Changing Scenery

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Changing Scenery


A friend recently posted a video on Facebook that caught my interest threefold — it addressed rights under the First Amendment, involved one of my favorite TV shows, and seemed completely frivolous (or at the very least a strange thing for people to fight over). The short version: A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout got in hot water with the administration for displaying a TV quote on a poster outside his office. More precisely, the quote was taken from the cult hit TV show Firefly; the character quoted (a spaceship captain named Malcolm Reynolds) tells another that, if he ever felt obliged to kill the person he was speaking with, his opponent will in that moment "be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed." University police expressed concern that the quote could be taken as a violent threat and ordered the professor to take it down. The professor, for his part, believed his right to freedom of expression was infringed, and that the quote was clearly conveying something else: that Captain Reynolds would not backstab or play dirty, but instead act with his own code of honor.

This story intrigued me from a freedom of speech perspective, but it also made me think of the importance of context. It's easy to argue that only a fool would take such a quote out of context, yet it happened (or was anticipated) nonetheless. Is context necessary for someone to derive meaning from a work of art, or a quote, or a passage in a book? Can't something else emerge, and is it valid? And finally, it seems important to remember that there are critical and practical differences. Perhaps it is one thing to derive a meaning from a piece of art different from what the artist intended, yet quite another for a statement to diverge so far from authorial intent that it interferes with daily life.

Description and Processes

Inspired by this case, I decided to work with the clip in question, the scene in which the controversial quote was uttered. (It was from Firefly's pilot, near the end of the episode.) Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I quite easily found the pilot online and grabbed the minute and a half of footage/audio I needed by using a site that allows you to download YouTube videos. I isolated this footage and posted it on my YouTube account, under the name "Context" (because it's taken directly from the episode and not otherwise altered).

After much deliberation, I decided to play around with the tone of the clip, altering it to give a different sense of what's going on in each individual video. I achieved this with two major techniques: adding background music/sound, and editing out some of the scene's dialogue. I added background music/sound (the original scene has none) because those are tools often utilized in television to set the tone for the audience; for example, a sitcom might use a laugh track to clue the viewer in on jokes and when to laugh. Altering the dialogue might seem radical, but I wanted to truly recreate and recast the scene to show how easy it is to warp its context. Pulling out just one or two lines can make a friendly conversation sound confrontational.

For my three "recast" videos — Kidnapped (suspense), Sitcom (exactly what it sounds like), and Turning Point (my attempt at making the scene noble and uplifting — that is, highly emotional) — I searched YouTube for sound elements. I found the music and laugh tracks attached to other videos on the site; I then downloaded them and isolated the audio in iMovie and recombined each audio file with its respective recut footage. I primarily used iMovie for this project, but I did use Final Cut for the "Context" video.

Overall, my point with this project was to highlight the ease with which we can manipulate source material into something else — even if we do not mean to. Though I did not seek out to "prove" that the police for the University of Wisconsin-Stout were right in their assessment of the poster's quote as threatening (my personal opinion is that it was not), I do think I it is important to consider the ripple effects of altering a source material in any way. And, of course, the reminder that not everyone will get your obscure cult television references.

Footage, with Disclaimer

This didn't surprise me terribly, but after uploading my four videos, YouTube actually pulled three of them for copyright violations. (Why the fourth hasn't been caught is beyond me.) I will link to them below anyway, but I will only embed the one that is available to the public (which is "Kidnapped"):

"Context" (Download as .m4v)

"Turning Point" (Download as .m4v)

"Sitcom" (Download as Sitcom.m4v.mp4)

Some Context for Your "Context"

Firefly is probably best described as a space western, in that it's science-fiction-meets-the-old-West. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (wearing dark clothes here) is in charge of his spaceship Serenity and her crew. A doctor named Simon (the man in white) is a stowaway on the ship with his "crazy sister," as they are both fugitives. They were nearly caught after someone else infiltrated their ship (hence their references to wounds and needing a doctor onboard). Mal and Simon's conversation follows the day's ordeals and addresses the question of what Mal should do with Simon and his sister.

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