Two Takes on The Plagiarists

As part of the Talent Press workshop all eight participants wrote a review about Peter Parlow’s Berlinale Forum contribution THE PLAGIARISTS. The whole group discussed the articles afterwards and even met the filmmakers for a discussion. In the following we present two exemplary takes on this US-American indie film.


In the Name of Honesty

By Andrea Guzmán

In an age when anyone can make their own film, start a rock band or write a book – and do it very professionally in craft and technique – words like “originality” and “authenticity” seem to be primary values to evaluate a piece of art. Honesty has been a main battle cry of independent cinema, with the big belief that anyone with a camera (and the older it is, the better) and a good idea, or at least an honest idea, can make an important movie. Non-actors, nostalgia for the textures of old technology, non-rehearse and neo-realistic approaches are part of these “aesthetics of authenticity”.

The second film by Peter Parlow, written by James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir, a collaborative team that has been working together, looks into this particularly awkward matter. To whom do ideas belong? Who has the rights to them? And ultimately, what is the real value of that precious authenticity when it becomes a kind of market brand? At first sight, THE PLAGIARISTS seems to be a mumblecore-ish low budget nostalgic film in its production, taped on purpose in 1980s Betacam; the camera even becomes part of the story. Ultimately, it is a low budget nostalgia film: a movie made by friends in one week, zero money and a news camera bought on eBay, that tells the story of two millennials trying to take an artistic path. The couple in the story meets an African-American man (Clip Payne from Parliament-Funkadelic!) who truly amazes them with his wisdom and charisma, but eventually they notice that all those inspiring words might not be from his own invention. That discovery forces them to re-evaluate some of their own pre-conceptions.

THE PLAGIARISTS presents itself as a meta-comedy film: an indie movie making fun of indie movies, their methods of production, their mannerisms, and their use of low budget not from necessity but as an aesthetic resource to manufacture authenticity. It also seems to be an essay about this uncomfortable matter for the generation of its own producers: how the market so easily absorbs the characteristics that once belonged to the counterculture and how a privileged class and race that has all the resources at their disposal desperately seeks to embrace those characteristics in the name of honesty.

Secondhandness: THE PLAGIARISTS by Peter Parlow
By Victor Guimarães

On a winter road trip to their friend Allison’s house in the countryside, a young white couple, Anna and Tyler, pull over due to a car malfunction. A guy, Clip, approaches and offers help and his home to spend the night. The fact that Clip is black adds a layer of racial tension to the drama, which echoes throughout the film. Later that night, Anna listens to a long monologue by Clip and, a few scenes later, the film cuts to summertime and Anna finds out that the speech is actually verbatim from a best-selling novel.

This act of “plagiarism” resonates throughout the second part in the discussions between the friends. In fact, from the beginning, questions around authenticity were already present in the formal aspects: the nostalgic video texture of the images, the indicative acting, the verbosity that reminds us of mumblecore movies, the intentionally fast cuts. It’s all on purpose, of course. And the film is constantly emphasizing its insularity: Tyler is not only an aspiring filmmaker; he accidentally finds a room full of old video cameras in Clip’s house and later expresses his naïve desire to make an indie film following the standards of Dogma 95. Ultimately, our immersion in the film is constantly blocked by the mandatory awareness about the secondhandness of every image or text. For example, the film ends with Allison’s epistolary monologue drawing a ridiculous comparison between literature and cinema, and the credits inform us that her words are drawn from “Are Books Better than Films?”, an article signed by someone called TheBookAddictedGirl.

Like many of its contemporaries, THE PLAGIARISTS is an intellectual game, where the work of the viewer is to puzzle together the references and always relate to the formal decisions from a distance. The materiality is constantly aiding the film’s concept, to the point where the repeatedly reinforced self-awareness turns everything on the screen – characters, stories, dialogues, framing, editing styles – into a constant mimicry, an incessant demonstration of the filmmaker’s intent. The deconstruction of authenticity myths, the denouncement of racist assumptions, the satire about indie nostalgia, everything is amazingly well constructed, but obsessively predetermined. Layers and layers of “the whole self-aware, postmodern meta shit”, as a character puts it in Wes Craven’s SCREAM 4 (2011), take over the film and leave no space for open interpretation, since our thoughts are constantly kidnapped by the work’s structure. Ultimately, self-consciousness becomes a shield against every possible criticism – after all, it is all intentional, and that is the only thing that matters here.