A Short Animation Explores the Nature of Creativity & Invention, with Characters That Look Like Andrei Tarkovsky & Sergei Eisenstein

A gen­tle­man goes to the movies, only to find a mar­quee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and pre­quels. He demands to know why no one makes orig­i­nal films any­more, a rea­son­able ques­tion peo­ple often ask. But it seems he has run direct­ly into a grad­u­ate stu­dent in crit­i­cal the­o­ry behind the glass. The tick­et-sell­er rat­tles off a the­o­ry of uno­rig­i­nal­i­ty that is dif­fi­cult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recita­tion of the Wikipedia page on “Pla­gia­rism.”

This is one of the ironies in “Aller­gy to Orig­i­nal­i­ty” every Eng­lish teacher will appre­ci­ate. In the short, ani­mat­ed New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an offi­cial Sun­dance selec­tion in 2014, “two men dis­cuss whether any­thing is tru­ly orig­i­nal — espe­cial­ly in movies and books,” notes the Times. The ques­tion leads us to con­sid­er what we might mean by orig­i­nal­i­ty when every work is built from pieces of oth­ers. “In cre­at­ing this Op-Doc ani­ma­tion,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and pho­tographs, retraced innu­mer­able draw­ings, then pho­to­copied them as a way to under­score the un-orig­i­nal­i­ty of the entire process.”

From William Bur­roughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” mod­erns have only been re-dis­cov­er­ing what ancients accept­ed with a shrug — no one can take cred­it for a sto­ry, not even the author. Barthes argued that “lit­er­a­ture is pre­cise­ly the inven­tion of this voice, to which we can­not assign a spe­cif­ic ori­gin: lit­er­a­ture is that neuter, that com­pos­ite, that oblique into which every sub­ject escapes, the trap where all iden­ti­ty is lost, begin­ning with the very iden­ti­ty of the body that writes.”

In Christie’s short, the smar­tass the­ater employ­ee con­tin­ues quot­ing sources, now from the “Orig­i­nal­i­ty” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about orig­i­nal­i­ty. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for exam­ple, out­raged that she had been accused of pla­gia­rism. He came to her defense with an earnest con­vic­tion: “The ker­nel, the soul—let us go fur­ther and say the sub­stance, the bulk, the actu­al and valu­able mate­r­i­al of all human utter­ance — is pla­gia­rism.”

Post­mod­ern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much oppor­tu­ni­ty to ver­bal­ly spar in pub­lic like this late­ly, unmasked and in search of enter­tain­ment in a pub­lic square. If you find your­self exas­per­at­ed with the stream­ing choic­es on offer, if the books you’re read­ing all start to feel too famil­iar, con­sid­er the infi­nite num­ber of cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in the art of quo­ta­tion — and remem­ber that we’re always repeat­ing, replay­ing, and remix­ing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Every­thing is a Remix: A Video Series Explor­ing the Sources of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mal­colm McLaren: The Quest for Authen­tic Cre­ativ­i­ty

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

Quentin Tarantino’s Copy­cat Cin­e­ma: How the Post­mod­ern Film­mak­er Per­fect­ed the Art of the Steal

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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