ORIGINALITY

Tuesday night on the David Letterman show, Jim Carrey appeared to promote his new movie, "Bruce Almighty." While there he mentioned the upcoming release of the sequel to "Dumb and Dumber," starring two unknown actors interpreting roles created by himself and Jeff Daniels. In reference to this he bitterly quipped, "Imitation is the sincerest form of (suddenly shouting) PLAGIARISM."

I'm sure Frank Gorshin would agree, but it's anybody's guess where Andy Kaufman would stand on the subject.

True originality in any field is very hard to come by. In the restaurant business there are a few great chefs and a multitude of burger flippers. In my own field, there are a few brilliant scientists coming up with new things, but most are like myself; just guys with training following procedures outlined in regulatory manuals. Even among the well educated and highly trained, most of us are the metaphorical equivalent of burger flippers. We show up at work today and imitate what we did yesterday.

Take Jim Carrey, for example. Not to pick on him especially. We're all guilty of this, but HE brought it up. Look up his filmography and check the number of times he imitates himself, or using his preferred term, sincerely plagiarizes himself.

Premise: Jim is affected by a preternatural power which causes him to behave in a comically bizarre fashion throughout the movie. At the end of the story his normal condition is restored and he has reached a deeper level of understanding about himself and the world.

So, what movie is that? It's "The Mask." It's "Liar Liar." It's "Me, Myself and Irene." And I haven't seen it yet, but I'll bet ten bucks "Bruce Almighty" is right in there with the rest.

In fairness to the artist, these formulaic vehicle movies are often the result of the demands of the business. Writers, producers and directors see "The Mask" and then come up with racks of ideas that are similar enough that they hope to duplicate the success while being dissimilar enough so that the target audience won't notice it's the same thing again.

So every other movie is going to be one of these or another Ace Ventura or something, and in even numbered years he puts out something truly original like "The Truman Show."

Not so fast.

In 1986 a guy named Paul Bartel directed an Amazing Stories vignette called "Secret Cinema" which was a remake of a short film by the same name and the same director in 1968. In this film, actors insinuate themselves into a girl's life and present her with contrived situations which are secretly filmed and then, without her knowledge, screened for audiences. She is unwittingly the famous star of her own life, which is cruelly manipulated for the sake of maximizing entertainment value. She eventually figures it out, rebels and breaks free.

"Secret Cinema." "The Truman Show." Imitation is the sincerest form of PLAGIARISM.

But discounting this example (after all he accepted the job, but he didn't write the thing), we do see some truly non-imitative work with "The Man in the Moon." Bad example. I mean if you're pretending to be a person familiar to the audience, imitation to the point of mimicry is perfectly appropriate.

It's not that he's the only one in Hollywood doing this. Compare the plot of "Galaxy Quest" to that of "The Three Amigos." The principals of "Point of No Return" acknowledged that they were copying "La Femme Nikita" but I never heard anybody acknowledge that "La Femme Nikita" was a scene-for-scene copy of an Asian movie titled "The Black Cat."

If you saw a Ron Howard movie called "Willow" you saw a story made entirely of quotes from other works, from the baby in the bull rushes to the witch turning a band of men into a herd of swine. An experiment in Chinese menu Campbellism. (A good idea on the drawing board. Should have worked.) Use passages from the classics and you're on safe ground, maybe even literate. Spaz out on film and you'll meet Jim Carrey's lawyers.

The creativity game seems to be one of balance and "originality" seems to be ever vague and provisional, based on the literacy of the audience. If you're truly original, if your art differs significantly from all the art that has gone before, it's just going to seem wrong. Yet again, if it's too similar it's going to seem too imitative, immature or derivative. I guess that's why nonfiction is so appealing. I've found true originality to be too big an obstacle. Like Salieri, I know it when I see it but I can't quite accomplish it myself.

RTJ--5/21/2003


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