Funky Transformation, oh yeah

      5 Comments on Funky Transformation, oh yeah

I probably wouldn't have written the essay anyway, but my Important and Provocative Ideas have been percolating for weeks about the relationship of fans to original works in various communities (including cosplay cons, gamers, amateur theater, Their Own Archive, the SportsBlog Nation and Pottermore) and now Angélique Kidjo and her album-length cover of Talking Heads' Remain in Light have blown them the fuck up.

How are cover bands related to fanfic? Is Kidjo doing a kind of musical cosplay, and was David Byrne not? What about karaoke? Filking? What about Brahms and the “Variations on a Theme by Handel”, or Rachmaninoff and the “Variations on a Theme of Chopin”? Are those fanfic? If not, what about the dude that did a klezmer arrangement of some music from Undertale? What does transformative mean if we apply it to music, or theater, or visual art—and how is that different now, in digital America, than it was two generations ago, or twenty? Does every generation get the Pentheus/Dionysius fic that it deserves, or does it get the one that it needs?

There's something very deep and powerful in American culture right now involving “fandom”, vaddevah dat is. How does being a fan of a videogame character whose actions you can in part control affect your relationship to the “original work”? How is on-line abuse of actors in The Last Jedi related to the anger among Potterheads about The Crimes of Grindlewald? Is another Superfly a very different matter than another Halloween? Is the film of Ready Player One a transformative work, and if so, does it in itself contradict its own attitudes toward original works? Do people who play DC Comics official tie-in videogames have a set of norms about transformative works, such that they get angry if the videogame writers break them—and are those creators part of that community, such that they know about those norms?

But what I’m really interested in is how people in communities view their relationships to the original works. As an actor in an amateur dramatic society, I view the text—the playscript—as inviolate. We can do whatever we want within that, but we can’t violate the letter of the script. I can invent back story, I can speculate on what happens after the final curtain, I can and indeed must invent relationships with the other characters that the text allows but does not describe. I can even choose to deliver a line as sarcasm, if my director and I think that works. My Malvolio, or my Polonius, or even my Father Jack or my Mister Memory, are in that sense transformative works. They are not what the writer had in mind. They are a combination of the words on the page and my imagination (and my director’s and the other actors’ too). But I am very aware of the limits of that transformation; I would be horrified at the idea of changing the text to suit my characterization, rather than the other way around. I mean, I know that when we cut a Shakespeare play for length or clarity, we do just that, but I would be horrified if the dramaturge cut, oh, I dunno, cut out all the times when people make fun of Polonius behind his back, and then the Polonius in performance was a respected, powerful figure. It could be done, but it would feel like the transformation had gone beyond its limits.

And that feels to me, somehow, as if it is an attitude that it not in tune with the times, or at least not in tune with the times outside the peculiar kind of fandom that puts on theatrical productions that people purchase tickets for. And I think it… inhibits me? constrains me? I think, really, it just interferes with communication when I interact with other communities, or even with the overlapping fandoms that I potentially am in a kind of communion with. And in my analytical way, I’m just interested in it.

You know? But I grab one thread of it, and it goes on for ages, getting tangled up in all the other threads. When is a transformative work viewed as a threat by fans of the original work? How does our relationship with our texts (that is, texts that we can remember first being made) differ from our relationship with inherited texts, and are their communication problems between people from different generations in that sense? Does calling a community a fandom set in place certain norms that are not set if that word isn’t used? How do the norms of one community interact with the norms of a different community?

Transformative art isn’t remotely new, and I don’t claim to have got hold of anything new about it. But I do think that we are, perhaps, seeing something about the way fandom works across community boundaries and across amateur/professional boundaries that is different than it was a generation or two ago. And it’s interesting to me as a person in the world, participating in its art, but it’s also frustrating, because I often feel as if I am not understanding what people are saying about it. You know?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

5 thoughts on “Funky Transformation, oh yeah

  1. Chaos

    Nah, you’re understanding it just fine!

    Or rather, if you’re making a mistake, it’s in assuming a consensus around where the boundaries are for a transformative work, and thinking you are outside that consensus. Whereas no matter how narrowly you define fandom, if you talk to two people within it, you’ll get three different opinions about what is in-bounds and what’s against the rules, and you’re talking about fandom super broadly here.

    My immediately reaction was “ooh, i gotta link V to that blog post i read that was about this exact topic, then realised to my dismay that it wasn’t a blog post, it was the most interesting panel i went to at Arisia last year, Canonicity in Theatre. And i’m not going to be able to reconstruct what all they talked about, and i didn’t take good notes, and, well, i’m sorry not to be more help, but it was a fascinating panel. And in particular directly on this question of in what sense is a play a transformative work.

    I mean, i would call the talmud a transformative work, so maybe i’m the wrong person to ask, because i totally agree both that this has been going on forever, and that we’re all more aware of it now and that is interesting.

    Back to boundaries: most people have constraints. Sometimes they’re for ethical reasons (e.g. writing fiction about real people on the internet, on which opinions vary between “no problem!”, “hell no!”, and “it depends, and i can explain in more detail than you could possibly care about what it depends on”), but most of the time they’re for reasons very similar to what you outline about your limits on changing a play. Basically: what attributes cause a work to be compatible with canon (characterization? setting? not contradicting canonical plot points (of what kind)?), and under what circumstances does that matter?

    IMO this is all extremely similar to what kinds of things bother people when reading original fiction. Maybe for one person it breaks the fourth wall irrevocably if the lake is downstream from the dam, while for another person it breaks the fourth wall irrevocably if the author writes male characters objectifying female characters to be down-to-earth and relatable but doesn’t write any female characters objectifying male characters. (It’s Hugo season, so for your convenience those are both actual conversations i’ve been in within the past week.)

    Cutting lines from a play is exactly like filming a book, in that it’s invisible or it’s blasphemy depending on what you personally think the most critical parts of the work are. To 22-year-old me, the first Lord of the Rings movie was not an acceptable adaptation of the book because Legolas didn’t go blindfolded into Lorien. But you gotta cut something, and cutting stuff necessarily changes the tone of what’s going on; you’ve probably disagreed with a lot of dramaturges over time about where that line is.

    Here actually is a blog post i can link to, which i’ve thought about a certain amount on this topic, because i think it makes the great point that there’s a historical bias in speculative fiction that if you get the physics wrong, you’re Doing It Wrong, but there are lots and lots of ways of Doing It Wrong that will break someone’s ability to enjoy your thing.

    Another big thing that’s new is the amount of media out there. When i was younger, i didn’t really read speculative fiction comics at all, and i didn’t understand that comics fans have to have a kind of fluid relationship to canon for the practical reason that it’s impossible to be a completist. Now whatever you’re a fan of, you haven’t consumed all of it, and some of what you don’t know about you ignore, and some of it you’re avoiding on purpose because it will ruin your childhood, and some of it you’re mad about. (This is touching off your question about DC tie-ins and whatnot, though i don’t know that it really answers it.)

    Lastly, an anecdote. We went to see a play the other week, Jagged Little Pill, which was a playwright’s attempt to show that the Alanis Morrisette album is still relevant by making it the score of a musical about modern teens. And i’m going to go out there and say that having seen a lot of high-quality fanvids quasi-recently courtesy of a vid panel at a con ruined this play for me. Because i felt like the play was relying on the idea that this kind of transformation was so novel that it could carry a play: let’s take music and attach it to a plot we write, and that’ll be terrific. But, okay, for those who don’t know what fanvids are: the basic idea is that you take a song, and you take a piece of visual media (like a movie or a TV show or if you’re clever with editing a still source like a comic), and you make a video track with the song in the background of cuts from the media you’ve chosen. So to make a fanvid at all, you’re bringing together three things that started out completely divergent: the song, the canon source of the visual work, and the metatextual point you are trying to make which at the very very least is a highlights (in your opinion) version of the source, but much more likely is at least subtext or a theory of your own invention. And works that do that last thing, that bring together a song and an unrelated work, and without changing either convincingly advance a theory that isn’t really in either the song or the work, are somewhat common. People are impressively good at this. So i went to the play, and i thought, “Oh, neat, so they’re taking some songs and they’re writing an original plot that goes with the songs. Then what?” And there was no “then what,” and i was disappointed, and wound up enjoying the play much less than i would have if i hadn’t walked in with that particular set of expectations about transformative works.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Thanks for your note, which is definitely interesting, although if you could just go back in time and record that Arisia panel, it would be helpful.

      I’m going to pull out a thread from your comment to talk for a minute about canon and the inclusion of Real People, because I have absolutely no coherent principles about that. I have been super-cross about historical misrepresentation in biopics, and I’ve shrugged it off entirely, and I’ve also enjoyed it as a goof. I love some historical novels, and others get right up my nose. I find the idea of people writing and posting pr0n about celebrities invasive and creepy, except when it’s sweet and kinda hot.

      And this seems to fit in with your observation that canonicity is simply one source of Reader Irritation (or Pleasure), and as such there’s not necessarily a need to actually have coherent principles. Which makes perfect sense, and is an excellent way of thinking about it. Thank you.

      And yet… I do kinda feel like there are norms within specific communities, and that my not knowing them is a communication problem for me. Maybe that’s just the surely-I’m-the-only-one-who-feels-like-this talking.


  2. Jed

    Interesting discussions and questions!

    A couple of scattershot thoughts:

    * I’m curious about where your (V’s) boundary is for inviolability of text, other than just cutting scenes. In particular, my impression is that in a lot of movies (and maybe TV too?), the script isn’t at all inviolable; the actors and the director regularly make stuff up on the spot, or actors say lines in slightly different phrasing, either because they forgot the line or because they think it’s more in character to say it slightly differently, or whatever. So does that bother you, or is that sufficiently different from the kinds of changes you’re talking about?

    * Jonathan Lethem gave a great talk at Google in 2007, in which he talked a fair bit about public domain and art and works that build on each other. It’s been long enough since I saw it that I’m not sure it’s relevant to the specific topics you’re talking about, but figured it was worth mentioning.

    * Chaos: Interesting re the play. I feel like this kind of thing has been around for a long time; isn’t a musical revue (like Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well or Tomfoolery) a similar kind of thing? And most of the songs from Singin’ in the Rain were being reused from other musicals; I gather that was a fairly common practice at the time. And Mulin Rouge did that reusing-songs thing in a movie, as did Across the Universe.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      So, about the inviolability of the text in a play, vs film/tv/etc—I know there are different norms, and I believe that in film/tv the text is not considered inviolable at all. Of course, there’s a different contract signed, but mostly I think it’s a norm, rather than a legal matter. The idea that an actor can request to say a different line is (I believe) common for actors at a certain level of prominence, and I can’t imagine that happens often in the theater—although I certainly have never worked with actors at that level of prominence. In series television, as I understand it, the lead actors come to think of themselves as custodians of their characters, more so than the writers are, and will overrule the writers on dialogue. I… would not be comfortable with that. But it’s unlikely I will ever be in a position to be uncomfortable with it, either, so.

      In my experience of the amateur theater, while dialogue can be made up to cover an error (including a technical problem as well as forgotten dialogue) it is taboo to ‘fix’ dialogue simply to make it more in character, or funnier, or even clearer. Except when it isn’t, I suppose, which would be Shakespeare or other ‘classics’. Still, those changes generally go through a director and dramaturge, rather than it being the actor’s right to make those changes. And we’ve (again, through the director) changed pronouns and so forth to match the character as it’s being played, tho’ my personal preference is to keep that to a minimum.

      And, of course, there are shows that call for improvisation, too, but that is (generally) within the limits of the text and are delineated by the playwright with rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty ad lib dialogue. In films, I believe that actors go off-piste more often—but then, (a) they are filming a scene perhaps twenty times hand running, which must be dreadful, and (2) the director (and, I suppose, writer) can edit the crap out of the thing later, deciding whether the improvised line was indeed an improvement. It’s a whole different kettle of proverbial, is what it is.

      But to answer your general question—it doesn’t bother me when filmed/edited stuff plays fast and loose with the script (if I even know it is happening), but it absolutely does when it happens in the theater.

      Heck, I don’t even like the commonly-accepted practice of re-writing the Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs for contemporary relevance.



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