Content Warning for racism, gruesome descriptions/depictions of murder, and discussion of trauma.
I’m bored. I feel like I should be attending to my creative responsibilities, and yet I don’t have much motivation to do so. But I notice that on the internet there is a movie released in 1998 called, “The Book of Life”, directed and written by Hal Hartley, which basically shrinks The Book of Revelations to an intimate, late-1990’s, micro-budget movie. Jesus is a guy in a blue suit, assisted by a hot chick in black clothes, while the devil wears black and red, and between all of them (and some other characters) is a struggling couple with one of them being a compulsive gambler. Part of me wants to watch it because I have this idea in my head that in order for me to be a good animator/screenwriter, I should seek out more movies (plus, be honest: if you’re reading this you most likely have never heard of the movie before). Another part of me is watching it because I am tired and have played, “Fallout: New Vegas” on my PC until my fingers went numb, the seat of my pants now sweaty and the noise of my room (living with a sibling as of this writing) becoming unbearable as thoughts race through my brain about cuddling with an attractive partner in bed. But, well, I get antsy. I get bored easily. “The Book of Life” is interesting as both a stylistic time-capsule and as an interesting moderization of Christian apocalyptic storytelling (I would definitely rather watch it again than the Mel Gibson-directed, “The Passion of The Christ”). Beyond that, and having seen its merits…I’m not exactly in love with it, and I’m not sure if I learned much from it that I can use for moviemaking in general (or, rather, the kind of moviemaking I want to get done). So, was this just a waste of time? Was I just subjecting myself through an experience I didn’t fully enjoy in the name of some contrived idea of artistic discipline? Am I just procrastinating from what I should be doing and calling it, “education”? Well, here I will be breaking down the reasoning, and insecurities, behind these questions, for I can’t be the only person wondering about all of this.
So Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, according to legend, both had a pretty cool job of working within video rental stores while also having access to their relatively huge supplies of movies. The result is a joyous, polished filmography from both people that also happens to call back to genres and trends of old, earning the accolades of moviebuffs (both in the streets and in the established press) everywhere. But is that really true? What I mean is: yes, both guys make obvious shout-outs to other directors and their work as they make movies, and both of them have eventually evolved into a style of their own, but I have doubts that their artistic prowess and popularity come mostly from the fact that they watched a lot of movies. Being educated about one’s medium is one thing, but the popular story of a moviebuff who got their hands onto a movie camera, shot a movie and made it big through sheer creative will is utter bullshit. Did Quentin Tarantino not get assistance from the gaffers who tied up the equipment to make his movies? Did Paul Thomas Anderson singlehanedly cast Burt Reynolds to play a pornographer? Exactly. But more troublesome than that is the idea that their command of visuals and story comes merely from them having consumed other people’s work, an idea derisively shared by Mike White in the infamous, “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” video essay.
Now, whether it is a good thing to imitate the works and people one is inspired by or not is another question. The issue I have is: whether such imitation is really what helps gets you ahead. Even in a pre-internet world, the past may have faded from the main view of what we refer to as a collective view, but that did not mean that we didn’t take the time to dig it up back then, nor noticed when we were just copying it. Sure, the hippies of the 1960s framed themselves as revolutionaries, but they also framed their arguments as something of a return to long-forgotten traditions. Observe the rhetoric surrounding Organic food and its rejection of modern science and so-called, “GMOs”. Also observe how such rhetoric and lifestyle is being co-opted by Nazis. Really. The point is: the past did fade in…well, the past, but it was never completely forgotten. What, did Reagan and his campaigners just crib his, “Morning In America” message out of thin air instead of feeding a narrative of a lost, “good time” in America’s 1950s, which just so happened to have legalized racial segregation and criminalized homosexuality? Hell, go back further and you can observe the writings of people like Frederich Nietzsche who bemoaned the, “decadence” of their times while praising the ferociousness of the ancient Roman Empire, Samurai, and pre-Germanic tribes. People remember and learn about shit from the past for a long time, is what I’m saying, and of course they can do so in distorted ways. But they can also pounce upon things that resemble what they believe they know/remember from those times…and hate them for doing just that.
See, not anyone can just imitate the past. One has to do so in a way that connects to a modern audience. But if such a work connects to such an audience, are the people liking it because its an imitation, or it for other reasons? Do the people who like the work even know what the creators imitate in the first place? The problem with the narrative of moviemakers like Tarantino and others succeeding due to them leaning hard on their inspirations is that it takes for granted the media literacy of the people who consume their work. In other words, the audience is not as clueless as we think, but neither is it as smart as we would like it to be. Key words: “As we would like it to be”, because while an artist or group of artists can aim for certain desires, they can only account for so much, and are ultimately at the mercy of the consumer no matter how creative (or not) they are. Tarantino for example loves to crib from, “Blacksploitation” flicks and turn such tropes on their heads to create characters like Jules, played Samuel L. Jackson, who out of context seems like a badass, even empowering character for a demographic long plagued by racism…until you realize that, “Pulp Fiction” is the same movie where Quentin Tarantino’s character has a monologue about a, “Dead nigger in my garage”, while being seen in his last scene with a black woman around his arms. All this in a movie that won an Academy Award for, “Best Screenplay” in 1995.
Would Tarantino and company have gotten away with all of this today? It’s…debatable, at least in the media landscape and demographic shifts that exist as of this writing, but he certainly got away with it back then. All because the audience that consumed and propped up his work is, to put it mildly, like Quentin Tarantino for better and for worse. Now, a lot of people remember, “Pulp Fiction”…but remember when all of the sudden there were a lot of movies that had long, “hip” conversations and twisted narratives? What’s that, you don’t? What’s that in the back, all of them sucked, and all of them were box office failures? Well, so much for imitating your way to success!
But the one other thing that should put the idea of mere imitation as being key to success to bed is the fact that moviemaking is really fucking hard. Three actors were killed on the set of one movie that was produced by Steven Speilberg. The Elizabeth Taylor-starring, “Cleopatra” movie was an infamous bomb that cost the equivalent of the GDP of a small island by today’s economy. Adrienne Shelly, the director and screenwriter of the great movie, “Waitress”, had her life cut short by a murderer. Shit happens, basically, and in a universe as seemingly chaotic as ours, even if Quentin had copied, “City on Fire” exactly like Mike White suggested…such imitation would have to be squared by an environment that demands that months, if not years, of work be pared down into a shorter work…to the point where such imitation or homages may get cut out. Weinstein may have been generous when propping up Tarantino back in the day, but not so generous that he would’ve let Tarantino do nothing BUT homages (See: the box-office gross of, “Grindhouse”. See also, Weinstein kicking Kevin Smith to the curb after, “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”).
Contrary to what Simon Reynolds may suggest, people don’t like works that imitate the past just because it imitates the past. People like those works for a variety of other reasons, plus that. Even if people did recall the past in perfect detail and with objective eyes, which they don’t or otherwise bloated dickfarts like David Irving would not have a platform, people would still pick and choose what they like and put aside what they don’t like (or try to, anyway. Trauma is a motherfucka). People pick and choose what they like to form these identities they walk around with, for better and for worse, because it helps them to function. Civilization as we know it would not exist if people didn’t have the power to rationalize their likes and dislikes. “Hey, so what if those, “Blacksploitation” movies are problematic are best? I like them (or at least I think I do), and I like Samuel L. Jackson, so woohoo! Give Tarantino all the Oscars!”, says the person I just invented in my head to feed my inferiority complex about a man who I don’t even fucking know.
It doesn’t matter how educated or how moronic you are. Most of the time the ideas of merit, and taste are just rationalizations we erect in the face of a culture that will do whatever the fuck it pleases whether we like it or not. Upset that people like Tarantino and other moviemakers crib from older works like the cinematic equivalent of N.W.A.? Well, tough shit, because lots of other people like that shit. Call it immoral, childish, or whatever, the truth is that the success of moviemakers is not solely based on imitation, ingenuity, or skill. It is based on a creative process that has existed for over a hundred years, backed by a culture that provides workers and consumers for it on a wide scale. Moviemaking is the international equivalent of the original Ford Model-T factory, with the workers (presumably) able to afford to consume what they busted their ass making.
It is the wider culture that props an artist forward, crushes them or leaves them alone, not flimsy, circular ideas like, “good taste”. Will I prize and protect the media library I own as of this writing in various forms and formats? Absolutely. But I am under no illusion that it is the key to my success. What will determine your success is whether or not people are with you, against you or indifferent to you, and calculating all of that…well, a lot of movie studios are having a lot of financial issues right now, not to mention the countless product headed to distributors and film festivals with little fanfare, so steel yourself for that the next time you take mental notes from a movie you saw…or, any artistic work that happens to align with your medium, anyway. If you happen to work in another medium or industry, just replace all the links/references in this essay with stuff that corresponds to it. Yes, even if it’s Spanish-dubbed Furry Porn featuring people who get inflated for some reason. No one is judging you…at least, I don’t have room to.
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