This week Josh Hadley takes on a familiar topic that of Industrialized Plagiarism and Quentin Tarantino.
Industrialized Plagiarism is a very serious business in not just Hollywood but in the world of literature, gaming, music and even this type of column/article writing although tonight we will mostly be looking at the Hollywood level. It’s a foregone conclusion that “everyone steals from everyone” and with that absolutely moronic and frighteningly ignorant statement we get into the realm of the plagiarism apologists. These are the people that seem to think that every story has already been told and therefore everything is a rip-off of something else so why bother calling it out when you see it right in front of you? I more or less disagree with the overly broad statement that there are only 7 stories that exist and everything thereafter are simply variations on a theme. By the logic employed here you have everything being the same regardless of anything else. The Road Warrior is the same story as Cafe Flesh. The Andromeda Strain is the same story as The Thing and the like (I could list 20 titles right here but you get the point with just 4). The Road Warrior and Cafe Flesh both tell a tale of an outsider in a post nuke world hiding who they are from themselves and eventually succumbing to their role in the world. Problem is that these are told in such vastly different ways with amazing differences and intentions that no one would ever realistically compare these two films… yet the statement (cop out really) that it’s all been done does just that. At the very core of it, The Road Warrior and Cafe Flesh tell the same basic tale. Videodrome is then the same story as Akira then since both are about men being taken over and becoming something beyond human due to exposure from a signal that they could not control. Since these movies are NOTHING alike in any real way I think I made my point quite easily that even things with a very, VERY, basic ideal in common are immensely unalike in execution. This trope of “everything has already been done” is indeed a cop out and shows the weak minds of those that look into it like that. Now, having said all that let me also point out that very often similar ideas ARE very much made to ape another idea. I didn’t mean to imply that plagiarism does not happen or that it is not rampant, I just wanted to point out the dichotomy of those that like to use the “everything has been done” approach and yet will employ that very same ideal as a crutch to excuse outright theft.
Wholesale theft as part of the very system of movie making, it has to be or the system would collapse. If a single idea was not copied time and again most movie franchises as we know them simply could not exist. Harlan Ellison found out about this theft angle when his and Ben Bova’s famous Brillo lawsuit against ABC Television, in I think it was 1980, ran it’s course. Basically they pitched a show called Brillo about a cop and a robot partner back in the 70’s and ABC loved it but wanted the robot to look just like a human rather than a robot. Ellison and Bova refused as where the story was set it was not even theoretically feasible for such a thing, but a trash can type robot was something that was workable. ABC fired the men, changed the story themselves and made the robot look like a human for the eventual and short lived series “Future Cop.” ABC didn’t own the Brillo script, the writers did, and when ABC used it as the basis of the new show, they had committed an act of literary theft. Ellison and Bova sued and when their long legal battle was won a new lesson about the studio system was learned. ABC’s defense basically was: “everybody in Hollywood steals, that is how the system works”. I am serious. Ellison also had a similar learning experience when he was working for Irwin Allen. He was told to look through a recent copy of some pulp magazine and pick out a story he liked to make into an episode of a TV show. He pressed them as to how they would get the rights to the story he chose and was looked at like a chump when he was told “we don’t get the rights, we change just enough that they can’t sue”. That ladies and gentlemen is Hollywood. Change just enough so you can’t get sued.
That is outright theft as described in legal terms… what about influence though? To be completely fair, there is indeed a difference between being inspired by something and ripping it off. That line is sometimes blurry as hell but it does indeed exist. I don’t think anyone would argue that Judge Joseph Dredd was very much inspired by Harry Callahan yet they are not even close to being the same character. Friday The 13th is inspired by Halloween and both the writer and director admit they wanted to make their own version of Halloween to cash in on its success. However, the story is very different, the setting is completely different, the mindset of both the killer and the victims are different and the way it plays out is different. On the other hand, Bruno Mattei’s Robowar IS Predator done with a robot in place of the alien. The Island IS Parts: The Clonus Horror with more shit blowing up and better acting. William Malone’s 1985 film Creature IS Alien with cheaper sets. Alien itself IS a combination of Planet Of The Vampires and It The Terror From Beyond Space. Raiders Of The Lost Ark IS Secret of the Incas with better set pieces. The Magnificent Seven IS The Seven Samurai in an American setting. Star Trek IS any 60’s cop show in space. House Of 1000 Corpses IS The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Everything The Asylum makes IS an equivalent Blockbuster movie. And yes, Reservoir Dogs IS City On Fire with better dialog and cinematography which brings us to the entire point of this weeks Sanity Is Razor Thin… Quentin Tarantino.
One of my issues is that he gets called a genius for doing what others are called hacks for. Its not that he lifts that bothers me so much, it’s that he is praised by the rather ignorant media for doing this as some sort of modern art genius. A recent Village Voice article titled “How to Defend Quentin Tarantino” by one calling himself simply Vern felt like fan-boy praise that not only ignored Tarantino’s thefts but also made excuses for them.
From Vern: “I hate these arguments because they misunderstand what art even is, and by doing that ignore what people love—what is great—about Tarantino.” To me it seems that Vern is trying to say here is that even though Tarantino “lifts” and “homages” and “references” lots of things, he does it in such small portions (individually) that he makes something completely unique once these formally dissipate things coalesce and they become something new and are afforded the status of no longer being copies. Using your logic; James Cameron didn’t steal Terminator from Harlan Ellison by taking three individual Harlan Ellison stories and mashing them up; he borrowed several small portions of what he needed in order to make something unique. Problem is, not only did Ellison not see it that way but neither did the courts as Orion paid an undisclosed sum to Ellison to settle and Cameron was forced to comply with this decision. Terminator was indeed a unique (for it’s time) take on those 3 stories but none-the-less he plagiarized those source stories. If that is actually what Vern was getting at (and I might be severely reading the man wrong here) I think he is missing his own point; that even though Tarantino copied several individual portions, he has still copied and stolen and yes I will say it, Plagiarized his entire filmography. Yes, that is what Tarantino does.
The dictionary definition of Plagiarism is:
pla·gia·rism Noun The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
Tarantino does this in spades. One can not watch City On Fire and then Reservoir Dogs and not see that they are essentially the same film. There is a lot more than just a few ending scenes in common. Tarantino plagiarized his first movie, the movie that put him on the map and he still will not admit that he stole an entire film. Hell, I will go on record (again) and state that I love Reservoir Dogs, it’s a far, far superior film to City On Fire. It has better direction, better acting, better dialog, better cinematography and better editing… but that does not change the fact that Reservoir Dogs is a plagiarized work. So then tell me, how is Reservoir Dogs a work of genius yet films by Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso are nothing more than cheap rip-offs? Fragasso and Mattei do the same thing that Tarantino does – they are just far less subtle about it. In fact if there is a difference at all it is that they go kind of the opposite direction as Tarantino. He steals from obscure films that the mainstream crowd most likely won’t recognize so he can make large mainstream films, whereas Mattei steals from mainstream films to make films that become obscure. Same principle and actions yet Tarantino is a genius and Mattei is a rip off artist. I don’t get it. I still like Mattei movies same as I like Reservoir Dogs, it does not make either original or stop them from being plagiarized works.
To further elucidate that Reservoir Dogs “borrows” a whole lot more than just the ending of City on Fire, here is a shot-by-shot comparison of the two movies put together by Mike White. As you can see the two films are exactly the same in many different aspects beyond just the finale.
Vern goes on to state this “If all Tarantino is doing is copying, then why did all the Pulp Fiction knockoffs of the ’90s indie boom fail so miserably at re-creating his voice? And how could we even tell they were aping him unless there’s something recognizably his to mimic?” Essentially it seems to me that he is saying that if a rip-off gets ripped off then the original rip-off was original? I don’t understand how your sentence has any standing in reality. You are trying really, really hard to make excuses because you like Tarantino movies, which is fine, but just say you like his version(s) of his movies better then the originals. Simple as that. All you pointed out there is that rip-off movies can start a daisy chain; look no further than my above example of Creature/Alien/Planet Of The Vampires/It: The Terror From Beyond Space. When you break it down Creature is a rip-off of a hodge-podge knock off of a copy. Enzo G. Castellari lost when Universal sued the shit out of him for his 1980 film Great White aka The Last Shark which is a carbon copy of Jaws. It was theft the same as Reservoir Dogs. By this logic then Vanilla Ice didn’t steal “Ice Ice Baby” from Queen And David Bowie, he IMPROVED it. The Asylum doesn’t copy, they make better. See how easily your logic falls apart when looked at critically?
Another Vern quote: “Fixating on homages or “lifts” completely ignores what makes Tarantino Tarantino. When Pulp Fiction won the Oscar for best original screenplay, I bet it wasn’t because there was a glowing briefcase like in Kiss Me Deadly. It was because voters loved the dialogue, that it was a movie about talking, that it was about the parts of the characters’ lives that you usually skip. They liked the then-quite-novel nonlinear structure. They thought it was clever and original in the way it was put together, and they were right.” Again, I feel that Vern is justifying theft because he likes the newer version better. He loved how Tarantino put all of these separate and scattered parts from other movies together and you liked the new version more. Just say that then, don’t cloak your meaning in grandiose terms or fuzzy logic; just say you like his movies for how he puts all of his “lifts” together. to make it cool. To bring up James Cameron and plagiarism again, I have already established that Alien was hardly original in concept (in execution though it was unique the same as Pulp Fiction was) but what about this? In 1980 Luigi Cozzi made an Alien knock off called Alien Contamination (aka Contamination) a film that Cozzi freely admits to being an Alien imitation as much as his budget would allow. This film did introduce some unique elements though such as a scene were they meet the queen alien that is laying the eggs which cause said contamination, the scene where the villains trap the heroine in a room with the alien hoping to get her infected, the “get off your ass and confront your fear” pep talk and more. Notice how of the three things I mentioned there, all 3 made it into Aliens, the James Cameron written official sequel to Alien? So Cameron didn’t learn from his lawsuit by Ellison after all. Cameron took ideas from a rip-off of the movie he was making a sequel to and by your logic there is nothing at all wrong with this. That is not originality, that is the dictionary definition of plagiarism… something that Cameron and Tarantino share. Rob Liefield likes to “swipe” from the comics he loved as a kid, problem is he does it constantly which is theft. One of my favorite movies is John Carpenters Assault On Precinct 13… a blatant and proudly admitted knock off of Rio Bravo. I love the movie as I do with Reservoir Dogs but I know that it is Rio Bravo in the 1970’s yet too many people that idolize Tarantino so much seem incapable of seeing that the emperor really does not have any clothes. Right off the bat when Mike White (the US journalist who broke the story about Tarantino’s theft of Reservoir Dogs) started talking about this back in 93 or so he was viciously attacked for daring to point out the naked ruler before all as too people simply can not, or will not, accept any legitimate criticism of Tarantino’s practices.
It’s not “influence” when EVERYTHING you have done in your entire career is based on what someone else already did. Richard Stanley admits he is influenced by Argento, yet he does not copy him. Tarantino COPIES things from movies he loves and calls that “homage”… no that is theft when it’s done over and over and over again. John Byrne once said (I think it was John Byrne) “Once is parody or homage, twice is plagiarism”. Tarantino learned after Reservoir Dogs that if you steal from one source you get caught, but if you steal from from 20 sources (the more obscure the better) you can avoid getting caught. He didn’t become a better filmmaker, he became a better liar. How is he an original filmmaker when all he does is quote other movies, ape other movies, copy other movies and “homage” other movies? I see review after review where he is called “original” and yet he has not made an original film to date. I see no distinction beyond that which I have already laid out about the variances in how subtly the other people, commonly called rip-offs, do their jobs. Tarantino learned to simply take from multiple sources whereas Mattei and Fragasso take from just one or two. It’s the same thing only Tarantino does it in increments which makes it harder to spot. Is Tarantino a good director in the technical sense? Absolutely and I am not attempting to take any of that away from the man, but he can’t seem to tell a story without falling back on his “influences” which makes him no better than those that get decried using the same labels fans refuse to attach to Tarantino.
Let it be said that I am not attempting to attack this Vern on a real level. Sure, I take issue with what he said, the almost snobbish tone in which it was said, and the cowardly use of a pseudonym for this writing, but for all I know the man is very intelligent, insightful even, and a nice guy. I don’t know him, but I do have the right and since this is my column to do with as I please, to take him to task.
In closing, there is this quote from Quentin Tarantino from an interview with Empire magazine in 1994:
“I steal from every single movie ever made. If people don’t like that, then tough tills, don’t go and see it, all right? I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”