Authenticity will always be a problem concept in art. The Gaye family have alleged that Pharrell Williams' song Happy is also a steal from Marvin's back catalogue. Critics have rushed in to defend Williams, rightly exploring the complex nature of creativity - citing the intricacies of genre, legacy, influence, referencing, channelling, pastiche, parody and homage (so many words for imitation).
What no one asks, is would it matter if all the people listening to Blurred Lines had never heard of Got to Give It Up? I think it would. I think there's an issue with Blurred Lines beyond authorship, ownership and theft, or the need to make sure artists get paid. It's about the roots and routes of music, and what happens when a culture forgets its history. It is plainly obvious that without Marvin Gaye's song, Blurred Lines wouldn't sound the way it does. It seems better that a lot more people know this now.
Return of the Secaucus 7 is a modest low budget film with a meandering style and some stilted acting. It’s like an indie cinema template, before indie cinema had really got started. The Big Chill is slick and dramatic. It’s manipulative mainstream Hollywood at its best (and worst) with a catchy rock and Motown soundtrack working to ensure viewers feel the right emotion, on, cue. The acting is great (including Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Glenn Close) - and you don’t even have to put up with Kevin Costner spoiling the show, as all of his scenes as the suicide character were removed from the final cut
The themes of jaded idealism, lost youth and the onset of middle age doubt, are broadly threaded through the film’s dialogue. Even so, the writer/director Lawrence Kasdan leaves little to chance, with the headline message - that the 60s and its utopian dreams are officially over, dead, kaput, ready for burial - underscored by the fact that the Chillers have gathered together in order to mourn the recent death of their friend Alex. The golden boy of their group, Alex got lost in the after-swell of student activism and, having failed to find his place in the grown-up world, committed suicide.
The thing I didn’t realise at the time is The Big Chill isn’t the original piece of cinema it appears to be. Kasdan has said he was aware of Return of the Secaucus 7 when preparing The Big Chill, but hadn’t seen it. Nevertheless the similarities and overlaps are considerable.
Kasdan worked on The Big Chill between making his debut feature Body Heat - a sultry, unabashed homage to Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity - and Silverado - his brave, but misfiring attempt at rebooting the Western. It is possible that with all this genre play, Kasdan lost sight of issues of authorship.
Or maybe the overlap between The Big Chill and Return represents an unintended commentary from the director on the nature of compromise - in that the arc from radical to corporate requires many sell outs, including ones ideals and ethics; but even, perhaps, stretching to the appropriation of another artist’s work, re-routing the original material away from critique into blockbuster schmaltz.
As a movie writer observes: ‘You can watch Return of The Secaucus 7 and feel you're getting an unvarnished look at how actual people lived during an actual point in time. But The Big Chill, despite all its '60s trappings, is really a monument to another, less exciting occasion: The Day the Yuppies Took Over Hollywood.’
I don’t know if John Sayles has ever commented on the similarity between Secaucus and The Big Chill. You have to hope that he views imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. The overlaps between the two films were never tested in court, or widely discussed, and it is likely the vast majority of people who have watched The Big Chill think of it as an original piece of cinema. This not knowing bothers me.
The only problem is, the same thing happens, with the same chunk of Bowie, in Mauvais Sang, a French film from 1986 by Leos Carax. I assume Baumbach intends the lift as a nifty homage to Carax's stylised tale of troubled youth - a film that is itself suffuse with references to the early cinema of Jean-Luc Goddard. But I just don't know what to think about the likelihood that most viewers of Frances Ha will assume they just saw something bold and new, when they actually didn't.
It’s a bit like finding out your partner cheated on you years after you split up.
Out Of Sight, Steven Soderbergh's film adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel, features a memorable love scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The visual tone of the romantic interlude differs from the rest of the film, switching to a colour pallette blending grey, beige and charcoal as the light becomes muted, and the texture gauzy. The love scene progresses from hotel bar to bedroom, using a series of smooth edits that re-arrange the time sequence of flirtation, seduction and consummation into a non-linear mosaic.
It is a sophisticated assembly. It it is also a bold 'reference' to the love scene from Nicolas Roeg's Don’t Look Now. As Sodebergh himself drew attention to this fact in interviews, maybe we don't need to ask what happens if nobody realises.
Never mind. Originality is hard to come by, and if you're going to look to borrow, then the filmic style of Francois Truffaut is a great place to look. The truth is, I love culture with references and influences and a family tree. I like nods and winks, good pastiche and well done parody. I don’t even mind downright plagiarism and lifts, really. I just don’t like it when I don’t get them. And I think critics should know where the fresh new cinema they're praising comes from historically.
Renlau Outil is a writer who blogs at Kaput, Already, a blog about mid life, sex, music, films, heartache and a crooked stick - www.kaputalready.com