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4. Film, Video, and Digital Art
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4. Film, Video, and Digital Art

Confusion about the distinction between work and document in the
field of film is epitomized by Andrew Pollack's article (16 March 1998)
on the issues raised by digital film restoration. He points out that in an
opening scene of Gone with the Wind there is a gap between a flagpole
and the building to which it is supposed to be attached (showing that the
scene was not a natural shot but was produced by special effects, ineptly
handled). This error can be corrected digitally by scanning the frames
involved and then copying and inserting certain pixels. But Pollack raises
a question: "Should the flaw be fixed or retained as an intrinsic part of the
original masterpiece?" The trouble with his question is that the "master-
piece"—that is, the work—does not necessarily consist of everything that
is on the film The levitating flagpole is no more a part of Gone with the
(the work) than the typographical error "fastidions" (for "fastidious")
in the original American edition of Moby-Dick is a part of that work. Both
are obvious flaws in the documents that make possible the transmission of
those two works, but they are not parts of the works as intended by an
one at any time. A printed edition of a verbal work, consisting of multiple
supposedly (but not quite) identical copies, is analogous to the copies of
a film made for distribution to theaters: in both cases, the multiplicity of
copies allows for the simultaneous experiencing of the work at different
locations, even though there is no guarantee in either case that the cop-


Page 12
ies, or the performances based on them (the silent or oral reading in the
one case, the projection in the other), are the same. This point proves (if
proof is needed) that cinematic works employ an intangible medium: the
work is not a roll of celluloid but rather the sequence of moving images
(now usually supplemented by sound) that it enables us to recreate. But we
can never be sure whether the basis for this recreation is accurate—and
whether the details of the projection lead to what was intended at any
previous time.

Intention is of course not the only possible aim, but people often seem
to think that a choice has to be made between preserving the document
and restoring authorial (or some other) intention. Pollack quotes and
paraphrases Michael Friend (director of the film archive at the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) as follows: "The goal should be to
'restore the original achievement,' not the presumed original intention
of the film maker." The statement would be clearer if Friend had said
"document" instead of "achievement"; but the main point to be made
about his comment is that there is no need to choose between the goals.
It is always important for historical study to have the documents that
were the basis for public showings in the past; but critically emended texts
enable a fuller appreciation of the filmmaker's artistry. Another archivist
opposed to editorial alteration also confuses the discussion. Pollack quotes
Richard R. May (vice president of film preservation for Warner Brothers)
as saying, "To change something just because we have the technology to
do it, I am, and I think other archivists are, against it." Obviously the
existence of technology is not in itself an appropriate reason for making
a change; but when technology makes possible the correction of an error,
it is a valuable tool for the study of artistic intentions.

The matter of technical knowledge is worth pausing over for a mo-
ment. The fact that digital technology did not exist when Gone with the
was made does not mean that using it to correct the flagpole error
is an act of modernizing—for the correct flagpole image was achievable
by special-effects technology in 1939. For the same reason there can be no
objection to using modern technology to add an animal's missing foot in
one frame of Fantasia. It is wrong to object to this kind of emendation
by regarding it as "akin to efforts to fix the poor sense of perspective in pre-
Renaissance paintings" (a view reported by Pollack). Restoring what was
intended at a past time is not at all the same as imposing a more recent
visual vocabulary on a work from the past.

There have been, however, some attempts at film alteration that are
indeed akin to revising pre-Renaissance perspective. The two best-known
ones are probably stretch-printing and colorizing. The former attempts
to smooth out the jerky, stylized movements in some silent films (such as
Chaplin's) by repeating every second or third frame (see Walter Kerr's


Page 13
criticism of this practice, 1 July 1984). Colorizing obviously tries to make
black-and-white films look as if they had been shot in color (the subject of
many complaints in the Times, such as those by Vincent Canby on 2 and
30 November 1986). Neither of these techniques truly achieves its aim;
but even if they were successful, they would be unjustifiable to anyone
interested in authorial intention, for both involve changes in the visual
language used by the filmmaker. Whether that language was employed by
necessity or by choice (whether, for example, black-and-white photogra-
phy was used in a film of 1920 or one of 1970), it was what the filmmaker
was working with to express a vision. Those who defend stretch-printing
and colorization without admitting that new works are thereby created
put themselves in a position just as indefensible as those who think that
the spelling and punctuation of a verbal work can be modernized without
affecting meaning.

In other words, a distinction must be made between, on the one hand,
altering the cinematic vocabulary of a film (which is an act of adapta-
tion, not a historical undertaking) and, on the other, correcting errors,
reincorporating unauthorized deletions, or restoring degraded images (all
of which aim to recover authorial intention). The latter category is il-
lustrated by two "critical editions" of classic films that were unveiled in
New York within a few days of each other in early 1989. On 30 January,
a restored Gone with the Wind brought back the intended colors: a new
negative had been made in a two-year process that involved combining
the three original negatives (each for a different dye), thus resulting in new
prints that were faithful to the original intention, unlike the degraded and
unstable film stocks that had been used for showings in previous decades.
On 8 February, a reconstructed Lawrence of Arabia restored twenty minutes
of footage that had been deleted without David Lean's permission; it also
corrected such errors as the reversed printing of the second reel (which
had caused Lawrence's wristwatch to switch from one wrist to the other).
(See the articles by Max Alexander and Janet Maslin on 29 January 1989.)
These two "editions" show how the properly researched alteration of a
received film text can produce a version that is closer to the intention of
a director at a particular past time, just as the scholarly emendation of
documentary verbal texts, when undertaken with a historical goal like the
restoration of authorial intention, can take readers back to certain past
moments more faithfully than can the documents that physically survive
from the past. In both cases, given the relation of documents to works in
these arts, the historic documents need not be damaged in the process of
creating new texts.

The fact that Lean did not approve of the cuts made in Lawrence of
points to a major strand of film history that must be investigated
by textual critics. Just as authors of verbal works have often felt that their


Page 14
artistic goals were compromised by the alterations demanded by publish-
ers, many film directors have been angered but powerless in the face of
deletions required by studios. The changes in each case are of interest for
what they reveal about the cultural climate of the times that produced
them, but textual critics will also wish to understand the stages of textual
evolution that preceded publication or public release. Whether the evi-
dence that leads to such knowledge can support the production of new
texts varies from case to case, but in general one may say that the editor of
a verbal work may more often be able to recreate the text of a deleted pas-
sage than the editor of a cinematic work can, for even the survival of the
script of lost footage does not in itself make possible the reassembly of all
that would be required to reshoot it. Rarely can one expect to duplicate
even the limited remaking that happened during the re-editing of Lawrence
of Arabia:
the original actors were asked to re-record lost portions of the
soundtrack. That such an event took place underscores the mixed-media
nature of cinema and video, allowing for the separate reconsideration and
alteration of the soundtrack and the images.

Orson Welles once said that the only film he was "allowed" to com-
plete as he wished was Citizen Kane; his intentions for the others can be
reclaimed only in varying degrees. One can write about his aims for The
Magnificent Ambersons
, but without the lost footage one cannot produce a
new text. For Touch of Evil, however, there is not only a surviving preview
print, which includes some later deleted material (fifteen minutes' worth),
but also a memorandum by Welles detailing what he found unsatisfac-
tory in the film as released. With those materials available, Walter Murch
was able to prepare a new "edition" (for 1998 release, forty years after
the original) that incorporates digital repairs, restoration of cut scenes,
deletion of scenes added by the studio, a different structuring, and the
replacement of Henry Mancini's music (the removal of which allowed the
recovery of a suppressed layer of sound effects under it). (Murch's account
of how his version follows Welles's memo "scrupulously" appeared on
6 September 1998.)

Despite the expense of such restoration, there are other notable ex-
amples, such as the 1993 re-editing of A Streetcar Named Desire, similarly
made possible not only by the survival of excised footage but also by
external sources, including Elia Kazan's autobiography. (See Bernard
Weinraub's report, 16 September 1993.) This kind of careful recreation
of directorially intended film texts is to be encouraged, and the advent of
videocassette distribution of films for home viewing provided additional
occasions for undertaking re-editing. A film like Angel Heart, which Alan
Parker was forced to cut in order to receive an "R" rather than an "X"
rating, was released in 1987 as a video with the uncut text. The trend
toward providing home viewers with texts not available to theater audi-


Page 15
ences has expanded with the now seemingly established custom of in-
cluding both commentary and excised footage on the digital video disks
(DVDs) of commercial films. These disks have in effect become what are
called documentary editions in the field of verbal-text editing: they aim
to present an unaltered reproduction of a received text, accompanied by
annotation and related documentary texts.

I should add immediately, however, that the main text is "unaltered"
in the sense that its constituent elements have not been changed; but the
transfer from film to DVD, with the result that the work is viewed on
a small (or relatively small) rather than a large screen, may in itself in
many cases be a departure from authorial intention. This point does not
of course apply to works made for video and computer-monitor viewing
in the first place. The textual criticism of early television works is compli-
cated by the fact that before the late 1940s there was no adequate means
for preserving them and that the kinescope technology that followed was
not very satisfactory. Early digital art poses a somewhat different problem
for historical study: whereas there was no difficulty copying it, the
programs and equipment for retrieving it sometimes became obsolete and
unavailable. But despite the technological differences between celluloid
film, videotape, and digital disks, the theoretical framework for textual
criticism is the same. What is preserved in each visual document is not
simply (as with recordings of music and films of dance) the record of an
individual performance; rather it is (when displayed) a version of the work
itself—that is, the version of it represented by the particular copy of the
physical film being used. Nevertheless, the uncertainties attaching to the
constitution of all works in intangible media remain present, since one
may still question the content of the physical document and the manner of showing it.

Mention of television and digital art requires a brief word about
broadcasting—that is, the transmission (by radio waves, telephone, cable,
and the like) of a visual or aural work from a central source to any number
of locations simultaneously. Broadcasting is both a means of reproduction
(as when a movie made for theaters is telecast or a concert is radiocast)
and a means of original dissemination (as when a made-for-television
documentary is released on a television network or when a work of digi-
tal art is mounted on the artist's website). Broadcasting enables a work
to be experienced in multiple places at the same time (given appropriate
receiving equipment), without the need to transport any documents (like
scripts, scores, or films) to those places. And it does not always require au-
diences to be available at given tunes, since the internet and on-demand
television channels allow viewers to choose their own times for looking at
particular works. Although there are obviously significant differences be-
tween broadcasting and other means of bringing visual and aural works to


Page 16
the public, the chief difference affecting textual criticism is the increased
difficulty of ascertaining the variant texts that have been experienced.
Individual television stations, for example, may alter the programs they
receive from their network headquarters (especially by making deletions),
and each viewer's television set or computer monitor may display the
material somewhat differently. Yet so little of this information may be
recoverable as to hamper severely the writing of comprehensive textual
histories of works that have been broadcast.