Originality. Or who are you anyway?


Like John and Yoko in the 60s, we have bed-ins at our place, though more to promote peace of mind than world peace. And no, it isn’t kinky and we don’t invite the media. We just sleep in, wake up late, nibble on snacks and watch movies, sometimes with the kids. This used to be a regular occurrence. Now, we’re lucky to do it two or three times a year.

We finally had a chance sleep in this weekend and watch two good movies. One was “Goodbye Solo” and the other was “Frozen River.” If you’ve never heard of them that’s no surprise. Neither was a big budget film, and both have a kind of no-name Canadian feel. There wasn’t a brand-name star to be found in either one. What made the movies interesting was the originality of the stories.

Frozen River dealt with a recently single, down-at-the-heels mom living in a trailer with her two kids. Her gambling-addicted husband had run off with the deposit on their new double-wide, and she was left fending off the Rent-to-Own collectors trying to repo her TV and trying to keep more than popcorn and Tang on the table. In a twist of movie fate she teams up with a Mohawk girl and together they begin smuggling illegal aliens into the States. Needless to say, the illicit activity comes to an untoward end, our heroine goes to jail, but the story ends on more of an upbeat than one might expect.

Goodbye Solo is the story of a Senegalese cabbie and a depressed old guy who’s planning to commit suicide by leaping off a cliff. How mainstream is that for a movie concept? Well, to be fair, it’s sort of a buddy movie, I guess. The cabby, whose name happens to be Solo, is a sucker for wacky losers and adopts the old guy. This gets him in trouble with his wife, who throws him out, and the two guys end up bunking together in a cheap motel. In a “no good deed goes unpunished” effort, Solo tries to dissuade the old guy from offing himself, only to have the old man literally punch him in the head. In the end, Solo and his young daughter drive the old guy to the mountain, where the old fellow dispatches himself. Fade to black. Strangely enough, though, this movie is eerily upbeat as well. Go figure.

If the plots caught your interest, I apologize for giving up the endings. But these movies are not about plot. They’re about real human relationships, and moreover, about compassion. Neither movie is exactly formulaic, or big box office yet both are worth seeing. They’re originals.

True originality seems as rare today as it’s always been with teenage kids. Teenagers are famous for wanting to create the illusion of originality—while enjoying the comfort of sharing complete conformity with their peer group. But maybe that’s the way of it for all of us. There doesn’t seem to be much originality anywhere, and perhaps there never has been.

Group pressure is the big antidote to originality. When green cars are “in” we all seem to want green cars, especially if green cars are what our role models are driving. “Early adopters” get their green cars first, “laggards” get their green cars last. In between there are the “early majority” and the “late majority.” It’s all spelled out for us in Marketing 101. It’s known as the “Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve.” But before we get early adopters we first need innovators—the originators.

Sadly, these innovators, according to the Rogers theory, aren’t originals either. The premise is this. According to the Value Based Management.net website, “Trying to quickly convince the mass of a new controversial idea is useless. It makes more sense in these circumstances to start with convincing innovators and early adopters first. Also the categories and percentages can be used as a first draft to estimate target groups for communication purposes.”

In other words, finding those people who are almost original, the innovators, is essential to viral marketing, and viral marketing is now, rather depressingly, a predictable social science. Nothing is left to chance—not even originality.

It isn’t hard to make the next small leap, which is, money talks when it comes to originality. If you have money to back you up, you too can have—and market—original concepts. And in fact, history is not the only thing written by the winners. So is originality. Only the wealthy can purchase and sustain original art and original artists.

Sure, there may be a lot of artists capable of great originality, but their work may not be seen by future generations unless someone first purchases and preserves their art. And ironically, there is no more valuable art than the art of artists who died in relative obscurity. Jan Vermeer, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin are good examples.

Real artists, or visual artists at any rate, are relatively rare these days. With the invention of do-it-yourself photography a century ago, art became rather unnecessary. We’re all amateur artists today. And if that’s so, what is art, anyway? Perhaps the art of real life is what we see around us, surprisingly reinterpreted—like the two movies we watched this weekend.

But I get the feeling that we reach a certain time in life when everything gets tired—a kind of “been-there-done-that-and-seen-that” fatigue that comes from watching too much TV or listening to too many iPod tunes or surfing too many websites. With 6.8 billion living voices clamouring for our attention, how could anything possibly be that original?

And that’s the dilemma of everyone who has to feed the creative machine: book publishers, movie directors, music producers and even local news services—including me with this column every week.

If you think that’s difficult, on a personal level we’re all innately and subconsciously aware of just how unoriginal each and every one of us really is. We know that there’s only room for a few people at the top of the social food chain. The rest of us are, well, invisible. We’re just customers, ciphers existing inside a marketing theory.

Knowing that, it should be easy to say, “to hell with it, I’ll just do my own thing. What do I have to lose?” But the strangeness of it all is why we all look and sound so much alike.


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