Thursday, October 20, 2005

Creator Control: The Magnificent Ambersons and Claremont's X-Men

For class yesterday, we watched The Magnificent Ambersons and read a bunch of articles about it. Ambersons was Orson Welles' followup to Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest film ever made, and to this day, very few films have surpassed its awe inspiring cinematography. So, after dropping this film, Welles moved on to another ambitious project, an adaptation of the novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

If one were to just watch the film, it would probably seem bizarrely disjointed, with some flashes of greatness, but a general lack of narrative cohesion. As is, the film is something like David Lynch's Dune, a film with a lot of good stuff in it, but one that never quite comes together as a finished product. The way it is now, Ambersons has a lot of bits that don't make much sense, and character arcs that aren't properly laid out, as well as a very cheesy ending.

However, perhaps more interesting than the film itself is the tragedy behind its production. Welles shot and edited together a 130 minute cut of the film then went to Brazil to shoot another project, at which point disasterous preview screenings led executives to recut the film, bringing it down to 88 minutes, and losing roughly 50 minutes of Welles footage in the process. Welles claimed that the film was even better than Kane. Looking at what is intact, I'd doubt that, but I'd imagine it would have been another masterpiece.

At this time there was no market for deleted scenes or director's cuts, so the footage was burned to make more storage space, and with that, the original Magnificent Ambersons was destroyed. This incident is probably the most grievous example of the perils of working within the Hollywood system, without final cut on a project. Welles had no ownership of the project, and because Kane was a box office failure, he had little influence over its direction. There was nothing he could do to protect the film from the editing because the director had no rights under the classical Hollywood system. And this continued for the rest of Welles' career, he was unable to get funding for projects, and had to make to do with lower budgets and inferior facilities.

Film is, unfortunately, a medium where you need a lot of money to realize a vision. Even with the proliferation of really good CG stuff, a certain base amount of money is needed to get a project going. For all its other merits, the way that digital is democratizing the medium is something to be thankful for. David Lynch is now able to make films on his own schedule, with no studio influence. However, working from self financing, he's not able to get the budget needed to do some things. So, he couldn't make a Dune on his own, those sort of ideas still require studio money, and with the money comes the ceeding of control.

I guess what bothers me so much about the Welles thing is that the footage is just gone. Somebody burned it and with that a work of art is out of this world forever. It's such a transient medium, and with one bad choice, an entire historical record is destroyed, never to return again. What was so briefly in this world, seen by only a few people, is now lost in time. In 'film heaven,' this is one movie that I'd like to see.

But beyond this awful situation, what does the Welles situation tell us about the role of creators vis a vis their creations? There's so many potentially great stories that were never told because the money didn't come through, or personnel dropped out. This is particularly true in comics where Alan Moore's Big Numbers only made it to two issues, and will never be finished. I haven't read it, but I've heard about the table size outline of the character arcs and that makes me sad it will never happen. Similarly, the end of Neil Gaiman's run on Miracleman is locked in legal limbo, and will hopefully make it back in a few years when the lawsuit with McFarlane is settled.

But, the greatest victims of corporate interference are people who work within a corporate system, like old Hollywood or big two comics. Chris Claremont created the X-Men. I know Stan Lee technically made the concept, Len Wein technically made the 'all new, all different team,' but that doesn't matter, because Claremont was the one who made the X-Men we know today. He built characters who have generated billions in merchandising revenue and his stories paved the way for the two films, as well as the thousands of comics made involving the characters.

And from 1974 to about 1985, he had total control over the direction of the X-Men's story. At first it was only one book, then he added New Mutants, a book that was still tightly integrated with the narrative of the main book. However, as the book became more popular, he became subject to more editorial pressure, culminating in an expanding world for the characters, one that forced Claremont to adjust his plans. The most notable affront to his work was bringing Jean Grey back, thus nullifying much of the impact of the original Phoenix saga storyline.

In the 80s, Claremont became more subject to the whims of the editors, and he was forced to indulge in a number of crossovers to build sales. Generally speaking, he made these crossovers work creatively, but in this environment, he was losing control of the world that he built, and the fearful executives forced him to move the characters back towards a more identifiable status quo. Hence Magento returns to being a villain, nullifying years of interesting character development.

The greatest affront to Claremont occurred in 1991 when he was thrown off the book he wrote for fifteen years, with no chance to resolve the plot lines, just left with nothing. It's mind boggling to think that this guy who was solely responsible for making the book into the biggest seller in comics could be let go with barely any notice. Ever since he left, the books had a big decline creatively, at least until the Morrison run in 2001.

So, the lesson of Claremont's experience is have control of what you create. He worked for fifteen years, making countless characters, but when he was fired from the book, he was left with nothing. That's likely why he willingly returned ten years later, because the characters still meant something to him. I find it unbelievable that he'd willingly return to the people who had previously screwed him over, but I guess that sometimes money trumps principle. Not everyone can be Alan Moore when it comes to burning bridges.

If Claremont hadn't been fired, I wonder if he would have ever left the book, or if he'd now be entering his thirtieth year on the title. I think he would have found it difficult to shake things up as he did in the 80s, now that the company sees itself more as a media licensing firm than a storytelling entity in and of itself. His success was ultimately Claremont's undoing, it's what turned one cohesive title into fifteen, and saw legitimate characters turn into static archetypes.

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