The latest indignity seemingly imposed by commerce upon art is the news that the cable movie channel Epix would air, in addition to the original black-and-white version, a color version of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which was nominated for Best Picture earlier this year and stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father and son on a somewhat discursive road trip nominally aimed at retrieving a cash payout to which the father believes he’s entitled.
This is not a colorized version ginned up after the fact; it’s existed all along as a contractual necessity facilitated by digital shooting, according to a Variety interview with Payne last fall, in which he openly hoped it would never be seen. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the color version of the film — it’s not the optimal way to appreciate what the director and the rest of the creative team were going for, but “suboptimal” doesn’t mean “terrible.” It’s hard to imagine why anyone other than perhaps those with challenges seeing black and white images would want to watch a movie in what its creator considers an inferior form when the superior form is equally convenient. But if that were all this story suggested, that might not be such a big deal.
The real threat of this kind of thing, though, might be the way that digital presentations of content in general make it a lot easier to deliver things in lots and lots of different ways. It’s good to have flexibility, but it also means there might be a point where it becomes almost impossible to make your vision available to people without agreeing in advance to make it customizable to the point where it ceases to be art at all. You can imagine a future in which films are released from the outset in PG and R versions, or in black-and-white and color versions, or in longer and shorter versions, or in versions with two different scores.
There’s something to be said for choosing your own adventure, as it were, but there’s also something to be said for leaving the creative decisions to the creator of the piece, and accepting that that surrender of control is part of immersing yourself in somebody else’s work.
An analogy: If you order a steak and you want hot sauce on it, I am the last person to say you can’t have hot sauce, but I also believe it might be to your benefit not to demand hot sauce by default on every steak you ever eat. And I believe it is to your benefit — our benefit — that a restaurant focused on the creativity of chefs not announce on the menu, “Did you want hot sauce? Did you want an egg on top? Did you want a peanut butter sandwich instead?” It is one thing to grant special requests when you can; it is another to present the creative choice of a creative person as something to take or leave casually, according to what you think you already want.
If we are at a point where we cannot allow directorial choices to stand, even in films not intended to be four-quadrant blockbusters, even with things that take up no more of our time, don’t require us to read subtitles, don’t make our lives harder, but simply feel different — like black and white — then we are, in a word, hosed. And goosing people to consider a more familiar-feeling alternative instead of trusting them to deal with the piece as it was composed seems a bit cynical and sad.
That’s particularly true, and this is all particularly puzzling, since anyone not prepared to deal with a black and white film is going to have trouble with Nebraska on many fronts. If a black and white movie makes you feel like you’re being forced to endure something inadequately modern, you’re not going to enjoy this particular film’s patient, contemplative tone anyway. Most people are not that afraid of black and white, in my experience, and addressing them as if they are has a whiff of condescension.
At its best, digital filmmaking makes it possible for directors to be more agile and mobile, to shoot more cheaply, and to try more things. But it also makes it easier to undo those choices, or re-present them to audiences like everything you ever see has to come with an on-screen menu.
There is a certain thrill to how helpless you are in a theater when it’s dark and you get the first flicker; there is always, for me, a moment in which I think, “Here we go.” Even now, even after all this time, “Here we go.” I’m happy to be a passenger. I’m happy not to be driving. I’m happy to be looking out the window. I don’t want to be offered black and white or color, classical or jazz, 120 minutes or 150. I want everybody sitting there to take the same ride, and when I’m at home, I may not be able to get the theater ride, but I certainly don’t want to be building the movie myself. That’s what the director is for.
Crowdsourcing is wonderful. Interactivity is wonderful. But I’m not looking for a line-item veto, and I’m not sure it’s beneficial to offer one.