Bright Lights Film Journal

Together Again for the First Time: Movies Holding Mirrors Up to Movies

Imitation: great for flattery, bad for art

Whichever came first — the first sequel, the first film purposely cast with a Douglas Fairbanks “type,” or the first film intended to replicate the generic success of another — Hollywood’s compulsion to repeat itself was an early onset disease. From a commercial perspective, the moguls and the timid executives who followed can hardly be blamed. It’s the movie business — show business — they are quick to remind us when castigated: movies are product. No one expects Frigidaire to make each refrigerator different, or Kleenex to reinvent the tissue from box to box. They make different models and styles, of course (I like three-ply, for extra strength, in a space-saving countertop cube), but the product is the same. So the first time a film’s ad campaign grandly pronounced, “So and So. Together again for the first time!” or when MGM proclaimed, “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him!”, the peculiar contradiction that haunts film like no other artform was only being honestly expressed.

“Again — for the first time.” This is Hollywood. To be new and the same. To reassure by offering the familiar clad in the as yet not fashionably experienced. The failure of Gable and Garson’s Adventure reveals all the twisted ties of this Gordian knot. The film actually made money, but it was not, as we’d say these days, a breakout success. And it bombed critically. Gable, cast in a familiar “adventure,” had nonetheless experienced the rupture in his familiar presence of three years in the service and away from his career. And the new — MGM’s then darling, Greer Garson — well, the new didn’t strike the indefinable spark on the flint of the old.

The studios aren’t seeking to reassure us with the familiar because they care about our emotional comfort. It’s the money, stupid. That is what sequel imitation is about. As is the next ironic and generically self-referential slasher film, and the next film to star, ultimately, now, a Vin Diesel type and the next Beauty and the Beast meets Sexy Beast. But at their worst these reflexive movements produce only mindless trash and a waste of money. They are offensive only if you don’t have enough to do with yourself other than care. What is offensive is the kind of imitation that started about 30 years ago. It is the imitation that arrived with the first generation of baby-boom filmmakers.

The history of film, rich as it already is, is really very short, and the boomer filmmakers might be thought of as the third or fourth generation, the ones who reached maturity and started careers in full knowledge and viewing experience of a complete and preceding golden age, a golden age that informed their childhoods with a rich, popular mythology. Many, far too many, of these filmmakers — often the authors of their own scripts — have been not so much inspired by the films of their youth as held in thrall to them. They suffer not from the anxiety of influence but from the influence of anxiety — the anxiety of living in a contemporary grown-up world that bears little resemblance to the rich fantasyland, with a clear moral geography, of their Hollywood-fed, childhood imaginations. Rather than being influenced by the films of their youth in the development of their own mature creativity, they seek to recreate those earlier films. The titan among these directors, of course, is Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, it is well known, loved the old short adventure serials of his moviegoing youth. He loved danger, cliffhangers, villains, clever humor a child could understand, heroism, and innocence. And though he consigned himself for much of his career to varying degrees of imitation, he was smart enough to recognize the one thing that would make him nearly great in the practice of imitation — scale. He would recreate his beloved genre on a scale — financially, technologically, and in every other respect — that had been impossible for the originals. And that wasn’t just a difference; it was the difference, for there was nothing late twentieth-century America loved more than size.

Before the love of scale, however, there was the love of the stories, of the world of the stories. As with Spielberg and those movies of his youth, there are many whose childhoods are enriched by the rapturous imaginings offered up by fine children’s literature, or adult literature naturally appealing to a child’s imagination. Often such people relive those early pleasures when sharing the stories with their own children. They may return to the more adult literature at some point in a self-conscious attempt to recapture a more innocent experience, or even to encounter the literature in a whole new, more mature reading. Should they actually go on to write stories of their own, the publishing industry, which is also a business, and a conscientiously categorical one (children 8-13, young adults, etc.), makes distinctions. Distinctions in film, on the other hand, with regard to audience age, are merely technological — animated or live action — and the same daily and weekly reviewers who provide critiques of the most sophisticated film art also expound with comforting condescension to the very same audience on the rare pleasures, but more usual insult, of the latest adolescent and scatological tale of initiation. At the end of the year, we get to witness the cross-breeding spectacle of serious film journalists and entertainment industry shills together producing mule-like speculation about whether Porky’s Muff Party II might actually compete in some categories with American Beauty.

With the exception of cartoons, film has simply never distinguished between the childish and the adult. The extraordinary technology of film has played a large role in this. The active tools of the literary life being the generally maturing mind and emotions, aspiring writers tend to see their themes and technique evolve from the time of that first passionate embrace of the word. To fall in love with the creative possibilities of film, however, over the past 40 years, has meant for filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and countless others, a boys-and-their-toys fascination with the apparatus of filmmaking, and what that apparatus can produce. But what it can produce is nothing deeper, wiser, or more artfully astonishing. What it can produce is larger, faster, louder, and more plastically manipulative. We live in the age of the filmmaker as engineer. For these filmmakers, the working tools of film perpetuate adolescent interests. What becomes motivating is not the desire to explore some, perhaps, early themes with the greater insight and complexity of developing vision; the motivation is to make those early stories their own — told now, again, by them — but bigger, faster, louder, and more plastically manipulated. (How far they get to travel, in the plastic imagination, from holding a model plane in their hands to make it dip and soar!)

The money in film makes the technology possible. And the ever-developing technology, among other factors, makes the money necessary. In that very fundamental way, film is different from poetry, dance, and every other art. Yes, it makes more money — and in the most vicious of cycles over the last nearly 30 years, it cannot afford not to. It cannot afford, so the executives think — and at 80 to 100 million dollars a film, they may be right — to be too new too often. So we’ll make the same thing again, and along with the actors, we’ll let the technology make it new. We’ll make it again. For the first time. And with rare exceptions, this happens only in film. Or can you just imagine: “Fresh off his stunning meditation on art and immortality in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ comes John Keats’ plaintive and heartbreaking consideration of youth and early death, ‘Ode II: a Nightingale'”? It didn’t happen quite that way, in part, because of the money. But there is another reason.

Imitation — we’re likely to hear from those facing lawsuits for copyright infringement — is the sincerest form of flattery. And the insincerest form of art? Of course, Keats would have been imitating himself. Well, not imitating, exactly. He mined a vein — the ode — that he’d mined before, very recently before, to rich creative reward, delving deeper into form, accreting meaning, and when it’s your own work that inspires you (I use the word advisedly), can we call that imitation? There is a history, and a currency, of conflicting thought about imitation, which is one reason, I suppose, we have to suffer so much of it, particularly in film.

The Keats question of the moment — imitating yourself — is really pretty much the auteur theory of film. Screenwriters, past and present, with occasional exceptions, are the true for-hire workers in film: a swashbuckler one time, a weepy the next, and who-knows-what to follow. Except for a rare few, the writer brings his or her talent to bear on something essential in material being adapted, or fulfills the producer’s confused desires in something “original.” There is little opportunity to explore in the material, in any identifiable way, one’s own concerns. Do the job well, and the words express, as intended, the creative idea, not you.

The director, au contraire, is the visual and theatrical artist brought in to do no one’s work but his own (that is unless the director has been cursed with one of those damned creative producers). There is no visual template to which to be true, so the talented director will, indeed, tell someone else’s story, but he will tell it his way. Recurring visual themes and dramatic moments, obsessive concerns visible across a body of work, and voila, the auteur is born. In film, in fact, for the auteuristically inclined, the necessity that the director be always pacing the same compulsive floor became so fundamental that evaluative judgments of a director’s work became inseparable from evidence of the guiding light’s self-replicating psyche. He obsesses therefore he is good, or worth our attention, anyway, like a patient with fascinating symptoms (though we don’t give such patients awards and festivals). Not infrequently, minor artists manage, at last, actually to deserve that sobriquet because after repeated applications they manage, at last, to achieve the ultimate expression of their oft-explored themes. An example, for me, is Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch, and to a lesser extent, his little known Cross of Iron.

This is a form of good imitation, though granted that is using the word loosely. If this is imitation, it is imitation as identity, as the law of non-contradiction. I am who I am by my recurrence, in a certain sameness. Likewise my art. I am not Eugene O’Neill writing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. To be “identical” as a person would seem to suggest health, the integrity of the personality. For the artwork to be identical, even if only to the artist’s own work, would seem to suggest creative death. “To copy others is necessary,” said Picasso (Really? Will there be no clarity on this issue?), “but to copy oneself is pathetic.”

In common thought and parlance, imitation is bad. “It’s an imitation” is not a compliment, even if obscured by faux diction. To imitate another may even be meanly intended. In the post– Renaissance Western world, to be original is the ultimate attainment, with far less concern given to what one is originally being. “She’s a true original.” “He’s one of a kind.” Well, so is Jeffrey Dahmer, so far, one hopes, but so? And to the degree that engaging in imitation means one is not being oneself, whatever that is, then one is being phony, and every person who has ever lied about his past and been caught at it or been busted for putting on airs at a dinner party knows what a crime that is.

On the other hand, every parent, child psychologist, and sociologist knows that imitation is fundamental to learning, psychological development, and the socialization process. For centuries, it was even a highly esteemed part of the educational process. Writers as great as Samuel Johnson practiced in their schooling, as a cornerstone of humane and literary development, the writing, in Latin, in imitation of Horace, or another Roman great. Erudite these writers certainly were, and eighteenth-century specialists would surely disagree, but such slavish imitation may be why it took the Romantic revolution to liberate English literature from its sometimes uninspired reverence for the Greeks and Romans.

In every art, those who labor to create do so under what, indeed, the great eighteenth-century scholar W. Jackson Bate named “the burden of the past” — squirm with Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.” They admire the past and build on it; they play riffs on it; they argue with it; or they spit on it, by way of moving out of the house and trying a little too hard to prove they’re adults. But only in film do they bow down to it and lick its boots in an S&M role-play designed to provide them with the comforts of infantile wish fulfillment.

So is imitation good or bad? Not surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin had something to say about this, too: “There is much difference between imitating a good man and counterfeiting him.” This is a distinction Hollywood has never learned. Picasso surely meant that an artist imitating himself is failing, simply and egregiously, to be creative. To copy others, as an artist who properly knows the monumental past, is surely unavoidable, but if you are, indeed, an artist, the work will, however much it is built upon a template, just as unavoidably be made your own through the filtering consciousness of your own genius. This does assume that one is an artist, possessed of an individuating genius, a guiding creative spirit. It is just such a spirit that is lacking not only in the executives (“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the stars”) but also in far too many filmmakers themselves, who are busy playing with their new toys in the recreation of their childhoods.

For all Spielberg’s epically entertaining revolution and enormous success, “[n]o man ever yet became great by imitation,” as Samuel Johnson said, and Spielberg was dogged by one deep and persistent criticism: he was a mere entertainer; he had no depth; he made films for kids, grown-up or otherwise. All because he seemed content simply to imitate. Ultimately, Spielberg threw off that yoke. He made mature films. He explored adult interests. He made his own films. He made art. Interesting to note, too, how many of those films (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, for example) are rooted in the same ’40s era as the adventurous entertainments Spielberg recreated. But ultimately, rather than imitate the work of the era that obviously meant so much to him, Spielberg found inspiration in it. He found himself — as an artist.

Of course, Spielberg is an enormous and protean talent. What he managed to overcome (as the sort of proto virus who developed the vaccine from his own infectious agency) lesser talents have not, and the Hollywood of the Spielberg epoch has drowned in imitation — not just of the corporately greedy variety but of the adolescent and aesthetically stunted kind. One could make endless lists of these filmmakers. Take Brian De Palma, for instance. De Palma spent a long first part of his career paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Not being inspired by Hitchcock. Simply attempting to replicate him. Those who have followed his career might argue over when he most successfully accomplished that — Dressed to Kill, say, or Blow Out. My own vote would go to the relatively early Obsession, which worships at the feet of Vertigo. And one need only compare the two to recognize clearly the overripeness characteristic of so much imitation. (My vote for absolutely the best Hitchcock film not by Hitchcock goes to Roman Polanski’s Frantic. But then Polanski, rather than a youthful imitator, was already by then a long established and unique talent bringing his own America-haunted psyche to bear on some of Hitchcock’s American themes.) Unlike Spielberg, De Palma has floundered in his attempts to establish a successful career outside the solitary confinement of imitation, yet he has managed his best work in the attempt — I would argue, in Casualties of War.

John, don’t shoot!

“Nature is commonplace,” said Gertrude Stein. “Imitation is more interesting.” Well, that’s a uniquely Modernist view. (Postmodernist would be that nature is just a construct and imitation is all there is, and therefore, in a sense, natural, since there is nothing original. But most filmmakers are not interested in this kind of talk. Their eyes would glaze over. John Milius would probably shoot you.) But what Stein posits in this typically wry inversion of historical truism, is, of course, a modern, ironic world: an artistic world not infected by sincerity — as in “the sincerest form of flattery.” Generally speaking, Hollywood knows how to avoid simple-minded sincerity in two instances: broad comedy (and often, in the end, not even there) and the occasional, clear political or social satire. In the realm of the dramatic, however, Hollywood’s degree of sincerity — going back to the “Golden Age” and up until today — is in direct proportion to its hypocrisy: the attempt by Hollywood executives to pander to their audience by constructing a world they think that audience wants to live in, but which bears no relationship to the world the executives live in and in which they have not the faith to rest a paper clip. The well-known “Capra corn” is just one obvious example.

The history of literary allusion has little to do with paying sincere homage to anyone, however much the later writer may have admired the earlier. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound loved Dante, but they hardly conceived of being Dantesque. Eliot’s Four Quartets are not an attempt to imitate The Divine Comedy. The best allusion, in a successful work, is always commenting, in one way or another, on the different conditions under which the later writer finds himself approaching the same theme. In a starkly contrasting similarity, the notion and practice of “sampling” in hip-hop involves large amounts of homage and none whatsoever of imitation. Hip-hop composers and performers are profoundly conscious of the history of their music and its progenitor forms. When hip-hoppers sample from the latter, the form itself is its own immediate commentary on difference. In the early days of rap, sampling raised copyright infringement issues much more often than it does now, but these claims, like almost all infringement claims, are really about commerce, not originality. No one ever thought an ’80s rapper was imitating a ’60s or ’70s R&B performer. The work was clearly so different. The commercial question was whether the sampled work had contributed to the income of the sampler.

Too many Hollywood filmmakers cannot make this distinction. Unlike many 17-year-old rappers, they don’t know what it’s like to be inspired by someone they admire; they only know the desire to be like him. They want to be like Mike. Or to place the analogy in their own period, they are little leaguers with multimillion-dollar budgets attempting Willie Mays–style basket catches because they looked so cool when he made them. This, for example, is what Frank Darabont has done in one of the most egregious of imitative offenses, The Majestic.

“Almost all absurdity of conduct,” Samuel Johnson said on another occasion, “arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.” So, in the case of The Majestic, Frank Darabont wants to be one part Preston Sturges and one part Frank Capra. Up until now, Darabont has been keen on Stephen King adaptations. Even in The Shawshank Redemption, his first and best film, he seemed greatly concerned with asserting his belief in the redemptive power of human goodness against the most brutal and hopeless conditions. But Darabont’s desire to believe, in the increasingly naïve manner of Golden Age Hollywood movies, has led him, through The Green Mile and The Majestic, to lose track of — indeed, by all appearances, interest in — any warrant for this belief. In Shawshank, Andy and Red’s salvation is earned through friendship, loyalty, application, cleverness, toughness, and cold calculation. Andy has faith, but it is grounded in his belief in himself and in his own initiative. In The Green Mile, redemptive goodness resides in the innocent form of Duncan. The handy thing about innocence, however, when we acknowledge it, is that it needs no warrant and makes no claim. It simply is, and we imbue it with whatever power we are so inclined. But to do so without some measure of doubt, skepticism, or irony, and not seem childish, at best, usually takes a Testament or two. This is the problem of The Green Mile.

In The Majestic, it seems clear that, for now at least, Darabont no longer has any interest in digging out of the dark complexities of human action the basis for something other than complete pessimism. He simply wants to believe. He thinks we want simply to believe. And he wants to make all of us happy, including himself, one presumes, by offering up that simple belief in goodness he thinks we all enjoyed at the Bijou as kids and wish we could recapture. What gives Shawshank the heft of art, in the end, beyond its solemn style, grave voiceover narration, and frank depictions of brutality, is in its end. On that existentially empty, tropical beach, Andy and Red have saved themselves, but only themselves. The world is still a harsh, unforgiving place, and no other person’s life has been rescued from the crushing weight of bad luck and cold or passionate violence. In contrast, The Majestic not only hopefully universalizes its claims; its claims are patently false and offensive.

Part Hail the Conquering Hero and Sullivan’s Travels mixed in with bits of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the ingredient list is not exhaustive), the mix suggests how Darabont fails to distinguish between Sturges’ mock Americana and Capra’s sincerity. The greatest offenses, though, are in the counterfeit allusions to Mr. Smith and Sullivan’s Travels.

When Majestic’s Peter Appleton appears before a Senate committee to answer for his Communist affiliations and, presumably, to name names, the halting struggle of an innately self-interested man toward courageous resistance unavoidably calls up memories of all the Capraesque Barbara Stanwycks who surmounted their cynicism in the recognition at last of simple honesty — in Majestic, embodied by all the good people of Lawson. Most pointedly, though, we think of Mr. Smith and his own, ultimately, fatigued and halting-of-voice protest in the well of the Senate against cynical and corrupt political influence peddling. So victorious is Smith in the end that cynicism and corruption are actually brought to shame by the genuineness of his democratic beliefs: Claude Rains’s Senator Paine shoots himself not as a means to escape his disgrace, but as a form of punishment for the acts that brought it about. But as always in Capra’s films, the public evil is fictional, the chicanery generic, and the goodness that overcomes them both may be embraced by the projective will of the imagination: with willing hearts we can tell ourselves that, were some event like this fictional one to come about, it’s not inconceivable that on some occasion good could win out like this. Remarkably, however, Darabont’s drive to imitate in The Majestic is so strong, it seems by the evidence impossible that he could have given a moment’s thought to the meaning of what he was creating, for he situates his political crucible in the midst of actual and historic political events.

We can dream, can’t we, that one day some Jimmy Stewart will plainly and nobly elevate us all on the floor of the Senate? Indeed, we can, because it is always possible to dream about the future, the hypothetical, the purely imaginary. But it is impossible to dream, or imagine, or suspend our disbelief with regard to Jim Carrey’s triumph before his Senate, for we know, with all the pain of actual, dispiriting experience, that nothing like it, in fact, ever happened. One can almost feel the calculation by which screenwriter Michael Sloane and Darabont chose to place their story in the early 1950s. The film’s prototypes all predate that period, as products of the Golden Age ’30s and ’40s. Moving the setting up a decade was a way of establishing the film as a modern, second generation of its type, while keeping the story still firmly ensconced in a distant enough American past that its simple faith might remain embraceable. In yet a third, counter movement, the filmmakers choose the actual events of the McCarthy period as a nod to the seemingly more sophisticated political awareness of contemporary viewers. It makes a certain — though, of course, artistically irrelevant — sense. The calculation is all surface, all commercial and entirely without consequence with regard to the quality of the film, which might work with or without any of these features if only it had some integrity, in both the common and root meanings of the word. For while most of what we see in the film before the Senate confrontation may be disappointing, everything that comes during and after it is completely fraudulent. Yes, there were individuals who took courageous stands against the witch-hunting House and Senate — far bolder ones, in fact, than that of Appleton, even with his Capra-styled speech about freedom of speech. But none of these people exited the committee room to the cheers of the assembled gallery while chastened Senators made deals with relieved studio heads to save a little face and the hero’s career. None of them arrived home by train to the cheering multitudes, gathered to celebrate the heroism of defending the Bill of Rights and the dismissing of a little innocent flirtation with the Communist Party of America. Gee, is that how it went for Dalton Trumbo (who is quoted in Warner Bros. production notes) and all the others? So what was all the big historical deal?

The offense, the imitative brain lock, goes further. The film opens with a fine actor’s moment as the camera lingers in close-up on Hollywood screenwriter Appleton’s face, while he listens to a series of, we are to take it, typically stupid executive suggestions for his latest script. His discomfort and his spineless, careerist acquiescence are subtly reflected in Carrey’s expressions. This is Hollywood, we are to understand — absurd, stupid, without artistic or even simple storytelling integrity. Yet oddly enough, it is this Hollywood, this dream factory, that provided material for the dream palace that was Lawson’s prewar Majestic movie theater. And it is Appleton’s spearheading of the Majestic’s restoration that is his emblematic act of connection to Lawson’s innocent and communally decent American past. There is a profound contradiction in these elements, a contradiction ignored to varyingly self-conscious degrees by the American movie-loving public and, more disturbingly, by filmmakers like Darabont. A good film, with the smallest measure of originality, might have explored this fascinating contradiction. But as Cicero tells us, “the false is nothing but an imitation of the true,” and The Majestic is nothing if not false. In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel Mcrea’s John L. Sullivan sees the value of his Hollywood comic filmmaking by realizing that it provides a needed escape from life’s harsher conditions, not by persuading himself, or us, that it somehow is the vessel of essential truth and goodness. But what does Carrey’s Appleton do when, after his heroic brush-up with the Congress, he returns to his screenwriting career and suffers another close-up bout of ridiculous executive story notes? He chucks it all to make a life in decent, American Lawson, the town’s decency and Appleton’s embrace of it signaled by his new life’s work — selling admission from the Majestic’s ticket booth — admission to the palace of the absurdities and lies from which he fled. Hollywood may be too dishonest to work in, but it is not too dishonest for love of its handiwork to symbolize humble Americana.

Of all the dispiriting aspects of imitation — the tautologous lack of originality, the repetition, the commercial calculation, the dullness — perhaps the most dispiriting are the absence of thought and the self-dismissal. In the case of screenwriters and filmmakers like Sloane and Darabont, the truly depressing image to conjure is of that awful close-up encounter with horrifyingly stupid story notes going on entirely within their own heads, and with all the voices theirs. But the problem of imitation, as Cicero’s comments attest, has been around a very long time, and still another thinker weighed in, much more recently than Cicero, but long enough ago. Said Ralph Waldo Emerson:

One wishes more Hollywood filmmakers would set to farming their own land.