Ethics Hero: Steven Spielberg

The dwarf in the cloth monkey suit is just fine, thanks.

In a long, entertaining interview in the current issue of Entertainment (naturally!), director Steven Spielberg expresses regret over his decision to change his 1982 classic “E.T.” for its 2002 re-release, and vows never to do such a thing again. Here he splits off from the philosophy of his pal George Lucas, who continues to fiddle with his past films as technological upgrades become possible. Spielberg:

My philosophy is now that every single movie is a signpost of its time, and it should stand for that. We shouldn’t go back and change the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” just because with the digital tools we have now we can make it even more spectacular than it was.”

Spielberg is an artist with sufficient stature and credibility that his opinion matters, and this one was desperately needed. He is also, by the nature of his prominence and achievements, a leader, he is doing what a leader has an obligation to do: point the way. Beginning with Ted Turner’s [typically crude, crass, and tasteless] decision to colorize classic black and white films in the Seventies, too many film classics have been marred by significant edits and alterations long after they were made, masquerading as “improvements.” They are not improvements, but cheats.  Such changes misrepresent everything about the films, including the styles of the times, the vision of the director at the stage in his or her careers when the film was made, and the achievements of special effects designers in overcoming problems that has not yet been solved by technology. They  cheat new audiences out of perspective, and they abandon artistic integrity for superficial gloss.

Spielberg has already made a major contribution to preserving film art by successfully battling TV executives who wanted to subject his movies to the abusive “pan and scan” editing for the small screen that renders many films unrecognizable and unwatchable. (I will never forget my shock when I finally saw the restored “Oklahoma!” in a theater, a movie I always had found dreadful on TV. Of course it was dreadful: about 40% of it was missing in every shot. On a big screen, it was breathtaking. Oh, what a beautiful morning!)

Let’s  pray that he can talk George Lucas into coming back from the Dark Side before episodes 4, 5 and 6 of Star Wars look as cluttered as “The Phantom Menace.”

11 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Steven Spielberg

  1. I don’t really get what is wrong with changing old movies so long as the original is still available. If you can still see the original, no art is destroyed and audiences have a choice as to which they prefer to watch. There is a long tradition of artists, authors and other creative types revising what they have created after seeing audience reactions, thinking about what they could have done better, etc. See, for example, the revision that Gilbert & Sullivan made to The Sorceror when they showed the play again in 1884.

    There is likewise a strong tradition of people remixing, altering and adapting the work of others. By your logic, does the movie The Wizard of Oz “masquerade” as an improvement on the original book by L. Frank Baum? It does, after all, achieve by special effects (e.g. colour moving pictures) what was impossible in 1900. I would argue that it is a different work, and that, so long as the original source material still exists, it does no harm. Just think of the Star Wars special edition as a different work than the original version. The original is still around, so if you think the special edition is worse, go watch the original.

    • Of course, the issue here is that people like Lucas are NOT releasing the original cuts; if something ends up happening to my old Star Wars video cassettes, I’m not going to be able to just get a DVD copy of the original.

      • Though even then, there’s some room for leeway; when video games are remade for next-gen systems, a lot of things are often changed, usually coming in the form of either graphical updates or fixing aspects that were criticized in the original.

        Really, redoing your own work when the original version is not readily available is an ethically nebulous area, because you has to balance achieving your own artistic vision, respecting the work that your staff did on the original if it was an ensemble effort like a movie, and paying attention to the demands of the audience who may find the original to be superior.

        However, I do think the most unethical remasters are those done on aspects of the original that people had no problems with to begin with, or those done by people who don’t have the approval of the figures who worked on the original (where it arguably becomes them disrespecting the accomplishments of their forebears).

    • As long as the original is available, it’s not ethically objectionable…it’s just a mistake. Walt Whitman kept changing “Leaves of Grass”; Harry Truman kept changing his autobiography. I think it muddies the artistic waters, but if an artist wants to produce endless variations of the same thin, like Edvard Munch did with “The Scream,” that’s fine. Stephen Sondheim has revised Follies at least twice—the 1970 version is still the real “Follies.”

      I think he’s talking about two issues: other artists shouldn’t meddle with originals, as in his “Ten Commandments” example, and the original artist shouldn’t supersede the original with an “improvement.” Borderline issues include things like ‘director’s cuts”…Spielberg’s director’s cut of “Jaws” is worse than the original.

      It has nothing whatsoever to do with adaptations in different art forms (like “The Wizard of Oz”), re-makes (like “True Grit”), re-adaptations of the same story (like Howard Hawkes’ three variations on “Rio Bravo”) or copies (the bizarre shot for shot re-do of “Psycho”.)

      • Art is all about making mistakes. You never know what will work until you have tried it.

        I agree with you and Julian that meddling with other artists’ originals is wrong so long as the artist is alive and doesn’t want you to meddle. After the artist is dead, their vision should be respected for a certain period (I don’t know how long). After that, I think their art just becomes part of the shared culture, for anyone to mix-up as they see fit. For example, whenever someone sets Shakespeare in the present day or has a woman play Richard II or makes Julius Caesar a communist dictator, they are meddling with the original plays. In my opinion, this keeps Shakespeare fresh and interesting (I don’t know if the last one has been done, but I think it would be kind of interesting).

        • My feeling is if you do any of that to Shakespeare, you have an obligation to call the play an adaptation, and put your name on it. Nobody should be messing with the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s 5th, Moby Dick or Birth of a Nation—ever. If someone wants to play, fine—but don’t represent the result as the original artist’s work, because it isn’t.

          I’ve never met a director smart enough to improve Shakespeare. In that case, the issue is respect and honesty. Julius Caesar was about Romans, not Nazis. “Write your own damn play.”

          • Of course. For most directors, your condition is not very onerous. If you watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, you can bet Kenneth Branagh wants you to know that you are watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

            We don’t have all of Shakespeare’s original staging instructions, so every director of Shakespeare has to attempt to improve the Bard’s lines by adding their own sets, costumes, etc. I am of the opinion that casting women in the women’s roles is probably an improvement on Shakespeare’s original productions (an “effect” that was not possible in Elizabethan times). I’ll admit that my Julius Caesar idea might not be a very good one. It was just a notion I found kind of interesting when I was writing my post.

            I take it you must not be a fan of Marcel Duchamp.

            • No, I am a fan, and of the Dadaists and surrealists generally. They opened doors that led to huge breakthroughs in all the arts. Being a fan doesn’t mean I agree with every line crossed, but the job of an artist is to cross lines.

  2. What about translations? A good translation is frequently an independent work of art, like Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Brecht’s THREEPENNY OPERA. Not real faithful to the original (which, incidentally, was tossed off in three weeks, mostly by Brecht’s mistress), but a socko work of art.

    Or if you want to get really picky, the 18th century composer Cristoph Gluck (whom many regard as “the father of modern opera”) re-composed the music when his libretti were translated into other languages, because the rhythms of speech were different.

    I confess that both of these examples seem fine to me. Blitzstein’s work is almost always presented as “his” translation, and Gluck made the musical changes for artistic reasons only, not because people had invented new notes.

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