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The Digital Aesthetic: Debaser
Posted Dec 30, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

"You're a bad reporter," said my new acquaintance when I called to cancel our interview. Among other impressive things, he was the lead projectionist at the Starz! Denver International Film Festival back in October, and is a projectionist, just by sheer coincidence, at UA Denver Pavilions, the theater that houses the first state-of-the-art digital projector in Denver. So, not only am I bailing on a conversation about indie digi-cinema at the SDIFF, but also an opportunity to see this digital projector and hear its tale.

I told him I was canceling because I'd promised Phil Solomon a ride to the airport, and totally forgotten the promise, not to mention the double-booking. (You may remember Phil Solomon from my first Digital Aesthetic column, "Celluloid Twilight, Digital Dawn?" or know him by his remarkable work in abstract expressionist film.) Reporters, it's often said, require above all other things a good memory; by that axiom, I'm a quick syllogism away from being a bad reporter.

From my place of residence, the airport isn't at all far, but from off to the west, Phil's stomping grounds, it's a pretty good-sized drive. That I took to be luck: Phil and I could resume our ongoing dialogue, which now includes things like women, cars, ailments, and the hazards of air travel. It's informal now, which is nice, because I don't have to be a good reporter—foul language and friendly debate are the order of the day.

We made a few tentative plans—maybe we should put together a panel or throw a colloquium, or run an evening of films down at the Mercury Café. But mostly we talked about women, cars, ailments, and—until it occurred to me that he's as terrified of flight as I am, and maybe I shouldn't be talking about this—the hazards of air travel.

Un Chien Andalou came up. Un Chien Andalou, as you may know, is among the most influential 16 minutes of film ever shot. "Seduced by a passion for the irrational," Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali assembled this surrealist disjoint back in 1928 as a silent film. In 1960, Buñuel added (or someone added at his direction) Wagner's Liebestod (from Tristan und Isolde) for a soundtrack. My feeling is that it was a bad decision for two reasons: it's better as a silent, and if you're going to add a soundtrack, pick a better tune (and a less reprehensible composer). Solomon would disagree with me here—about the tune, anyway, even going so far as to say he loved it.

That stayed with me on the drive home, mainly because I've sort of got it in for Wagner in general, virulent anti-Semite that he was. This isn't to say I'll chuck a guy from my library for having a nasty facet or that I can't separate art from artist, but gut reservations linger, and usually prevail.

When I got home, I thought, well shoot, man, change the score: Queen did it to Metropolis, Josh can do it to Buñuel if he darn well pleases. My eyes alit on Sonic's MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe. I grabbed it, installed it, and started putting a new score together in my head. Of course you're going to want the Pixies' "Debaser" on there (seems not only subject-specific, but anthemic in this context), and "Blue Moon," and some Adam Ant, and Tom Waits' "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)." I ripped my tracks, sequenced them, remastered audio for multichannel, and burned it to DVD-R, done. It was that easy, and I like my input.

Thoroughly enjoying my version of Un Chien Andalou, of course, derives from a false sense of power and artistry. I'm no Badalamenti, not by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, I did it handily, and I'll do it again with every single silent film I can get my hands on, because, frankly, it's fun. (Imagine scoring Birth of a Nation with Fear of a Black Planet, or Battleship Potemkin with Rocket to Russia.)

What I did here isn't exactly the same thing as, say, taking a claw hammer to David's toe—there can be only one Michelangelo's David, by the nature of the medium. There's malleability to our digital decantings, like it or not; there's also reparability, anonymity, and invisibility to the damage we may do. But I did something that some may consider horrific: I altered someone else's art to my taste. Where do I get off doing that? Same place as Duchamp, drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa and putting those famous obscene letters beneath her visage? Probably not: Duchamp's an artist making a statement, I'm not. I'm just a guy playing with toys—a bad reporter exploiting graft, even. Something, however, did enter both of our minds that gave us license to do it, and, at least on my end, I know I can shape a copy of something with impunity.

The fact remains, too, that I like my score better than I like Buñuel's score (and what's to say he wouldn't as well, come to think of it—the man who said "Thank God I'm an atheist" and vilified the papacy took irreverence very seriously). Whether it's a defiant act of criticism or a poor attempt at creativity, I don't know, but I do know I like my soundtrack, and it's an easy editorial procedure, authoring and mastering tools having become consumer-friendly and relatively inexpensive. (Check out my Audition review on pp. 38 for a tool that will take re-imagined soundtracks far beyond the slapdash.)

Where this leads, I can't say: on the one hand, it's easy to imagine a world where just about everyone's a quasi-auteur, lacking sufficient discipline to leave things alone, engaging the work of others. On the other hand, we may find ourselves in a world of quasi-auteurs able to appreciate mastery and the difficulty of artistic expression, and consequently able to understand more thoroughly the work of our forbears and contemporaries. I suppose we'll see, eh?

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