Friday, March 30, 2007

Culture of the copy

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 09:14 PM

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As the plagiarism debate rages on (or at least percolates along) over at the Daily Harold, UW film prof/scholar David Bordwell offers up a few thoughts at his own blog on what plagiarism might mean in relation to film. "It’s interesting to speculate about what a plagiarized film would be," Bordwell muses. "You can plagiarize somebody’s script by passing it off as your own. ... But can you plagiarize a movie itself?"

Bordwell thinks it'd be hard to pull off. "I might swipe a finished film’s negative from the lab and then make new credit sequences that replace the director’s name with mine. But I could hardly expect to get away with it, since nearly everybody involved would notice. Perhaps I could find an old forgotten film and then stick my name in there somewhere. Again, though, I’d have to explain how I could have been around to make that 1930s Monogram musical or 1960s Taiwanese kung-fu film. ... I’d have to tell a plausible story about how the work came to be."

But what actually constitutes plagiarism, and how do you distinguish it from, say, an ordinary homage ... or even a simple remake? "All those copies and unauthorized remakes of Hollywood films, like Hong Kong Pretty Woman and Kaante, the Bollywood version of Reservoir Dogs, might count as plagiarism. (The producer of Kaante calls it an homage [Bordwell's link].) Still, my inclination is to say that plagiarism is a difficult concept to transfer to the visual/moving image arts; its core application may be literary and ... musical performance."

Setting aside the distinction federal judge Richard Posner apparently likes to draw between plagiarism and violations of copyright (which doesn't figure into Bordwell's reasoning at all), does it even make sense to talk about a movie being plagiarized? Even shot-by-shot appropriations, like Gus Van Sant's '99 version of Psycho, don't fit the definition comfortably (whatever that definition is, but let's not go there now ...). Consider the Van Sant for a moment: the cast isn't Hitchcock's, the physical locations aren't the same, the dialogue's recited with different emphases, different inflections, and even shots literally replicating the original's don't register the same way. Or actually can't: like the scene of Julianne Moore mounting the steps of the old Bates family manse, camera pulling up in half shot as she climbs; it's exactly as Hitchcock framed Vera Miles's front-on equivalent back in 1960 ... except nobody shoots this way anymore--at least not on staircases, where sides and up angles are practically de rigueur ... and never, ever with the actor's feet cut out of the frame! It's a point about contingency/temporality that Bordwell makes well enough, if only indirectly--the copy that isn't a copy, and how circumstance (the identity of the performers, the venues, etc) inevitably colors the way we interpret what we view. But it's minuscule departures from the template (not all of them advertent) that make Van Sant's clone so interesting and, in its own small way, "inventive," like one of those old Victorian illustrated teasers: so how many apostles can you find hidden in the rocks on the road to Jerusalem?

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