Saturday, January 14, 2012

Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Love it! Can we go to lunch now?
I was delighted the other day to read a piece in the New York Times by Susan Cain, entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink, in which she slams the myth of creative brainstorming. This notion, that great ideas come out of groups, is something that's been around in advertising agencies for decades. And I thought I was alone in my prejudice against them, but apparently I haven't been. Apparently there is ample scientific evidence to back up this prejudice.

Really, after I sent this article around to a bunch of my friends in advertising, I found that the disdain for brainstorming sessions, rather than being the mark of an antisocial crank, is almost universally held. There are, at least among professional creative people, legions of us anti-brainstormers.

We all recognize the mandatory, post-lunch (or worse, trans-lunch) all-department meeting whose mandate is to come up with The Big Idea for some new campaign, or new pitch. Nothing ever comes out of these meetings except a high from sniffing the dry-erase markers. The meetings are usually called by the least creative person in the organization, some dip who is full of enthusiasm and loves to be "part of the creative process". And this moderator--let's call him Nancy--always starts by laying down the ground rules (as he sees them) for the brainstorming session, "There are no bad ideas. Everything is on the table."  Evidently, Nancy believes that this is the way we, the ones who are actually paid to come up with the ideas, do it; that when we hole up in our cubicles with our muse, we just write down every bland idea that comes into our heads and give each one serious weight. At the end of the afternoon, with the whiteboard filled with banalities and all of us drowsy from the hydrocarbon fumes, Nancy always says, "I think we've accomplished a lot today!" He always has his assistant take a picture of the whiteboard, too--you know, in case the rest of us want to refer to it later.

But as a fellow antisocial crank of mine says of these sessions, "All you think is, 'Shit! I've just lost three hours and will have to work late tonight to come up with the real idea!'"

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing (who? me?), I can categorically state, without exception, that not one big concept that I've ever had a part in has ever come as a result of a brainstorming session. Ever. That's a categorical statement because it's categorically true. Brainstorming sessions are there for people who can't come up with ideas alone, and who have no clue how they come in the first place. They either saw it done that way in a TV sitcom, or took a Creative Management course as part of their MBA curriculum. But however they came by their belief in the "creative process", they seem to exist to throw sand in the machine of real creativity.

And the results are displayed in advertising every day. Try to sit through an entire TV show, in which more than fifty percent of the broadcast is taken up with deadly dull advertising, and you can see the influence of creative brainstorming. Every ad that begins "Tired of paying too much for...," you know came right out of a brainstorm. But whenever you do happen to notice a clever or entertaining spot, you can be sure that just one or two people thought of it, wrote it, designed it--usually late at night after the brainstormtroopers went home to congratulate themselves on what a good day's work they put in. That's how it really works. A few people do the thinking. Everyone else is taking pictures of whiteboards.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Your Defenses Are Useless!

"We're safe as long as no Ewok
throws a rock at us."
One of the things that always gets me, whenever I watch either a historical or fantasy movie involving fights among people (or orcs) in armor, is how useless the armor seems to be. The hero charges around, usually without armor himself (and with unlimited reserves of stamina),  the bad guys shooting at him with unbelievably bad aim, and the whole while he's blithely dispatching them in droves, despite the fact that they are all wearing armor. Arrows, swords, and spears are shown penetrating thick breast plates like styrofoam, or ray guns burn right through them. So many people in these movies seem to be killed while wearing armor that it begs the question: why are they bothering to do it at all? Armor's expensive, heavy, hot, and restrictive. If it's not even going to stop an arrow, why would you wear it? In historical reality (for those movies set in ancient or quasi-medieval times) armor used to be so restrictive, in fact, that it would have severely limited the ability of the person wearing it to move around, much less fight (or see). So they wouldn't have worn it just because it made them look cool. And it was so expensive that only the richest elite could afford it at all; most soldiers used to wear no armor or, at most, carry only leather shields...the better to fight (or run away).

And, in a science fiction or fantasy setting, what must be the budget for armor for the Galactic Empire? Does the Armor Manufacturer's Lobby in the Imperial Senate have disproportionate sway? I demand a bipartisan commission to investigate plutocratic corruption!

So why don't the makers of movies think about this "armor problem"? Of course, the teenage boys, who love this kind of mayhem in their historical/fantasy/sci-fi movies and games, don't care about reality. Obviously: They're teenagers. Their favorite kind of armor is the armored bra protecting the thong-clad warrior princess's nipples--but not her vulnerable abdomen or cranium. She depends on the incredibly bad marksmanship of the enemy soldiers (unable to see out of their heavy helmets) to protect those.

But I do worry about it. I feel sorry for the poor sonofabitch orc who was forced to march a hundred miles in stifling weather with a hundred pounds of armor on his back, only to find it completely useless when shot by a Clairol-coifed Orlando Bloom, not even bothering to aim his bow as he snowboards down a staircase (something you couldn't do in armor). As the orc lay dying with an arrow in his armor-clad chest, he probably thought, "What the f*** was I lugging all this around for?" You know that the Imperial Storm Trooper was thinking the same thing as he lay dying from an unbelievable pistol shot made by a rope-swinging Luke Skywalker, "If I hadn't been wearing all this armor, I might have been able to duck in time." Why do they wear that armor, by the way? Because the art director thinks it looks wicked? Or because Chancellor Palpatine has an equity position in body-armor futures?

Why Do Cars Always Explode?
And it's not just useless armor that irritates me in movies. It's also explosions. Why, in action movies and TV shows, when cars roll down a hill, do they often explode with the force of a Mk-85 500 lb bomb? Or even when they just hit another car? How often have you seen that in real life? Why do we even drive cars at all if that's the risk? Cars don't just explode. And when a helicopter crashes in real life, it usually doesn't blow up like it does in movies--unless it has a live napalm bomb on-board ("I told you to leave that behind! But nooooo, you had to take it with us!"). This is lazy screen-writing.

Here's another beef I have with sloppy film-making: withheld information. So often in movies and TV shows, a character who has in his possession some vital information that could clear all this up, just doesn't bother to share it with the key-decision makers so they might not push that button that would end in the destruction of civilization (or a costly divorce). There's usually no reason this character decides to withhold that little bit of knowledge; he just does--you know--to move the plot forward. This is also sloppy writing. And it makes you flush your sympathy for the characters. I hate that. Mostly because I don't have a real life.

I know, I know, it's just a movie. But while I'm immersed in a movie, I want to stay in the universe that is the movie for that hour-and-half; I don't want to be reminded that it's just a movie. When a character gets killed and then miraculously comes back to life, I tend to think, well, I don't have to worry about his being in danger; he can be just "scripted" back alive again. And when he's wearing armor, I want to believe that it will do a half-assed job of protecting him from a stray arrow...unless he's an orc or Imperial Storm Trooper, of course.

And when a character actually does have some important information, I like to see he be given a chance to bring it up--even if it doesn't keep us out of an unnecessary 10-year war in Iraq.