the positive side of limits

I saw this piece in the New York Times about how it’s not always a good thing that some television shows now have fewer limitations in terms of length: “Forget Too Much TV. It’s Too Big TV We Should Worry About.

Then I saw this in the New Yorker: “Sex and Sexier:The Hays Code wasn’t all bad.” The Hays Code’s attempt to remove actual sex (or anything resembling it) from movies resulted, pretty directly, in the golden age of movie dialogue. (Some of this can also be seen in the movie The Celluloid Closet, by the way.)

Restrictions can be annoying (or, sometimes, much worse), but they can also spur creativity. As I wrote a while ago (talking about how I could never write short stories until I started writing mysteries):

I saw an interview with Pete Townshend once, and he was asked whether it was difficult to write rock and roll songs, since the style is so tightly defined (rhythm, chords, melodies, verse & chorus and maybe a bridge, possible lead break, lyrics of a certain kind, etc.) and he said that it was the opposite. The restrictions made it possible. To paraphrase from memory: “If you put somebody in a room and say, ‘Make music!’ he or she will likely freeze up. There are too many options. But if you say it has to be three or four chords, a verse and a chorus, two to three minutes, and so on, then something can start to happen.”

For another example, one of the recurring elements in the films of Orson Welles was the tremendously creative solutions he came up with when he had no money, or when he thought he had money which then vanished at the exact worst time.

Now, these are obviously different things (commercial restrictions, censorship, genre restrictions), but I think they prove the general point, and this is probably related to the focusing effect of deadlines, as I talked about here.

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