November 13, 2009

Influence is by no means simple/use your allusion

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
-- Jonathan Lethem, from "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism"

This thing about Witi Ihimaera ripping people off is pretty funny. Apparently, he took some things other people had done, tweaked them a little, and placed them, unattributed, in his own work.
In art, we do this all the time. It's called appropriation. Some people think it's a postmodernist thing, but it's not. It has a long and illustrious history. I reckon the cave painters busily ripped each other off. However, the examples I'm going to use are a bit more recent than that – from the fifteenth century.
In fifteenth century Italy, it was not uncommon (to say the least) for different painters to paint the same subject. Nor was it uncommon for a painter to take some figures or a compositional device another painter had used when treating the same subject, tweak it, and use it in their own work. 
-- David Cauchi, from his blog.

It is interesting that, in an age of generally inert remakes and imitations, there is still such insistence on the Romantic concept of originality. In terms of the Hollywood cinema and its critical reception, the term has become thoroughly debased ... when De Palma works his variations of Psycho, this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman, this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality. Debased or not, the cult of originality is of comparatively recent date.
-- Robin Wood, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.

Other homages are mere illustrations of Paul Schrader's script. Hence, the references to Robert Bresson's work. Travis eats bread soaked in peach brandy, which is a perversion of Bresson's saintly priest in Le Journal d'un CurĂ© de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) subsisting entirely on the Eucharist: bread soaked in wine. This is no doubt a comment on Travis who, Scorsese notes, sees himself as very spiritual, but is a “spirit on the wrong road”. Bresson's country priest ironically dies of stomach cancer and Bickle says in voice-over he suspects he has the disease. Schrader confirms that Travis' narration through voice-overs from his diary is borrowed from Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959), the title of which, like Taxi Driver, refers to a role and not a man. Also, Bresson's pickpocket, Michel (Martin La Salle), rehearses his crimes ritualistically. This is the direct inspiration for the deliberateness with which Travis prepares with his guns, in a sequence which was originally much longer. Finally, Schrader includes literary references to Thomas Wolfe's “God's Lonely Man” and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, the titles of which are quoted by Bickle in his voice-over.
-- John Thurman, from "Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver: Uses of Intertextuality".