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Advent 2017

22 September 2006
creativity - revision of

We're a little late on this one, but cut us some slack, other people are late too. Like George Lucas. He directed Star Wars. It was released in 1977, but that version was only released on DVD on 12 September 2006. That's almost thirty years late.

Wednesday marked the 49th anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius. Sibelius was also late. The fifth symphony premiered in 1915. Then he revised it and it was re-performed in 1916, in it's new version. Then he worked on it again, and released a final version in 1919.

Now, back to Lucas. The reason that he waited so long to release the 1977 version on DVD is because, of course, there were other versions. The past two years have seen a flurry of Star Wars DVD releases, none of which were of the original 1977 version, until now. And this has made some people upset. They've been upset with "changes" (revisions?) that they believe mar Lucas's original creative "genius."

"Genius" is a really harsh term, and I don't think it applies to Lucas. Bach, maybe, though even by his admission, anyone could do what he did if he applied himself and worked hard. Even this week, the MacArthur Fellowships were awarded. The MacArthur Foundations prefers the term "Fellowships" to "genius grants".

What makes me believe that Lucas perceived these as revisions rather than technological enhancements is that he was reluctant to release the 1977 version on DVD.

"Reluctant" is perhaps too simple a term. Maybe he just wanted to make a whole lot of money and was just waiting for the right time. I don't need to tell you that there's already talk about how Lucas is going to release the 1977 version on a better DVD. Or, considering a more legitimate reason:

If Lucas sees his revisions as representing the definitve version of the original (which I believe he misguidedly does), he would not want to stoop to releasing his pre-revision versions on DVD.

Anyway, Sibelius and Lucas are representative of how the revision of artistic creativity has changed over time. The latter is a case study in how modern artists (at least those who are "mass mediated") fail to understand revision's role in the creative process.

Sibelius wrote a pretty good symphony in 1915, and then, through a process of hard-wrought revisions, it became a great symphony (the one most often played and recorded today).

Lucas made a pretty good film in 1977 (we mean, we really like it, but critics never have. Let's be honest: it's like the biggest cult classic ever), and then revised it in a couple of different ways. The film's cult just sees this as tampering.

So what are the key differences in these two scenarios? What makes Star Wars fans so upset? Was one original version made widely available through recorded media? Well, yes. But is it more important that one is in music and one is film? Or is it that one represents a modern creative process, and the other a post-modern?

Linear revision

Consider the typewriter. If you want a perfect page, you have to start from scratch.

Sibelius's symphonies are masterpieces that thrive on interconnectedness. The work is a single unbroken thread. The ending only makes sense as a result of everything that has come before it.

This is particularly true with the end fifth symphony. I hope that I'm bring objective enough in my analysis to not be overcome with emotion or surprise at the visceral ending that Sibelius gives the work. I really believe that the 1919 ending is a logical conclusion, not just to the final movement, but to the work as a whole.

Sibelius's revisions then, involved not just certain sections, or movement orderings, but a macro-concept. When changes were made to the symphony, he understood that he had to account for every note in his composition.

It's also helpful to note that this was basically done "typewriter style", with a whole lot of ink, manuscript paper, and maybe a copyist or two.

Non-linear revision

Imagine the word processor. If you want a perfect page, just pull up what you saved and fix what you need to.

George Lucas has approached his revisions more in this vein. Star Wars was revised with a lot of bells and whistles that were generated by computer. And this is fun, especially for a director to whom this kind of revisionary paradigm was not available during the initial editing stage.

I do, however, see the musical equivalent being a Sibelius who simply added synthesizer, a whole battery of percussion and Ondes Martenot to the 1915 score. It just doesn't fit together.

Lucas couldn't reshoot anything substantial. And part of the limitation of working with actors (and waiting 25 years) is that they age, so you can't use them again unless you have magical makeup artists. So, in a way, he tried to effect substantial changes to the film with superficial techniques.

This process is also a bit self-centered; it presupposes an audience who is already infinitely familiar with the unrevised version (or has access to it on recorded media.) It also indicates that he had possibly fallen in rank with the cult to worship the original version. It could not be revised, then, but "enhanced" in a way that is the red-headed, left-handed, pigeon-toed step-child of revision.

It's also important to realize that Lucas too is working with a bit of a macro-concept. What was once Star Wars is now the fourth episode in an epic, six-part film series. This has ramifications. Is it legitimate for Lucas to now try to provide continuity with older work through revisions of that work? If it is, it doesn't work. The revised versions of his first three films aren't like single unbroken threads; they're like socks crocheted by drugged primates (not the Anglican kind -- well, either way. Whatever you want.).

Valid revision

Revision is a complicated animal. But for a revision to be successful, it has to be motivated by the work itself.

Sibelius's fifth symphony suggested some changes to the composer, and he made them. The revised work gains coherence and integrity.

George Lucas suggested changes to his work, and his work clearly rejected them. They don't work for the most part. They make the film a hyper-active post-modern pastiche of profiteering.

Tangent for further thought: I guess where this line of reasoning leads us is that created artistic works do gain some kind of "life". If they are made by humans (and are not purposefully avante-garde), works take on human characteristics like logic and short formative periods early in their lives. Can the works, then, have awkward teenage years where they rebel against their creator? "No, I don't want to be revised, and I would appreciate it if you would take your hands off me!"

Lucas revision timetable tangent: Besides, if Sibelius is any guide, Lucas's revisions should have been made in 1978 and 1981. And they sort of were, except they were called The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). The actors hadn't aged, anyway.

If Geraldine is reading: Yes, this does justify my purchase of the original version. Thanks.

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