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Short takes, January 2002
By Lawrence Henry
For Christmas, our son Bud finally got his heart's desire, a Game Boy Advanced, a sophisticated, hand-held interactive game player. He has lost himself in the arcana of the Pokemon game, and his conversation has gone over almost entirely to a near-incomprehensible litany of faux-Japanese names.
His father (me) has been tormented by the Pokemon game's soundtrack, a synth-generated pastiche of near-ripoff musical themes. I've been a commercial composer, so I know what's going on here. Some musical geekhead has had to fill up an enormous amount of acoustic space with something, and, as Schoenberg is supposed to have said, all the tonal music in the world had already been written by about 1912. So you do what you can: You steal. Kind of.
Copyright laws being what they are, you can't steal much, but you can steal a start. As I listen to Bud play, I have identified interior phrases from Mercer & Kern's "Dearly Beloved," parts of the UCLA fight song, "Dixie," "Apache," and the "Bonanza" theme, rhythmic quotes from "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and Ravel's "Bolero," and a cadence from one of Bill Evans's jazz waltzes. That's only - Lord help me - at Level 60, as Bud tells me.
The flap over plagiarism is widening out from historian Stephen Ambrose, and now includes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think it's benign stuff, actually. I think it's word-processing. Ambrose and Goodwin (there will probably be more) are prolific modern writers who use computers in their work. Ambrose, in particular, runs what you can only describe as a writing factory, with lots of help from researchers and graduate assistants.
In the old typewriter days, you'd keep your researches in different kinds of notebooks, on color-coded index cards, or in typed transcriptions on paper. Today, all that gets reduced to various word-processor files, all of which can be cut and pasted with a few keystrokes. Electrons are electrons. There's little or no way to differentiate a marginal note you may have made on reading something several years ago from a paragraph transcribed from an interview or a quote from a resource book. In the final stages of assembling a book manuscript, often under deadline pressure, it's surprising that accidental plagiarisms don't happen any more often.
Here's what surprises me. I've written four books. While I was writing any of them - and I tried this, it was true - I could ask you to pick up the manuscript and read a sentence to me. With a moment's concentration in hand, I could, from that point, recite the manuscript from memory. Do Ambrose and Goodwin not know their own prose voices that well?
The controversy over re-casting the famous photograph of three New York firefighters into a statue designed as an icon of diversity created so much racket in the media that one thing got overlooked: That photo made for a really awful statue. And the clay model of the proposed statue, as photographed, was indeed awful - awkward, clunky, and infelicitous.
Why? Simple Though widely compared to the famous picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, the present-day firefighter photo was a static pose, best seen in two dimensions. There was, in contrast to the straining crew of Marines on Iwo, no effort, no action in the firemen's poses. The present-day picture owed its impact to adroit color composition, the vivid primary red-white-and-blue rising from the pastel dusts. Then there was the brute, looming impact of that wrinkled gunmetal background, a highly suggestive piece of World Trade Center wreckage, something that would be lost entirely in a three-dimensional statue. Again, contrast the Iwo photo, a black and white abstraction shot against the sky.
The statue's model also wiped out one of the picture's major emotional punches. Those three firemen, dressed in their baggy protective pants, especially the man on the right, with his suspenders folded down over his waist, looked like three little boys in snowsuits - an awful, and apt, image of innocence against the horrors of the day. The clay model of the statue trimmed the baggy legs down to ordinary trouser width.
No, make the picture into a frieze, maybe, but not a statue. And keep the baggy trousers. These are our boys, and that's what we see when we look at the picture.
Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.
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