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The Plagiarists

Think that nothing is original anymore? Peter Parlow's film disagrees, using well worn tropes in order to tell you something new - Live from Berlinale


The 2007 Jonathan Lethem essay The Ecstasy of Influence celebrated the possibilities of intertextuality by inverting T.S. Eliot’s own Anxiety of Influence and pulling a novel literary trick. It was a collage of quotes from other writers. He proved that by using other people’s work, you can make an entirely coherent and original piece of your own. Now director Peter Parlow has given us a filmic continuation of this debate, with his beguiling The Plagiarists.

Ostensibly a funny, whiny post-mumblecore film in the vein of The Colour Wheel (Ross Perry, 2011), we are introduced to a bickering couple of culturally savvy New York creatives yet to realise their dreams or pay their own rent. Played by Lucy Kaminsky and Eamon Monaghan as Anna and Tyler to peak sitcom irritancy, they milk comedy from the most arrogant and closed-minded elements of the script.

When their car breaks down, they come into contact with Clip (Michael ‘Clip’ Payne from music collective Parliament/Funkadelic!). He uses his funkmaster persona in order to play a spin on the Magical Negro trope, incredibly generous, spirited, always full of advice. It’s only months later that the couple realise that things about their encounter just didn’t add up, throwing them into an existential quandary.

The Plagiarists exaggerates the film references, but always to lampshade the devices the film itself is using. During an extended dinner scene of an impromptu nature, one character talks about Dogme 95, while later on the film’s grainy, TV news aesthetic is brought up by a character who wonders if Sex, Lies & Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) was actually shot on videotape. Not many films end with a list of citations, but as the film questions the notion of plagiarism and originality, it’s a nice touch.

The Plagiarists questions how we are all kind of plagiarists. The hippy persona adopted by their friend Allison, the neurotic Jewish type that Tyler lives up to, the magical qualities that they assign to Clip and that perhaps, he is toying with them about. These elements of personality are merely citations, and by pointing this out the film manages to ask what even makes who we are.

It also finds room to get into the autofiction debate that’s been percolating in literature a while, on the line between fiction and memoir, and does so with a deft sophistication. But then one character gives a whole speech on what cinema means that kind of talks down to the audience, misses profundity as it aims for a kind of emotional honesty. Yet, it openly plays in parallel registers, the indie film and the essay film, so the artificiality of the former, while cloying, is perhaps appropriate for the argument to work.

This is a fascinating central conceit, but it’s like Parlow and his team don’t have a conclusion worked out. The designated three-act structure is both a help and hindrance as it keeps the film moving, yet doesn’t build to a dramatic climax. That final chapter is entirely noodling with video as a letter read in voiceover ties up the loose ends, the author unclear. And yet, it’s the way that the narrative dissolves into nothing, the film revealing itself as an essay piece, that gives it a lasting resonance. At 76 minutes, The Plagiarists zips by, throwing a hundred ideas at the audience in search of its argument. They might not all hit, but Parlow’s film has the energy and insight that makes him one to watch.

The Plagiarists is now playing at Berlinale.

By Ben Flanagan - 09-02-2019

Ben’s a Bristol-based critic and podcaster who’s trying to watch and read everything, possibly at the expense of human interaction, definitely at the expense of his own sanity. Having graduated fr...

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