Sunday 25 February 2007

Oscar reactions

Well the most overblown, self-aggrandizing and, ultimately, meaningless, award ceremony is over for another year, and I have to say I really enjoyed this one! There was a bunch of really great nominees to choose from, even if the Academy didn't always pick the best ones.

Best film: Should have probably been Babel. The Departed (the actual winner) was not really "Best Picture" quality. Considering that the original film, Infernal Affairs, which it is so closely followed, didn't even get a Best Foreign Film nomination, just shows that this award was probably more for Martin Scorsese than Graham King (the producer who won it).

Directing: Martin Scorsese for The Departed, as predicted by everyone, took this award even though it was for a film that wasn't even his best work. Alejandro González Iñárritu did a better job with Babel, and although I haven't seen it, apparently Paul Greengrass was the one who should have won this award for United 93. Of course, this award was really an acknowledgement of the brilliant films Scorsese has made throughout his career, and that's something Greengrass couldn't really compete with.

Best male lead: Forest Whitaker took this one with no surprises. Peter O'Toole could have been awarded it for the 8 previous nominations he had, but sometimes it just goes to the best of that year. Who knows, if something had been made of O'Toole's other work, leading up to the Oscars, he could have possibly got this the same way Scorsese did.

Best female lead: Helen Mirren took this one, again, no surprises. I haven't seen her performance, but I doubt it could have been better than Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal.

Best supporting male: Thank god that Marky bloody Mark didn't win this one. His performance wasn't even the best in The Departed, never mind the rest of the films this year. Alan Arkin took this award, which no-one seemed sure which way was going to go. I don't see why Jack Nicholson got overlooked, though, his performance in The Departed was masterful.

Best supporting female: Adriana Barraza should have got this one, easily. If it wasn't her, then it should have been Rinko Kikuchi. Instead, Jennifer Hudson got this one, although to be fair, I missed Dreamgirls. She better have been damned good to beat Barraza!

Original screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine got this one, congrats to those guys. There was no obvious winner in this category.

Screenplay from other: The Departed, got this, god knows why, especially when you consider how close it was to the completely non-Academy recognised original. Notes on a Scandal was excellent, and probably deserved to win. Haven't seen the other nominations, though.

Cinematography: Pan's Labyrinth's Guillermo Navarro took this one home, although Children of Men's Emmanuel Lubezki seem to do a stunning job.

Editing: The Departed's Thelma Schoonmaker took this one, her third Oscar. I thought that Babel's Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione possibly deserved it, but there's no doubting Schoonmaker's talent.

Best Foreign Film: The very popular Pan's Labyrinth surprisingly didn't get this one, instead it went to The Lives of Others, which thoroughly deserved it (definitely the best film of the year).

So in all it was Scorsese's year. Highlights included; Ellen DeGeneres, Ennio Morricone, Jerry Seinfeld (did a great bit that showed he was a little more comfortable on that big stage than DeGeneres, perhaps a contender as next year's host?), Jack Black, John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell's song, Helen Mirren's acceptance speech, but the best moment was worth waiting for: Coppolla, Speilberg and Lucas getting together to award their contemporary, Scorsese, with his Oscar.

I've probably forgotten some of the best bits, but like I said, it was a good year for Oscar overall!

The importance of plagiarism

I've been reading Eddie Campbell's brilliant blog and not so long ago he had an interesting post on Lichtenstein, which was followed up by even more interesting post on plagiarism and its merits.

"Merits of plagiarism?", I hear you cry. That's what I said, too, but it seems that there is actually a growing belief that the current trend of severely punishing those who copy other's work is unnecessary, damaging to our culture and, indeed, that the need for absolute "originality" in art is a modern obsession.

Right now there are websites set up "exposing" so called plagiarists, and they have a lot of public support and sympathy. You Thought We Wouldn't Notice is one such site, and inside you can find lots of examples plagiarism, ranging from questionable influence to outright theft. The idea behind sites like these is to help protect an artist's ideas and intellectual rights, by "naming and shaming" those caught stealing. It sounds like a good idea, but others are beginning to argue that we are taking the idea of intellectual properly too far, and the explosion of easily copyable digital media looks like it must just push this debate to boiling point.

Roy Lichtenstein has been accused of stealing from other artists from a "lower art-form" during the creation of his famous "pop-art" paintings; taking comic book panels and blowing them up to fill a canvas. It was an action that still raises ethical questions today; Did Lichtenstein owe all his success to the uncredited authors of the original comics? Comic book artist Dave Gibbons has hinted that he is less than impressed with Lichtenstein's work, "Roy Lichtenstein's copies of the work of Irv Novick and Russ Heath are flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images".

Art teacher David Barsalou, has created a website that allows people to see the original comic book panels, side-by-side with their Lichtenstein appropriations. Deconstructing Lichtenstein [go look at it!] gives us a unique view into Lichtenstein's process of creation, and Barsalou is not impressed with his findings; "The critics are of one mind that [Lichtenstein] made major changes, but if you look at the work, he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original." Looking at the comparisons, it's difficult to argue with Barsalou or Gibbons, Lichtenstein clearly did copy, often with technical inferiority, exactly what he saw.

So does this mean that one of the most influential and revered artists in recent times was a fraud?

"Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, travelling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a pre-teen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I've described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel. "

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

Even fans of Indiana Jones and Star Wars must be aware that both these classic pieces of pop-culture borrowed heavily from earlier works. Without Haggard's hero, Alain Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines, there would be, ultimately, no Indiana Jones, and despite George Lucas's claims, Star Wars owes more to Flash Gordon than to inspiration drawn from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

"If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism."

What does all this mean, then? Is plagiarism really a good thing? The above quotes are taken from Jonatham Lethem's article The Ecstasy of Influence, which cleverly constructs an excellent argument for the importance of plagiarism and ultimately the need for a change in public opinion on the subject.

For most, this is a concept that is hard to swallow, but if we return to Roy Lichtenstein again, and take another look a David Barsolou's Deconstructing Lichtenstein, we find that although copied verbatim, you have to remember that these works of art are removed from their original context; most likely an image the size of a postage stamp sandwiched between pages of trashy, teenage melodrama. Lichtenstein realised that by taking these solitary panels out of context, he could change their meaning, and that alone, they could have impact far greater than they had originally.

By taking what was seen as a "lower art-form" and forcing people to stop and look at it, it became clear that art was all around us, if we were prepared to look at it in a particular way.

If we look at Drowning Girl (1963) we can see that although, technically Lichtenstein's copy is nearly identical technically, that, in the context of a comic book story, the panel would lose all power. Taken away from its origins, shown by itself, and blown up, it evokes totally different feelings in the viewer. We see a girl drowning; an image of emotional suffocation, refusing to ask for help. It evokes feelings of a woman trapped in a male dominated world. It's a much more powerful image.

Lichtenstein took the original work, altered it (by changing its context and cropping it) and changed it into something much better, way beyond the technical limitations of the original.

Great artists don't always come up with something completely original, but rather they can take something existing and show it to us in a new way, or re-work it so it improves on the original.

The idealist, R. G. Collingwood, has some pretty far out ideas when it comes to art and ownership, but they open the doors to new ideas:

"To begin by developing a general point already made in the preceding chapter: we must get rid of the conception of artistic ownership. We try to secure a livelihood for our artists (and God knows they need it) by copyright laws protecting them against plagiarism; but the reason why our artists are in such a poor way is because of that very individualism which these laws enforce. If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.

This is a simple matter, and one in which artists can act for themselves without asking help (which I am afraid they would ask in vain) from lawyers and legislators. Let every artist make a vow, and here among artists I include all such as write or speak on scientific or learned subjects, never to prosecute or lend himself to a prosecution under the law of copyright. Let any artist who appeals to that law be cut by his friends, asked to resign from his clubs, and cold-shouldered by any society in which right-thinking artists have influence. It would not be many years before the law was a dead letter, and the strangle-hold of artistic individualism in this one respect a thing of the past.

This, however, will not be enough unless the freedom so won is used. Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it; not a sketch in Punch, but a full-sized picture for next year's Academy. I will not rely upon the hanging committee's sense of humour to the extent of guaranteeing that they would exhibit it; but if they did, we should get brighter Academy exhibitions. Or if he cannot improve on his friends' ideas, at least let him borrow them; it will do him good to try fitting them into works of his own, and it will be an advertisement for the creditor. An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If any one thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert them."

It's hard to imagine how this could be applied to today in a practical sense, how the public's perception of "artistic theft" could be changed, but Collingwood and Lethem are far from alone in their view that things need to change. A respected US judge, Richard A. Posner, recently published The Little Book of Plagiarism, which examines how we look at the hot-potato that is copyright ownership. From the LA Times review:

"Ever the controversialist, Posner is willing to entertain the idea that plagiarism is hardly the high crime that moralists in the media and the academy advertise it as…
...he complains about "the absurd idea that 'copying' is inherently bad" and the "growing belief that literary, artistic, and other intellectual goods are not really 'creative' unless they are 'original.' "

Or as Posner puts it in his book:

"The vagueness of the concept of plagiarism should be acknowledged and thus a gray area recognized in which creative imitation produces value that should undercut a judgment of plagiarism - indeed an imitator may produce greater value than an originator, once 'originality' is understood, as it should be if we are to understand plagiarism in properly relativistic terms, just to mean difference, not necessarily creativity. In modern commercial society, which places the stamp of personality on goods both physical and intellectual for economic reasons unrelated to high culture, a verdict of plagiarism is pronounced without regard to the quality of the plagiarized original or, for that matter, of the plagiarizing copy."

It seems that money, quite typically, is the reason for this modern change in thought; The original authors are not always the ones most upset at finding their work "plagiarised", indeed it is the publishers who will most likely sue if they feel someone has stolen parts of their intellectual property, and indeed the law encourages them to do so. For if a copyright owner is not seen to attempt to protect their intellectual property at all times, this can be held against them in court the next time they cry thief.

Posner seems to be saying that it is the law, not just public opinion, that needs to change. Accusations of plagiarism should be judged individually, taking into account the actual damage done to the original author and current copyright holder, and whether or not the alleged theft actually has any artistic merits in its own right. In short, plagiarism isn't always bad and if we don't change our perceptions soon, our high-culture will continue to suffer in ways we aren't even seeing.

The next Shakespeare may have already been persecuted and branded a thief.

Monday 5 February 2007

What is "proper English", anyway?

Do ever feel annoyed when you hear people complaining about the "falling standards" of spoken and written English? When someone complains that the use of colloqualisms is somehow not "correct" and, indeed, "damaging" to our culture? I do. It bugs the crap out of me.

It seems to me that these people are bound by the contents of their dictionary, when really it should the dictionary that's bound by the common usage and corruption of words.

Surely it is the dictionary's purpose to chart the progress of our ever changing language, rather than dictate to us how we should speak it? Did Samuel Johnson not spend nine years travelling England, Scotland and Wales in order to accurately gather a list of commonly used words and then explain their meaning? While he also sought to standardise variations of these words, which is of course important, I see no indication that he edited out certain phrases that he felt were not "proper English", for what is "proper English" if it is not he language spoken by people dwelling in England, Scotland and Wales?

The next time you hear someone complaining about "falling standards" of English or moaning about a certain new colloquialism, remember that language, by its very nature, is constantly changing and evolving, and it dictated by those who speak it, not those who compile it and attempt to order it.

It seems wrong and completely against the nature of language that it should be bound by the 'snapshot' that a dictionary represents. Dictionaries should follow trends and help standardise them, not limit the natural flow of language or, in the worst cases I've seen, be abused to create division for the sake of snobbery and a sense of superiority.

Sunday 4 February 2007

More BB moans

Hopefully this will be my last BB related moan -- ever! I'm so fed up with the whole thing. There was once a brilliant discussion about racism that everyone seemed interested in joining in. People weren't afraid of saying what they thought and as a result opinions changed, ideas were conceived and outlooks expanded. Then the press got hold of it and made everything look worse than it was. It made people who had never even seen Big Brother angry, with them not thinking for a minute that they were being manipulated by a publication eager for readers.

For those who were enjoying the discussion, enjoying learning, we're now so fed up with it all that we've given up. No-one wants to talk about racism any more and in fact it's become a JOKE. A running gag. That's all this overblown media attention has done. What all these newspapers with their "crusades against racism" (they're not just trying to get you to buy their paper, honest) and overblown statements from politicians (they're not just fearful of not being "in touch", honest) have done: Made the average person, who was once interested in learning about socio-political issues, not interested any more. Great.

Those who are still interested are just angry. The newspapers have shown us how wrong and evil certain people are, so we must get angry with them and vilify them! Apparently.

Now those poor three, ignorant women have been subjected to the very thing that the so called 'moral right' were angry at them for: Bullying, disproportionate anger and being turned into a scapegoat.

Shilpa never had it this bad.

You don't think that these women might have learnt from their mistakes already, do you? You know: Seeing the media furore, their own drop in popularity and the general "tut tutting" of morally minded citizens. It just might be enough to make them think differently. After all, these are not the heads of the BNP, Combat 18 or the KKK we're talking about. But no, let's send them death threats, put bricks through their windows and make them afraid to go home. Yeah, that's how we'll teach them to love others!

Great job, you bunch of idiots.