October 28, 2007

Our Cultural Memory is Down to 7.2 Seconds in Duration


I make no claims that anything I do or say is “original.” I know better than that. I’m nothing but a tiny smudge on a long line of people smarter and more talented than myself who’ve done pretty much the same damn thing, and, in doing so, have influenced me.

      Fact is, there’s little if anything “original” being said or created anywhere in the world today. Maybe we just reached a limit and are being forced to repeat ourselves. I remember when I was in junior high school, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that all the conceivable arrangements of musical notes had been put together, and as a result there would be no more new music. From that point on, all we were going to get were cover songs.

      Now, thirty years later, I wake up and, well . . . there you go. Morgan and I will be sitting in the bar and a song will come on and I’ll say something like “That’s the Buzzcocks, ain’t it?” and she’ll tell me no, that it’s actually some new band of youngsters who are making far more money than the Buzzcocks ever did by aping their sound note for note. The hate and contempt floods through me at the news, but it’s a pointless waste of energy.

      It happens almost daily—I’ll hear or read or see something that’s being touted as “new” and “completely original,” when in fact it’s clearly just a rip off of something that had been done (usually much better) a hundred, or fifty, or ten, or two years ago. But nobody seems to recognize this anymore. I grow especially irked with book and film critics, too bowled over by various torrents of hype and clever press releases to realize that, say, The Da Vinci Code was just a seriously dumbed-down version of Umberto Eco’s first novel, based on long-established (and not terribly interesting) historical theories. I saw some recent notices about a new collection of short pieces by Chuck Klosterman, only to realize (having never read him) that he’s doing the same thing I was doing twenty years ago. And twenty years ago, Christ, I was aping the early writings of Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer from ten years earlier still.

      Film critics, meanwhile, never bothered to point out that the 1998 American remake of Godzilla, say, wasn’t a remake of Godzilla at all—it was a remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. And if they’d pointed that much out, maybe they also would’ve seen fit to note that it was the second time Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had remade a Ray Harryhausen film (the first being Independence Day, their remake of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) without once giving the great Mr. Harryhausen a lick of credit.

      And those are just a couple of easy examples off the top of my head. I can’t read a plot synopsis of any recent film without shaking my head in wonderment. Makes me think I should write a screenplay with the same plot line as Jaws, just to see if anyone notices.

      Oh, wait a second . . .

      In a more timely example, there’s a bunch of hype and hand-wringing growing over Brian DePalma’s new film, Redacted. It concerns a group of American troops in Iraq who kill a bunch of innocent civilians and rape a teenage girl. But I’ve yet to see anyone point out the little fact that DePalma already made this movie once, back in 1989. (Maybe the fact that he called it Casualties of War back then has people confused.)

      Even history and politics work this way. People (including myself) get all worked up about the loss of civil liberties (well, a couple of people do) under the guise of this “war on terror,” yet nobody talks about how we’ve been through all this before—most notably in 1920, following a rash of “anarchist” bombings which led to the first Red Scare. Before that, even, you have the Alien and Sedition Act. Hell, they don’t even talk about the FALN bombings around New York in the seventies and eighties—and those just happened!

      (I’m guessing it probably isn’t even worth bringing up that this case of obvious mass hysteria on Staten Island—this supposed “Ninja Burglar” who keeps breaking into homes then vanishing into thin air—is just a replay of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.)

      I’m all over the place here. I’m sorry. Two news stories set me off this morning. First, there was a big feature in a British paper about a group of smart, urbane French youths who were doing something that no one had ever considered before—they were spending their nights exploring the tunnels beneath the city!

      Those crazy French kids with their adventurous ideas!

      Yes, well, I have news for the little fuckers. It’s been done. I spent nights in Green Bay exploring the tunnels beneath the city when I was sixteen. At the University of Chicago, you used to be able to buy t-shirts which featured a schematic of the steam tunnel maze below the campus. And Christ, back in the late seventies, kids all over the U.S. played Dungeons and Dragons in urban tunnels.

      Then I saw something about author Chuck Palahniuk.

      Now, first off, let me say right off the bat that I have nothing against him. I think he’s a fine writer, and what’s more, I couldn’t be happier that someone who writes what he does continues to get published and has an enormous readership. I take it as a sign of hope, and he has my full respect.

      My beef, however, is with the hoopla that continues to this day over his first novel, Fight Club.

      I freely admit that if I’d read the book when I was seventeen, and if I had read nothing else prior to that, it very likely would’ve changed my life.

      Unfortunately, I had read a number of things prior to encountering Fight Club—and a lot of them, it turns out, were the same things Mr. Palahniuk had read, too, from Nietzsche to Burroughs to RE/Search Publications’ Pranks! and Industrial Culture Handbook.

      Anyway, the story this morning made reference to “Palanhiuk’s theory that canned laughter was recorded in the fifties, and that what we’re hearing now is actually the laughter of dead people.”

      Yes, well, it’s a fine and true observation, certainly. So fine and true, in fact, that Woody Allen saw fit to include it in Annie Hall (1977).

      (I don’t necessarily blame Mr. Palahniuk for that—I blame the stupid dummy who cites it as Palanhiuk’s original idea.)

      Then again, Morgan and I were talking last night about people who, quite accidentally, come up with the same idea. History’s chock full of big examples: Newton and Leibniz coming up with calculus right around the same time; Democritus and Epicurus both conceiving of atomic theory independently of one another (which could lead to another Woody Allen joke if I wanted it to). Hell, when I was a freshman in college, I wrote a final paper for a philosophy class that I thought was the real cat’s pajamas—something no one had ever thought of before—only to learn a few short days later that St. Augustine had come up with pretty much the same idea, oh, a mere sixteen centuries earlier, the bastard.

      I’ve since learned over and over again that any claims of “originality” should be considered with more than a little suspicion.

      Maybe a friend of mine had the proper attitude. A while back he sent me a copy of a screenplay he’d written. It was a good screenplay, I thought, but the final scene seemed awfully similar to something I’d seen on The Simpsons several years back.

      When I mentioned this to him, he shrugged it off. “There’s nothing new anymore,” he said. “I gave up that notion a long time ago . . . and besides, how many people apart from you do you think will even notice, or care?”

      He has a point there. Ah, Santayana—you keep slapping us in the face and we still don’t learn.


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