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Revisiting Past Work: The Argument for Artistic Immutability

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“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it or offer your own version in return.” - Salman Rushdie

Whether it be for the sake of temporally relevant cultural mores, attempting to refine or “reimagine” an existing work, or for other miscellaneous reasons, the act of changing existing artistic work has extended itself into the artistic medium of film.

This posits that it is destructive to the nature of the medium and the art inherent therein to endorse these kinds of changes.

Art: Technique and Intent

As I had outlined in a previous work on confidence and hubris, art is comprised of both technique, which can be assessed objectively, and intent – which cannot. Film is a technically complicated medium, which can utilize the talents of hundreds of specialized people to produce a single artistic work, presented in a relatively immutable form. The cumulative technical merits of their work is relatively apparent, and can be somewhat deterministically measured and compared to other similar works.

Intent, however, cannot be determined within a vacuum. It is not necessarily apparent what the original intent of a piece was, since we attach our own perceptions and opinions to an artistic work within the framework of the perceived intent with which we consume that piece of artwork.

This means that repeated consumption of the same source material can yield different reactions and interpretations, depending on how different we are when we experience the artwork. To paraphrase a classic quote: “When I re-read a book, it is different because I am different.”

The original intent behind a work cannot change once the artwork has been completed, as it is part of a singular point in time – part of the holistic process of creation. The only intent which could potentially change would be revisionist intent (the artists’ externally represented intent) or perceived intent.

Interpretation Over Time

“Do I read my old fiction? No. Why would I do that? I did the books as well as I could at the time. To go back would be a torment.” - Richard Ford

Part of any work of art is how that piece of art is interpreted over time. This is a collectively-held opinion, for the most part, as artistic works are said to “hold up over time” or not – and many of the most respected works in film genres are gauged partially by their power to transcend the era in which their creative intents were fomented.

A side effect of this potentially shifting interpretation over time is that certain societal conceptions will tend to shift. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is still taught as a seminal film work, even though it glorified racial inequality and the Confederacy, and featured white actors in blackface. It was (and still is) a product of its time, and can only be properly understood within the construct of that time period. Film students do not watch Birth of a Nation expecting a modern version of race relations, but rather to see the birth of cinematic techniques from the formative era of cinema.

We tend to view film through the lens of our own experiences. If we see a derivative work of a film – for example, the Scream series – without having first seen the source material referenced in the derivative work, our understanding will be much different than if we have seen the works in their naturally occurring chronological order. This is one of the reasons why I recommend that those interested in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled watch Sidney Lumet’s Network first. Although Bamboozled does stand by itself as a piece of cinema, consuming Network first allows the viewer to properly understand how Lee used his interpretation of the earlier work to form his film.

Being able to view a work in the context of that which came before it is integral to being able to form a cogent view of a cinematic work in the context of the full body of film works; modifying an earlier film to fit a later morality would change our ability to properly assess the mutations and combinations of concepts and illustrative techniques which form later films.

Examples of Abuse

Beyond censorship, there are several very visible attempts to change past cinema history which have been publicly known, even outside the community of cinephiles.

Ted Turner, a media mogul, took it upon himself in the 1980s to attempt to colorize old films because he felt that he could make a greater profit from the distribution of colorized films than their black and white original prints. This was more or less universally panned as a bad artistic move from such critical figures as the late Roger Ebert, Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. The original film stock is as much a part of the idiom of these classic films as the camera angles and actors’ performances which are contained in them; altering such a basic aspect of the films for the sole purpose of extracting greater profit can only be seen as a kind of artistic abuse.

Another example – one better known to many self-fashioned science fiction fans – is that of the Star Wars Special Editions. George Lucas, after having produced a trilogy of science fiction drawing from both the Campbellian monomyth and his favorite director, Akira Kurosawa, went on to produce a number of lackluster properties, including a terrible Christmas special and an even-more terrible movie about Ewoks – then chose to ignore the properties for over a decade. He decided to create a prequel trilogy (which is terrible in comparison to the originals, by most accounts) – but first, he decided to re-release his original trilogy with updated effects, adjusted/added scenes, and at least one universally hated plot adjustment. The original films, despite any technical flaws or lack of modern computer compositing technology, were a product of their time, and tampering with them to adjust them to a more modern interpretation of their meaning pollutes the original pieces of art by distorting their historical context, however slightly.

Conclusion

Art, and by extension film, cannot be created nor consumed in a vacuum. Our ability to see what has come before us is fundamentally important to our ability to both assess what we see and to better understand how to create work in the vein of the creative continuum in which all film auteurs exist.

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