Thursday, September 15, 2011

Did You See What I Saw?

Here's what gets me.

Assuming that you attended school, do you remember taking an English or literature class in which you read and discussed some famous literary work?

This could have been in high school where the work could have been Silas Marner, the 1861 novel by George Eliot (actually Mary Ann Evans), Julius Caesar, the (about) 1599 play by William Shakespeare (at one time thought to be actually Christopher Marlowe or even Francis Bacon) or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the 1798 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (always thought to actually be himself, except when he was writing "Kubla Khan," his famous, unfinished poem composed in an opium-induced sleep).

If you got to college, this could have been any of the plays or poems by Shakespeare or something more contemporary, such as Moby-Dick, the 1851 novel by Herman Melville, any of the novels by Ernest Hemingway or possibly even "Howl," the 1956 poem by Allen Ginsberg, which had obscenity charges brought against it.

My point is, the instructor gave you an assignment to read an agreed-upon published work, you and your classmates all read it (assuming that you did your homework and didn't try to cheat by just reading the Classic comic book or the Cliff's Notes instead) and you all discussed the work in class.

As you progressed through the hierarchy of education, your examination of literary art became more focused and more modern, at least in the survey courses. However, what happens when motion-picture art is added as a topic for literary education?

Many Baby Boomers thought they had an advantage when they "got lucky" enough to be able to see a film based on a work they were supposed to read. Nowadays, students can probably get a digital movie of whatever work they're supposed to be reading.

One problem for them, of course, is that oftentimes a finished film is vastly different from the script the writer wrote, much less the novel or play that might have inspired it.

A work of literature, such as a novel, short story or poem, is always kept intact, based on how it appeared as published after negotiations between author, editor and publisher. Film, however, is altered, changed, shortened, lengthened, made in more than one version or rereleased "with never before seen footage," all to suit the exigencies of its current "owner," whether that is the director, the editor, the producer, the studio, the distributor, the television network or station showing it between commercials with altered or silenced dialogue or even a commercial airliner that omits scenes thought to be disturbing.

This almost casual treatment of the most important art form of the present damages how society regards film, damages the permanence of film and damages the creative work of the artists who made the film.

Perhaps film should be thought about and regarded the way songs are. A song is written by a song writer. It is bought and then owned by a publisher. Then it is worked on by an arranger and recorded by an artist. However, even though a particular recording of a song by an extremely popular artist may be extremely popular and successful, that artist's recording of a song doesn't become the song. The "song" is always thought of as being separate from the recording.

Other artists sometimes "cover" a song and make equally successful recordings of it, sometimes mimicking the original arrangement, sometimes changing the arrangement drastically.

Of course, more than one version (or "arrangement") of films and sometimes even novels are made, but no recording of a song is hacked up and altered by a radio station when it is played the way a film is on its way to being distributed, except for shortened openings and endings to suit the available time.

Therefore, what constitutes a film? What should we regard as being the "artistic work" that exists in society's mind when we discuss a particular filmic piece of "literature"? The screenplay? The shooting script? The cut that the editor turns over to the studio? The version that is first released by the first distributor? The uncut, uncensored version that the director wanted, but couldn't control until the film was rereleased?

When you and I discuss the novel Moby-Dick, we compare the versions we each have in our minds based on what we read, which undoubtedly consisted of the same words.

When we discuss the movie Moby Dick, we're lucky if we both saw one same scene.

I rest my case.

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