It turns out that ‘anonymization’ is a concept used in the handling of data, to ensure the privacy of the persons providing the information. This is not how I am using the concept here. I refer, instead, to the process by which persons who make important contributions to the fiction we love best, whether as participants or authors, remain anonymous, unknown to the crowds. I’ll refer here mostly to Star Wars, as this is the mega-text that has provoked the thinking behind this post, yet, as you will see, this is a matter beyond popular fiction.
Recently, on 29 October, many news outlets carried the obituary of John Mollo. You’ve never heard of him? Should you have? Judge for yourself: this is the costume designer that won an Oscar in 1978 for the first Star Wars film, now known as Episode IV – A New Hope. He also won an Oscar, together with Bhanu Athaiya, for Gandhi (1982). The designs for the iconic costumes of George Lucas’ film, by the way, were not only Mollo’s; he actually materialized ideas suggested by artist and production designer Ralph McQuarrie, also responsible for the atmospheric set décor, the awesome spaceships and so on.
This means that, just to mention one example, McQuarrie and Mollo are the authors of the suit that makes Darth Vader such a memorable, lasting icon. Yet, we tend to cut the middlemen/women off authorship in cinema and attribute all the merit to the film director, which is downright silly. In a similar vein, checking yesterday out of sheer curiosity who drew the lovely Poppy for the film Trolls (2016), I learned that the artist in question, Craig Kellerman, is very much admired as a character designer in animation. I had never heard about him, though. I see Poppy everyday but the illustration on my office wall is signed ‘Dreamworks’ not Kellerman… And I had no idea that so many animation films that I like have characters created by the same artist (do check his IMDB entry).
More on this matter. On Friday 3 I found myself offering a presentation on Star Wars’s Obi-Wan Kenobi during a seminar on emotion and popular culture. I shared the session with my good friend Fernando Ángel Moreno, who spoke of how the Lovecraftian idea of cosmic horror applies to the saga (it does indeed!). During my talk I quoted two juicy bits of dialogue from the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t know to whom I should attribute the text. A screenwriter was credited for each episode but also a script supervisor, both responding to the series creator and, ultimately, to whoever took charge of the series at Lucas Film. I cannot say, then, who made the crucial decisions about Obi-Wan’s characterization that I discussed. The authors remain anonymous despite their presence in the episode credits. And this worries me, as I’m used to novelists making all the decisions and stepping on firm ground when I do literary studies.
In this regard, Fernando pointed out that in the new Star Wars films the person truly controlling the evolution of characters and story is producer Kathleen Kennedy, who entered the saga with Episode VIII – The Force Awakens (2015); recall that Star Wars no longer belongs to Lucas (he sold his baby to Disney… amazing!). Beyond the films, of course, Star Wars sprawls all over two textual multiverses, now labelled ‘Canon’ and ‘Legends’, which one single researcher can never ever make sense of, not even several teams. This is, I should say, a serious problem for the study of popular fiction, particularly in the audiovisual branch.
The understanding of audiovisual authorship was distorted apparently for ever when, as it is well known, the contributors to Cahiers du Cinema (founded in 1951) determined that for all purposes the author of a film is the director. This surprised both producers, who in the Hollywood studio system were the main originators of films, and humble film directors employed by that system, such as John Ford, who saw themselves suddenly hailed as artists when they regarded themselves as craftsmen. Unfortunately, this view of authorship totally eclipsed the screen writer, still today the most misunderstood contributor to films. Also, as the case of John Mollo shows, other artists were relegated to being an anonymous face in the production team. Film credits grew as these film workers demanded an acknowledgement of their efforts and so did the list of Oscar categories; even so, try to find a film spectator who can name a favourite film editor, or sound designer… I can’t even name screen writers, which is a shame…
In TV series, matters appear to have gone back to the old Hollywood studio system with creators/producers getting all the credit and both episode directors and writers being overlooked as authors. However, since nobody bothers to teach these matters, I’m sure that many youngsters are growing up today thinking, as I did, that actors write the films, lines, scenes and all the rest (I was much impressed by how inventive the ubiquitous Charlton Heston appeared to be); not even what directors do is clear to us. (Please note that sometimes actors do write the lines: the famous sentence about tears in the rain in the speech by the replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner (1982) was contributed by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. NOT written by Ridley Scott…).
How about print fiction, which comes in books with the name of the author on the cover? Recently, I read the umpteenth article warning about how piracy is destroying the book industry, this time from the point of view of young writers in the middle of writing novel series (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/06/pirated-ebooks-threaten-future-of-serial-novels-warn-authors-maggie-stiefvater). Something that very much surprised me is the lack of respect that piratical readers are showing for authors, even when they do like their work. And the downright cheekiness. Author Maggie Stiefvater complained that if sales of her books go any lower, her series (the Shiver and Raven Cycle) will be cancelled by her publisher. A reader immediately twitted back “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated”.
Leaving aside how digital e-book readers have made it easier for all of us to download books illegally uploaded by others, I would argue that anonymization is also to blame. In this case, although it’s a different kind of anonymization from that of the audiovisual industry it is possibly connected. In both cases there appears to be a serious lack of awareness on the side of the consumers of what producing the film or print text entails. Also, the constant flow of film and TV releases, and of book launches, seems to suggest that there will always be someone generation fiction even if particular persons stop. That’s the kind of anonymization I mean. This also has to do with falling average standards. I used to buy lots of books confident that it was money well used but I have become now a very wary customer, tired of being tricked by overhyped fiction (or academic research…) not worth 20 euros a volume, or much more if we think of academic publications.
Some readers’ comments appended to the article I have mentioned argued that Spotify has solved the problem for music (but please remember that unlike musicians writers make no money out of touring); perhaps Netflix and similar platforms are doing the same for film and TV. In both cases, however, the principle of anonymization applies, worsened by the algorithm system that keeps suggesting similar texts to consumers. Music is increasingly becoming muzak, originally the name of a company founded in the 1950s that sold background music to department stores and similar places, later a label used for the kind of music thus marketed. I often find myself in the kind of clothes shop which pesters you with loud music, wondering how specific songwriters feel about their creative work being used in that way. I’m not a Netflix subscriber, and I don’t watch series, but I am also constantly flabbergasted by how my students describe binge watching as a background activity that they combine with others, such as cleaning up the house (and study??). This is what the radio used to be for (or still is, I’m not sure).
Before I lose my thread, let me say that anonymization is also visible in the increasing difficulties to recall names and titles in all areas. Studios started advertising films using the tag line ‘by the director of Fight Club’ rather than ‘by David Fincher’ because spectators showed no interest in recalling directors’ names. I haven’t seen any film yet announced as ‘with the handsome guy in Troy’ rather than ‘with Brad Pitt’ but I assume this might soon happen. As for books, a funny thing is going on. On the one hand, I often come across names of ‘world-famous, best-selling’ authors who are totally unknown to me; on the other, readers mention to me books they have enjoyed but can’t remember the author (and give you just an approximate title).
Perhaps the genre in which anonymization is most worrying is… academic writing. The prose we use is so homogeneous that when I read collective volumes I have very serious problems remembering any of the contributors’ names and distinguishing one chapter from the next. We all use the same style, made even flatter by peer reviewing as any trace of authorial originality tends to be erased. Try being witty in an academic article and see who publishes it… Even though I should say that the average standard is pretty high, with quite sophisticated academic work being now produced, few academic pieces have a distinctive voice. To be honest, I started writing this blog to find my own voice as I’m not even sure it is present in my work. I wish I could write like Terry Eagleton but when I asked him for an interview how he had managed to be a clearly recognizable author with an essayistic voice of his own, he candidly told me this is an option only open to top-rank academics like himself with well-established names. The rest of us, I’m afraid, must aim for the transparent, insipid prose that now keeps academic authorship anonymized.
What a strange zeitgeist: I need to think further how the rampant narcissism of those who create nothing combines with the fall of the creators into anonymity.
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