Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Flash of Genius (2008)

Directed by Marc Abraham. There's something very ominous about sitting down to watch a whole biopic about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Talk about trusting the filmmaker. Truth is, my son Max, who is eight, has said that he would like to be an inventor. I'm not sure what has inspired him to say that.

I thought about what books I could read him or appropriate films I could show him that would give him an idea what that could be like and I thought of almost nothing. I thought of "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," the magnificently under-rated 1988 Coppola biopic about Preston Tucker, the post WWII industrialist who designed a car that, arguably would be the strongest and most durable automobile ever built and was subsequently crushed out of the industry for raising its standards too high. Similarly, I thought of "Who Killed the Electric Car," the 2006 story of GM hiding the success of their EV1 experiment from the public. I also thought of the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer decides to become an inventor because he idolizes Thomas Edison, but his only good idea is actually one of Edison's discards.

I'm not sure why I wanted to show Max something that would provide any positive message about inventing.

Seeing "Flash of Genius," in which Greg Kinnear plays Detroit engineer Robert Kearns, it becomes very clear that inventing is art. It's not a choice but a calling. The flick wraps that point up in a broader point about integrity, and a little bit in the flag, but I wasn't as interested in that as I was in a more modest point about creativity.

Recapping briefly, Robert Kearns had his idea stolen by the major automakers, sued, and they tried to settle out of court. He refused millions and millions of dollars in a settlement because it would mean that the automakers would not have to admit that the intermittent windshield wiper was his idea and design. He was willing to take no settlement in exchange for them to acknowledge that he was the inventor. You could look up on Wikipedia how the case worked out, but it would be more fun for you to rent this movie, because I can tell you that the movie is relatively accurate in its representation of the facts of the case and in Kearns' handling of himself in the courtroom, and its extremely entertaining. If you like a courtroom drama, you will love the third act of this flick.

It's not a movie to show an eight year-old, but I did tell Max about it, in part because I liked it a lot, which surprised the hell out of me, but also because I though it had a decent message for a kid.

But it had another more subtle one that I liked more. An artist is truly blessed if they can both create something that speaks to people and then get it in front of people so that it can have that voice. Yet any true artist creates in response to an inner voice that doesn't necessarily demand the validation of others. What kind of guitarist plays only when there's people around to applaud?

Similarly, an inventor is blessed when their idea and design solves a problem for millions or billions of people. This population may not appreciate the design as art, they may take it for granted, and like the musician, there may or may not have been a significant payday for the inventor.

And if you think about movies that show unappreciated inventors, their inventions typically have one thing in common: they don't solve much of a problem. There's a robotic arm that pours your coffee for you, another spreads jam on your toast, and then a bowling ball rolls down a chute and drop onto a scale that pops an egg into the air, letting it crack and sizzle in a pan. The inventor is supposedly a genius, but he's not much of a problem solver and he's certainly not an artist.

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