derivatives | for writing
Much of human culture and thought originates from our imaginations. The more creative, independent, and vivid the imagination of a particular culture, the more nuanced, unique, original, and one could say effective that culture is.
I personally believe that all culture and entertainment are equally enabled as a result of the existence of objective ideas and the chase for meaningful moral thought – to even tell a story is to assume most presumptively that something matters. Why do I beg your attention in story form and wrap it in such care if there is nothing really worth saying?
If there is no morality, then of course nothing at all matters, and you can’t tell a story about something that matters when nothing matters. One could even say that the end of all creativity may be when simply nothing matters at all.
Some people believe story telling is just that – saying, sometimes screaming at the top of one’s lungs, that nothing matters, but as we all know, this goes against the very grain and fiber of human instinct and composition, and our grain is precisely why these sorts of “anti-matter” statements are so intriguing and engaging. We WANT things to matter, very much so, and we want our stories to equally reflect that sense of worth – or at the very least, to achingly express the search for it. We want to experience things that open our minds while engaging us in the reality and beauty of the world around us.
This dual topic of morality and creativity in story telling brings me to the topic of this post – the state of creativity today. Without question there are still movers, inventors and shakers who pour their sweat and their blood into what they create in a manner that should be emulated.
Still, it amazes me sometimes how little thought I observe being put into productions that have millions of dollars burning up every few seconds that tick by. Nowadays, story mechanics, writers mechanics, screenplays, casting ensembles, staging devices, camera work, acting devices and more have largely been reduced to a steaming pile of recycled, tired, worn-at-the-creases mass culture that does little more than tiptoe around already worn and politically correct stereotypes.
Popular culture is so pervasive, it is actually poisonous to creativity itself. One could make the case that a two year old has more freedom of imagination than any adult due to constant over-exposure and over-knowledge of the things I mention. Serious filmmakers who are concerned with the state of the movie business mourn the adaptation of action figures, video games, and board games into film franchises – Hollywood hardly even stirs from its slumbering depths these days unless film proposals contain the terms “3D,” “comic-book,” “universe,” or “franchise.” That which was of true value, or even slight true value, is endlessly claimed, adapted, mimed, referenced, over-quoted, franchised and re-franchised, and over hyped to the point where one begins to wonder what exactly it was about the original that spawned such a blind and feverish following. Intrinsic value is made subjective to the components within, and no one retains the objective ability to dissect something to its abstract, objective principles which made it great. What we are discussing is the death of independent thought and the ultimate death of a culture. What made Scarface or the Godfather or The Wizard of Oz or The Sound Of Music amazing and engaging for so many? How did they get there when they were the first ones in line?
Oftentimes we are so immersed in popular culture and its influence, when we create stories or films or whatever we are making, we simply refer to other already established forms, ones that receive perhaps more unmitigated and non-discerning attention than they deserve. It’s as if all of humanity has forgotten how to think further than the last 100 years, and everything we are in contact with is inside that tiny window.
We too often define new ventures as little bits of patchworks from other successful characters, stories, directors, and shows – we say things like “it’s a little bit like a spy thriller, and there’s a main character kind of rough around the edges like the doctor from HOUSE, and it all has this incredible tension that reminds me of a Spielberg or a Kubrick film.” There, I’ve gone and made a sentence that would confuse the living daylights out of any two year old, Leonardo Da Vinci, alien visitor, or an American pioneer. I’ve restricted my creative depth and creative target details to a mere 100 year window in human history, and refused to boil down my thinking to the raw elements of mathematics, philosophy, and reality and the actual components that make things what they are.
I believe this is largely why so many films these days hit almost all the right buttons in terms of spectacle and special effects, but the story itself often feels incredibly flat, or it feels strangely flat in an unidentifiable and foggy way, or the characters feel like I’d hardly stop and say hello on the street, much less actually care about them, or the characters simply abandon their humanity, the R-E-A-L humanity we all know inside all too quickly.
It is high time we realized we live in a real world and a real universe with real human beings and realize that a justified story is a story that justifiably manifests itself in at least some manner within that same R-E-A-L universe. No matter how fantastical your story is, it still takes place undeniably in the R-E-A-L universe we know and inhabit – and the more you pay attention to the system of rules we are forced to follow as humans as you create, the more enveloping, grand, and convincing your story can be.
No one seems to stop and think about the actual components, understanding, techniques, and thinking that made those successful things the way they were – we are content with merely copying and pasting and shading things a slightly different color, and we think we are done, and have done our job. We are a thinly veiled shadow or a distant half-moon, cloudy day reflection of Shakespeare, or Leo Tolstoy, or Victor Hugo, or Charles Dickens and we have virtually no means of getting back to what exactly it was that made the content they produced great.
I could write volumes in response to the above paragraphs and opening exposition, and try to make my point from every conceivable angle, trying to prove how trite culture actually is, and then go on a tangent as to how imitation and repetition are actually active and healthy parts of a creative community and always have been – but my desire in this post is simply to scream loud enough to remember everyone who makes and creates to pause, and clear one’s mind for just a brief moment, if just that.
Anything that is created as a reduction, increase, change of, or made of parts of anything else, anything that is measured from other measurements, is called a derivative. In mathematics, this same definition applies. Without getting too deep into calculus, since most of it has been forgotten by yours truly anyways, I make this simple point:
“The infinite derivative of a constant is zero.”
Amazingly enough, this is an actual mathematical rule! It is intrinsic to the universe we inhabit. If I take a derivative of the number one, and then keep, keep, keep, keep doing this, I will eventually end up with zero. The more a culture is defined by itself, the more a culture forgets how to think creatively and deeply and truthfully as human beings, the more we are really just a sorry assembly of derivatives, and the closer we get to absolutely nothing at all.
The more derivative a source is, the closer it is to being absolutely nothing at all – to zero. I honestly believe that this increase in derivatives is the fact that we have so little center as human beings any more, and in our pride, we think we live in an unassailable castle of originality – but our inability to connect with truth or the taste of it means that so little of our meaning has any meaning left in it.
Oftentimes, stories consist of mere emotional patchwork bolstered up by music and artistry – for some, this is satisfying enough of a meal, but because there is no truth or moral integrity to the story being told, it doesn’t hold up. We must stop thinking in terms of derivatives and find a way to think in terms of constants. Not just in our mathematics, but in our photography, our filmmaking, our writing, and our thinking about what’s real, valuable, and what ultimately matters in this world. Searching and finding are an essential part of creativity about the world, and we cannot ask any questions when we start with what we have decided are an already assumed list of answers. This is not adherence to the anti-thought that “there are no answers” and life is just a list of questions – merely that there aren’t enough questions being asked. Take any film and its weaknesses, and most of them start with a list of questions that people ask that were clearly not asked by its creators.
I take the historical epic sword-and-sandal series as an example, and merely highlight one or two features of them to expose rampant derivativism (I created that word!). It’s a genre that is tough to be original with, so I am not bashing any one of these sources nor saying it is easy to create them. This is also a very shallow issue that I highlight, but nevertheless, I believe it highlights a pattern.
In Braveheart in 1995, Mel Gibson and William Wallace taught us about fighting for freedom. It was, however accurate or not, a phenomenal story in its own right. In a famous scene from that film, the Scots have to hold a line on foot against charging cavalry in order to wait till the last second to reveal spears that were specifically created to unseat the riders. In that scene, Wallace guides his men by shouting “hold!!” till the last second. He also established a very clear rhetoric in the film about freedom and its causes.
Gladiator came out a few years later, and while it had absolutely wonderful aspects of originality in it, there was a battle scene in the beginning that had a general yelling “Hold!” In this case, he was encouraging his cavalary to hold together as they charged downhill into the melee-ing Picts and Romans. I am not accusing this movie directly of plagiarism, but this is going somewhere.
The movie 300 is a more recent tale in this vein – it did plenty of its own original things, but the language in the film with relation to freedom and its motivation for the Spartans reasons felt a bit underdeveloped, and slightly out of place for the time period. For someone familiar with the genre, these comments about freedom felt like they hardly did more than assemble a few lines that sounded like they were from Braveheart or Gladiator. Most of what was beautiful and original about this film was straight from Frank Miller’s comic book by the same name.
I was able to see some of the new Starz network “Spartacus:Blood and Sand” show, and in a fight in the woods at the beginning of the show, a main character yells “hold the line!” I couldn’t help notice that there was no visible line of soldiers to be held, or rhyme or reason for him yelling this. Again, it feels as if this particular scene was written on a particularly quick lunch break by someone not familiar with all the variables being engaged. The line has become a popular culture item that, if you don’t really care, you put in any production featuring swords, sandals, and blood. The show does its own things well, but too often the entire architecture is not remotely original. Interestingly enough, the show goes to new depths (in some cases way too far in my opinion) in terms of its portrayal of Roman vice, and the main character seems to maintain a Judeo-Christian ethic as a means of obtaining the sympathy of the audience.
Almost every piece of this production is from other parts – in some ways, you could say that they marketed it successfully, because people recognize what they have enjoyed in the past. Perhaps this is the intrinsic problem with so much of our market today – too often everything we do and say is motivated by a desire to succeed and make money. We’d rather make a buck than invent our own economy. We’d rather market a cheap sounding item that reflects the ones that have greater work put into them and get people to buy it.
There are other things that are very derivative about each of these – and as Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” While this is true, and sometimes actually necessary, I believe that while everything is a derivative on some level, it all depends on what you are a derivative of, and to what degree. Without going into all the reasons behind these things and the intrinsic value or lack of value of them or where they came from and why, I simply restate: the derivative of a constant is zero. I by no means claim to be exclusively creatively original – – but I ache to chase after this in all I create.
I’ve been working on a short film for three years, which, by its very nature, is derivative of many other subjects – much of that is due to our limitations as a no-budget filmmaking office, but we have tried at every possible instance to be as non-derivative as possible while still remaining true to style and genre. As a new filmmaker, applying derivatives is an essential part of my learning process – I absolutely must imitate those who know far more than I do – again, I believe the rule of derivatives is a valuable but also a dangerous one.