Sampling and homages: The problem with heavy movie lifting

Battleship Potemkin homageRemember 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.

The Untouchables homageI’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.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

6 thoughts on “Sampling and homages: The problem with heavy movie lifting

  1. I think you’re missing a point with homages and even the idea of originality in art. One should not assume that everything in the film is for everyone. De Palma knows the everyman hasn’t seen Potemkin, but then again the ‘reference’ is not just that, a reference for those on the in. It is a homage and a recontextualization of this symbol of innocence as being the victim to the evils of the world. In Potemkin, the baby dies, in Untouchables our hero saves the baby, despite to odds.

    And borrowing and ‘sampling’ is quite an legitimate form for making art. We are in a time in which most ideas, one way or another, have been done. We repeat them to. That’s genre films, repetition. But we don’t critic anyone from working within a genre (every slasher flick today would just be a ripoff of the past, right?). What De Palma, and definitely Tarantino (as mentioned previously) take from the past, and put it in there work. The things they take become new due to their context and how they are used. And in doing so you comment about the past works of arts you are referring to, not just nodding to them. But even if they are just nodding to them and only art school people get it and the general audience just see it as ‘original’, who cares. These filmmakers are not making these films for the everyman, they make them for themselves, for other cinephiles, and for anyone who can get something out of them. Directors who do homages are reaching out and finding things in the films they love, in the past great works of art and see situations in their stories where certain things of these past works would be appropriate. But like I said, baby carriage falling down the steps during the midst of the odessa massacre in 1905 russia is much different than baby carriage falling down steps during prohibition shootout in 1920’s chicago. Some of the same imagery is used in both, but the contexts and ways they are shot are specific to each scene that saying one is just senseless borrowing from another is missing the point. There is always a reason and use to the borrowing.

    As a final note, we must look at our own cultural discomfort at borrowing/originality/plagiarism. It differs from art to art (stealing jokes vs using similar imagery in films), but in Japan artist would learn by recreating great artists works like painting. Even then, it is still not the master’s work, it is the learner’s imitation of the master’s work. I’m not saying plagiarize work, because people will know. It’s the difference between copying the Mona Lisa and saying it’s mine (Japanese would say it’s my copy of mona lisa, as showing that it’s not original) and making a giant montage using different images, paintings, news clippings, etc and rearranging them and adding something of yourself into it. The work of art is then the whole arrangement and the whole piece itself. Sure, you can point out x image in the montage was from x, but the artist would say ‘of course it is!’ And sure someone can make something ‘wholly original’, but I’d argue that nothing is or ever will be 100% original.

  2. De Palma has carried the “homage” idea farther than many people would like… many of his early pictures were out and out imitations of Hitchcock, and he hasn’t shown a great deal of originality in much of his career, as I see it. [YMMV, of course.]
    And I think it’s not necessarily the Age of Borrowing… it’s the Age of Sampling and Remixing. Anything is fair game to be taken, modified, changed almost beyond recognition, and used however the taker sees fit. (Copyright protection is becoming a dinosaur concept… Where is intellectual property concern when you need it?)

  3. I saw “The Untouchables” at the age of 17. Havinbg little knowledge of film history, I remember simply thinking that sequence was suspenseful, exciting and served the story well. So many films today are not about what they’re about, they’re about other movies. Take the entire cinematic output of Quentin Tarantino (face it gentlemen, it was only a matter of time before his name came up in this discussion). I speak not of the mass theft of entire genres that comprise his filmography…a charge he revels in rather than denies…but outright borrowing like his use of the underscore from another DePalma film, “Blow Out”, in “Death Proof”. In this case, did it make a difference? I would say not. It didn’t exist as a homage to the cult audience who prizes that film…it had no context.It didn’t make the story any better to the audience members who had no idea where it came from…it was just background music to them. It was simply one movie geek saying “I like this this. Here it is.”. Is that bad? I think not. What is horrible is the endless “spoof” movies that have become omnipresent in recent years that restage entire scenes from other films with no change, hoping that the thrill of familiarity will be enough to cover for a lack of actual wit, or indeeed, “spoofery”.

    • That’s a good point about spoofs, Dave; it does seem like the idea is, well, to laugh at the idea with many of these comedies than to laugh at actual structured comedy. Part of my concern about homages containing references to other films, however, is that we’ll lose the integrity of the originals–that their components will be regarded as organic parts of the newer films rather than portions of the source material. And although I often do like Tarantino’s films, I don’t feel that including something in a film just because a filmmaker likes it is enough; if an element of a movie isn’t contextually important, then it’s not warranted, in my opinion. That’s definitely how I felt about the Delerue music in Frances Ha and the Herrmann motifs in The Artist.

  4. You make a good point here Simon, and one that is not only restricted to film. Music, and even TV, shamelessly remakes, parodies, borrows, uses ideas, and sometimes, actual clips or music tracks. The younger generation (evidenced by my step-children in their twenties) do not question this at all, having no knowledge (and no interest) in the original source. The result is that these borrowed ideas, and use of whole scenes, or techniques, dressed up as ‘homages’, become accepted as new and original works.
    ‘The Untouchables’ is a film that I never really considered worthy of the praise it received, and the inclusion of the ‘Odessa Steps’ copy was simply pointless. Like you, I do not find it acceptable.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete–as usual, I’m in agreement with you. I was thinking also about the trend nowadays of using portions of rock songs in commercials as well–out of context and oftentimes either with just the refrain used or the instrumentation. It seems like this is a pervasive issue … that we’re in a culture now that may be used to parts of things in different contexts from the ones that were intended, and that seems off to me. Are we now in The Age of Borrowing? Yikes.

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