Star Wars Uncut: Director’s Cut, a full-length sweding of the original Star Wars made by hundreds of participants, might be the greatest viral video in the still-young history of the Internet. It’s also the best argument I’ve seen for an overhaul of outmoded copyright laws which, if enforced to the entertainment industry’s satisfaction, would make such works illegal and essentially un-viewable.
The project started out as a bit of a lark. In 2009, director Casey Pugh asked fans to re-create a fifteen-second piece of Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope as a building block for a feature. To everyone’s surprise, the result won an Emmy last summer in the still-young “interactive media” category. That accolade is surely one of the reasons why YouTube, which has been slammed by big media companies over unauthorized uploads and forced to adopt a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward infringement, is hosting all two hours and ten minutes of the project. Well, that and the fact that Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, rapacious big media companies for the most part, have often adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the Star Wars saga, a franchise that has somehow overcome its deficiencies as drama to become as much a part of everyday life as the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” (which, of course, is also copyrighted).
The sheer variety of storytelling modes showcased in Pugh’s cut-rate epic is a show in itself. Star Wars Uncut includes countless examples of live-action “drama” (scare quotes mine), some of it staged on elaborately decorated sets, the rest performed in kitchens, rec rooms, living rooms, basements, and backyards. Some of the actors are surprisingly good; others are merely spirited. The movie also boasts cel animation, flash animation, Claymation, 3-D animation, old- and new-school video-game graphics, stop-motion-animated action figures and Lego characters and paper dolls, masked performers, and sock puppets.
In the sequence re-creating C-3PO and R2-D2’s journey across the desert planet Tatooine, there’s a succession of captioned stills with voice-over narration taken from a tie-in children’s storybook. You hear an array of regional and international accents and many (subtitled) foreign languages. In the fan-sourced re-creation of the scene in which Imperial baddie Grand Moff Tarkin taunts Princess Leia before destroying her home planet, the roles of Tarkin and Leia are portrayed by a couple of grandparents in a wood-paneled rec room festooned with photos and knickknacks; “Tarkin” wears a Russian-style trooper hat, “Leia” a fluffy robe and black earmuffs. At the 22-minute mark, the roles of Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, and the holographically projected image of the Princess are all played by the same little girl. For no discernible reason, and thus delightfully, the “Leia” incarnation of the girl is projected onto a grill next to a some sizzling barbecued chicken. R2-D2 is played by a plastic trash can.
These moments and others restore the sense of enchantment that the twenty-some years’ worth of tricked-out CGI blockbusters have leached from the moviegoing experience. Part of the reason people go to the movies is to recapture that childhood sense of absolute creative freedom — that buzz that you used to get from tear-assing around the neighborhood on a bike or skateboard pretending you were riding in the Kentucky Derby or zooming into hyperspace. Pugh and his army of collaborators get this, and their glee is infectious. When the Millennium Falcon escapes the Mos Eisely spaceport, the moment is dramatized by some kid galloping through a house with a towel on his head.
Star Wars Uncut is also a work of casual homage, film theory, and criticism, as packed with cinematic shout-outs as Lucas’s original. Some of these lift up the hood of Lucas’s movie and show you the influences that fed his imagination back in the seventies. My favorite example occurs at the 2:03:50 mark of the Death Star assault, a sequence that Lucas modeled on World War II aviation flicks. At one point, Luke is represented by a cutout photo of a World War II–era flying ace, and the sounds of starship engines and laser bolts have been replaced by propeller engines and machine guns. When the scene cuts to a view from the pilot’s window, he’s flying low over an ocean to attack a battleship. The whole sequence is a black-and-white cut-paper collage in motion, semiotics as cartoon.
Proponents of intellectual property law reform should try to screen Star Wars Uncut during the next round of Congressional hearings on copyright law and the Internet. It’s the sort of work that is often squashed by “notice & takedown” procedures — the kind of project that could get caught up in the next digital dragnet meant to punish cynical pirate companies such as Megaupload, whose founder was arrested in New Zealand this week. The Stop Online Piracy Act, which was defeated this month after a public outcry, was one of many greedy and misguided attempts to pretend that new technology hasn’t irrevocably altered people’s material relationship to pop culture. Movies, TV, music, books, and other works of expression are no longer discrete things or events that we buy tickets to see or purchase in a store. They can become — in fact have become — parts of our lives. They’re embedded in our computers and iPhones alongside our personal photos, videos, e-mails, and texts. Any future legislation that fails to take that into account and seeks to paint satire, parody, criticism, and collage-style derivative art as a crime on par with selling entire movies for profit will be rightly seen by younger generations as ignorant, dishonest, and evil.
This sort of work isn’t stealing anything from creators. It’s enhancing its value by showing just how much it means to people. I really don’t see how it’s possible to watch this viral video crazy-quilt and write it off as a merely derivative or exploitative work. If anything, it shows how art made from other art can become an independent creation with its own personality and worth. Star Wars Uncut is a collectively made work of postmodern folk art, as arresting and significant as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can silkscreen or a Robert Rauschenberg collage painting built around photos filched from newspapers. The true subject of Star Wars Uncut is how pop culture touchstones live on inside people’s heads, becoming a shared language and an inspiration for personal creativity. Lucas’s work was a call; this is a response.