It is the most cliched film school student thing to do, call something derivative, but here is the thing: I hate Quentin Tarantino movies and I hate them because I find them completely derivative and unoriginal.
If you’re not familiar, Tarantino readily admits that years of working in a video store set him up for a life of filmmaking in which he puts iconic moments of other films in his own work. If he did this every once in a while to make a particularly salient point, it wouldn’t bother me so much, if there were not something like 90 cultural references in the span of a film that really isn’t about much of anything other than to show off how nifty it is to reference other things. Pastiche, or referencing something just for the sake of referencing it, is just one of my cinematic pet peeves.
I’ve written before about how paying homage to an era or making a point about a cultural text like in The Grand Budapest Hotel is something I am so very on board with, but every time I watch a Tarantino film, I feel like I am watching one of those videos YouTube shippers who compiled a collage of Ross and Rachel kissing. I don’t get it. If I wanted that, I would just watch Friends.
Yet, here I am about to defend a movie that was frequently labeled derivative and actually deemed “cinematic rape” by Kim Novak, who objected to its fully legal use of a memorable portion of Bernard Hermann’s score from Vertigo. But I am going to defend The Artist, a beautiful love letter to an era of cinema that gets written off as base, unwatchable, and largely forgettable.
Prior to The Artist, the last fully black and white film to win the Best Picture Oscar was The Apartment in 1960. Many people, my friends included, hear black and white, and immediately dismiss it as a movie they have no interest in. This is particularly frustrating for me, as I find the era of movie making where B&W and color films were split around 50/50 to be hands-down the best era for movies we have ever seen. It is a struggle to convince people to watch a movie like Sunset Blvd.
The Artist (and Hugo, which was released the same year) remind us that we can’t have the blockbusters of today without the silent films of the past. The mere act of creating a silent film with title cards the audience has to read is a huge deal, as it is something we as audience members are rarely expected to do. While I tend to prefer foreign films with subtitles instead of dubs, most people will take the version where their native tongue is recorded over the film itself. Spending half of your time reading when you go to the movies? Not an easy sell.
And this movie grossed over $133 million worldwide. This is why I defend it as important instead of derivative. After this, hopefully some people made an effort to check out some of the other silent film classics of the era like A Trip to the Moon, The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the beautiful Sunrise or disturbing M (Peter Lorre will always give me the heebie jeebies). It makes sure that these movies aren’t forgotten, which, given that cinema has changed so much over the past 120 years or so, is entirely possible.
Being derivative in order to write a love letter to something forgotten isn’t the only reason I have to appreciate derivative pop culture though. One of my favorite sitcoms of the past five years is a total ripoff of Friends, but what makes Happy Endings interesting is that, instead of having one wacky gal and five relatively well-adjusted people, the sextet in this show are all hilariously bizarre in their own special way. In other words, instead of saying “let’s make a show about six friends in an urban setting,” someone said, “What if the people from Friends actually were a little off their rockers?” Or, more accurately, “What would a group of friends who grew up watching shows like Friends be like?”
In the same vein as Gilmore Girls, Happy Endings is packed to the hilt with pop culture references ranging from obvious to obscure. In the opening teaser of one episode, they managed to make separate references to both Bebop and Rocksteady, so can I just a big T-U-R-T-L-E power to you, show writers? It is a new version of Friends because that life in that sitcom was so far removed from the infusion of pop culture that started with people my age. In an almost meta homage to the show, Happy Endings shows us what happens when people try to live like the people on Friends.
And while there were plenty of things that were insane about Friends, like the quality of their apartments, Happy Endings plays with that notion to an extreme level that ventures into the realm of absurdity. There are very few boundaries of what is real and makes sense, as the baseline of preposterousness in the stories is set very high very early on.
Is it a show that is derivative of another sitcom and rife with pop culture references just for the sake of pop culture references? Sort of. Thing is, I know plenty of people my age who speak almost exclusively in movie references and base their social behavior around what they see on TV. One friend even introduces me to people as, “This is my friend Jess. She talks like a Sorkin character.” There is a need for a media-saturated version of friends because in the time that show ran, our lives became saturated with mass media.
Mostly though, I just like the absolutely out there storylines, like when the gang decides to take Jazz Kwon Do classes.
I am a sucker for any excuse to shake my ass and show y’all what I am working with, so the numerous dance sequences on Happy Endings get me the same way Lady Gaga songs do. From the moment Born This Way was released, critics of Gaga and her fleet of Little Monsters cried foul, noting the song has both auditory and thematic similarities to the Madonna classic Express Yourself.
They aren’t wrong. These are both songs about empowerment, having others accept you for who you are, and setting the bar high when it comes to dating. I for one am a massive fan of both songs, but I have to side with Gaga on the need to brush up this “love yourself for who you are anthem”.
Madonna’s song makes it clear from the opening lyric, “Come on girls. Do you believe in love?” that this a song for heterosexual females. Born This Way, on the other hand sets a very different tone, letting you know, “it doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M.”
Sexuality has come a long way even from even the late 80s when Madonna was peaking, which is why there is a grandiose opening segment of the Born This Way video that very much challenges gender norms. Then, Gaga does what most songs about empowerment these days are scared to do—frame that empowerment around being treated well by a man as Madonna may suggest or by being conventionally attractive and accomplished.
Gaga tells those little monsters of her to go ahead and be monstrous and openly addresses that it is totally normal to be insecure, you just can’t let it control or, as she suggest, let it be your “religion”. This is a song about just taking what you’re given and doing your best with it, as, much as you would like to believe differently, this is the one and only option. Figure out what works for you, then do it.
That last sentence is pretty much how Madonna got her career started, so it is no wonder someone like Gaga, who is a little younger than I am would be tremendously influenced by the early 90s idea of embracing your femininity and your sexuality and flaunting it no matter how folks may judge you. I mean, she performs the entire video in her underwear if you really want to hit the point home.
So yes, she is one cone bra away from being a derivative Madonna, but unlike Tarantino, Gaga finds a way to replicate, then reinvent into something that in the current musical environment can’t even be categorized. Like Gaga would even want to be in a category. God makes no mistakes and she is on the right track, baby, born to bring a new kind of empowerment to a new group of people using the same kind of messaging as someone before her.