“What’s he building in there? What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines, he never waves when he goes by,
He’s hiding something from the rest of us… he’s all to himself… I think I know why…”
“What’s He Building?” – by Tom Waits, from Mule Variations, 1999
This spoken word piece “What’s He Building?”, from Tom Waits’ rugged gem Mule Variations, brilliantly conjures the “Lone Genius Inventor” archetype as perceived by the willfully ignorant, paranoid, suspicious neighbor. I am a movie nut, and recently, several movies and online previews dredged this nugget from ’99 up into my consciousness. It could easily accompany scenes in Iron Man, Jobs, The Social Network, Star Trek: First Contact, or Safety Not Guaranteed. Also, David Mamet’s play/movie The Water Engine (which you can watch in its entirety HERE). Others too, I’m sure.
“What’s He Building?” is a marvel of subtext, and bracingly original in how it gets its point across. The narrator, whose gaze we share, is petty, spiteful, and simmering with rage while, for all we know, the man who “took down the tire swing from the pepper tree… he has no children of his own, you see” could very well be concocting an herbal cure for cancer, creating a combustible engine that runs on water, or distilling an elixir that purges Lyme disease from the bloodstream or… who knows? But whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it in secret. Why? The narrator assumes the neighbor is “up to no good,” but somehow Waits lets us know this is likely not the case. Even though the tone is conspiratorial, appealing to our darker selves, I get the distinct impression Waits is showing, through sound collage, language, and performance, how creative souls must deal with cowardly, malicious sheeple who don’t get it. And, most interesting of all, “What’s He Building?” simultaneously speaks to the part of us that is one of those sheeple.
I’m an optimist, because I imagine the man in question – “He has no friends, but he gets a lot of mail… I bet he spent a little time in jail…” – is a modern-day Tesla, or Wright Brother, or Galileo. The scientific community disrespected all these guys. (They are but a few examples of the real-life LGI.) Galileo – Einstein’s hero – almost died at the hands of the Church. Nevertheless, as with my fantasy LGI, they all brought wondrous things into the world, always under dire circumstances. And they took no small amount of shit.
Thus, the drama-rich notion that great minds must, almost by necessity, encounter small-minded resistance from the general population/the establishment/evildoers, is well rooted in our actual history. We have precedents. But presumably, things are looking up. Since the digital age took hold, with a screen on every lap and in every phone, the LGIs now become celebrities. So perhaps they’re more protected than once upon a time. Perhaps great minds can rest a little easier. Perhaps. In any case, storytellers romanticize the LGI, and it makes for great cinema.
Fade in on unkempt Lone Genius Inventor unleashing dazzling brainpower in a grubby cave/closet/garage/basement/shed/bunker/dorm room, while friends/loved ones/neighbors/enemies frown and shake their heads, saying, “What’s he building in there?” What indeed.
Some examples of the LGI, both “real” and fictional, via the magic of YouTube. Please enjoy.
Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) in his famous garage (probably earning a little ill will, come to think of it) building something.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) imprisoned in a cave in Undetermined Middle East Country, building, uh… something.
Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is definitely building something.
Charles Lang (William H. Macy) has built something, and, sadly, decides to show it to a patent attorney (John Mahoney).
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is building something. He calls on Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to write on their dorm room window the algorithm that will become Facebook.
Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell) grizzled, alcoholic inventor of warp drive, savior of humanity. Cluttered workshop where he is building something (warp drive) not shown.