You Must Remember This

   Taxi Driver

In 1982, the film scholar Noël Carroll took a hard look at American cinema’s growing fad for allusionism. For that generation of filmmakers known as the Movie Brats – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich – the classic movies of John Ford, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock were sacred objects to be venerated. And also to be pillaged or, in more genteel terms, paid homage.

Thus began the tidal wave of allusion in contemporary movies. It started with posters glimpsed on the walls of characters’ apartments – a Jules and Jim (1962) poster was almost de rigueur – or brief clips fleetingly viewed playing on television sets in the background.

But soon it became a much more central obsession. Classic scenes were restaged, sometimes with little attempt to disguise their origin. Old movie characters were reincarnated in new ones. Plot points or whole storylines were lifted.

The tendency was most starkly evident in the work of Brian De Palma. His films, from Sisters (1972) to Body Double (1984), gleefully plundered plot devices from his favourite director, Hitchcock – and especially from Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958).

Virtually no major director of this bratty generation, however, was immune from the seductions of allusion-making. Paul Schrader, for example, concluded his stylish American Gigolo (1980) with a solemn declaration of love uttered across the grill of a prison interview booth – exactly as Robert Bresson had ended his somber classic, Pickpocket (1959).

Coppola constructed The Conversation (1974) as a reworking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), with the photographer of the original replaced by a sound recordist – and De Palma finessed the same homage in his subsequent Blow Out (1981).

For Carroll, such wholesale borrowings marked an aesthetic dead-end. For those spectators in the know, it may have been an amusing game. But for anyone else, it was meaningless. And how could a new, original work possibly absorb such large-scale quotations without damaging its own dramatic and artistic integrity?

Unfortunately for Carroll, the trend was catching on elsewhere – notably the international artworld, where the mania for a post-Pop Art mode of appropriation, often whole and undigested, reached epic proportions during the 1980s. Directors including De Palma and Scorsese were embraced in this quarter not as classical storytellers, but postmodern image scavengers in the vein of Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince.

There were those who skeptically asked: what’s new? Haven’t pop culture and high culture alike always fed on themselves, reworking the same basic stories and ideas? Isn’t that what genres are all about, providing standard plot formulae and conventions?

Shakespeare took his storylines from everywhere – as did Hitchcock, who had a keen eye for bits of business wherever he found them, and stored them up for decades in his filing cabinet of stray ideas.

Howard Hawks shamelessly recycled himself as often as possible. He took his splendid hit Ball of Fire (1941), about a good-time gal dropping in on eight stuffy linguists, and revamped it as A Song Is Born (1948) – with the men transformed into musicologists. And he closely remade his classic Western Rio Bravo (1959) as both El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970).

Literary theorists have a name for this kind of activity: intertextuality. New texts naturally generate themselves from old texts. How can it possibly be otherwise, in any culture?

The problem, at least for critics, is in locating the real force or effect of any gesture of appropriation. Is every musician who plays twelve-bar blues engaging in an ingenious act of allusionism, or simply, unselfconsciously inserting himself or herself into a cultural tradition?

Even the artworld has had to face this thorny issue. By 1983, art theorist Douglas Crimp admitted that, since appropriation “extends to virtually every aspect of our culture, from the most cynically calculated products of the fashion and entertainment industries to the most committed critical activities of artists”, then the recourse to recycling “cannot articulate a specific reflection upon that culture”.

Or, as Australian cultural commentator Meaghan Morris put the matter more bluntly: “All-pervasive, omni-active appropriation is strictly a non-event”!

The 2003 ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) season Remembered By offered an opportunity to look again at many of the key allusionist films of previous decades. Modern films were lined up against their sources for the sake of comparison: for instance, Claire Denis’ Beau travail (1999) with Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), from which not only a specific character was recycled, but the actor who plays him (Michel Subor).

George Miller’s original Mad Max (1979) is ingeniously paired with Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). What is the connection between a road-action movie set in full daylight and a murky detective tale which is the epitome of film noir? Miller extends Aldrich’s audacious formal experimentation, which prompted Charles Bitsch, a critic from that era, to exclaim: “The laws of editing appears to have disintegrated: the image explodes. Robert Aldrich is the first filmmaker of the atomic age”.

Since the 1990s, commentators have come up with a few new ideas to break the intellectual logjam around appropriation posed as either the postmodern gesture par excellence, or a banal non-event.

Lesley Stern’s book The Scorsese Connection is a good example of creative thinking on this topic. For her, Scorsese is not merely or tidily quoting the old movies he loves in order to seem like a clever-clever cinephile. Stern argues that his samplings may not be entirely conscious – and in this, she is in the tradition of Alain Bergala writing about Godard’s unconscious, transformative and deformative reminiscences of past films. Rather, Scorsese is possessed, haunted by unresolved questions in classics of the past, compelled unconsciously to retell certain stories and restage their highly charged moments.

Taxi Driver (1976), for example, is one of many contemporary American movies which borrows from John Ford’s Western masterpiece, The Searchers (1956). Why has this work become such a central reference, on par with Vertigo and The Wizard of Oz (1939)? Ford’s film has lodged itself in the collective unconscious of moviegoers because of its anxiety around the concept of home. Where is home, who can find it, who truly feels they belong there?

Scorsese’s anti-hero, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is doomed to “wander the winds” like John Wayne in the wilderness of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley – and just like all of us do in the modern world.


© Adrian Martin 18 May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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