giving us all, instead, several (seemingly inexplicable) gruesomely grainy shots.

All film is an illusion - literally, a trick of the eye - but it doesn't also have to be a deception.

At 5:28 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I’m trying to think of when it was I first saw THX 1138. Post-Star Wars obviously, because I saw that as a kiddie when it first came out. Most probably post-American Graffiti as well. Maybe it was screening in one of the Moviedrome seasons on BBC2.

I have to say I didn’t think much of it. It left me cold. By then I’d also had enough of dystopian fictions having had to read Brave New World, We and 1984 for English Literature. (The only book of that ilk I had enjoyed was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and – having not seen Truffaut’s adaptation by then – the only dystopian future film was Logan’s Run. Although no doubt that was due to a semi-clothed and then naked Jenny Agutter).

Reading up about the revised version of THX 1138, the weirdy-beardy idjit, still went about tinkering with it: re-shooting scenes and introducing CGI. How pointless is that? It just shows he hasn’t got anything new to do and wasn’t happy with what he had already none. What a sad, strange man Lucas is.

Of course, if it makes it better for you that’s great. As I said a while ago, while 1941 showed that Spielberg couldn’t do comedy, the extended version improves the film because it concentrates on rounding out the characters rather than investing in gags that simply don’t work.

Having watched some of the extras on the Aliens special edition last night and following it by listening to the audio commentary of the director’s cut, it was interesting to be reminded just what a chore editing was in the pre-Avid days. When all you had was a six-plate or Moviola and had to splice the film physically, taping up all the joins and then trying not to lose any of the trims, it could be a bloody nightmare.

Having to get the film down to an acceptable running time because it was pre-multiplex days, Cameron mentions that because there simply wasn’t the time to physically shave a few frames here and there, they simply took out a whole reel near the beginning and the whole smart gun section.

Pre-digital editing may have been a bitch but it meant the filmmakers had to be decisive rather than doodle around.


All film is an illusion - literally, a trick of the eye - but it doesn't also have to be a deception.That’s says it all. If only I could have come up with that it would have saved all that blather.

I remember hearing about Pecos Bill's cigarette being erased. Actually, I think you had mentioned it. It’s been ages since I last saw Fantasia and I didn’t know they had manipulated it to avoid showing the black girl/zebra centaurette. That kind of political-correctness correcting is just wrong.

I was annoyed when Pixar reduced the mermaid’s boobies in Knick Knack. Why?


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