The rumor about the upcoming altered-to-spare-current-sensibilities DVD of Escape from New York (wherein the President's hijacked plane no longer crashes into the World Trade Center), blessedly, turned out to be just that: a rumor. That doesn't mean other films are safe from Monday-morning quarterbacking, though -- often at the hands of their own makers!
The trailer for the March 2002 re-release of Steven Spielberg's classic E.T. has been making the rounds -- on the new How the Grinch Stole Christmas DVD, and online -- and has been making a lot of enemies. First of all, it's bad enough that Spielberg has second-guessed himself and changed the menacing FBI agents' guns to walkie-talkies (thus rendering them fairly unthreatening -- one Ain't It Cool News talkbacker summed it up hilariously: "Stop! Or I'll yell 'Stop' again!"). But Spielberg has also apparently done what he once swore he'd never do -- tart up E.T. with computer imaging.
E.T., marvelously sculpted by Carlo Rambaldi, enthralled us twenty years ago and still holds up today. I can see maybe tweaking some of the bicycle-flight footage, but E.T.? There was nothing wrong with him in the first place! He existed in real space alongside the actors, which is why he moved us so much (and moved the actors, who had a physical, if mechanical, E.T. to work with rather than a tennis ball on a stick that would later be replaced with a CG character, as so often happens today). I don't think E.T. has totally been supplanted by a CG E.T., but he's definitely been tweaked, and needlessly so.
Can't moviemakers leave well enough alone? Lucas makes Greedo shoot first and inserts a lame Jabba sequence into Star Wars; Lucas also renames the first Indiana Jones movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark; now Spielberg is diddling around with E.T. Why? Because they can, I guess. Now, nobody would object to these changes, senseless as they are, if the original versions of the films as millions of fans know and love them were also made available. But the original, pre-"Special Edition" Star Wars movies are out of print (the laserdiscs and VHS tapes fetch mighty sums on eBay), and Lucas has rather arrogantly announced that the original versions will never be made available on DVD -- just his misguided 1997 remixes. God only knows if the original E.T. will similarly be lost in time, like tears in rain. (Speaking of which, if you recognize that quote: supposedly there's a new Blade Runner DVD in the works that might offer viewers a choice between the 1982 theatrical release and the 1992 "Director's Cut.")
What truly makes the reworking of these films so dazzling in its stupidity is that E.T. and the Star Wars films are right at the top of the list of most popular films of all time. What are they fixing, exactly? Zillions of people felt these films were just fine the way they were. And if you have any fond memories of these movies from childhood, say goodbye to them. Those memories have been raped.
Yes, the Coen brothers modified Blood Simple a bit, but the changes were miniscule. And fans of Orson Welles welcomed the new version of Touch of Evil, re-edited according to Welles' original notes. But for the most part, going back and changing a perfectly good movie is as pointless as, say, colorizing a black-and-white movie. It shows no respect for film history or for those who loved the original versions of the film.
If Spielberg wants to tinker, let him tinker with The Magnificent Ambersons. Yes. Orson Welles' second film was notoriously butchered by RKO when Welles was out of the country; the 50 minutes or so of deleted footage is believed to be destroyed and lost forever. So, why not use some of these digital tools to try to recreate that footage? You could shoot the missing scenes with stand-in actors, working from the original script, storyboards, and radio production. You could map the long-dead actors' features onto the new actors (who, ideally, would be cast according to the similarity of their builds to those of the original stars). You could have voice impersonators dub the lines. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would at least be an attempt, and you could have a DVD with seamless branching so that viewers could decide whether to view the RKO truncated version or the version with reshot footage. The reason I bring Spielberg into this is that, of all directors talented enough to take over a project from a god among directors, he'd be most likely to have the guts to do it (as witness A.I.) -- if maybe not the sensibility (again, witness A.I.).
That would be a worthy film to go back and diddle with -- since you can't really savage it any more than RKO already did in 1942. Instead, though, we have powerful directors wasting their time refining movies that need no refining, rewriting past glories because, perhaps, they're no longer able to make new glories. (Exhibit A: Phantom Menace. Exhibit B: A.I.) If Spielberg and Lucas feel resentful towards their younger, hungrier, more visionary selves and the work they produced, let them hash it out in therapy. Let them, if they must, tinker with prints of the films on their Avids at home, so they can re-edit and rework the movies endlessly for their own satisfaction. But let them keep their goddamn hands off the films for public consumption; let them honor our memories and our passion for what they created; let them leave well enough alone.