A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Days can suck when you have to go to a service-industry-type job and there is something wrong with the first customer interaction you have. Today, it was partially my fault. My co-worker listened as I dug the hole, and he wondered why I was engaging with the person the way I was. Sometimes you don't know it's crap you're standing in until it's too late to get out. It somehow masks its own stench until it has reached your knees.

It started innocently enough. The store has a poster for Oliver Stone's Alexander in the entryway, which advertises the "Director's Cut" on the DVD. The promotion for this travesty says, "Newly inspired, faster paced, more action-packed!" Here's the cover image. It says it right on there:

The person I ended up in a minor debate with wanted to know what that meant. I informed him that it was the studio's way of making the best of a bad situation, because it didn't make sense to market the film by saying, "Oliver Stone cut out all the gay stuff because he wanted to send the message that America is full of bigoted idiots." (Item #4 in this link.) This is a political message I am not down with, because my feeling is that the better rebellion is not to give the bigots what they want, but to gay it up more. Have Colin Farrell bugger Jared Leto in great anatomical detail! Despite protests to greater reasons, Stone can't hide from the accusation he bowed down for money. (Though, fairness where it is due, apparently battle scenes were restructured and possibly a subplot added back in, and Stone has reshaped theatrical cuts before, most noteably on the Any Given Sunday DVD.)

The person in question said that despite all that, maybe the film was better for it, that the criticism had been that the film was ponderous, and maybe tightening it up couldn't hurt. Which, yes, maybe. I saw the theatrical release of the film and made up my own mind (he didn't), and while it was a bit long, it was not nearly the dismal experience the reviews would have had you believe. I call it a "travesty" above not for the actual film, but in reference to the "Director's Cut," the no-queers version. The critics were unfair to this film. The knives were out for some reason, and it spread like a virus. Critics shop in the same supermarket and breakfast on the same zeitgeist, and they start repeating each other, crawling in the same syntactical muck. You ever notice how album reviews seem to quote the same lines from the same songs over and over again? Why is that?

Anyway, I'm going out of orbit.

The person I was talking with found it fascinating that maybe DVDs would start showcasing this sort of thing, that filmmakers could re-edit the films based on their critical and box-office reception. I said yes, they could, but I would have a hard time respecting such a person for giving their art over to the fickle viewpoints of others. My conversant took offense to this. "I'm a writer," he said, "and often the reviews of my work point out a mistake I have made, and I want to fix it. I don't always get it right." Maybe not, I posited, but it's out there, it is what it is, and one could second-guess oneself forever and it would still never be exactly right. We talked some more about it, and the willingness to bend against his own artistic impulses that this man was exhibiting really irritated me. It got under my skin. He was respectful in the discussion, but yet, hard to respect. He told me my viewpoint was "old-fashioned."

His best example to argue for a writer's freedom to rewrite based on response was playwrights. They often alter their material over time, and a play is a constantly evolving thing. That is correct. Many early performances of a play are done in chosen areas as sort of a precursor for their first "definitive" run in New York or some other major market. They are not unlike advance audience screenings that movie studios have for their pictures. However, the nature of a play is different than the nature of a film, just as a song is different than a novel. Plays and songs are open-ended experiences, whereas novels and movies are closed. In a live atmosphere, each performance of a play is inherently different. It can't be just like the night before, as no human can repeat an action in the exact same way as they did previously, and each new cast is open to reinterpreting the material. Taking it further, the audience is different each time, and any performer will tell you that an audience's reaction is inherent to how the performers peform.

You wouldn't, though, videotape a performance of a stage play, show it on television, and then re-edit it for the DVD release because it didn't get high enough ratings. The filming of it crystallizes that particular performance, it makes it something solid. In essence, it is being handed to the audience and they are being told, "Here, it's yours, take it with you to enjoy again and again." The same thing can be said of a novel or a movie. Once it's done and reproduced in an official capacity, it ceases to be amorphous (even if each person can interpret it differently on each individual reading). My feeling is an artist should abide by that and not second-guess himself, let the art remain as it was when he let it go.

Now, granted, artists have revisited a work that has met with a cool reception and found ways to make it better. When this person asked if any other director had cut down their work for DVD, I said I was not aware of it being done for a disc, but the most independent of all indie filmmakers, John Cassavetes, went did second edits of a couple of his films after their intitial theatrical release and tried to pare them down for a revival run. Most famous is Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Cassavetes removed nearly twenty-minutes after the film's initial failure. Both the 135-minute 1976 cut and the 108-minute 1978 version are available in the DVD package of the film, and though I prefer the shorter version myself, the longer one is presented as the main version. Despite a better reception to the short cut, I would wager anything that Cassavetes always preferred his original, as it was closer to his initial vision and said more of what he wanted to say. Anything less is compromise.

Believe me, I understand the impulse. There are many things I would change about Cut My Hair now, but I won't. The novel exists as a snapshot of my talent at the time, and just because my instincts have changed doesn't mean I can definitively say that the choices I disagree with now are actually wrong. I am sure if I sat down and read I Was Someone Dead again, I would find things in there, too. An artist will always see imperfection in his own work, because if you're growing, then there will always be elements that your later abilities would allow you to do better. You just have to draw the line, or you will go on redrawing the rest forever. Academics consider The Great Gatsby to be the perfect novel and "Araby" the perfect short story, but I am sure there were bits that F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce detested. Harlan Ellison rewrites everything for reprinting, including his most famous short stories. When I first heard this, I was appalled. As a fan, how was I supposed to keep track? How do I choose what versions to read? One writer did a critical study in the early '90s comparing a handful of versions of Ellison's novella "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." To cover them all would take too much space, so he focused on the most significantly different drafts. Over the decades, the writer's viewpoint had changed, and as it did, his story subtly started to change its meaning. But shouldn't the Harlan Ellison of 2005 write a new story to express his viewpoint and leave the Ellison of the '60s and '70s alone?

And how long will it go on? How many versions of Star Wars can George Lucas release before it's enough? Aren't we up to three in the original trilogy? And is technology a good enough excuse? Should David Bowie or The Who keep remastering their old records when newer sound processes allow them to get closer to how they originally imagined them sounding? (And how many times can we be asked to buy them?) And let's not forget all the things that were miserable failures upon releae and are masterpieces now. Citizen Kane, anyone? The aforementioned tale of one Jay Gatsby?

Far better from my point of view is the Matt Wagner approach. Matt has often said that the Hunter Rose in Grendel: Devil By the Deed is reflective of an artist in his early 20s who could still get behind the romanticism of the gentleman thief. As he got older, though, Wagner began to see Hunter Rose as far more diabolical and the romance of crime a lot more heartbreaking. He didn't go back and alter the original book; instead, he re-examined the moments of the story from different angles, resulting in anthologies like Grendel: Black, White, & Red. He dissected the original and put each piece under a microscope, bringing out the darker details. This didn't change the original story for his audience, nor did it obscure his growth as a storyteller; rather, it laid that evolution out for everyone to see.

Current Soundtrack: Little Steven's Undergound Garage/The Chill Show on 94.7

Current Mood: contemplative

golightly@confessions123.com * The Website * Live Journal Syndication

[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2005 Jamie S. Rich

1 comment:

Carl V. said...

Great thoughts all...kind of ironic that you would be labeled "old fashioned" for the viewpoint that Stone should have left the "gay parts" in the Director's cut!