I saw The Suicide Shop recently while it was playing at the Carlton Cinema. This musical, animated film tells the story of a French couple who run, quite literally, a suicide shop: a store that supplies those planning their own deaths the highest quality tools to do so. The only problem is that their son's cheerfulness is bad for business. Sounds different doesn't it? Provocative, fun and creative? As a premise -- yes. As a movie -- not really.
Provocative and fun, maybe. Different and creative, hardly. For the most part, it carries its royal idea on the shoulders of clichés and caricatures. I guess that's not big news, many movies are disappointing.
This one fails, however, in a way that seems to be becoming more and more common. I felt while watching that, instead of seeing a finished movie, I was seeing the filmmakers' blueprint for the movie they wanted to be making. Behind the dialogue I could hear excited people saying:
"Let's make a musical about suicide!"
"Yes, plus let's make it animated!"
"And it can be a scathing commentary on consumerism!"
"Great, plus it'll handle the question of euthanasia in this disturbingly open but somehow empowering and playful way!"
"Amazing, and there'll be all this tension between the father and son!"
All good ingredients, but you don't get a cake by lining up flour, sugar and water. Remember Cracked.com's Trailer for Every Oscar Winning Movie Ever? It seems like more and more movies aren't even trying to pretend they're anything different, they're happy with being nothing more than a series of structural stand-ins for what the filmmakers wanted to do, wanted to make us feel or think.
This little rant got me thinking about a blog post by Brian Millar, Strategy Director at Sense Worldwide, that appeared on Wired.co.uk. The article turns a cynical eye on the common enthusiastic mantra of our day (hyped, Millar confesses, by consultants including himself) that we live in a time of rapid and constant change. "While our Samsung Galaxies and the Internet loom large in our minds," Millar asks, "are they really higher on the disruption Richter scale than the Renaissance, antibiotics or even barbed wire?" Millar uses his grandmother, born in Belfast 1900, as an example of someone who saw enough real change in her years -- in her first 20 years -- that she would hardly be flabbergasted by Twitter.
If accelerated change does not define our times, what Millar does think defines us is "the acceleration of the promise of change." RSN -- Real Soon Now -- is the truth of our mantra according to Millar. "All this stuff is coming! Get ready! Read this now! Hire me quick!" This is what Millar hears beneath the chatter of his fellow consultants, and he thinks it's entirely unfounded. He thinks it should be replaced with the following: "The world is not moving faster than previous decades. It's moving slower than many of them. We are not the most innovative generation in history. We may be the most trivial, the most boring. That's not good enough. Time to accelerate."
If Millar is right, then it sounds as if we as a society are using the same kind of branding tricks that we as individuals and corporations have come to rely upon. Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? If there is one area which has undergone intense innovation in the last 20 years, it's communication. It's always been easier to say more and do less, but now it's really, really easy. Which isn't always a bad thing. RSN could be seen as a sign of imagination and optimism as much as of anxiety and competition. The problem, of course, with a pervasive promise of change is that it sends the cart before the horse. We've branded our generation as innovators but is this image itself really the best thing we've come up with? Are we so hungry for new ideas, we're willing to eat them half-baked? When did "Insert witty line here" really become the wittiest thing anyone can think to say?
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In a funny way, Millar sees through the hypocrisy but buys the underlining ideology. He ends his article by saying it's time to accelerate. As if we're all just sitting around playing Angry Birds. We're not. For example, at least a couple of present day people spent their time inventing Angry Birds. The truth is, as Millar himself admits, we're churning out "a lot of shiny new things" but "many are noisy. Most are trivial." Accelerating isn't going to stop this, if anything it will exasperate it.
Along with being a generation of fast talkers, we are fast in general. Millar wants to say that's false advertising, but it's difficult to deny. What Millar should make us realize is that speed doesn't necessarily equal productivity. More often it equals excitement, great energy and heaps of what-ifs, wouldn't-it-be-greats and insert-heres. It equals movies like The Suicide Shop. We've all heard social critiques and mental health professionals caution us to slow down but their advice is not just about breathing deeper and appreciating the moment more, it's about giving ourselves time to catch up to our imaginations.
Debbie Sterling, who has recently received a great deal of attention for her toy GoldieBlox, is a wonderful counter-example of this trend; she's someone who took her time. GoldieBlox is an "engineering toy for girls." Sterling, an engineer from Stanford, designed it in response to the low number of females in her program. From the outside, GoldieBlox doesn't look like anything all that unique. It's just a board, some pegs, some ribbons, a crank and a storybook. Granted, it's a little less pink and a little less frilly than much of its competition, but as Michelle R. Smith noted in a recent Huffington Post article on toys and gender, GoldieBlox still "includes a liberal dose of pink." What Smith completely glossed over is that Sterling's brilliance has nothing to do with colour. Sterling's epiphany with GoldieBlox is based on the fact that boys tend to want to build things while girls tend to like stories. It's the classic achievement vs. process divide. Instead of trying to completely overturn these inclinations, Sterling figured out how to work with them. She combined building with a narrative process by creating a character little girls could build along with.
Sterling spent a year researching and thinking and then constructed a solution out of some of the most ancient inventions we have around. But she may be on her way to solving a real problem, and in 30, 60, 100 years the design and structure of our society may be significantly altered because of her vision.
Of course, to be fair, no matter how good an idea GoldieBlox is, it would still be just an idea without Kickstarter -- Sterling's video raised the funds needed for Goldieblox to go into production in just five days! Our tendency to talk faster than we act, and act faster than we think, may get in the way of follow-through and careful development, but there are benefits to our speed. We may not be the most innovative generation in history, but we are doing more than just chanting RSN, we're making sure that whenever whatever it is that may or may not be on its way does show up, more of us will know about it and be able to benefit. And we're doing a pretty decent job of that. Which is great, as long as some of us, filmmakers for one, leave the task of RSN prep to others and slow down, sleep even: "perchance to dream."