The Jar Jar Done Gone Fan Editing the Phantom Menace By Mike White. A No Confidence Vote in George Lucas In Cashiers du Cinemart #10 I opted to ignore Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace...
A No Confidence Vote in George Lucas
In Cashiers du Cinemart #10 I opted to ignore Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. At the time there was so much hullabaloo about the film that I decided to stay out of the fray. However, events of Summer 2001 made me reconsider my silence on this subject.
Rather than just grousing about this abhorrent film, a few folks took matters into their own able hands and edited The Phantom Menace to suit their tastes. This phenomenon came to light in mid-2001 and, via the internet, word spread like wildfire about the various alternative takes on George Lucas’s justly-maligned film. Reaction to the idea of re-cutting someone else’s film was an odd mix of righteous indignation about artistic license (a topic readers of CdC should now be tired of), celebration for the correction of the flawed film, and panicked desperation from fans trying to get their hands on a copy of one or more of these alternative versions.
Within days of initial reports, digitized versions of one of these alternate cuts started popping up on servers across the land. This version became known as The Phantom Edit 1.1. Some dubbed it “The L.A. Cut” due to its origin and to differentiate it from another version that received some press; The Phantom Re-Edit. Numerous people jettisoned this title in favor of “The NY Cut.” Allegedly, The Phantom Re-Edit came into being some months before The Phantom Edit 1.1. However, it seemed far more elusive to fans and extensive in its changes.
Enter the bootleggers. Reviled on message boards, these entrepreneurs aided the technologically and bandwidth-impaired by selling VCD and VHS copies of The Phantom Edit 1.1. As for The Phantom Re-Edit, this seemed to remain tight in the clutches of scurrilous “dot com journalists” who refused to give them up lest they lose their “scoop.” Luckily, patience provided a few bootleggers who managed to stock The Phantom Re-Edit by hook or by crook.
The Phantom Re-Edit
The most offensive characters of The Phantom Menace are the aliens. Toydarians, Nemoidians, and Gungans, recall racist stereotypes of Jews, Asians, and African Americans. The Phantom Re-Edit takes great pains to rework the narrative of The Phantom Menace and play down the “massah” intonation of Jar Jar Binks, the space age Stepin Fetchit. Here the Jar Jar character no longer serves as comic relief. Instead, he is portrayed as a Jedi Knight!
Via removal of Jar Jar’s sillier slapstick antics and scrambling his dialogue, the creators of The Phantom Re-Edit employ subtitles to provide a more sagacious stature to this buffoon. Indeed, Jedi Jar Jar runs off at the mouth with profundity far too often. Waxing philosophically at the drop of the hat, Jar Jar forgets the Taoist principle that “those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say.”
Despite his new words, it is difficult to accept Jar Jar as anything but a fool due to the attitude of those around him. Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi still treat Jar Jar with contempt (“pathetic lifeform”) and C3-PO’s remarks about Jar Jar being “a little odd” don’t make sense. You wouldn’t hear anyone saying that Yoda is a goof even if he does talk backwards with a voice exactly like Grover from Sesame Street.
The Gungans aren’t the only race whose dialogue is scrambled and subtitled. The Nemoidians also receive this treatment. However, the Nemodians say nothing new: their words are unintelligible but their dialogue remains intact. The Nemodians remain completely subservient to Darth Sidious. The subtitles only aid in downplaying the poor initial dubbing of these characters and eliminate their Charlie Chan elocution. Alas, nothing has been done to lessen the “hook-nosed greedy shopkeeper” image of Watuu.
The Phantom Re-Edit chucks a few bits of unneeded action and dialogue but not nearly enough. The cuts are far from seamless due to wipe effects that are meant to mimic those of The Phantom Menace but bring unneeded attention to themselves. Finally, due to the unyielding original source material, The Phantom Re-Edit feels like a good idea gone awry.
The Phantom Edit 1.1
Running 119 minutes (23 minutes shorter than the original), The Phantom Edit 1.1 is remarkable in its nearly flawless editing. After not having watched The Phantom Menace since its initial theatrical run, I found myself confounded to recall anything missing from Edit, save for the overlong ocean journey from the Gungan Kingdom to the surface of Naboo. Some viewers felt that this trip was symbolic in its “there’s always a bigger fish” metaphor of the Republic swallowing Naboo but others felt it merely bogged down the narrative, drawing out the film to an even more uncomfortable length. Edit eases the malaise felt by fans of the original Star Wars by trimming comedic scenes of Jar Jar (isn’t stepping in poop always funny?) and whiny lines from Anakin (truly his son’s father-I could almost hear little “Annie” crying, “I wanted to go to Tashii Station to pick up some power converters!”).
To someone admittedly unfamiliar with The Phantom Menace, the extent of the editing of The Phantom Edit cannot be determined unless suffering through the original multiple times. Discarded scenes soon number in the dozens with nary a one necessary to the plot. They are not missed, merely absent. The Phantom Edit weeds out superfluous action and redundancies in the plot. Likewise, the Phantom Editor, Mike J. Nichols, heightens the drama of several scenes with rearrangement of shots and sound.
Nichols told CdC, “Watch the scene where Queen Amidala and Jar Jar are at the window after the Senate meeting. In my cut Jar Jar says that the Gungans have ‘a grand army’ and, visually, we see the Queen juxtaposed. This is the basis for the film’s climax. Her paying attention to Jar Jar’s ramblings helps her plan the ending battle... Compare that to how Lucas lost track of the scene in Menace-and he’s the guy who actually wanted Jar Jar in the movie. My way is more effective storytelling.”
A list all of the frames, scenes, shots, and lines eliminated might rival a similar list of those that remain. If I have one complaint about The Phantom Edit 1.1, it’s that Nichols didn’t go far enough! While tightening the plotting and action, many annoying aspects of Lucas’s original film remain.
There Is Another
The best thing to come from the “discovery” of The Phantom Edit 1.1 and The Phantom Re-Edit is the reclamation of the D.I.Y. spirit of film. The dissemination of these alternate cuts prodded others into admitting that they had also taken matters into their own hands.
Postings began popping up on the occasional newsgroup about cuts from London to Singapore. At the time of this printing, these postings remain unsubstantiated. However, Andrew Pagana’s “corrector’s edition” certainly exists. Dubbed, The Phantom’s New Hope, Pagana’s cut runs 116 minutes and moves at a pace reminiscent of the original Star Wars.
Tightened with a socket wrench, Pagana has cut The Phantom Menace with a surgical skill, removing several of the items that The Phantom Edit 1.1 left sticking in my craw:
- <SNIP>Queen Amidala giving praise to R2-D2 for being a “brave little droid.” Sure, it introduces the R2-D2 character by name but why praise a machine for just doing its job? Does George Lucas thank his toaster each morning for browning his bread evenly?
- <SNIP>Thank you, Mr. Pagana, for eliminating the embarrassing “Are you an angel?” question from Anakin to Padme.
- <SNIP>Like The Phantom Edit 1.1, Pagana eliminates the midichloriansthe blood borne organisms that appear to endow humanoids with The Force (making Jedi Knights more of a biologically elite society than a mental and spiritual discipline). However, The Phantom’s New Hope removes the solitary blood reference that remained in The Phantom Edit 1.1.
- <SNIP>Again, blood and fate have undue weight especially with the “virgin birth” of Anakin. Thoroughly ridiculous, Pagana eliminates this silly and overtly biblical notion.
- <SNIP>Anakin’s not the only annoying kid in The Phantom Menace. All of his friends are troublesome as well. One quick cut eliminates their meeting around Anakin’s pod racer.
- <SNIP>A few seconds later Jar Jar lifts some comedy from Bill Cosby’s old routine about going to the dentist. There’s no need to see the goofy Gungan get zapped by Anakin’s pod and have his tongue go numb.
- <SNIP>Out go the two C3-PO lines about Jar Jar being an “odd creature.” It’s best not to draw attention to him. Maybe if we just ignore him, he’ll go away.
Quite a few other annoying lines are blissfully sacrificed in The Phantom’s New Hope. Only a handful of references to Anakin as “Annie” remain while the battle droids’ cutesy “Roger, Roger” has wound up in the dustbin. The battle droids remain a weak threat at best but the less they speak, the more menacing they appear. (Has anyone noticed that the few shielded “destroyer droids” appear invincible while the legions of battle druids are ineffective? Perhaps budget restrictions prevented the Nemoidians from mass-producing these hardier droids.)
As with The Phantom Edit 1.1, The Phantom’s New Hope is not without its flaws. There are a few missteps with the sound (courtesy of John Williams’ ever-present score) and an occasional rough edge (the scene of Anakin leaving his mother), but, otherwise, The Phantom’s New Hope stands out as a remarkable alternative to Lucas’s original film.
Send In The Clones
Ideally, Pagana, Nichols, or some third party (or parties) will study the aforementioned alternative cuts, and use the best ideas to produce the definitive emendation. I thought that I had found this “final cut” with the discovery of The Phantom Edit Version 1.14 (versions 1.11, 1.12, or 1.13 have yet to show up), but this was not to be.
Where Nichols and Pagana used a scalpel to pare down The Phantom Menace, the creator of TPE v1.14 appears to have used a machete. Instead of frames, shots, or scenes finding their way onto the cutting room floor, The Phantom Menace shares the fate of Darth Maul by being hacked in half. Going so far as to dispense with the opening scroll, title theme, and end credits; this version of The Phantom Menace has the scant running time of 84 minutes! Relying on The Persistence of Plot (see CdC #8), TPE v1.14 runs like a choppy overlong preview rather than any sort of cohesive, albeit portentous and silly, narrative.
A Thousand Terrible Things
Only so much can be done to The Phantom Menace with cutting, rearranging, and redubbing. Inherent flaws in the original remain beyond rectification. For example, despite word from Naboo that “the death toll is catastrophic,” the surface of the planet appears relatively uninhabited, occupied by roughly fifty guards, a few handmaidens, and various mucky-mucks. Certainly, this message may have been a trick but the invasion of Naboo by the Nemoidian battle droids is a non-event.
Another moment of anticlimax comes from the revelation of Padme as the true Queen of Naboo, an event that need not have happened when it did, if at all. The conceit of Padme as the true Queen never goes anywhere except as a pale parallel to the “dual existence” of Senator Palpatine as a “man of honor” and Lord of the Sith (way to go, catching those subtleties, Jedi Knights!).
In addition, no matter how one cuts it (literally or figuratively), the long-winded pod race and piss poor acting of Jake Lloyd (Anakin) cannot be completely deleted. Moreover, there will always be too much Jar Jar and not enough Darth Maul.
Be Mindful of the Future
The beauty of the Nichols and Pagana edits comes from the adroit use of editing; one of the most under-appreciated disciplines in filmmaking. Neither editor cleaves away scenes out of spite, but to make The Phantom Menace a more effective film. When placed in context, will Lucas’s Episode II and III contradict the changes that Nichols, Pagana, and other editors have made? Does it really matter?
George Lucas seems bent on self-destruction with the needless (and mindless) meddling he’s done to the three original Star Wars films (though little could make Return of the Jedi any worse save yet another musical number). Lucas must unlearn what he’s learned during his idle years. The editing of The Phantom Menace should serve as a wake-up call to Lucas (and his ardent admirers). Lucas is not infallible. The Star Wars films aren’t sacred texts. Where Lucas has been intrusive in tweaking the original Star Wars films, changes to The Phantom Menace have been insightful.
While Nichols has taken the subsequent Star Wars films into consideration with The Phantom Edit, Pagana’s work with its lack of midichlorians may leave some viewers scratching their heads if these contemptuous globules make an unwanted appearance in future Lucas work. Rather than getting bent out of shape (as some decriers of the re-edits have done), the solution looms large. Instead of bringing the mountain to Muhammad, take Episode II and III to the chopping block and continue to correct Lucas’s mistakes.
Why should audiences continue to suffer for the foolishness of megalomaniacal directors? Optimistically, the edits of The Phantom Menace will edify other directors to rein themselves in and give inspiration to other would-be editors that might make pre-existing material better. Please, feel free to include a film’s extra scenes when it’s released on DVD, but leave the original theatrical version intact.
The glimmer that directors might be able to tone down their excesses comes in the re-release of a shorter version of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Conversely, George Lucas’s crony, Francis Ford Coppola continues to misjudge the extent of his talent by releasing Apolcalyps Now Redux. The inclusion of the infamous “French plantation scene” does his film far more harm than good. Certainly, a better cut of Apolcalyps Now could have been culled from the bootleg versions of the film that run up to five hours!
Outside of Hollywood, there is a tide in the affairs of fans: stirrings of dissension. Whether they ever reach fruition or merely remain “good ideas,” rumours of alternate cuts of Superman II and Star Trek V flourish. Instead of “special director’s cuts” that add unneeded plodding and padding to films’ plotlines, perhaps there will be a rash of cuts that abrogate abuses and trim films to concise refinement.
Think of all the near misses over the years that could be made new with a honed blade. Say goodbye to circuitous subplots and extra scenes for the sake of extra scenes! Say hello to reasonable running times and logical narratives. At least we can hope.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection
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