All we do these days, it seems, is plagiarize – be it in shape of remakes, sequels, prequels, “re-imaginings,” or our “hip fondness” of bygone eras. We cynically regurgitate the past, reshaping it, claiming it as our present. We take something that was inherently honest, original, pure in form, and restructure it to adhere to our cynical, ADD-addled expectations. We are all The Plagiarists, and Peter Parlow’s extraordinary film acutely acknowledges that. It’s no coincidence that his video-obsessed protagonist brings up Dogme 95, as The Plagiarists itself mimics the lo-fi esthetic and improvisational feel of those features, its tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Parlow also borrows heavily (purposefully plagiarizes?) from several texts, most notably Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiography My Struggle, Book 3: Boyhood. A significant passage from this book is eloquently recited by Clip (Michael Payne) to aspiring writer Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) – only he doesn’t reveal to her the source of his soliloquy, making her think that the words are his. The passage deeply affects Anna; when his “deceit” is discovered months later, she’s mortified, feeling bitter and betrayed. But is it really “deceit,” when the passage has clearly had its intended effect, even potentially inspiring Anna to compose a powerful memoir of her own?
“While Tyler is mesmerized by Clip’s collection of old cameras… Anna is mesmerized by Clip’s ‘unleashing of the beautiful passage’…”
Parlow wisely keeps Clip’s life steeped in ambiguity, initially misleading the audience, along with the central couple – Anna and her sardonic “filmmaker wannabe” Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) – into thinking that trouble looms on the horizon. It’s a cunning move, making us tap into our preconceived notion of narrative structure and character archetypes, just to subvert them later. You see, Clip (Michael Payne) is an older black man, who offers our gleamingly white millennials to stay the night at his house after their car breaks down in the middle of winter. A perfect setup for a horror thriller, then.
Clip is welcoming but laconic – Payne does a formidable job balancing “warm” and “eerie” – and has a young white child, Charlie, staying at his house. Our couple instantly becomes skeptical/intrigued (“Do you think that’s his kid?”), judging Clip’s lifestyle and snooping around his house. While Tyler is mesmerized by Clip’s collection of old cameras – as any film-loving millennial would be – Anna is mesmerized by Clip’s “unleashing of the beautiful passage,” delivered by the man nonchalantly, quietly, but passionately (again, kudos to Payne, who expertly handles a tricky scene).
As time passes, and Anna stumbles on the passage in Knausgård’s book, the couple’s life is gradually deteriorating. “I think Clip cursed us,” Tyler proclaims, blaming all of their misfortunes since winter – both personal and financial – on the black man (typical). They visit their successful friend Allison (Emily Davis), who happens to know Clip and is incredulous at the notion of his plagiarism – yet her incredulousness gradually turns towards Anna and her choices.
“…comparison of the endless possibilities of modern cameras to Justin Bieber’s auto-tuned voice is priceless.”
Anna and Tyler function as direct opposite manifestations of our collective artistic pursuits. The former strives to elevate through literature but is utterly uncertain of herself, overwhelmed by the assault of media, technology, and pixels. The latter talks about TV being a “valid babysitter” and is convinced that an idea is only valid if “you turn it into something tangible,” repeating over and over that “he’s not a filmmaker” – at least not until he pieces together a feature that panders to societal expectations. His comparison of the endless possibilities of modern cameras to Justin Bieber’s auto-tuned voice is priceless.
The Plagiarists ends a little abruptly, never providing us with a satisfactory conclusion. It certainly raises more questions than it can answer. Yet when the questions are this tantalizing, presented with such unadulterated enthusiasm, then even a vignette such as this resonates more powerfully than a dozen Avengers. A reminder of the importance and intimacy of literature, a meta-study of art vs. fabrication, an indictment of cultural appropriation/racial stereotypes, our increasingly digitized world and entitled generation, The Plagiarists is also an ode to how much can be done with very little. Parlow and his crew knock it out of the park. Let’s just hope that no one plagiarizes them.
The Plagiarists (2019) Directed by Peter Parlow. Starring William Michael Payne, Emily Davis, Lucy Kaminsky, Eamon Monaghan. The Plagiarists screened at the 2019 Chicago Underground Film Festival.
9 out of 10