Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Spare a Little Change?

Change. It happens to all of us, all of the time. I look in the mirror, and that brown mop on my head seems to have more flecks of gray every day. People enter the workforce, people retire. People are born, people die. It’s all a big wheel, turning around and around.

Now I have to be careful as I write this that I don’t come across as a slide rule holdout who advocates riding around town in a horse and buggy. (“Back in my day, we had to walk 15 miles to school in three feet of snow year-round, and dagnabbit, we liked it! Now get off my lawn you kids!”) This is not some rant against new technology, nor is it about the natural changes that come with the passage of time. I know that people age and move on, and that physical things eventually deteriorate and need replacing. And there is no doubt that advances are made in technology almost every day. What I am talking about is what might be termed “change for change’s sake”, also known as “fixing what isn’t broken”.

A good example is the Star Wars series of films. The first movie was released in 1977, and special effects technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since then. Compared to the latest J.J. Abrams sci-fi flick, the original Star Wars looks downright quaint. But you know, that’s okay! When I sit down to watch Star Wars, I have a certain set of expectations, based on the movie I first watched with slack-jawed wonder at age 7. I want to see robots that look like trash cans on wheels, and space ships that look like they are hanging from thin strings and being moved across a black background. That’s what the movie was. If it was released in its original form as a brand new film today, I’d be disappointed. Today’s technology demands more. But for a 1977 movie, it’s terrific.

But no. George Lucas has messed with it, not just once, but now twice. His first set of remasters on Star Wars and its two sequels was done in the late 90s, just before we were subjected to the three prequel films. The latest set of tweaks was completed this year, in time for release of a Blu-Ray boxed set. The story is that Lucas wanted to use today’s technology to help make his original vision for the movies more accurate. Riiiiiight.

It’s not just George Lucas doing this. Musicians are as well. Recently, the Rolling Stones have released a remastered version of their classic Some Girls album from 1978. What was once a single album is now a double album, with the original tracks tweaked, and 12 unreleased ones included. I suppose some might see this as a good thing, but I don’t. Some Girls, as it was released in 1978, was a reflection of where the Stones were at that point in their careers, and now that has been obscured. The songs sounded that way because it was what the band wanted at the time. If tracks were unreleased, there was probably a good reason for that. Likely it is because they were not as good as the ones that were included.

Writers are not immune either. Stephen King’s The Stand is arguably one of his most loved novels. It also originally came in at about a million pages and the same weight as a Volkswagen. Nonetheless, a few years back, King decided to add more to it. Yes, more! Again, the official story is that he wanted to make it closer to his original vision. I think he either invested heavily in paper company stock, or has something against trees, since now it comes in at about a million and a half pages, and the same weight as an SUV.

Speaking as an amateur writer myself, I cannot deny the power of revision. I have always advocated strongly for revisiting your writing after a short time away. Being able to dwell on something for a bit, to get a fresh perspective, is a valuable thing for the creative process. I am sure the same applies to other creative arts as well. Painters see a great place to include another tree. Musicians come up with a terrific new bridge for a song. At some point, however, I feel that it needs to stop. Step away.

Revision is not an endless process, though it easily could be. I have no doubt that any creative person, upon revisiting something they have made, could see something they could change or do better with it. You don’t think Paul McCartney doesn’t hear things in old Beatles songs that he’d like to go back and retool? Changing a few words here, a key there? I’ve looked back on some of my older writing and seen places where I could have added something or changed the wording. It’s hard to resist doing so. But, once you have created something and reached a point where you release it to the world, I believe that it should be finished. It should stand as it is. You set it out there for a reason, let it be.

There is an elephant in this room however: money. Specifically, I mean the publishers, film producers and music companies that are always looking at the financial bottom line. There is little doubt that the money guys monkey around with the creative process of their signed talent in order to extract maximum profit. Cut this, add that, tweak these things. A new version of an old favorite is going to sell. If that’s the case I sympathize with the creators.

To a point.

Once your work is out there to share with the world, it takes on a life of its own. The originally released version of The Stand is the one that became a beloved modern classic, just like the original Star Wars films and the original release of Some Girls. Even if those were not the original visions of the artists, they got out there in the world and took on lives of their own. If the artists were not happy with the version that was proposed to be released originally, then they needed to have the integrity to stand their ground prior to letting their work out there, not later. It takes a certain degree of courage to let your creativity out there in front of the world.

And as far as using new technology on old works, just don’t do it. The only exception in my mind is to preserve them for posterity, as has been done with many very old films. But that’s it. You wouldn’t want someone to Photoshop some rouge and eyeliner onto the Mona Lisa and hang it in a museum, would you? People want to see that painting for what it is, not what it could be. You don’t go back in your family photo albums and pencil more hair on your dad because you think he would have looked better with it. That would not be an accurate reflection of who your dad was at that point. It would be a sham.

So, if you are a creative type, whether amateur or professional, then by all means revise, revise, revise! But once you’ve set your work free on the world, hands off! Let it take on a life of its own. Just because you CAN change something does not mean that you necessarily SHOULD.

And I said stay off my lawn you kids!

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I suspect I'm too cynical by half, but I think it's all about the money. Except with George Lucas. He's just crazy. I'm still mad that Ted Turner colorized all the old movies.