Familiarity vs. Originality. Or: One Two Three Four! Let’s Rock!

I don’t worship originality. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, a story is not what it’s about, but rather how it’s about it.

I believe that there’s a time and place to retell old stories with new words — to let your hair down and rock out with your cock out.

A good basic genre story is like a three-chord pop song: simple and to the point, with something about it that makes the familiar fun again. Too much innovation can break the comfort-food pleasures of genre in ridiculous ways, like a prog musician mistaking complexity for depth. (I’ll take The Ramones over Yes any day.)

One of my ongoing projects is to write riffs on familiar genre stories to see if I can wring a few fresh drops of blood out of them — some of them are tongue in cheek, with the familiarity of the tropes as part of the joke.

It’s a fun thing to do. Pointless, of course, but most fun things are. So why not.

thatsthejoke

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Put Yourself in a Box – Loving Genres

One of my inspirations is William Friedkin.

His excellent memoir, The Friedkin Connection, got me thinking about the tricky balancing act between personal artistic expression and commercial appeal.

Early in his career, producers David Wolper and Mel Stuart hired him to direct network documentaries. These were very mainstream assignments, intended for prime-time broadcast on ABC. For his first documentary, Friedkin handed in a nouvelle vague-inspired cut, very experimental. The producers predictably lost their shit – “A simple idea, and you assholes made it incomprehensible!”

The producers scrapped the cut and refashioned the footage into a mainstream piece.

Friedkin writes: “It broke me down, and was an invaluable lesson: go straight for the story, don’t clutter it with gimmicks, ‘technique’ or director’s touches … My Wolper documentaries led to future work, but they stripped me of the ambition to make films that reflected my own sensibilities …”

Later, in his best films, he would find a way to express his sensibilities in commercially viable genres. These films – The French Connection and The Exorcist among them – exemplify the values I hold dear. They are powered by the vitality of pulp fiction, but are thematically complex. Slippery and ambiguous, they refuse to tell the viewer what to think and feel. They’re driven by a delicious friction between commercial and subversive impulses.

That’s the kind of balance I aim for in my genre writing. Genres are flexible instruments. As long as you deliver the thrills, you have a lot of latitude to explore themes that are personally meaningful to you.