As I scroll down a list of my screenplay credits I can draw a clear line to the other films, books, narratives, etc. that led me to crafting that particular work. Often, I have the piece wear this influence on its sleeve. Post-modern art has a tendency to acknowledge it’s place in a lineage of other works. Hell, the television show Lost did it episodically with whatever book happened to make it’s way into a characters’ hands that week. Whether homage, a game of one-ups-manship, or pure theft not a single one of the films I’ve written/directed has evolved purely in an intellectual vacuum, free from the intertextuality of the art and media I’ve cast my tendrils out into. Many would argue, myself included, that a purely isolated artwork is an impossible ideal. To clarify this essay I’ve traced the lineage of a few of my recent works to the corresponding artworks that inspired them:
- The Kiss – Amelie (Juenet), Magnolia (Anderson)
- Videotape – Double Indemnity (Wilder), Blow Up (Antonioni)
- Curiosity Delay – In the Mood for Love (Wai), Hills Like White Elephants (Hemingway)
- Contours – La Jetee (Marker), The Garden of Forking Paths (Borges)
- Hot for Teacher – This American Life (NPR radio show)
I was inspired to research the discourse propagated by far more advanced thinkers in this field. A very interesting essay from James Young entitled Art, Authenticity, and Appropriation examines whether artists who utilize artistic conventions from foreign cultures are producing “aesthetically flawed works” (455). Young defines the notion of “aesthetic handicaps” and ultimately concludes that, “Certainly, anyone who engages
in non-innovative content appropriation produces a work that is, to some extent, derivative… [However] a debt to an existing tradition does not remove the possibility of personal authenticity. Any tradition provides scope for artists to innovate. Artworks can owe a great deal to previously existing works and still be personally authentic” (469). Young establishes that even if a work of art is, on its surface, derivative, it can still maintain authenticity. This is accomplished not by acquiring the entire culture that served as the basis for the original artist/artwork but rather by “mastering certain artistic practices.” Therefore, I need not be of the generation of wounded masculinity returning from the beaches of Normandy post-World War II in order to write an authentic film noir but I better damn well understand the artistic practices of the genre and its aesthetics before I give it a go. And I think I did. And I think Videotape is evidence of that.
But then again, there are other ways to look at this topic. In an essay entitled Authenticty Revisited, Bruce Baugh discusses the theories of Sarte and other existentialist theorists on humanity, art, and authenticity. As he notes, “A work of art…can be authentic when it makes its possibilities its own by relating them to its situation, by individualizing them in relation to a singular end, and by “possibilizing” them in presenting them as possibilities” (479). Essentially, Baugh argues that as long as a work of art successfully straddles the arena of both the culture of its derivation and the current culture of its existence then it is to some degree authentic. If I return to Videotape, I’d make the case that there is more going on in the structure of it’s screenplay than simply an aping of 1940s noir-conventions. Surely there are recognizable tenets: chiaroscuro lighting, a primary male investigator, a femme-fatale, etc. but I also skew the perception of events through the a diegetic camera lens recasting the film in a self-reflexive light. Hopefully, this provides an degree of authenticity thereby negating pure theft of idea.
And this is just what happens when I revisit any of my prior screenplays. I always see a reason for their existence outside of simple imitation. There is always a goal to justify why I tackled what I did. Whether it was experimenting within genre conventions (Videotape as Film Noir, Contours as Avant-Garde), exploring the perceptions of alternative viewpoints (Videotape, The Kiss, and the forth-coming Blood Runs Cold all look at truth/perception/narrative through a camera lens) or even esoteric philosophy (with Blood Runs Cold I hope to take mainstream narrative conventions and re-appropriate them in a self-reflexive tour of cinematic illusion) there is always a purpose to my choice; a method to my madness.
The argument can be made that I have not yet properly matured as an artist, that my works are still far too derivative. But as Picasso once famously stated: “Bad artists borrow, Great artists steal.”