Talent Borrows

And genius, as they say, steals. In the eighteenth century, Edward Young might have drawn the line between imitation and emulation. In his Conjectures on Original Composition, Young attempts to qualify "genius," and at the generic level, it turns out to have something in common with pornography -- at least as Justice Potter Stewart famously understood it:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
A pretty fair assessment, I'd say, and now that I've mentioned pornography perhaps my gracious reader will follow me to the real point of my inquiry: when does what we might normally call plagiarism, or intellectual property violation, or just flat-out idea-pilfering achieve sufficient "originality" to transcend accusations of hackery? When does the borrowing talent become the stealing genius? What does "the pickpurse of another's wit," to use Sidney's term, need to do to what he lifts in order to gain the "legitimacy" of homage? In attempting to answer these questions, I find myself deferring again and again to the judgment of Justice Stewart.

Last night, I went with M to see
Pan's Labyrinth. Setting aside for the moment that the Powers-That-Be have once again deemed Americans too dumb to understand the original title (we don't know our fauns from our fawns, you see), I quite liked it. This, though, is besides the point. The point is the number of similarities between this film and others texts (many of which M pointed out, and some of which, I think, got in the way of her enjoyment). To wit (spoiler alert!):
  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: In the fantasy world, the first creature Lucy encounters is a faun, Mr. Tumnus.
  2. The Shining: Capitan Vidal duplicates Jack's half-conscious, half-crazed pursuit of a small child through a labyrinth.
  3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: A book given to Ofelia by the faun has blank pages upon which writing and images magically appear, much like Tom Riddle's journal.
  4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: That faun has some seriously Entish qualities.
  5. Beetlejuice: Ofelia uses a piece of chalk to draw a door that opens into another world, as do Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis.
  6. Almost every movie with a torture scene: Show the instruments first and do a little speech before we begin!
The list leaves much out, and of course does not mention the perfectly reasonable and perhaps necessary generic similarities to other films about children and escapism in times of war. Life is Beautiful, The Chronicles of Narnia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and so on. Nor do I offer the list to suggest that any of the more precise intertextualisms it contains in any way damage the credibility of the film as an "original" work. I am simply questioning precisely what is at stake in those similarities--to what extent are they conscious references, independent conceptions, etc.? What difference do they make to how we read the film or judge the merits of the screenwriter and director?

I think that, as with literature, there is a language of film that depends to some extent on both cultural literacy and cultural capital. Intertextuality demonstrates awareness and knowledge of textual history and links the new text to the old in the minds of the reader. The text places itself in history by presenting strains of the appropriate generic ancestors. Alternately, or perhaps simultaneously, it provides an outlet for Bloom's omnipresent Anxiety of Influence. If you can't escape Stanley Kubrick, then subsume him; pay homage. The scene, though similar to that in
The Shining, takes place in different context and occurs as an organic part of the story; therefore, I would say this is an instance of emulation rather than imitation. The matter of the chalk-drawn doorways, on the other hand, strikes me as the reverse. Del Toro uses the device wholesale, for almost the same purpose as Burton, and with no significant difference in execution.

Again, this is not to say he should not have done so. A "new" text
must have "old" elements within it as an aid to categorization and comprehension. Originality and genius, amongst other things, must depend in some part upon a ratio of old and new -- a demonstration of inheritance and mutation rather than mere cloning. I use such evolutionary terminology not by accident, though that usage may be problematic. Adaptation is, I think, as crucial to the survival of a text or genre as it is to a species.

For my part, I think Del Toro got the mixture right -- but only just.

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