Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
Is there anything new under the sun?
If you’ve been reading your Biblical wisdom literature, you know the official answer to that is “no,” but a lot of people seem reluctant to accept that. A quick google will show you the Internet is overrun with people screaming, “Just come up with something ORIGINAL, Hollywood!!!”—as if there were a simple magic wand producers could wave to blow the whole world’s mind with something the world has never seen before. Never mind that when Hollywood does try a “new idea,” like with Tomorrowland or Pacific Rim, people stay away in droves—while they are more than willing to throw mountains of cash at terrible sequels to long-dead franchises like Jurassic World.
In reality we stand on the ruins of the past (because where else could we stand?).And never mind that even the movies you think are “new ideas” are probably just rip-offs of other movies as well, like Star Wars (“It’s Flash Gordon meets The Hidden Fortress!”) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (It’s King Solomon’s Mines meets James Bond!). The odds are good that if you think an idea is “new,” you’re just unaware of what precipitated it.
Recently I ran across a video intended to counter this idea. Like most videos on the Interwebz, it was very, very strange, and very, very nerdy. Titled Of Oz the Wizard and created by Matt Bucy, it consists of every word in the old MGM film The Wizard of Oz, arranged into alphabetical order. After the opening credits—in which every word on every card is alphabetized as well—the film launches into every single instance of the word “a” in The Wizard, and then works its way down to the final word—”zipper”—before flashing “End The” and the closing credits. I’m pretty sure the only appropriate response is, “That was…weird.” (Which in itself is alphabetized. So that’s nice.)
In an interview with Vox, Bucy shared his impetus for making the film:
It arose out of a challenge from a friend, Ray Guillette, who posited to me, one day back in 2001 or thereabouts, that nothing original was possible. I disagreed. He asked for an example. This idea popped out of my head.
And so we learn that Bucy, for all his genius, is just one of us, railing against the repetitive cycles of human existence, desperately searching the ashes of civilization for something we’ve never seen before.
So, I guess the only question we need to ask ourselves is: did he succeed? Is there finally something new under the sun???
The answer depends on how cynical you want to be about the whole thing. Star Wars is original, in the sense that we’d never seen The Hidden Fortress in space before; Home Alone is original, in the sense that we’d never seen Die Hard in a suburban house before; Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip was original, in the sense that I’d never yearned for death quite that sincerely before.
Of Oz the Wizard, as entertaining and clever as it is, has at best half of a new idea behind it. Your enjoyment of it is entirely predicated on your familiarity with (1) The Wizard of Oz and (2) alphabetization. If you don’t know about one or both of them, you’re unlikely to get any enjoyment out of the video. Of Oz the Wizard isn’t a new idea; it’s just two ideas we’ve never seen together until now. (And even that’s not technically true, since according to L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original novel, the practice of alphabetization itself inspired the land of Oz: stuck for a name for his magical land, he looked at his filing drawers, which were labeled “A-G,” “H-N,” and “O-Z”—and thought that last one was catchy.)
It kind of makes you wonder if humanity is doomed to be forever chasing its tail, trying to come up with something “new” but continually just recycling old ideas. Heck, it makes you wonder if anything “new” is even possible—or even conceivable. What would something completely “new” even look like?
Not every culture in history has been as obsessed with novelty as we are, of course. “Originality” has been seen as a virtue only since the Romantic period; prior to then, most Western thinkers admired works of art for how similar they were to classical masterpieces. I wonder if maybe our own constant chasing of newness reflects a desire to escape our own mortality—an attempt to deny that we’re made of dust and to dust we will return.
In reality we stand on the ruins of the past (because where else could we stand?), and future generations will stand on our ruins as well, trying to turn the dust of our monuments to our own hubris into something beautiful. And maybe they’ll even succeed—but their art will soon return to the dust along with them.