Shiny Shelf

THX-1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut DVD

By Jim Smith on 10 October 2004

In 1970 a young film academic and teacher called George Lucas, whose previous filmwork had been restricted to documentaries and prize-winning shorts, made a very strange film about LA in sixties.

Disguised as a science-fiction story it was produced by Lucas’s pal Francis Ford Coppola, did poor box-office and was comprehensively loathed by the studio that had paid peanuts for it. It went on to be compared to Beckett and Fellini by the British and American press respectively, was feted at Cannes and then comprehensively forgotten. This was partially because its writer/director’s next film – bittersweet nostalgia pic ‘American Graffiti’ – became one of the biggest grossing movies in history and garnered him four Oscar nominations into the bargain.

‘THX’ starred Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance and was four minutes shorter than its novice director wanted thanks to the machinations of a studio head who needed to demonstrate his control over the upstarts of what was not yet ‘New Hollywood’. Now, and for the first time, it’s out on DVD and in the form that Lucas intended.

Described by its writer/director as ‘a cubist film’ which seeks to portray a world a world in which “all the doors are open but we’re frightened to walk through them” ‘THX 1138′ is a ‘documentary fantasy’ an allegorical representation of the then contemporary world with obvious parallels drawn with Vietnam, casual drug use, the civil rights struggle and the methods used by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to deal with their opponents.

‘THX 1138′ is a very strange film in every sense. It’s an obscure movie by a very famous man. A cheap, low key arty movie made by someone (wrongly) associated with high-budget, low-brow fluff. It also takes place in a series of grim corridors and white voids and becomes progressively less plot-coherent as it goes along; striving to make its point more than it strives to tell its story.

It’s strikingly well-edited, in terms of both visuals and audio, and the overall effect of sound-designer Walter Murch’s pops, bibbles and throbs and Lucas’s looping, claustrophobic, pale frames is to create a slowly mounting sense of paranoia in the viewer. It ain’t exactly a feel good ending, either – sunrise or no sunrise.

Duvall is superb as the fractured, worried and increasingly determined THX and Donald Pleasance gives one of the best performances of his latter career. More the subtle, quiet, intuitive actor of his TV work than dribbling cliche of ‘You Only Live Twice’ or the ‘Halloween’ sequels here, Pleasance reminds you that he could, in fact, be very good indeed when he chose to.

This release is, as it seems most DVDs are these days, a ‘two disc special edition’ set. This one, at least, really has to be. The first disc carries the movie and the Lucas/Murch commentary (a particularly fascinating one for production and editing geeks) and the movie’s sound and picture quality leave you in no doubt that every bit available has been stuffed with information (The 5.1 sound mixing does Murch’s intense audio designs a justice even the stereo video cassette couldn’t come close to).

The unobtrusive CGI ‘fixes’ added to the picture (the odd new window here, the odd close-up of a screw going into a hole there) neither add to nor detract from the picture in any concrete way. I do look forward to the reading the first review were someone belligerently insists that that something that was in the movie all along is ‘obviously’ CGI though. That sort of thing always amuses me.

The second of the set’s two discs is predominantly taken up by two big fat documentaries. One is a straightforward ‘making of’ about a not very straightforward ‘making’ and is rather good as these things go. Coppola, Lucas, Murch and Duvall are all good value, especially when discussing finance and battles with Warner Bros and the technical difficulties of the short, cheap, tense shoot and the long, painful editorial process.

The second doc is even better. ‘Legacy of Filmakers’ is a ponderous title for something which takes a slightly sentimentalised but largely fair-minded look at the first incarnation of Coppola’s ‘American Zoetrope’ company. Lucas, Murch and Coppola are on hand again, but this time Scorsese, Matthew Robbins, Caleb Deschanel, John Korty and Steven Spielberg (amongst many others) pitch in as well. The piece has sufficient detail for there to be talk of the difference between USC and UCLA’s course curricula in the late sixties and the different kind of filmmakers they turned out as a result. This ramshackle group of friends, rivals and collaborators mock and praise each other equally and there are interesting stories of stoners, commies and Kurosawa all occupying the same building at 827 Folsolm Place. (That Marty Scorsese appears to be turning into Woody Allen is only mildly distracting and adds an odd atmosphere of stand-up to his tale of a first meeting with a miserably obsessive Lucas ¬†as both moped by a fountain on the MGM lot having spent the day being separately bullied by accountants.) Overall it’s a far more satisfying evocation of the relevant section of ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ than the ostensible film adaptation of that book is – and that’s no small thing to be.

The inclusion on the disc of ‘Electronic Labyrinth’ Lucas’ USC thesis film is very welcome, as is having all of his undergraduate picture ‘Look at Life’ (another ‘cubist film’) contained within the ‘Legacy of Filmakers’. Both provide first hand evidence of why the young Lucas was regarded so highly (and thought of as so technically proficient yet off-the-wall) by his contemporaries. It can’t help but make one anticipate a release for his whole body of student work, even a shallow appraisal of which would fundamentally alter many people’s “understanding” of this most successful, yet most comprehensively misunderstood, of movie brats. (Mind you, watching ‘American Graffiti’ would do that, and you can get that on DVD in most HMVs for a fiver these days.)

A gaggle of trailers (contemporary and re-release versions) and a downright disturbing promotional short called ‘Bald’ fill out the package. Who shot ‘Bald’ I’ve no idea (it looks like Lucas’s own camerawork, all arcs and big fat stationary shots) but it’s a really bizarre piece. Rather like Coppola’s later, equally twisted promos for ‘The Conversation’ it can’t decide whether it’s a sinister art film about inexplicable events or a puff-piece to get bums on seats. The random surrealism of the barber emerging from the bay to clip Duvall’s already-thinning pate or the disquieting sight of Maggie McOmie visibly fighting back tears as she’s shorn of her very long golden hair both linger in the mind long after the short has concluded; something they share with the best scenes of ‘THX’ itself.

‘THX’ is a clever, individualistic and impressive film, which narrowly misses being a genuinely great one. However, it comes as part of an exceptionally good DVD package; one which not only does the film the justice its truncated VHS releases have denied it but also reveals a great deal of first hand information about one of the most interesting periods in the history of American film. Near-essential.

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