A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

Emergent Creativity


Blade Runner: The Aquarelle Edition (2013)


Anders Ramsell animated 12597 remarkably tiny (1.5 x 3 cms) hand-painted aquarelle works of the Blade Runner to create this stunning adaptation. The artistry here is staggering when one considers the difficulty of working with water colors. The aquarelle method uses transparent splashes of paint to create layered artwork that blends realism with abstraction. Because of its fluidity, you have little to no room for error. Once you commit your brush to paper, you go for it like you are aiming for an apple on a man's head. Add to that, Ramsell even manages movement and transformation in his art through the evocative use of color, which is astounding. I wonder how many more paintings he made for this movie that he didn't include in it.

In a way, The Aquarelle Edition serves well as a metaphor for the number of times Blade Runner has been re-cut or readapted. Each version of Blade Runner has either attempted to fine tune the original or offer a fresh take. In a sense, they have all added a new coat of paint to existing furniture. The original movie itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Today, there are more copyrighted alternate cuts and illegal fan edits of the movie than one can count.

I love Blade Runner. But, beyond my own fixation with the movie, I find that it affirms my belief that the space for alternate cuts is limitless. Each cut of this movie is as meritorious and popular as the other, and does not dilute the spirit of and a fan’s love for the original. This Aquarelle Edition further validates this opinion.

It is in sync with the fan-fiction tradition that we’ve been following for centuries now. Adaptations are like modern folk tales or epic poetries that survived by way of approximate transference over many generations and mediums. When novels first came out in the eighteenth century, readers who were used to folk tradition, continued to feel entitled to own fictional characters and reimagine them in their own stories.

For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spawned many unauthorized sequels, satires, plays, adaptations, and even merchandise. Even back then, there was discussion on authorship and “original expression”, even though it didn't translate to a formal legal foundation around copyright. The discussion then must have been much like the discussion now on the hellish consequences of regular people owning 3D printers and making knockoffs of products. (I am dying to copy every damnedest designer jewelry or product there is that I have never needed or wanted, just for payback).

Even in the first half of the nineteenth century much of the culture was available for unreserved reuse. Moreover, even protected works (usually paintings, and rarely literature) were protected only against literal copying. It was only as businesses began to make deeper investments in cultural expression that copyright and fair-use were given attention.

The case that laid the foundation for fair-use was Folson v. Marsh in 1841, on whether a new biography of George Washington could use letters that had been collected and published by an earlier biographer. It turned out to be a dialogue between Republican ideology that celebrated uninhibited access to knowledge, and the profit-oriented media industry advocating copyright protection. The end result was the creation of more stringent pro-market laws that went on to shape our attitudes.

Some authors began to show a desire to own fictional characters as legal property, but they were also fickle-minded about ownership. For instance, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cult classic, it spawned several profitable but unauthorized copycat novels and merchandise. But, she didn’t seem to mind being cheated of licensing fees, because she was earning record-breaking royalties for the original. However, she later sued a German translation of the book in the US. I suspect this is because the sales of the translated book ate into her profits. Germans were the biggest immigrant group in the country, and in fact made up a third of the country at that time. Even though she lost the case, I have a feeling she might have won it if she had chosen to sue the english copycat novels that she let pass instead.

Even in our times, companies that have seen many Fan-edits of their films, have only on some occasions (and quite inconsistently and inexplicably) sued appropriators for causing customer confusion or for expropriating or leveraging their success.

I am both a fair use and anti-piracy advocate. I like the space that encourages both new and inspired material, and celebrates creative talent. I see creativity as a social phenomenon as much as individual expression. This is relevant especially in our times where the internet is full of impromptu creative literary and artistic works done purely for the love of art.

It would be deplorable therefore, if this Aquarelle Edition of the Blade Runner was ever to be sued for copyright infringement. We would be doing a huge disfavor to our culture, and crippling artists who find creativity through inspiration from others’ works.

The privilege of referencing pre-existing works (passive fair-use), or using source material to churn out new products (transformative fair-use) is exercised everyday in news programs, social networks and artworks. Fair-use is simple to apply and most of it is done legally, and oftentimes even when we think we are doing it illegally. There are no fair-use laws as such, and no one needs to authorize your decision. In fact, fair users don’t even have to worry about carrying over the legal encumbrances of the source material, and the nitty-grittys of their copyright and licensing arrangements, as long as they are using the material "fairly". And because fairness is a grey area, you exercise fair-use through self-belief, with some adherence to suggested guidelines, and keep your fingers crossed in the event of a challenge.

The truth is, the discussion around fair-use is as unreadable as a kiss scene in the Twilight Saga. It hasn’t matured one bit to accommodate our new culture. Artists, intellectual property owners and courts routinely take subjective and unpredictable views on what can be deemed fair use and what can’t. Verdicts change from artist to artist, work to work and judge to judge. There are as many fair use cases being ruled in favor of owners as there are being ruled in favor of appropriators, and the logic behind the judgment is as elusive as a unicorn.

Copyright exponents suffer from tunnel-vision with their unswerving adherence to the concept of originality. They are purblind to the wonders of reclaimed narratives and liberated creativity. But, originality is a fictitious concept in art, and now, it is mostly legal fiction. To come up with sensible copyright laws and fair-use guidelines one needs to understand art as being creative and transmissive, but not necessarily original.

In philosophy, Carl Jung says every man’s unconscious has a feminine part called anima (likewise, he calls a female’s male part animus) that transcends his physical psyche. It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious. The anima cannot be separated from the man’s physical form as an independent part! The man may not even be aware of his anima, but he sees it in the woman who he finds fascinating.

I see artistic works much in the same way. Art has many parts, but also an unconscious anima that is born out of the whole, but cannot be precisely delineated from it. It is the space where creativity and originality take shape. When inspired art unintentionally derives from original art, the former is like the man and the latter is like his anima. When inspired art intentionally derives from the original art, then the former is like the man, but the latter is like the woman, where they are attracted to each other because they find their own anima and animus in each other.

Jung says, if the man and woman merge into one identity, then he will adopt the character of her animus and she will adopt the character of his anima. What happens therefore is that it is not the man and woman who play with each other, but their anima and animus!

Any artwork is a puzzle of intimately interconnected parts that can only be understood by referencing the whole; but the whole cannot be pared down to its individual parts. Somewhere in the making of the whole, the parts create a soul. This soul is always original, even if it is created using borrowed material. When you see art in this manner, you see that its purpose is to pollinate future culture. Even when art is redolent of the past, it means for itself to be brand new; and it can only be assessed on how well it has lived up to that intention of being new. A period film, for instance, may intend to be truthful to the past, and in that way, may not be "original", but we still find in it its unique soul, and how it brings the past into the present!

Everyone makes work on the basis of, and in reference and relationship to existing work.  From a legal point of view, proving any creation as originating from nothing, except one’s own innermost being, would require dissecting all the creative processes and stripping the work down to the basics. In doing so, most works that we hold in high esteem, as being the product of some “auteur” would be invalidated; but more importantly, such a striptease would not only be impossible in many cases, but would also undermine the true spirit of creativity.

Moreover, copyright laws’ emphasis on individual authors and works is a distortion of reality. In the music and film world (and even in the book world, and most of the art world), the end product is the work of many people willingly working in tandem. The dissection of a piece to prove originality is both impossible and futile! This is also true for fan-edits. Most of them are done by the digerati within a collaborative network that draws liberally from many sources. The original is oftentimes untraceable.

It is regrettable therefore that there is a sharp divide between those fighting to retain control of their works and those who want to draw on them to create new products.

There is a lot of valuable deliberation on copyright and fair use in both legal and social media circles, but most of the delibration revolves around improving regulatory laws, and coming up with fair use guidelines. But, because we are generating a huge body of fair-use work, it would also be useful to create of a legally viable space, such as a fair-use agora or a Fairuse-Con (like Comic-Con) where "transformative" fair-use videos such as fan-edits, parodies, satires, and other inspired works can be celebrated and encouraged, at least for non-commercial pleasure.

There are more fair-use videos out there than actual copyrighted works, and most of them are susceptible to legal action. This cannot be good. Fair use videos need to breathe freely, because when they do, an Aquarelle Edition of Blade Runner is born! Because there is no such thing as too much Blade Runner!

My previous post on fair use: "anmoku no ryokai"
A NYTimes video: "Allergy to Originality"

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Loving Dirge to a Cursed Dreamer

sleepingbeauty

Sleeping Beauty: Gothic Romance (2013)


I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.

Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.

I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.

Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.

Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:

After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.

In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.

This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.

I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.

Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.

In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.

Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.

In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.

I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!

Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.

This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.

But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).

But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.

In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.

There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.

Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!

The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.

While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s  The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!

*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
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