I enjoyed our class conversation on fandom and I wanted to go a bit more into depth on the concept of user generated content, specifically a 2008 film that seems to support a lot of the opinions circulating in class.
Homages to beloved songs, literature and cinema are quite common within our current culture. It seems that the reproduction of works has become the sincerest form of flattery. These recreations certainly cannot be regarded as exact imitation because fans pay their respects with the tools they have at hand. Michael Gondry shows his own appreciation for those dedicated and loving fans in his 2008 film Be Kind Rewind. The film’s protagonists, Jack Black and Mos Def, recreate classic movies with an ancient camcorder
and their own hilariously warped understandings of the filming process. In a unique and zany style, their (entertaining) versions of Ghostbusters, Driving Miss Daisy and Boyz in the Hood become popular within their community inciting the two friends to take on reproducing more famous films. Their cinematic attempts become so admired they even coin a term for their transformative movie making process: “sweding”. The popularity of this concept warranted a definition in Urban Dictionary, which defines sweded as:
The summarized recreation of popular pop-culture films using limited budgets and a camcorder. The process is called sweding. Upon completion the film has been Sweded.
Be Kind Rewind garnered a great deal of attention after Gondry announced a promotional campaign in which there would be a competition for fans to produce the best sweded film. This has become a cultural sensation, festivals and websites dedicated to the art of sweding have appeared thanks to Be Kind Rewind‘s promotional gimick.
Jack Black and Mos Def’s sweded films aren’t completely blameless, in the movie they profit from their sweded versions not to mention they use the original VHS cases for storing their own copies. That is blatant infringement on copyright and sadly, towards the end of Be Kind Rewind the legal implications put Jack Black and Mos Def’s shenanigans to rest. Aside from this minor complication, Gondry’s film does show some of the more ridiculous aspects of copyright law and it also gives the audience an opportunity to mull over the necessary measurements in deeming that a work should be protected under fair use. It also questions the difference between stealing and sweding (transforming).
Considering Hollywood and the MPAA’s staunch positions on copyright law it’s refreshing to see a major filmmaker such as Gondry applaud the amateur and recognize that paying tribute isn’t always piracy. Be Kind Rewind‘s stance on the issue is similar to that of Lawrence Lessig, in Free Culture Lessig mentions that
“Even if some piracy is plainly wrong, not all ‘piracy’ is. Or at least, not all ‘piracy’ is wrong if that term is understood in the way it is increasingly used today. Many kinds of ‘piracy’ are useful and productive, to produce either new content or new ways of doing business” (23).
Be Kind Rewind is an excellent example of how something new and transformative can manifest out of the act of copying. It also reveals that these issues of copyright infringement are multifaceted and contextual. It is impossible to look at the issue in black and white because these user generated works serve different purposes and needs. One of the major premises of Be Kind Rewind is how movies bring people together and a way for fans to show their appreciation is through homage and replicating what they love about the original.
But not everyone feels that transformative works should be viewed in such a beneficent manner. A notorious critic of user generated content is Andrew Keen . Through numerous articles, a blog and his novel Cult of the Amateur, he has declared that that true creativity and originality are lost amongst the flux of user generated content. True inventiveness isn’t receiving its proper recognition and in that sense we are losing invaluable works from the true experts. There isn’t anyone else out there more adamantly opposed to Lawrence Lessig’s perspective on piracy and transformative works than Andrew Keen. This showdown between the two scholars is absolutely fantastic, as Lessig just annihilates Keen. Amateur is considered to be an insult within Keen’s dialogue. And the movies within Be Kind Rewind would certainly incite his disdain. Andrew Keen seems to be very concerned about the quality aspect of all the user generated content because they are the reason:
“When media companies flounder, employees and executives lose their jobs and shareholders lose their investments. But all the rest of us lose out, too, as the quality of programming is compromised”. (p124-25)
But the poor quality is exactly what makes the sweded films so enjoyable, these amateurs use clever and low budget methods to pay tribute to the bigger than life films they love so much. Keen is so caught up on the copyright infringement and quality issues that he overlooks that these “pirates” are actually creating something exciting and new.
I have to draw back to the question Lawrence Lessig raises in Free Culture when addressing Doushing comics. Who are these creative endeavors truly hurting? Would it really benefit anyone if the makers of the sweded version Jurassic Park were punished? There may be technicalities that cause the Doushing comics or Jack Black’s interpretation of Robocop to break copyright law but is the harm done that extensive? The films developed within Be Kind Rewind are so low budget and comically misconstrued that it would be preposterous to imagine that the MPAA could see them as a viable threat. The sweded films from the 2008 movie and the swede fests reveal that transformative works have truly different effects. And like the OTW, I believe that these fanworks and user generated content shouldn’t be demeaned as stolen works. It’s a sad world when fans are punished for their passion.