Sunday, November 24, 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure

You may be wondering why I've paired together an image of Yoda sagely staring at Anchorman's Ron Burgundy picking food out of his teeth.  Well, it has something to do with a series of children's books that were especially popular in the 1980s and 1990s.  Allow me to explain below the line (with the most perfunctory of spoiler warnings for the Star Wars series) ...

"From a certain point of view ..."

A few weeks ago, a deleted scene pulled from a rare Return of the Jedi laser disc caught the fevered attention of sci-fi and movie blogs far and wide (and even Huffington Post, as it was apparently a slow day for celebrities in transparent dresses and ancient astronaut theories).  The scene contained a brief line of dialogue spoken by Yoda on his death bed, explaining to Luke that Obi-Wan was under orders not to divulge Luke's relationship with Darth Vader.

The reason that one line of cut dialogue generated so much attention is because it provided a plausible justification for Obi-Wan lying outright to Luke in the first Star Wars movie, telling him directly that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered his father.  This line, of course, laid the foundation for one of the greatest surprise twists in movie history, when Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke's father ... leading Luke (and generations of geeks) to wonder woefully why Obi-Wan had lied to him. Now, as far as I'm concerned, Obi-Wan's explanation in Return of the Jedi that he was speaking metaphorically, that Anakin's good side was betrayed and "murdered" by the dark side, fits perfectly and requires no further explanation.  Your mileage may vary on that point, however, and enough people took Obi-Wan's dodge that "what [he] said was true from a certain point of view" to be weak tea that it's a meme with it's own page on TV Tropes.

For those that found a metaphorical half-truth to be no better than a "calling a shovel an ice-cream machine" (to quote South Park's Butters), the face-saving realization in Yoda's admission that he gave Obi-Wan an order to lie to Luke proved to be a game-changing moment. My favorite headline breaking the news came from the blog Geek League of America:
What I find so amazing about that headline and the article that follows ("That begs the question, 'What was Yoda’s motive, then?'" - emphasis in original) is that it treats this deleted scene like a sliver of Dead Sea Scrolls suggesting that Jesus Christ had a teenage crush on Mary Magdalene.  I don't even mean that, unlike the Bible, the Star Wars saga isn't meant to be considered a chronicle of events that actually took place (again, your mileage will vary on that point ... in either direction).  What I mean is that -- whatever you think of  George Lucas as a writer or director (and I'm not even going to bother linking to articles on that subject) -- the fact is that a deleted scene can't possibly tell you anything about a character who is defined entirely by the editing decisions of the storyteller.  You might as well run a Google search for "Obi-Wan/Dumbledore slash fiction" to gain character insights into that crazy old wizard.

And yet ... on the other hand ... whatever Lucas says, however long Lucasfilm/Disney refuses to release the theatrical cut of the Original Trilogy on Blu-Ray, I insist like millions of my Star Wars geek brethren that HAN SHOT FIRST DAMN IT!  So, yeah, 99.9% of the time, I'll sign on to the "Word of God" theory that what the author says goes, no matter how much more it might make sense that Neville Longbottom and not Harry Potter was the Chosen One, that everything we saw in the Matrix sequels was part of a larger computer simulation, and that "John Harrison" wasn't really Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.  (Okay, I have nothing to back up that last one, I still just think that movie was utter bullshit.)

And yet ... and yet ... it's hard to deny that -- just like undoing nearly all the damage of the "Special Editions" and pretending that the Prequel Trilogy doesn't exist -- the Star Wars saga is just much more interesting if you add that deleted scene back in.  So where does that leave us?  Sadly (depending again on your point of view), it leaves us at a San Diego news desk in the late 1970s ...

"You Stay Classy San Diego"

I ought to acknowledge at this point that this conversation is pretty ludicrous.  A work of fiction can be whatever anyone wants it to be, and try though Lucas might, he can no more dictate our imaginations than he can obliterate the Star Wars Christmas Special from existence.  Copyright laws may restrict the distribution of derivative fiction (for example, it's highly unlikely that the famous Phantom Edit recut of Episode I of the Prequel Trilogy would ever have a theatrical release), but fan fiction and unofficial alternative versions exist and are readily available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet, as articles like the blog post from Geek League of America above attest, we fans hold "canon" in ridiculously high regard.   Indeed, a deleted scene like the clip shown above is viewed in much the same way as an archaeologist would view newly discovered hieroglyphics depicting the history of the Pharaohs.

The absurdity of this fixation on "canon" is self-evident.  This deleted line of dialogue from Yoda tells us nothing about the "real Obi-Wan" because there is no "real" Obi-Wan!  The question then isn't so much why we fans care so much about this deleted scene as why the studios haven't capitalized on the potential market out there for alternative versions by releasing these alternate versions of popular movies in theaters.  The only example that comes to mind is the release of Clue back in the 80s with three alternative endings, none of which was revealed as "canon" until the movie was released on home video.  The gambit neither translated into box office gold nor inspired imitators.  As Roger Ebert said at the time: "Here's my suggestion: Since this movie is so short anyway (88 minutes), why doesn't the studio abandon the ridiculous multiple-ending scheme and show all three endings at every theater?"

Flash forward to 2013 and we find the next great experiment in playing around with "canon."  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is once again a rather frivolous comedy that is playing fast and loose with the rules of Hollywood.  Adam McKay -- director of Anchorman and the upcoming sequel Anchorman 2 -- recently announced his plan to release two versions of Anchorman 2 in theaters featuring the same plot but with alternate jokes.  This is a no-brainer on paper, given that the Anchorman movies are filmed with a lot of improvised dialogue, resulting in hours of alternate cuts and hours of unused footage just lying around waiting to be monetized.  However, Anchorman is hardly the first movie shot with a lot of improvisation, and I'd venture to say that most films are shot with extraneous scenes or alternate plot developments that never make it off the cutting room floor.  So why not release more films in alternate versions and let the audience decide with their wallets and word of mouth which version is superior?

Part of the reason may be that movie studios are by their very nature resistant to experimenting, and the tried-and-true business model is to release one definitive version.  And, sure enough, cinephiles tend to fall in line with the same reasoning, hence the universally recognized concept of "canon" -- i.e. the manufactured conviction that there is an underlying "truth" to any piece of fiction, typically (though not always) determined by the author, and that any derivations from "canon" are "fictions" onto themselves that must be distinguished from the "truth."

I'll be very curious, though, to see if McKay gets his wish.  If the cineplex can handle two, free-standing versions of the same movie (albeit, versions likely to differ only with respect to throw-away one-liners and reaction shots, as opposed to narrative-changing plot points), maybe the argument will be made by some ambitious director that a murder mystery or sci-fi epic can do the same on a grander scale.  Maybe we'll see the big screen equivalent of the "Choose Your Own Adventures" (CYOA) line of children's books.  Of course, the structure of a CYOA book, in which a single reader decides where the story goes by jumping ahead to pre-determined pages, doesn't translate well to a theater (though, as the outstanding Walking Dead video game released last year shows, it can work like gang-busters in the video game format).  Still, it'll be a step in an interesting direction if we'll see major movie studios loosen up on the idea of releasing alternative versions of movies in theaters with significant plot differences.

Honestly, what would Lucas have had to lose by releasing different cuts of Jedi to theaters with different scenes cut or included, maybe even with wildly divergent endings?  Besides, of course, another dump truck full of money as a mob of geeks lined up to pay full price to see an alternate version of Return of the Jedi in which Luke becomes Darth Vader ...

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