Discussion on the ever-entertaining Star Wars Minute Listener's Society page on Facebook recently turned to J.J. Abrams' Ted Talk about the "Mystery Box." Consensus seemed to be that the talk exemplified a problematic side of Abrams as a filmmaker -- an emphasis on mystery over substance and a habitual technique of keeping the audience in the dark without providing payoff for the many unknowns he introduces to hook the viewer's curiosity.
I certainly have occasional nits to pick with most of Abrams' work, and his Revolution show was an abomination of television. However, I love The Force Awakens, really enjoyed Lost and Super 8, and felt he had a 50-50 record with Star Trek. And the elements I have disliked in his work had nothing to do with mysteries and everything to do with good old-fashioned dumbness. So I figured I'd better check out this Mystery Box talk and see what everyone was going on about.
(SPOILERS! Hereafter, I give away pretty much the whole Ted Talk, so you might want to view it first.)
In a nutshell, Abrams presents the Ted audience with a box from a magic shop he and his grandfather used to frequent. It's a "Mystery Box" purportedly containing over $50 of magic for only $15. He's kept it all these years as a reminder of his grandfather, and has never opened it. He likes the sense of design of the box and enjoys having it around, but if he opened it, the mystery would be gone.
The takeaway for most people on SWMLS seemed to be that Abrams was saying that what's inside a creative work isn't important. Rather, having a cool exterior and a sense of mystery is sufficient.
It seems like a really terrible analogy for storytelling, if one has any respect for the audience and for art as a means of expressing truths.
Another criticism of the talk was that it just kind of rambled along and never really went anywhere. Abrams never brought the analogy to a clear moment of focus, never explained exactly what he meant by it. He just put it out there and surrounded it with some clever anecdotes and funny jokes and talked a bit aimlessly about the creative process, storytelling, etc.
But here's the thing. J.J. Abrams' "Mystery Box" Ted Talk is itself a Mystery Box.
What do I mean by this? Well, Abrams is very direct about the fact that the actual contents of the box don't really matter. But he's also very direct about the fact that the box itself is tremendously meaningful to him. As a collection of objects, pieces put together by the magic shop owner, it's just a bunch of stuff. But in the context of his relationship with his grandfather, it becomes a quasi-religious relic for him, a symbol of great importance that he has invested with immense personal significance.
In other words, the Mystery Box is much more than the sum of its parts, because Abrams uses it to represent something deeply human and unattainable. His grandfather is dead -- there's no way to bring the man back. As a result, opening up the box and seeing the knick-knacks and tricks inside would only diminish the memories it stands for.
Creative work is the same way. Writing, filmmaking, art ... all of these consist of simple tricks and nonsense. Words. Special effects. Imagery that specifically creates a false sense of reality. The inside of the box may be a $50 value, but only from the perspective of the retail customer. Wholesale, it must have cost less than the $15 price, and since the shop owner probably couldn't move that particular merchandise otherwise, he was actually losing money by keeping it on his shelves. But dressed up in mystery, it took on greater value.
More importantly, J.J. Abrams' act of buying the box as a means of paying tribute to his grandfather gives it far more than $50 worth of value.
And sharing the humanity of that act with his Ted Talk audience spreads this deeper meaning farther still.
This is what creative people do. We take words and objects and make them into things with human meaning beyond what they previously possessed. Abrams' meaning of remembering his grandfather is far more substantial than the shopkeeper's meaning of increasing store revenues. But he wouldn't have had that meaning without the shopkeeper's earlier creative act of repackaging excess stock.
So why didn't Abrams come out and explain these aspects of his analogy?
Because his job as a creator isn't to tell us what to think. It's to give us the opportunity to find meaning in the world, beauty that we can translate into personal value.
His presentation was itself a Mystery Box. If he opened it up for us, he'd be doing the exact opposite of what he was talking about.