The Myth of Innovation

I’m listening to a podcast with Chris “@nerdist” Hardwick and Ron “Hellboy” Perlman, and they’re having a rambling, jokey conversation, so what I’m about to write is a little unfair because no rambling, jokey conversation could ever stand up to critical rigour (I know mine couldn’t!), but something Hardwick said got me thinking, and credit were credit is due.

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Perlman describes a shift he witnessed from single- or group-own film studios (ostensibly run by filmmakers) to corporate-owned studios whose only responsibility is making a bigger and bigger profit every quarter. He calls that the tail waging the dog. Hardwick responds:

Then you start trend-chasing, and then when you’re trend-chasing, […] you’re going downhill because you’re chasing things that already have peaked, you know, instead of innovating. [As a result] there’s not enough innovation because innovation is riskier […] I mean in their minds [it’s riskier]. I think it’s riskier the opposite way.

It’s not at all surprising to hear two working artists talk this way, and that mindset might be the only way to do what they do (and I like the stuff that both of those guys create, to be clear), but there’s a misconception, here, that’s worth exploding.

The innovators that we can point to in pop culture (I use pop-culture examples because they’re approachable, we all know them, and they’re easy to bring to mind) are rarely people who created something entirely new. Maybe I’m being too literal with Hardwick’s choice of words, but the people we remember are almost always adaptors.

Think about one of Hardwick’s favourite filmmakers: Guillermo del Toro. Pacific Rim is not entirely new. It’s a gleeful take on Japanese giant, fighting robot anime and giant monster (“kaiju”) movies. Now, I love this movie, for lots of reasons, but when people talked about it as if it were the only original film of its year, there was always an asterisk in my mind; it’s not a sequel or a remake, certainly—which Hollywood money people love because they think it means they can spend less money on marketing—but it is an adaptation of two pre-existing genres, genres that certain audiences (me, for example) have a pre-existing emotional relationship with (which is why Hollywood thinks it doesn’t have to spend as much on marketing). That’s why I giggle like a child when the giant robot delivers a rocket-powered punch or pulls out a sword—because I have a strong emotional reaction to those tropes—and that nostalgia was a huge selling point for that movie.

Take a more obvious example and see how far the rabbit hole goes. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings started a trend for sumptuous fantasy films (i.e., lots of “period” costumes and sets) but it’s an adaptation of a series of books that are, themselves, adaptations of the Old English epics and romances that Tolkien spent his career studying: Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf being the most obvious.

We can play that game with canonical English literature, too. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays, certainly all the ones that most people have heard of, are based on other people’s work. He took them and adapted them to his time, his city, his stage. Hamlet goes through half a dozen different permutations before Shakespeare lays hands on it, but we’ve never heard of those. Othello is based on an Italian short story, “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”). The Tempest is a fantastical revisioning of an actual shipwreck and subsequent attempt to survive on a small island.

We can even play that game with technology. The ipod (I refuse to spell it with that stupid upper-case “p”) was by no means the first mp3-player on the market. Apple waited until several others were out there, and then did what they always do: made a more intuitive, human-centred design and integrated it into their existing lineup of products. Same with smart phones and, going way back, same with desktop computers.

But let’s go even further back in time. The Lumière brothers are often cited as the inventors of the film camera, but there were actually several different inventors around the world who were working on the problem of moving pictures (the logical next step after static pictures). The Lumières just happen to have assembled all their inventions in one machine and added a few of their own. (Edison was so late to that party that he’s not really worth mentioning, but boy howdy did he take the credit!)

My point is, none of these people were innovators in the sense of having created something entirely, completely new; they were adaptors. They took things that were already around and revised, reassembled, and re-presented them. But we don’t remember the original things they adapted, or if we do, we twist our minds around to ascribing “originality” onto the adaptation, as if adaptation weren’t its own, perfectly valid form of creation. (And I suspect, if I were somehow to get into a conversation with Hardwick and/or Perlman, they wouldn’t disagree. Again, I’m just chasing an idea, here.)

This whole thing got me thinking about the social mechanism by which we ascribe originality onto adaptors, and lead me back all the way Julia Round’s notion of “superscription” from “Fragmented Identity: the Superhero Condition,” (International Journal of Comic Art, 7.2), something I heard her read back at a grad-student conference in 2005. In a nutshell, once a particularly popular version of a character gets published in American comics, it over-writes (“superscribes”) previous versions of the character, as if that new version captured what the character was always “supposed” to be, as if that new version what it “really” was the whole time, thus is it both timeless and new, innovative and adapted.

Her example is the Demon Etrigan, but a more well-known one is Batman, who had turned very silly indeed during the 50s and 60s, and whom Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil made much darker in the 70s, which is what Frank Miller drew on in The Dark Knight Returns,  another great example of the person who was most successful at adapting a character being perceived as the originator even though others did the same thing before him.

We don’t remember innovators and originators. We remember the ones that were the most successful in their moment, and then we superscribe the ones who came before them so that we can create a singular creator who invented something all by himself (only occasionally herself, sexism being what it is). This process allows us to perpetuate the illusion of the lone genius whose ideas spring fully formed from his mind without any influence, or the artist who has a direct line to the Muses or God or “the universe” and simply acts as a vessel for the divine.

It’s bullshit, obviously, and the only reason we do it is because we’re told from an early age that originality is the best route to good art/invention, so then we start using originality as the measure of good art/invention, and thus the tail starts wagging the dog. This insistence on originality is culturally specific to late-modern Westerners. It wasn’t the dominant mode before, say, the Romantics; Shakespeare would have made no secret and had no embarrassment about the fact that most of his work was adaptation, and we shouldn’t either.

I want to switch to a different way of talking about good art/invention. I want a new word. The best I’ve come up with, and I’d love something better, is synthesis. You took what was already around you, mashed it all together, dropped some of it, changed some of it, added stuff from your own brain (which itself came from other places and was mashed up inside your head), and then synthesized something that is both made up of pre-existing stuff and somehow unique to itself.

Maybe that’s what Hardwick and Perlman both meant by “innovation” and I’m just being a pedant, but I want this to be the measure of creativity: not originality but the ability to synthesize. That means that those “trend chasers” that Hardwick is talking about could very well make the best damn movie of the decade, not because they were chasing the trend, but because they executed the movie (and the marketing campaign, we’re talking popularity here!) better than the ones that came before.

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