Re-creating culture

Well, after this weekend the long list of Movies I Wish I Had Made is topped by Brett Gaylor’s edgy, visually stimulating 2008 doc “RiP! A Remix Manifesto.”  It’s a great introduction to one of my post-film school obsessions, the whole copyright-defying, endlessly recombinant enterprise of remixing, recycling, reappropriating sound and images to create new cultural products/works of art. (I usually call this practice “found footage” in relation to the venerable history of filmmakers who have worked in this tradition: Bruce Conner, Craig Baldwin, Martin Arnold etc., but of course all of the crazy video and audio remixing that goes on these days belongs to the same family.)

This film situates the legal debate over the creative “fair use” of copyrighted material (led by Lawrence Lessig, who appears in the film) in an interesting global-historical context. The example is given of the early work of Walt Disney, whose animated films were creative reworkings of “public domain” stories, from iconic fairytales all the way to then-contemporary cinematic stories (such as the 1924 film “Steamboat Bill” which serves as the template for “Steamboat Willie”). Disney could freely mix and mingle narratives and ‘recognizable’ visual imagery without fear of being sued for breach of copyright, simply because those laws had not yet been tightened into their contemporary form; this unbridled creativity would be impossible in today’s Disney Corporation, itself acting as a trademark guardian for all things Mickey. Lessig and others argue that stringent copyright laws (ie. those invented and enforced in North America in the mid-twentieth century) restrict creative potential, restricting artists from actively engaging with our shared world of media and our cultural past. The “public domain” has been boxed in.

As I’m sure Harold Bloom and Lawrence Lessig would agree, culture comes from what has gone before it, from creative, innovative ways of engaging the tradition. Like Disney, Shakespeare hardly had an original plot in any of his plays. Culture is recycling, appropriation, creation and re-creation… it’s a complex, multilayered project. Art is not just about the individual artist, but their patterns of influence and involvement.

So the battle over copyright is not just about combatting piracy, or making other countries conform to a North American standard. It raises deeper questions about culture and creativity, and how the artist interacts with their environment and tradition, with cultural products and tools, and of course in this age of “open source” technology it brings to the fore issues about collaboration, citation and the construction of political discourse.  

What would von Balthasar say about all of this?


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