photo by flickr user kevin makice used under a creative commons license

Everything is not a remix

against a popular deepity

There’s an idea out there that’s gotten a lot of traction about the origin of stories and the nature of narrative. The idea is that everything we consume in culture has come before and that we merely re-imagine the same material over and over again. It’s been most successfully articulated in a popular series of Internet videos titled Everything is a Remix by the filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, who is something of an evangelist about it. But the idea has popped up in other places. Dan Harmon, the creator of the NBC sitcom Community, has endorsed this idea of narrative and says he uses it himself. A recent book on screenwriting by Tom Lennon and Robert E. Garant echoed this idea, and in fact it’s essentially an orthodoxy in popular books on screenwriting. Although the idea has recently gotten greater purchase, you’ll find that it’s been a recurring theme. George Lucas famously attributed the success of Star Wars to his embrace of classical storytelling archetypes. The most famous and widely quoted proponent of this is the late academic Joseph Campbell, who wrote influential texts like Hero of a Thousand Faces. Carl Jung was another prominent advocate and wove these ideas into his psychoanalytic theories.

The problem is that this narrative isn’t true. Everything is not a remix, and the idea distorts more than it explains.

Why? Well, I probably wouldn’t just say that “everything is a remix” is wrong. I would say that it’s not even wrong. It depends on half truths, willfully vague readings of particular stories, and intentionally ignoring salient differences. I’ve made the case against “Everything is a remix” before, but to my dismay, the idea has staying power, and it needs to be addressed again.

Here’s how it works.

Do you remember John Edward? That psychic guy? Not the philandering former VP candidate, but the minor celebrity who claimed he could commune with the dead. He and other people in the professional fortune teller industry are very savvy in how they go about their business. They tell people things that are true but so intentionally vague as to be effectively meaningless. They’ll tell people “your father was involved in art or music,” or “you’re about to undertake a major change, and it involves money.” These things are usually superficially true because they’re so broad and vaguely expressed that they’re true of just about everyone. “Everything is a remix” arguments function in exactly the same way. Saying “a son struggles to overcome the legacy of his father” may be an accurate description of a movie, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a statement of equal discrimination and value as “you will soon take a long journey.” It’s a parlor trick, just like fortune telling. This is why I say “everything is a remix” is not even wrong. It’s argued in terms so loose and breezy that it doesn’t rise to the level of being wrong.

In practice, efforts to insist that everything is a remix involve taking stories that are different on the surface and explaining how, in fact, they are supposedly the same in a deeper sense. For example, I’ve heard often that the Social Network is the same story as Citizen Kane. Mark Zuckerberg, in the world of that movie, is essentially Charles Foster Kane, who is himself based on William Randolph Hearst. Both movies tell about a young mogul who remakes media in his own image. Both characters gain great material success but sacrifice important relationships, and are portrayed in the movies as alienated and alone. Both reject the typical ladder for success in American business and subvert the assumed wisdom of their time in doing so. There’s a lot more superficial connections, too, if you’d care to look for them. Same story, right?

Except that it isn’t. Facebook is not like early 20th century newspapers. Facebook is the total subversion of the top-down, narrative-defining power that newspapers once represented. Zuckerberg was successful in large part because he gave away the power that Hearst painstakingly accrued. Charles Foster Kane is actually nothing like the Mark Zuckerberg character. Their motivations are different, their moral values are different. Their orientation towards the people they have been alienated from is different. And these differences aren’t trivial; in fact they concern the fundamental thematic attitudes of the movies. The sled is so important to Citizen Kane because it represents what Kane lost as a result of the choices he made; it’s a symbol of change. Meanwhile, in the Social Network, a lot of the tension comes precisely from how Zuckerberg hasn’t changed. The very end of the movie has a payoff line that reinforces one of the central themes, which is the way that the vast changes in Zuckerberg’s life can’t quite help him escape a particular character trait. That difference—between a main character who is haunted by what he’s left behind and a main character who is haunted by what he can’t escape—that’s not a trivial difference.

Now, in my experience, proponents of the “everything is a remix” argument wouldn’t dispute individual differences. They would just say, “yes, but in these ways it’s the same.” It can be really frustrating debating this stuff, because there’s no threshold for when they abandon the pretense that two stories are the same. There is no argumentative methodology. Individual details can be embraced or abandoned as evidence without any alteration to the fundamental argument. You never get to a non-negotiable difference. If a key difference is pointed out, people just hop to the other foot to talk about how the stories are really alike. There’s no consistency in the level of evidence that’s necessary to claim that two stories are the same, or that one is the remix or another. It’s the classic problem of non-falsifiability: arguments that cannot be disproven have no value.

I don’t doubt at all that a lot of people are writing screenplays with the idea of modeling a classic story. Like I said, it’s practically holy writ in screenwriting circles. That’s just the trouble: screenwriters have been convinced that what matters is the structure and not the details. But the details are everything. A generation of screenwriters has been seduced by the idea that you can skip the hard work, and that’s precisely why you’re likely disappointed by the current state of the movies.

Sometimes creators explicitly acknowledge that they’re basing their work on a classic story. The Lion King was consciously modeled on Hamlet. You’ve got the prince, you’ve got the murderous uncle, you’ve got the ghost, you’ve got the prince’s duty. That’s a plausible description of similarity. What’s remarkable is how entirely insufficient that description is to explaining either story. What makes the Lion King appropriate family fare, and what makes Hamlet Hamlet, is precisely what is not conveyed through the “archetype” or whatever other wonky term you choose. What makes Hamlet resonant in no small part is the psychosexual tension, the Oedipal conflict, and all the murder, including the sad death of the titular character. Simba isn’t lying dead, stabbed and poisoned, begging Pumba to tell his story, nor does he drive Nala to suicide. The archetype might be able to provide a framework but it’s everything that fills in the framework that matters to you, in the end, as an audience.

Take a more extreme example: King Kong (1933) and King Kong (2005). Obviously, this goes beyond remix; this is a direct remake. The original and the Peter Jackson version obviously tell about the same story. Yet the effect of watching the two movies is entirely different. I’m not here to offer comments on quality, but I think you’ll agree with me that the latest version moves much, much more slowly than the tightly-plotted original. Hell, for some cuts, the 2005 version is about twice as long as as the 1933 version. That makes all the difference for the movie as an experience. If you listed the major plot points of the two you’d come up with very similar documents, but you’d have left out everything that makes them as movies. That’s the lesson that should be beaten into the head of young screenwriters—that details are everything, that the hard work of character and dialogue and setting is what matters, that narrative is about far more than what could possibly be diagrammed—but that lesson is discouraging, it suggests more work rather than less, and lacks the marketing value of a good gimmick. It doesn’t sell books so it doesn’t get taught.

Think back to George Lucas. The conventional wisdom is that the original Star Wars trilogy was a great success while the second was a great failure. So what do we suppose happened here? Did George Lucas forget about that whole “trust in archetypes” thing? Did he lose his copy of Joseph Campbell? Of course not. Look, you can come up with a whole list of “archetypal stories” the Star Wars prequels fit into: love vs. duty! Rebellion from mentorship! The descent into evil! Tyranny, security, and the rule of law! These are all the sort of thing that the instructor of a useless screenwriting workshop would write on the board; but they’re nothing to build a movie on. Archetypes and diagrams can’t give you characters you care about, they can’t give you dialogue that’s believable and moving, can’t give you a reason to invest in the emotional contract of a given film.

The stakes here are low. This isn’t a moral judgment of anyone, and there are worse sins in understanding movies and storytelling. But this argument is of a piece with a disturbing turn in “big think” ideas, where spectacle and gimmickry have replaced discretion and care. Everywhere you look, there are books and essays that claim to describe the world, not through careful and limited analysis but through the identification of large, supposedly universal generalizations—about success, about human kind, about the nature of the universe. Ideas become a vehicle for scoring points at a party, rather than part of a long and frequently dispiriting process of sorting between limited claims of differing value. I have this rule: if someone delivers an idea the way they deliver a joke—where there’s a set-up and a punch line, a moment designed to shock or startle—I never take it very seriously. Genuine knowledge very rarely is arranged into bite sized slogans, or is contrarian enough to shock people. We’ve forgotten that knowledge making takes time and is rarely satisfying. Believing in irreducible complexity disqualifies a lot of the books on New York Times bestseller list for me, but it helps me avoid being seduced by the endless appeal of glib ideas.

If you don’t believe me, challenge me: name two movies that you think I can’t possibly claim are remixes of each other. I promise, no matter how dissimilar they may appear, I can come up with an argument that they’re “the same story”— provided I am allowed to speak in the soggy generalizations that are the stock in trade of “everything is a remix.” And the ease with which I can make those arguments is exactly why this trope is so useless. An argument that can apply for the equivalence of any two stories is not an argument at all.

The claim “everything is a remix” is a deepity, a statement that appears profound on the surface but which is actually meaningless. And like a lot of bad ideas out there, its mechanism is the appearance of profundity that stems from being willfully vague. It’s not a personal failing of the people espousing it, just a sad reality of our times, and a big part of the reason that the movie theater often appears to be a barren landscape.

One of my favorite movies is Gus van Sant’s Gerry. Watching it reminds me of how tired I am of movies where the screenwriter attempted, ineptly, to retell a classic story, and failed to realize that the details were what mattered. Films like Gerry remind me of the possibility of really trying something different, and how rare it is. Now, if you want, you are certainly entitled to say that Gerry is just the classic archetype of “Man vs. Nature,” and is actually the same story as Jaws or Alive or whatever else. Go right ahead, knock yourself out, say that. You just won’t actually be saying anything at all.