By Myself, For Myself

00315401The question of art, the artist, and the relationship of both to an audience, has reared its head in interesting ways over the past few weeks.

Last month, film director Steven Soderbergh continued his infrequent series of re-cutting famous movies and posting the results to his blog. Previous efforts had seen him turn “Indiana Jones & The Raiders Of The Lost Ark” into a monochrome experience, stripped of dialogue, and backed by the score from “The Social Network” score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. He has also spliced together both Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant’s versions of “Psycho,” and re-edited the notorious cinematic disaster “Heaven’s Gate.” All were interesting experiments that raised eyebrows as insightful curiosities, and interesting demonstrations and explorations of filmmaking technique and process.

But none of those editing bay larks quite earned the same amount of attention as Soderbergh putting his hands on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The director is an unabashed fan of the movie, watching it three times in 2014 and reading a book about the making-of process too. And his awe of Kubrick’s picture is clear, as he wrote: “…if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” With that in mind, Soderbergh still tinkered with the masterpiece, cutting his own version which runs less than two hours and seriously reshaped the original movie.

However, unlike the other recut films, Warner Bros. along with the Kubrick Estate, requested Soderbergh’s edit of ‘2001’ be removed from his site. And he complied.

It should be noted, that in all cases, Soderbergh turns off the Vimeo embed and sharing link mechanisms of his re-edits. You have to watch these versions on his site, so there is no way anybody is going to confuse them with the official films and certainly, the director isn’t making any money off these either.

But the larger question that looms overhead is: once a film is received by an audience, does it still belong to a filmmaker? Legally, yes. Culturally or artistically? That’s where the debate begins. Certainly, Warner Bros. and the Kubrick Estate are acting to protect the integrity of “2001: A Space Odyssey” but is it an overreach when Soderbergh’s project had no ill intent and served as an illuminating look another filmmaker’s approach with the material? But, would this discussion even happen it it wasn’t Soderbergh and just a film enthusiast tinkering with a movie? Would the legalities and ethics be seen as more clear cut? (For example, are these issues any different in regards to the recent four-hour, fan-created The Tolkien Edit of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy?).

Meanwhile, last week it was shockingly announced that Harper Lee was going to release “Go Set A Watchman,” a sorta-sequel to her literary masterpiece, and only published book, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was actually written before ‘Mockingbird,’ and rejected by her publisher at the time, who encouraged Lee to use Scout’s flashbacks sequences as inspiration for a new story. And did she ever.

However, very serious questions have been raised about the circumstances surrounding the effort. An interview with Lee’s editor about the announcement was evasive and strange, the circumstances of the book’s discovery are a bit odd (Lee’s lawyer was rummaging in her safety deposit box for some reason and stumbled across the “forgotten” manuscript), and there are concerns about whether or not the author has been pressured into releasing the novel (which is being done without any revisions to the original text) with some claims about Lee’s mental faculties to make such decisions.

And while these assertions have been denied, the allure of “Get Set A Watchman” is strong.  But what is the responsibility of eager readers, who don’t know the full story of Lee’s true feelings on wanting this book published? Does it betray the author to read the book if it really is something she wished to remain locked away? Would this situation be any different if the work was published posthumously? Would it be easier to ignore the messier ethical questions in the absence of the author?

When an artist or director or painter creates a new work, the common argument is that by releasing it into the world, they are consciously or not choosing to engage and share their work with an audience. That their work becomes part of a bigger social and artistic fabric, and one can’t control what happens next.

But perhaps the question isn’t where the artwork ends up, but the intent with which it’s created in the first place. Perhaps before this conversation starts, we must heed the words of Franz Kafka (who found fame after his death) as portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s fictionalized fantasy of his life “Kafka,” who says, quite simply: “I write by myself… for myself.”