Last week as you remember (or maybe not), I wrote a little about the age-old practice of filmmakers borrowing from earlier films and being influenced by other filmmakers and their work. I promised this week to move into the realm of filmmakers who move beyond the odd swipe and general influence to those who specifically draw—some might say cannibalize—their work from existing movies. And while I fully intend to carry through on that, I’m going to pause briefly to address a question I raised—more or less to myself—last week concerning the impact of Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926) on James Whale’s Frankenstein films.
As some of you know, Turner Classic Movies ran—for the first time—The Magician last Sunday night. While I’d seen the film a few times in pretty grim video transfers from equally grim 16mm dupe prints, this was the first time I feel I’ve really seen The Magician. (Actually, by now I’ve seen it twice.) The question I posed was whether or not seeing a good quality print might lessen my admiration for Whale’s films. As predicted, that didn’t happen, but seeing the film anew made it clear to me what an enormous debt to Ingram the entire classic—or first wave—horror genre owed. Indeed, it’s far more than can be explored in a paragraph or two here, so I will be devoting an entire “Screening Room” to this topic in the near future. You stand warned then that I plan to majorly geek out on this ere long. Now to the main topic at hand.
It was certainly not unheard of for “golden age” filmmakers—even pretty important ones—to attempt to emulate somebody else’s work. Whether or not they admitted it is another matter. When Frank Capra became determined to win an Oscar back in the early sound era, he was told that the Academy only voted for that “artsy junk.” (It’s amusing that this is about the same time that MGM wonder boy Irving Thalberg noted, “Crap like Madelon Claudet is what wins Oscars.”) For some reason, “artsy junk” seems to have translated into “something like Josef von Sternberg makes.” Nevermind that Sternberg never won an Oscar, nor that he would resign from the Academy in disgust (saying that it had “nothing to do with art and even less to do with science”) the same year that Capra was making his faux Sternberg film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Whether or not Capra ever owned up to the fact that his Oscar bait movie (it flopped with audiences and the Academy) was ersatz Sternberg is unknown, but this outburst of uncharacteristic exotica couldn’t be anything else. (And it demonstrated just how much Capra didn’t understand Sternberg’s “artsy junk.”)
A more interesting example—if only because of his constant denials—is Lewis Milestone. His 1933 musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum would appear to owe a great debt to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight in approach, though stylistically it owes more to Sergei Eistenstein and his theories on editing. Milestone liked to claim that he came first and Mamoulian came second. OK—except that Love Me Tonight came out in August 1932 and Milestone’s film came out in January 1933. It’s possible that he wasn’t influenced by it.
Both films have music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and both are from a brief period where the movies indulged in rhyming dialogue rather than ouright songs on occasion. Norman Taurog’s rarely seen The Phantom President—from 1932 and also with Rodgers and Hart songs—falls in between the two. There are others, including the 1934 Three Stooges short—their first—Woman Haters. It is possible that Milestone’s film is more just representative of a particular time than of any specific film.
Whatever the case, Milestone demonstrably did not come first. At the same time, his wildly enjoyable—and very flashy—The General Died at Dawn (1935) is so clearly patterned on Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) that it can’t be coincidental. And this time, there’s too big a gap between releases for any such foolish “I came first” claims. Oddly, Milestone didn’t “get” Sternberg much more than Capra did. He crafted a film that’s a riot of clever touches—at one point, the four corners of the screen “roll back” to show five scenes at once—that Sternberg would have sneered at. But at least his take was a lot more fun than Capra’s ever was.
The idea of doing a movie in someone else’s style was parodied by Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) with its story of John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a director of light comedies and musicals, wanting to make a film of substance. There’s a scene early on where he pitches a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes) to the studio executives that includes phrases such as “something like Capra” and makes allusions to Ernst Lubitsch. (The business of pitching stories in terms of earlier hits is not a new one.) Fortunately, we’re never treated to just exactly what this stirring drama is (the Coen Brothers would fill that out for us later), but it’s worth noting that when it came time to depict a deep south prison camp, Sturges fell back on the most obvious model—Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).
The first instance I can come up with of someone deliberately and openly emulating a style is Billy Wilder with Love in the Afternoon (1957). Wilder made no bones about the fact that this was his tribute to Ernst Lubitsch. He even cast such Lubitsch alumni as Gary Cooper and Maurice Chevalier to drive the point home. What he didn’t note is that his 1954 film Sabrina also had more than a hint of the “Lubitsch Touch” clinging to it. Then again, I don’t know that he ever denied it either.
That brings us to the idea of the pastiche. In some respects the Lester films and Ken Russell’s French Dressing (1964) could be called pastiches, but they also have a definite style of their own in the bargain. I may be forgetting something, but the first full-blown pastiche film I can think of is Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971). Oddly, this didn’t start out as a pastiche, since the original idea was a straightforward (in a strictly Russellian sense, which isn’t everybody’s idea of straightforward) film version of Sandy Wilson’s stage show. But the more Russell dealt with the play, the more he realized it was too thin to support a movie. Combine that with him attending a performance of the play where word got out he was in the audience that resulted in members of the cast playing to and trying to impress the movie director in the audience and you have the basic template of what followed.
Rather than present Wilson’s play as a film, Russell crafted a screenplay built around a tacky touring company putting the play on in a run-down and practically empty theater. It happens that Hollywood director E.P. DeThrill (Vladek Sheybal) is in attendance for a matinee, searching for material for his new movie. (The casting is an in-joke in itself, since Sheybal had already “stood in” for Russell in the 1965 BBC production The Debussy Film.) Add the fact that the star of the show has broken her ankle and the hapless assistant stage manager, Polly (Twiggy), is forced to go on in her place and the film becomes a pastiche of the 1933 Lloyd Bacon-Busby Berkeley film 42nd Street with Wilson’s play taking something of a back seat.
In many respects, the results have more to do with Russell creating his own takes on musical numbers from old movies than anything else. The film is full of references to Busby Berkeley numbers of the most elaborate kind. (“I Could Be Happy with You” very nearly out-Berkelys Berkeley.) But it doesn’t stop there, since there are references to such esoterica as the 1929 revue film Warner Bros.’ The Show of Shows (aside: when is TCM going to run this?) in the number with the criss-crossed ladders and the bit with the stars with their heads through cut-out stars in a curtain. Russell elaborates and improves upon the former and uses the latter more of less as a throwaway. Also, his staging of “The Riviera” is a delirious variation on the girls-on-the-wings-of-airplanes “Flying Down to Rio” number from Thornton Freeland’s Flying Down to Rio (1933). The irony to all this is that this immensely complex undertaking was originally meant to be a break from the rigors of filming The Devils (1971)—and by the time he finished expanding his original vision, it was an even tougher shoot.
The brilliance of the film—or one aspect of its brilliance—lies in the fact that it represents the filmmaker’s own ideas of how to rethink the simple numbers he’s witnessing onstage into cinematic extravaganzas. The elaborate numbers are all fantasies by DeThrill as he imagines what they could be in a film version. That DeThrill opts not to film the stage show at the end of the film (“I think I will make Singing in the Rain”) amusingly mirrors Russell’s own decision not to make a (literal) film of The Boy Friend.
There’s never a doubt that Russell is creating a 1971 pastiche of old movies and their conventions. The British poster for the film even cites Busby Berkely in the ballyhoo. (Berkeley was a hot property at the time owing to him having just staged the numbers for a revival of No, No,Nanette on Broadway, and the general nostalgia boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s.) The film clearly is out to create an homage to old movies. And it doesn’t stop with the musical numbers and the genre conventions of the backstage musical. Russell actually duplicates—using much of the same dialogue—two scenes from 42nd Street. Warner Baxter’s speech to Ruby Keeler (“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) becomes a speech by Max Adrian to Twiggy. The backstage encounter between Keeler and injured star Bebe Daniels (“Now go out there and be so great you’ll make me hate you!”) is reworked into a meeting between Twiggy and unbilled guest star Glenda Jackson.
All of this, however, does raise a question concerning whether or not the audience is in on the joke. I first saw The Boy Friend at a midnight show in a packed theater at the University of South Florida in 1976. My primary memory of that screening is that I was the only person who laughed at the reproduction of Warner Baxter’s speech. I also recall my viewing partner wondering how (she knew I hadn’t seen the movie before) I was able to mouth the words of the Glenda Jackson scene as they were being said and why I was in an obvious state of sheer delight over the scene. My guess is that I was probably the only person in a crowd of maybe 150 people who was in on the joke in those cases. For that matter, I wasn’t in on all of the references, because it would be several years yet before I saw The Show of Shows. Whether or not this actually matters is another issue, but I don’t think it could or should be the concern of the filmmaker as to how savvy the audience is to his frame of reference.
This is more or less a one-shot approach for Russell. While subsequent films do have passing references to other movies, none of them go to this length. Yes, he quotes—mostly for purposes of refuting the source—Death in Venice (1971)—in Mahler (1974). And there are references to Al Jolson and Stan Laurel, along with a bit of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), but these don’t ground the film. The same can be said of the references in Lisztomania (1975), though it comes much closer to a grounding in other movies. Valentino (1977) replicates—for obvious reasons—scenes from the films of its title character, but it isn’t built on them. If it’s grounded in anything, it’s the structural similarity to Citizen Kane (1941). That was more pronounced as the film was shot—with the body of Valentino everybody’s fawning over being a wax effigy, while the real corpse (the film’s “Rosebud” mystery) is on ice in the basement—but not as it was released.
From Russell we can move to Brian De Palma, a filmmaker who moved from being influenced by Alfred Hitchcock to one who has often been villified for ripping-off the master. De Palma is a difficult case. His Sisters (1973) certainly bears the Hitchcock feeling—something driven home by having Hitchcock’s primary later day composer Bernard Herrmann write the score. Herrmann would also score De Palma’s Obsession (1976), a film that bears more than a passing resemblance to Vertigo (1958). It could be said that Obsession was made by a filmmaker who was obsessed with Hitchcock. (I believe this was the film where De Palma complained to Herrmann that he wanted a score as good as those he did for Hitchcock, only to be told that he’d get one as soon as De Palma made a film as good as Hitchcock’s.)
Like Russell, De Palma has one straightforward pastiche in his oeuvre, Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a playful rock music rethinking of Phantom of the Opera. For me, this is actually one of De Palma’s best films—in part because it truly transforms the pastiche concept into something that’s the filmmaker’s own. It duplicates—or reimagines—the basics of the Arthur Lubin’s 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera (the one that gives the Phantom a back story), but it takes it much further by incorporating the Faust concept and making the film as much about the Phantom’s nemesis as it is about the Phantom. De Palma does incorporate the disfigurement of the Phantom (turning the acid in the face from the 1943 film into having his head caught in a record press) and the idea of a music publisher stealing his music. (In the original, this is a misconception. Here it’s a reality.) It also tags the villainous Swan’s (Paul Williams) main henchman (George Memmoli) with the name “Philbin,” which references Mary Philbin, the Christine of the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera.
In the main, however, Phantom of the Paradise is remarkably free of much in the way of direct references to the specifics of previous versions of Phantom of the Opera. It is not free of the Hitchcock element, though, since the Psycho (1960) shower murder is parodied—with a plunger over the victim’s mouth—in a scene with drug-addled glam rock poseur Beef (Gerrit Graham) in the shower. Overall, the film is its own beast—a cheeky, cartoonish slap at the 1960s idea of rock music as a kind of unifying force of peace and love. Here it’s a business—and a vicious one with Satanic implications—and the peace and love fans have turned into jaded thrill-seekers who get off on death (real) presented as entertainment. If the film weren’t so playful about it all, it would be a remarkably unpleasant experience—and its darker side is still there even with the playfulness.
Of course, De Palma’s big breakthrough came with Carrie (1976), which followed Obsession. It remains one of his best works—quite possibly his very best. It’s that rare (but not unheard of ) case where a film is actually an improvement over its literary source. (Even Stephen King has said that the film is better than his book.) While the specter of Hitchcock hovers over some aspects of the film—the suspense sequence involving the dropping of the bucket of pig blood onto its title character and Pino Donaggio’s Herrmann-influenced score—Carrie is probably De Palma’s most original film. Certain things in it—notably the spinning dance between Sissy Spacek and William Katt, the climactic scene and the shock ending—were like nothing we had ever seen before. (I don’t think anyone has ever duplicated the breathless, hypnotic effect of the dance.) Naturally, this meant that others (including De Palma) would assimilate some of those things and they seem less fresh today as a result.
Unfortunately, De Palma followed this with the disappointing The Fury (1978). There’s good stuff in The Fury, but the Hitchcock flavor is getting more pronounced. De Palma even apes the distending image effect—zooming in with the lens while physically pulling the camera back—that Hitchcock had used in Vertigo. The difference is that it had a lot more point in Vertigo. There’s little sense of involvement to any of it and it feels like an exercise in technique—tied to a fairly silly sub-Carrie telekinesis story—more than an actual attempt to make a solid movie. Still, parts of it are fun and it’s hard to actively dislike any movie the ends with John Cassevetes exploding.
But it’s here that De Palma starts transforming into a Hitchcock obsessive—something that would plague Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and, most notoriously, Body Double (1984). This doesn’t mean that the films are without some level of entertainment—and even some things that are uniquely De Palma, which is more than can be said of his “assignment” pictures where he’s more of a director-for-hire. They can be very entertaining, but there’s a hollowness to them. These are the pictures that the then-head of the movie reviewing for the U.S. Catholic Conference Michael Gallagher to remark in correspondence with me in 1984 that De Palma was in touch with nothing—not even his own feelings—but old movies. I saw his point then. I see it now, but I’m not sure I think it’s grounds for a blanket condemnation.
Apart from De Palma’s more impersonal works, the Hitchcock obsession has never really gone away—except for the laughable Raising Cain (1992) where he attempted to emulate Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) with a botched “imaginary friend” thriller that telegraphed its every punch. I do think he succeeded in making one brilliant film with Femme Fatale (2002)—a work that fully fused his Hitchcock fixation with his own voice in a way that none of the previous attempts had pulled off. Unfortunately, it was a flop and he followed it up (four years later) with The Black Dahlia, which is either the best bad movie I’ve ever seen or the worst good one. It’s certainly a mess in either case—but an enjoyably loopy one, if you can get past the idea of Hilary Swank as a sex bomb.
The big question for me with De Palma is simply how is anything he has done any worse than what we’ve seen from the far less villified Quentin Tarantino? My guess is that Tarantino has—at least up till Inglourious Basterds (2009)—pretty much limited himself to picking over critically reviled—or ignored—pop culture artifacts that only hardcore fans of certain subgenres have much interest in. De Palma’s biggest sin may just lie in the fact that he went straight for the influence of a major filmmaker instead of plundering the works of Bo Arne Vibenius and the Shaw Brothers. Now that he’s flexed some Hitchcock, G.W. Pabst and Fritz Lang muscles with Basterds, he may find himself keeping company with De Palma before many more movies have passed.
Tim Burton is a younger breed of movie generation—one who cut his teeth on Shock Theater showings of old horror pictures with Vincent Price and Hammer horrors on the big screen. His movies are clearly the product of a movie watching background—combined with a suburbia-informed childhood. Burton, however, is an anomaly in the realm of the modern trend of building off old movies. (Some would say he’s simply an anomaly and leave it at that.) Unlike Tarantino, Burton isn’t a repository of bits and pieces (however polished up and parodied) of other movies. Instead, Burton seems not so much to draw directly off other films so much as he draws off his memory of them and how they appeared to him as a kid in 1960 suburbia. There is rarely a sense that he’s gone back and researched the specifics of a given scene from any film.
This was evident from the outset with his short film (now in the works of becoming a feature) Frankenweenie (1984). The film (which amusingly reduces Hitchcock to a reference about “that fat guy on TV”) is a suburban movie fan child’s re-imagining of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in modern American terms. Frankenstein’s laboratory becomes your attic, your old toys become his scientific instruments. Your uncomprehending (and to you incomprehensible) neighbors become angry villagers, while the windmill from the climax becomes a hazard on a miniature golf course. If like me, your from the same era and the same background (in basics, if not specifics), the film is remarkably similar to acting out the scenes—as you remember them—with your friends from the movie you saw on TV last night. It has the same flavor as those youthful dramatics with your imagination filling in the gaps provided by your mundane surroundings.
Burton has expanded on this approach throughout his career. Probably the most notable of these is Edward Scissorhands (1990), which treats suburbia in the same way and which makes real the kind of creepy castle you envisoned at the end of your cookie-cutter house street. That the effect of this castle at the end of the street is somewhat less than convinving only adds to the feeling. The neighbors are again the villagers, but much as they turned out to be OK at the end of Frankenweenie, here they’re not wholly unsympathetic. Unlike most filmmakers who depict suburbia (apart from Spielberg who romanticizes it to the point of sitcom nausea), Burton never trashes the setting for its own sake or from a sense of superiority to it. He sees the good and the bad and is fascinated by the almost surreal quality of it that surfaces the minute you start to examine it. (As Burton himself once wondered, why do people decorate a table with fake grapes?)
Burton may well have watched Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) for Ed Wood (1994)—in fact, it seems unlikely he didn’t—but his approach to the recreations of those films and the making of them is hardly faithful in the strict sense. Then again, his whole approach to the material is not exactly hemmed in by the facts. Instead, he made a film that touched on the inane things we remember about Wood’s movies—and that one scene from Bride that gave Bela Lugosi one last shining moment—and made them his own, wrapped in a story that isn’t history as it was, but history as we—and Burton—would have liked it to be. It’s an unfailingly kind movie that gives Wood and Lugosi a far better epitaph than life ever did.
When he made his Hammer homage with Sleepy Hollow (1999), he included a handful if indelible images—notably the burning windmill from Brides of Dracula (1960)—from those films, but offered more a feeling of what those films once seemed like to him rather than attempting a slavish reproduction. By the time he made Big Fish in 2003—a film that can be seen as his attempt at self-justification as a fantasist, much as Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels was his self-justification as a comedy maker—he’d gotten around to throwing some Fellini into the mix. The ending of Big Fish—and a few other points like the moment frozen in time at the circus—owes much to Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), but I don’t think anyone would ever call it a rip-off.
We’re pretty much in the present now—and the world of the previously mentioned Tarantino with his movie-based movies. The jury is, I think, still out on Tarantino in some ways, mostly because he has yet to transcend the level of fun or carve out anything that tells us much about Tarantino. There’s perhaps nothing wrong with that, but there’s something not wholly satisfying about it from my perspective. I can look at the films of all the others I’ve discussed and get some feeling for the men who made those films. I know—or at least have been able to surmise—what interests them, what drives them, what they are trying—and sometimes succeeding—to say within the confines of entertaining us.
I at least have a sense of knowing who Lewis Milestone, Preston Sturges, Richard Lester, Ken Russell, Brian De Palma and Tim Burton are (or were). (Of course, the fact that I actually know Russell makes him a special case there.) But who exactly is Quentin Tarantino? I know he has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. I know he likes a broad, quirky range of movies (and pop music). I know he makes (sometimes) entertaining films that are occasionally also terrific filmmaking. But who is he? What is he like (apart from enthusiastic)? And does he actually have anything to say? Mulling that question over I come up with a gigantic “Beats the hell out of me.” Maybe that’s important. Maybe it isn’t, but I tend to think it is.
This year we’ve had two films by a couple of filmmakers I haven’t even mentioned—Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island and Roman Polanski with The Ghost Writer (which I just saw last night). Both of these films have more than a little in common with past works. I could go down a list of influences and references that I see in Shutter Island—ranging from Hitchock to Kubrick to the British TV series The Prisoner. But when I come away from it, I mostly see Scorsese and I have a sense of the man himself, of his love for movies, and his sense of humanity. The same is true of The Ghost Writer, which is brimming with cross-references to an older style of filmmaking than is currently fashionable, and with references to earlier Polanski films. I left it sensing his obsession with the nature of identity and the perilous nature of existence itself. (Things that inform all his films and are explicable by his life.) I feel I know the filmmakers and what they have to say.
This is what I am not getting from Tarantino and a lot of the post-modern movie or pop culture-based cinema. There is something missing. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a simple sense of humanity, but that seems a little too simple. Or does it?