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in Filmmaking
on Mar 9, 2007

Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude) has a new novel out (You Don’t Love Me Yet, reviewed here in the Village Voice), a brilliant essay in Harper’s entitled The Ecstasy of Influence, and, on his website,, a provocatively intentioned yet wonderfully generous gift for young filmmakers.

Before we get that incredible offer, I want to talk about the essay. I won’t spoil the astonishing reveal contained within its afterward — and I must insist you read it until the end — but even without clueing you in to the entirety of Lethem’s conception, I can say that the piece is a must-read for anyone interested in issues of creativity, copyright law and the history of intellectual property in today’s age of sampling, digital reproduction, allusion and quotation.

Referencing Nabokov, Dylan, Don Siegel, William Burroughs, Disney (big time), Rankin/Bass, South Park, T.S. Elliot, Walker Percy, Celera Genomics, Jack Valenti, The Velveteen Rabbit, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Iranian film director Dariush Mehrjui and many, many others, Lethem begins a discussion of how cultural history — remembered, only dimly recalled, and sometimes just forgotten — shapes the work of all artists.

A key passage:

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.

Lethem then moves into a wonderful discussion of art (and yes, that includes movies) as a product that exists simultaneously within two separate economies, an economy of commerce and a parallel “gift economy,” which can be defined in part as the surplus value that is the difference between the ticket price and the work’s impact on one’s life (and, for the artist, one’s future work).

Another excerpt:

But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.

Aside from being a broadside against today’s copyright monopolists, whose laws (and lawsuits) deny the fundamental methods by which art is created, Lethem’s essay is an elaborate preamble for his own heads-first dive into the gift economy. He writes:

As a novelist, I’m a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away. For the moment I’m grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

What’s he talking about? Go to Lethem’s website, where he details his “Promiscuous Materials Project.” Filmmakers, playwrights, composers and songwriters are free to make movies, plays and songs from a selection of Lethem’s published short stories for license fees of $1. These rights are non-exclusive, meaning you might be one of 100 filmmakers making a film based on the same story, and are restricted to films 30 minutes or less.

Lethem says the idea came to him when he received film inquiries for his last novel, The Fortress of Solitude:

One of the instigating factors for this project was my being approached simultaneously by a film director and a theater director for the adaptation rights to The Fortress of Solitude. I wanted to say yes to both. Ordinarily, this is seen as impossible: when a writer sells or options a book to a filmmaker or film studio, the theatrical rights are bundled in the package (along, with things like television rights, sequel motion picture rights, and theme park rights). I decided to ignore precedent and find a way to allow both projects to move forward simultaneously. As of now, both are. (It may be that either the filmmaker or the theatrical director will find themselves hamstrung by some unimaginative investor’s requirement that all rights be controlled. I hope not. We’ll see.)

The offer is also, as mentioned, an outgrowth of the Harper’s essay cited above:

I like art that comes from other art, and I like seeing my stories adapted into other forms. My writing has always been strongly sourced in other voices, and I’m a fan of adaptations, apropriations, collage, and sampling. I recently explored some of these ideas in an essay for Harper’s Magazine. As I researched that essay I came more and more to believe that artists should ideally find ways to make material free and available for reuse. This project is a (first) attempt to make my own art practice reflect that belief.

My thinking along these lines has been strongly influenced by Open Source theory and the Free Culture movement, and by Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift.

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