Coloring the Wizard of Oz, Updating Art

Heraclitus once said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” So maybe you can’t rewatch the same movie, and no amount of updating colors or drum beats will overcome the distance modernity has traveled.

This past weekend, I wandered into conversation with someone who turned out to be a film archivist. I really had never thought about what that entailed, and it was wild fun it was to talk to a real film aficionado, and by that I mean people who can remember names of movies and actors, which I somehow can never do. I have written about some of these people and items, but I can’t seem to keep the names of old actors from flying their own cards out of my rolodex until only the images remain.

Anyways, this new acquaintance was talking to me about the propensity for filmmakers to want to, after a while, re-edit their films, and what it means to preserve the originally released film. He was lamenting how hard it is to keep track or keep multiple copies, and how sometimes a re-edited version will prevail, supplanting the original with an update.

I once read an interview with Paul McCartney where he said that he had a hard time listening to old Beatles songs because he found himself wanting to remix them. I was flabbergasted when I heard that, because the entire arsenal of Beatles songs seemed to me like utter perfection. I couldn’t imagine them any differently, both because I didn’t have any particular musical knowledge, and because it would never occur to me to rip apart the seams.

But in trying to understand the comment, I imagined that McCartney was talking about a kind of dissatisfaction or regret. I imagined that he would say “we could have added this-or-that, or try this thing, and too bad we didn’t, and let’s fix it now.” Or perhaps even : “we meant to do this thing but ran out of time and I’d like to loop back and fulfill our original intention.”

But my new film acquaintance had a point specifically about coloring, saying that some filmmakers want to update the coloring. This feels like a relatively minor detail of a film, and one which I wouldn’t ordinarily give much thought to. I’m one of those people who looks at the different tv’s in the store, all showing various levels of sharpness and colors, and says firmly “whatever.” I buy based on size and price and could care less what the color looks like, because it’s all fine to me. 

But as he mentioned this detail about re-editing films, I immediately flashed to an image of the Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, perhaps because that one makes its way to movie posters fairly often. And it really does have some weird saturated color, that tells you “this is an old movie” just as well as a black-and-white movie does.

It occurs to me that when the movie was released, the colors probably felt bright and fresh, and telegraphed to the audience something bold and vibrant, not something old.

If you want to give a modern audience an authentic experience of watching the film, the one that the director originally intended to give to an audience, what is the right answer? Do you share with them the exact colors that an audience would have seen in 1939, so that they can see it as it was originally released, even knowing that the colors will strike them differently? Or do you instead update all of the colors so they feel fresh, so that the modern audience experiences the movie as contemporarily colored (even if fantastical)?

There is, of course, no right answer, because there are big tradeoffs. You either have to modify the “original” a lot to get to the “original feeling” (assuming you can), or you have to let the audience feel a layer of “distance” and “old” that the director never intended.

This is an issue that is the bread-and-butter daily work of language translators. If you want to move a poem from Italian to English, how do you choose just the right words to not only express the same ideas, but evoke the same feelings? It doesn’t matter as much for translating speech between speakers, where affect and gestures and body language and facial expressions can pick up some of the slack to tell you the difference between various interpretations. 

But in the written word, do you pick a word that feels familiar to your audience or one that feels old, or one that feels formal? You have to know not just how to say that the room is dark, but 50 other ways you might: foreboding, darkened, inky, jet black, dim, dingy, unlit, pitch black, pitch dark, and still one might not catch the sense of a joyful black, or a temporary black, or any of the other words that might swing one way or another in a given language. 

There are plenty of academic theories that try to bridge the gap between an author’s intent and an audience’s reception, and plenty more theories to ask whether there even is such a thing as either of those.

But I don’t want to go off the rails around that, and I mostly want to get back to Paul McCartney’s comment, which I hear differently now. Perhaps, in his saying that he would like to remix the Beatles songs, he was not saying that he wishes it had been different. Perhaps he means merely to say that times have changed, so in order to strike the audience in the same way he wanted, he needs to update them. Maybe nowadays drums come in softer or later or something, and he wants the sound to match the new aesthetic. 

Like the way that people need to update their kitchens, whose tile countertops now scan as “old” while the marble corian whatever-whatever seems fresh. The wood cabinets that once sang now feel heavy as white paint comes to cover it up and make it airy and light. Wallpaper, whose stores shuttered themselves twenty years ago, taking with them the heavy books of texture I used to love to run my fingers over while waiting for my mother to make her selection, makes a reappearance online with wild patterns and colors and improved peel-and-stick technology. Meanwhile, “beige” has been replaced as the default neutral and now the interior design world hangs out in beautiful shades of grey.

Which is maybe, again, what is going on with film archivists, in more subtle ways than The Wizard of Oz. Maybe a grey sky just means something different in a world of fire season and global warming. Maybe nowadays the rays of the sun are portrayed more subtly or violently or I-don’t-know-what in keeping with the sentiment of apocalypticism which modernity keeps finding reasons to churn out, whether politics or plague. 

And even as it is a form of updating, perhaps it is a form of artistic nostalgia, to think that you could possibly strike an audience today in the same way that your work once did. The audiences that crowded into wartime movie theaters in 1939, the ones who were leaving aside worries for a nickel, and who had never seen anything like the Wizard of Oz before, will never ever be the same as the audience who has first seen Frozen and has flown on an airplane and whose next-door neighbor is a single mother, watching a streaming video on Netflix. Judy Garland still amazes, but she can’t transport the context with which I feel the film. 

Maybe art is of a moment, and even when it holds up beautifully, there is no possibility of recapturing what it meant at the time. 

Heraclitus once said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” So maybe you can’t rewatch the same movie, and no amount of updating colors or drum beats will overcome the distance modernity has traveled.

But the good news is that Heraclitus’ river is ever-refreshing in its constant tumbling forward. Thank goodness. 

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