In fact, this is almost never true.
know how to talk about genius because we’re reluctant to talk
qualitatively and prefer to talk quantitatively: this thing didn’t exist, and then it
did. We’re ashamed to use our
subjective judgment and say “best”, so we attempt to make an objective statement
and say “first.”
will often claim that Citizen Kane is great because it was the first movie to
use that type of non-linear structure, or the first to use deep-focus
photography. In fact,
neither of these is true: Kane’s structure and subject matter are very indebted
to The Power and the Glory, written
by none other than Preston Sturges, which told the story of the rise and fall
of a railroad magnate though non-linear flashbacks. Likewise, Welles admired
cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep focus work on The Long Journey Home and hired him to bring that look to
these works doesn’t detract from the genius of Welles, but rather magnifies it. It shows that the supposed innovations
he’s credited with are not enough to explain his success, since The Power and the Glory and The
Long Journey Home are both good-but-not-great
genius was to spot the value of these innovations and bring them together,
along with an underutilized screenwriter, a hand-picked acting troupe, and
lots of other elements to make something that was greater than anyone thought
possible. He didn’t innovate, he
The myth of
Citizen Kane as a movie of firsts arose because the earlier films weren’t great
enough to be remembered decades later.
Once they had fallen out of the collective memory, Kane seemed
to be the first to do these things, while in fact, it was merely the first to
do them in a way that could not be forgotten.
One of my
favorite finds of recent years was Bob Dylan’s XM Satellite Radio show. Surprisingly,
Dylan was a relaxed, humble and funny D.J. Less surprising was his great and eclectic taste in music. He rarely played music from his own
genres, folk and rock, roaming instead across dozens of forgotten musical
trends of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, playing obscure tracks that he deeply revered.
By the time his
listeners had immersed themselves in hundreds of his favorite forgotten songs,
Dylan’s own musical achievements didn’t seem so shocking anymore. All he did was take the best parts of
these obscure genres and put them together. And now, like a magician on a valedictory tour, he was
opening the curtain to show us how he pulled it off.
The myth of
the innovative genius is one that can paralyze writers. It can discourage us from drawing on
the past, or from learning traditional structures, because we feel that we
should be making stuff up from scratch.
It can cause us to dismiss great artists who aren’t iconoclasts, or
overvalue ones that are. But it’s good to keep in mind that true
genius has more to do with cultivating pre-existing innovations, combining them in artistically brilliant ways.