Last week we had a PVR installed. For the past 7 or 8 years we’ve had an ancient second-hand VCR that didn’t even record anything because it was too old to communicate with our TV. We just got used to missing shows, or making sure we were home in time for certain ones. On Sunday evenings in the summer, for example, we’d always make sure we left my in-laws’ cottage early enough to get home for the newest Mad Men.
Anyway, this new PVR unit is slightly bigger than our old digital box. Our old box sat snugly on top of the aforementioned VCR that was really just a VC because all it would do is play tapes, not record. The technician said that he could probably cram the new box in somehow, but I made a decision that moment that it was time to let the VCR go. It was detached and whisked away downstairs before my wife or daughter noticed.
“Where’s the VCR?” questioned my wife minutes after the technician left. “Oh, well, you know. Now that we have this PVR thing, we, um, don’t really it. Right?” I was met with the look of skepticism. ” I tell you what, ” I said. “Let’s go without it for a week or so and see if we miss it. We can always hook it up again. I didn’t get rid of it, it’s just downstairs.” We do have a few kids’ tapes that our daughter watches, but most of her stuff is on DVD now anyway.
The main reason why I’ve held onto it for all these years is because of Star Wars.
Back in the mid 1990’s I attended a comic book convention and I bought the Original Trilogy Widescreen Box Set (at that time it was the, ahem, only trilogy,) for a ridiculous amount of money. I can’t remember how much exactly I spent on those three VHS tapes but I do remember a) I had to go to an ATM and get more money out and b) it was TOTALLY worth it.
Back in those days, it was really hard to track down Widescreen editions of movies. Almost everything was “pan and scan”. This article does a good job of sorting out the lingo. I always loved to see movies in their original aspect ratio, and would quiz the clerks in HMV or wherever I was buying movies. “But is it widescreen? Are you sure? Can I bring it back if it’s not?” That actually happened one time. I bought a VHS tape of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that was clearly marked “widescreen” and yet when I got it home it was totally “pan and scan”. I marched it right back to The Bay and got my money back. I must have been an infuriating little shit sometimes. I also knew at the time I got that Star Wars Widescreen box set that there was a lot of optimism that George Lucas was about to re-release the Star Wars movies in 1997 as “Special Editions”. We didn’t quite know what to expect, as the internet wasn’t then was it is today, but we were all pretty jazzed about seeing that restored Jabba the Hutt scene from “A New Hope” as well as enhancements in sound and picture quality. When the movies actually came out, we were “underwhelmed” to say the least with most of the changes. To get a sense of the number of changes made take a look here. The most egregious of them was having Greedo shoot first in the cantina scene. Excuse me, but Han shot first. He always shot first, and as far as I am concerned that is the only way it needs to be. Having Greedo shoot first changes the meaning and feeling of that entire scene, if not the timber and tone of Han’s basic character. It totally makes Han less of a bad ass if he was firing in self-defence, and there’s no way Greedo would miss in such close quarters. It just looked dumb. I’ll stop now. The Jabba the Hutt scene was cool at first, but upon subsequent viewings, the CGI looks kinda fake and we soon realized that the original movies without the changes were actually better. The only problem was that George Lucas stopped selling those versions. The “special editions” became the “official editions” and everything else became collector’s items. My widescreen VHS tapes became even more valuable to me after 1997.
When the movies came out on DVD, they had all the changes from the special editions, plus a few more. Once George Lucas got a taste of the tinker, he could not stop tinkering. With the arrival of the anemic prequels, more tinkering was undertaken to match up the original movies with the prequels. Replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen as Anakin’s ghost in the final shot of “Return of the Jedi” is one such change that caused a renewed round of anger among the fanbase. Due to a massive and unrelenting outcry from the fans, George “gave in” somewhat and included the original versions alongside the “special editions” in a special release in 2006. The only problem was that these ‘original editions” were not touched up at all and looked awful. The prints were dirty and the aspect ratio was not anamorphic and the sound would drop periodically. I think that was Lucas’ point. He wanted to show how much better his “special official” versions were by comparing them side by side with the untouched originals. Fans were understandably outraged. Why even bother releasing them if you’re going to release such shitty looking and sounding editions? That is almost worse than not releasing them at all. The “Complete Saga on Blu-Ray” released in 2011 has no sign of the original movies at all. The only version you can get on Blu-ray is the tinkered-with one. Why not give the original movies, the ones that us fans fell in love with as kids, the same sound and picture restoration you gave your precious special editions and sell them side by side and let the people decide? It’s what Steven Spielberg did with “E.T.” He fell victim to the tinkering bug too, and in a “special edition” of his famous 1982 alien movie replaced the army’s guns with cell-phones because he thought it would be more palatable to parents. Again, fans were outraged by this doctoring of a classic. I mean COME ON. Government officials carry guns, and if you’ve got some fucking alien coming at you you’re going to probably use those guns against it, even if that alien is adorable. Also, who the hell had cell phones in 1982? Lame. The difference between Lucas and Spielberg is that Spielberg saw the error of his ways and released both the original and the special editions in the same packaging. Both editions looked great, and the viewer can decide for himself which version to watch. An excerpt from a phone interview back in June 2011 reveals Spielberg’s feelings on digital restoration here.
I remember Robert Altman receiving his lifetime achievement Oscar a few years ago. During his acceptance speech he said:
“I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there are you say “You build this beautiful structure, several of you”. Then you sit back and watch the tide come in. Have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away.
While Robert Altman was sitting back, watching the tide come in, and dreaming of his next sandcastle (he was in pre-production for his next film when he died of cancer at age 81), George was busy building a high fence around his precious sand castle. The sand castle he built in 1977, 1980 and 1983 for God’s sake. While we all fell in love with those castles, he never let the tide take them away. He stubbornly told a whole generation that wanted to come and play that this new and improved castle was the only one they could enjoy and they might as well forget about those other ones. He couldn’t and can’t let go. You can make the argument that these are his sand castles after all, and he can do whatever the heck he wants with them, right?
I guess so, but I still have my three widescreen VHS tapes in my closet at home, and a broken down second-hand VCR on a basement shelf ready to go in a moment’s notice. I watched my “Empire Strikes Back” on New Year’s Day about a month ago, and it still holds up, warts and all. I think it’s because of the imperfections that I love it even more. A movie doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfect, right? A few days later, I watched Star Wars. The original Star Wars. It’s going to be the version I’m going to watch with my daughter when she’s old enough. In my daughter’s version, Han shoots first.