Remember that scene in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) where a baby carriage clunks down the steps in the middle of a gunfight?
I’m just wondering: Did you laugh when you first saw it … because you knew it was lifted from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925)?
De Palma’s inside-movie joke might’ve been a homage to one of the most famous scenes in cinema: the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin. And a lot of people get it.
But does everyone?
We live in an age when sampling is part of life. Directors want to show their roots, and they can through their movies. De Palma certainly did in The Untouchables, making an irrelevant though amusing reference to Eisenstein as a cheeky nod to the great Russian director. Filmmaking 101, right? This was a tip of the hat to everything learned in school.
Yet there’s a problem here, and I’m not sure how to solve it.
Take Frances Ha (2012), Noah Baumbach’s mumblecore flick about an aspiring dancer. The film periodically features the memorable strains of Georges Delerue’s incidental music to Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966). Un hommage, n’est-ce pas? Or is it just a lack of inspiration?
Frankly, I think it’s worse. It’s symptomatic of a bigger issue: an inside joke that not everyone’s going to get.
King of Hearts was a cult film, a picture that played for a long time after it was released and garnered a big following. Potemkin is one of the most seminal movies in history. Still, few people outside of film classes or the arthouse world have seen them, especially when compared with those who frequent the cinema in search of mainstream American flicks. And there’s the rub. Though these aren’t forgotten films, they aren’t as much in the popular lexicon as, say, the bench-set box of chocolates sequence in Forrest Gump (1994). The reason is that they’re foreign. They have subtitles. And that will never be as accessible to English-speaking audiences as a mass-produced Hollywood picture.
When De Palma inserted the baby-carriage scene into The Untouchables, I assume he was counting on film-school grads, among others, to have a chuckle. He wasn’t expecting people to think it was entirely original. But would everyone understand the motive? Probably not. I expect many viewers think he originated the idea – the mark of a top director. People who haven’t seen Potemkin might not realise the source material.
I’m not saying such lifting is unique to the new millennium. Shakespeare borrowed from other sources. Leonard Bernstein used Beethoven in the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Inspiration from alternate artists has been crucial to the development of human culture. To a certain extent, we can’t live without it.
My concern, however, is when it doesn’t cite its sources – and I don’t mean just in the closing credits.
Everyone should get the joke for a homage to be a true homage, or at least everyone in the desired audience. Airplane! (1980) sending up airline-disaster movies is one such example. That’s a big audience, and it’s familiar with the genre. It knows what the film’s making fun of.
The audience for The Artist (2011), though, might not when watching the scene using Bernard Hermann’s melancholy score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Cinematic components that look like organic parts of a movie but are really taken from elsewhere are the problem. Filmmakers today often seem to think that sampling is a way of showing their appreciation for the past. Unfortunately, what it does is make many viewers forget the past. They only remember what’s in the present film and associate the lifted portions with that – not the previous sources.
That means we can lose our cinema history fast if we don’t do something soon.
But what can we do? Do we have the power, as viewers, to change directors’ directions? We can by not frequenting films that adopt this practice. By doing so, we might miss out on an otherwise exemplary film, such as The Artist, or a movie that might be better avoided, like Frances Ha. So there’s a risk. Yet it might be the right one.
I’m worried that the homage-sampling practice is becoming the norm – that filmmakers find it OK to lift sequences from other movies with a poker face that gives us license to interpret it, without coming forward to say immediately where the content originated. We can’t accept this. It’s one thing to note who inspired us. It’s another to make it ambiguous as to whether that inspiration came naturally.
And to think this all snowballed after a baby carriage clunking down the steps. That’s the power of film for you. That’s the power of art.