Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Flying House: Resurrection or Ruination?

Independent animator Bill Plympton is using Kickstarter to raise money to "resurrect" Winsor McCay's 1921 short The Flying House. Plympton is digitally cleaning the film, colorizing it, replacing word balloons with audio dialogue and adding music and sound effects.

I am torn about this. On the one hand, the film is in the public domain. I personally think that copyright has become way too restrictive and that the public domain is a good thing for society at large, allowing past work to be re-issued and to inspire new work. What Plympton is attempting here is fully within the law and an example of how the public domain can feed contemporary creation.

On the other hand, the historian in me believes that the past has value and to remake the past is to distort it. I was always against colorization when it was applied to black and white films. I also believe that there is great value in attempting to understand the past by immersing yourself in it. The world was a different place socially, culturally and technologically, and understanding how the world has changed can only be accomplished by understanding how the past was different from the present.

I don't think I'd have a problem if Plympton decided to remake the film. Leaving the original alone and offering a new interpretation of a past work is something people have been doing throughout recorded history. Restoration has always been focused on returning a work to its original state. This is a posthumous collaboration. Because film is mechanically reproduced, the original is untouched, but is this something like changing the background behind Mona Lisa or revising Duchamp's painting so that it is Nude Ascending a Staircase?

It's not fair of me to judge an unfinished work as it's impossible for me to come to a conclusion, but the project does raise questions.

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