Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Drawing the Line Between Pirate and Artist

Posted by Keith




If Hollywood studios could deliver their dream products in their dream formats, they would send every first-run film via electronic pipes to thousands of theatres around the world. Digital projectors would emit high-quality images on screens. And the studios could control which versions got to which theatres. Theatres in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Singapore, or Utah might receive versions that lacked nudity. Theatres in New York, Amsterdam, and San Francisco might receive versions with extra nudity. If audiences registered disappointment with a particular ending, studios could quickly adjust and beam out a revised version with a new ending. Studios could even send multiple versions to the same theatre -- a PG-rated version for all shows before 8 p.m., and an R-rated version for all shows after 8 p.m. The storage capacity of DVDs would allow multiple versions on the same disc, so that families could watch "Titanic" without the naked scenes if the kids were in the room and with those scenes when the kids fall asleep. And once each home is connected with a pay-per-view jukebox, there would be no need for the DVD. Families could just order up their preferred digital stream. Ideally, of course, Hollywood would save on the cost of casting and re-shooting scenes by replacing as many human beings (or "blood actors," as they are known) with computer-generated cartoons.

There are some formidable obstacles to this dramatically efficient vision. First and foremost, there is the up-front cost. No one wants to pay the billions of dollars it would cost to retrofit theatres with digital projectors. Until there are enough digital projectors, there is no incentive to distribute digital prints. Human beings are the most formidable of these obstacles. Actors, directors, and editors have some power in Hollywood. And they do not want their labor replaced or their status as artists compromised any more than it is already. Studios already issue different cuts of films for different foreign markets and airline viewing. But they do so after negotiations with directors and editors, and after the films have either failed or succeeded in domestic release.

As Hollywood creeps toward this digital vision, George Lucas leads the pack. His last two films, "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" and "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," were filled with digitally generated extras where blood actors might have served in the 1970s. Several major characters, including the inexplicable Jabba the Hutt and the blatantly racist and annoying Jar Jar Binks were (fortunately) digital creations. The same technology that allowed Lucas remarkable control over his characters gave his fans the opportunity to undermine his control of them. Early in 2001 rumors began flying around Internet sites and chat rooms that someone had taken "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" and created something called Episode I: The Phantom Edit. The Phantom Editor, who remains incognito, had shortened the film by about 20 minutes, removing most of the scenes that focused on Jar Jar Binks. Without dialogue, Jar Jar Binks was a much less offensive character. In addition, the Phantom Editor removed some of the stilted dialogue and awkward verbal gestures that Lucas had installed to appeal to children. Soon after the rumors of the edit started spreading, copies began appearing in VHS form at Star Wars and science fiction conventions. And digital copies flew across both from peer to peer and via peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella. The 700 megabyte DivX file took many hours to download even with the fastest connection available. But the demand for the file was not about getting "The Phantom Menace" for free. It was about seeing a better version and celebrating the anarchistic revolution that had allowed a lone film critic to take control of the content and connect with thousands of others who shared his appreciation of the Star Wars saga. Lucas was reportedly curious about the cut. But his company, Lucasfilm, warned fans that sharing these copies and files constituted copyright infringements of the original film.

~The Anarchist in the Library, by Siva Vaidhyanathan [via Salon]

As Mr. Vaidhyanathan points out (in this excerpt form his forthcoming book) There is an intriguing phenomenon happening: the clash between two wildly different forces on the Internet, each vying for expression. On the one hand we have the Anarchist Editors, willfully defying the will of the artist and the law of the land to create different (and arguably better) versions than was intended by the artist, and on the other side, we have the Legal Authoritarians like the DCC and the MPAA, fighting to keep control of art (and by extension, the will to express oneís creativity) in the hands of Corporations.

This is a thorny issue and obviously Iíve already drawn sides if yo want to judge by my characterizations. But the inescapable fact remains that American copyright laws have gotten way out of hand. This issue goes well beyond whether or not Micky Mouse is a cultural Icon that belongs in the public domain (though the same could be argued for Star Wars) it strikes at the heart of creative freedom and expression. As Vaidhyanathan points out:

Until the rise of fixed and legally protected media products like television shows and feature films, humans had the power to adapt and re-use elements of their cultures. American communities quickly adopted Harriett Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to the local stage and undermined its abolitionist messages. Uncle Tom was soon a stock comic character in minstrel shows. Stowe gave birth to Uncle Tom but America kidnapped him, changing him into something she would neither recognize nor celebrate. Those are the risks of releasing messages upon the world. An author cannot control how a character, idea, or plot will be read, re-fashioned, or criticized. But copyright law's restrictions on the production of derivative works and the integrity of the original work alter that dynamic somewhat.

Luckily for us, there already exist a world of classics in the public domain or else weíd never get to see Shakespeare's plays or read Mark Twainís books without having to pay exhorbinant fees to Megaconglomerates. And you can forget about making a film version if the Illiad.

But should the mere threat of litigation and eternal damnation int he eyes of the Film Directorís Guild stop us from coopting our own culture and remaking it to suite our needs? The Goblin doesnít think so.

The Goblin is an amateur Russian digital video editor named Dmitri Puchkov. Not satisfied with merely watching illegal copies of Hollywood films, he has differentiated some products within the rather crowded Russian video market. The Goblin re-dubs the films into colloquial Russian, trumping the rather unsatisfying subtitle translations.

The Goblin's greatest hits are the re-dubs of the first two of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He turned Frodo Baggins into Frodo Sumkin and the rest of the "good" characters into caricatures of incompetent Russian officials. The evil Orcs became Russian gangsters. Gandalf the Wizard constantly quotes Karl Marx. Puchkov originally made the new versions for his friends, but they made copies and spread them widely. Pirate video merchants all over Russia are distributing Goblin edits, which are in high demand, for about $10. The Goblin is currently working on a Russian "Star Wars" edit. Certainly, by throwing out the old soundtrack and revising the characters completely, the Goblin is producing a fairly new work, one that does not directly compete with the original in the marketplace. No one who wants to watch the original "good" Frodo Baggins would want the Goblin version in its stead. But the real value of the Goblin edit is that it uses a familiar English text and Hollywood production (and New Zealand settings) to comment on Russian politics and society. This is multilayered cultural criticism and revision on a par with the minstrelization of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Woody Allen's Occidentalization in "What's Up Tiger Lily?" and Leonard Bernstein's urbanization of "Romeo and Juliet" into "West Side Story." It should make some feel queasy and others giggle. It should make everyone pause and think.

What are the implications to the status of Hollywood labor if, as writer Peter Rojas explained, all films are to be considered permanent "works in progress"? Should creativity be reserved for professionals and experts? Or will teenagers in their basements and libraries be able to soup up or strip down the signs, symbols, and texts that make up such an important part of their lives? Will Hollywood, bolstered by the political power of the United States government, be able to dictate the form and format of distribution around the globe? What are the implications for local cultural forms if powerful media companies use law and technology to ossify their advantages? In lawsuits, congressional hearings, and international negotiations, Hollywood studios claim they need maximum and near permanent control over their products to justify the massive investments they make in production, marketing, and distribution. But clearly, the issue is not just a commercial one ñ- it's cultural as well. Yet the commercial film industry and the governments that do its bidding are willing to go to extreme measures to preserve their global cultural and commercial standing.

At least, they think they will. But human ingenuity and creativity is boundless. There have always been pirates; there will always be pirates. Some will be caught, and some will become so large that they will become artists in their own right. and then, two thousand years form now, their stories will be coopted and rewritten, turned into something culturally significant and different than their creator intended. thatís how art is made.

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