September 12, 2006

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

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Anyone watching the U.S. Open television coverage for the past two weeks couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of ads featuring Russian tennis babe, and now the Women’s Singles Champion, Maria Sharapova. In one clever Nike commercial, a steely-faced Sharapova travels from her hotel to the tennis stadium while the people around her sing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. After hearing the ad a few times, something didn’t seem quite right with the song. I realized that the lyrics sung were not entirely faithful to the original. In the original lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the song goes: “I feel pretty and witty and gay.” However Nike changes the word “gay” to “bright.” I don’t believe the change doesn’t work, but Nike made it for one obvious reason. The meaning of the word “gay” has changed since 1957 when West Side Story debuted on Broadway. What once met happy and cheerful now means homosexual. So does Nike believe that if they kept the original lyric, the viewing public would believe Sharapova to be a homosexual? As H.L. Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Yet, it’s also more than that because this song alteration is just another example of a trend in recent years of returning to a piece of art and changing it for today’s sensibilities. Nothing like this has been more apparent recently than with George Lucas’ decision to “touch up” the special effects from his original Star Wars trilogy in the 1997 “special editions” and the 2004 DVD release. An episode of South Park not too long ago lampooned this recent trend to comical extremes. Steven Spielberg, who reedited his film E.T. to tone down the level of violence, at least did the right thing by offering both the original and newer version to the public. George Lucas had long held that the original versions of the Star Wars films would never be seen on DVD, but finally caved and released them this week much to delight of purists, but with lower levels of video and audio quality.
Of course, newer filmmaking technologies unavailable to a director like George Lucas make it tempting to redo or add things to films that could not have been accomplished at the time they were made. Yet, once you start tinkering with a film or piece of art, you risk damaging what made it appealing in the first place. One need only look at the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to see that these dilemmas occur in the areas of “high culture” as well. Centuries of dirt, pollution and war caused the great fresco to deteriorate, so an extensive restoration project was established to help preserve it. In addition to cleaning da Vinci’s work, restorers used extensive research to aid them in repainting diminished areas. While one can’t argue with the good intentions of such an endeavor, one has to ask: if you repaint it, is it the same work of art? This is exactly the question posed in Theseus’ Paradox. The people of Athens preserved Theseus’ trireme by replacing the ship’s parts over time. Philosophers soon posed the question that if all the parts were replaced, would it be the same ship?
Far be it from me to argue with Greek philosophers, but I believe that certain aspects of culture like art have what Walter Benjamin would call an aura. Additionally, art has a direct link to its creator, and for someone besides the artist to alter it disrupts that aura. Filmmaking, of course, is usually a collaborative art, but conventionally we give a director artistic ownership of a film. This is precisely the reason why I believe in the “director’s cut,” because the filmmaker gets a chance to present a movie as it was meant to be seen.
That’s not to say there isn’t a flipside to that coin. Although I believe in preserving the “artist’s vision,” in certain instances an audience spiritually owns something after it’s presented to them. That’s why I’m infuriated every time George Lucas releases updates of the original Star Wars trilogy. It was great the first time, so there’s no reason to change it. Sometimes in art, you have to put the brush down. Not that I’d wish ill on anyone, but the good thing about an artist’s death is that they can’t change any of their work. What if da Vinci magically came back to life and decided he would add a few CGI characters to the Mona Lisa? Of course, he’d probably be terrified by modern technology, but you get my point.