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76 min. English.

It’s winter and Anna and Tyler have broken down on their way home to Philadelphia, as if the young couple didn’t have enough to bicker about already. A passer-by named Clip comes to their aid and they end up staying over at his house. The encounter starts out awkward, apparently even hip city folks struggle to act normally around African-Americans, although Clip can’t be all that sketchy if he knows their friend Alison. Yet they’re also fascinated by the middle-aged man, Tyler by his camcorder collection and Anna by his eloquence, as he’s a wannabe filmmaker and she’s a wannabe novelist, even if neither pay the bills. The couple are amusingly self-absorbed, but far from inarticulate, prattling away about Justin Bieber, Karl Ove Knausgård, 9/11, Dogme 95. Film and literature are never far away, whether on that winter night or a sunny afternoon with Alison the following summer, does writing only resonate when it’s authentic or is it fine to put words in people’s mouths, do movies shot on video, as is this one, automatically keep things real? Anna is scandalised to realise that Clip’s anecdotes weren’t what they seemed, but then what is these days? Certainly not films like this. (James Lattimer)

Peter Parlow was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He works as a director, writer, musician and stock photographer. The Plagiarists is his second feature-length film.

The mannerisms of “indie film”

THE PLAGIARISTS is a collaboratively produced microbudget dramatic comedy about the clash of money and culture, reality and desire, race and identity. The film is a social satire about who has the privilege to say what in today’s world. It was conceived as a playful critique of the mannerisms of independent cinema that aspiring filmmakers employ to denote authenticity of performance in their work and which often result in the casual perpetuation of stereotypes.
As such, THE PLAGIARISTS is exactly what it parodies: a completely independent feature shot entirely on vintage news cameras from the 1980s, even though the subject matter is contemporary. The camera that plays a role in the film is also the camera that was used to shoot the film, using real Betacam SP videotapes (sourced from eBay) to create a visual style that reflects the film’s debate over obsolescence, nostalgia and, most of all, the difficult theme of originality.  
True to the nickname of the character Clip, the actor who plays him (Michael “Clip” Payne, member of the collective Parliament-Funkadelic / P-Funk) was filmed separately from the other actors and never shares the frame with another character. The opposite effect is achieved in the scenes with the character Allison, which were shot with two cameras in the multi-camera “sitcom” style. (Peter Parlow)

Conversation with Peter Parlow: “Authenticy has become a brand”

Paul Dallas: THE PLAGIARISTS operates in two distinct parallel registers. On one hand, it is a talky comedy about self-absorbed millennials struggling to live their best lives on a budget. On the other hand, it is a conceptual work exploring a variety of heady themes, like the ethics of appropriation and the difference between style and voice in artistic practice. Can you talk about the process of melding these two modes and your aims in doing so?

Peter Parlow: THE PLAGIARISTS is a movie which probably does not have a natural habitat. The space it purports to exist from, indie comedy, is somewhat artificial and certainly not native to its existence, which is perhaps more formal. By this same token, its concepts and themes are not essential, either. I would say that hybridising comedy with these other facets allows the movie to circulate, develop and perhaps give these ideas some air that they would not have without it: in my opinion, allowing for the formal seed of the story – a middle-aged American black male reading the lines of a middle-aged European white male off a teleprompter – to fully germinate. Maximalism, as it is used in music, is apt here. An axiom developed into its possible outcomes. Personally, comedy, in its obsessive disregard for decorum, allows for a more advanced sense of closure. A deeper investigation.

THE PLAGIARISTS tackles the thorny subject of authenticity, both in art-making and in our interpersonal relationships. Tyler and Anna’s existential crisis is fuelled by a breakdown in their idea of authenticity. What prompted you to want to explore this subject in a movie and how did it influence the filmmaking process?

I feel like authenticity was the slogan of the last century. One could draw a line from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Existentialism to the Gen-Xers making analogue music and eating slow food. The line spins out and loses meaning in our new era. Technology has put us into a kind of impressionistic age where it is very hard to gauge the roots of things: things are co-opted so fast that authenticity seems like a strange concern. Or a decadent one.
Authenticity is now used mostly in the service of the market. It is a kind of proof that something has value. Authenticity has always been a kind of core mantra for indie film in spirit if not practice these days – one need only look as far as the Sundance Film Festival to see that authenticity has become a brand.  Tyler is obsessed with Dogme 95, but that is just one of many cyclic cinematic movements he could have fixated on. He happens to be stuck in his own specific past, namely, what was seemingly cutting-edge during his formative years. The movie tries to point out this almost randomness of the authentic pursuit.
You see, while we are kind of neurotically obsessed with the ethics of appropriation and intellectual property, our moral energies are weighted by specifics, particularly fiscal considerations. Our contemporary artists battle with these important ethical issues without ever admitting the survivalism at the core of it. In an economy where almost everyone has made music, edited a video, written a novel, or rented their house as a creative act of Airbnb-ing, it is hard to stand out, and that is really the crux of it. The market holds up originality and authenticity as ethical beacons, and this movie tries to understand these issues from other roads. There is obviously a discontinuity in what is maligned for being inauthentic, and what is accepted or overlooked. There is also a way in which purity is expected from certain people.

At the centre of the drama is an accusation of plagiarism. Tyler and Anna feel that they have been duped by Clip. He tells them an impassioned personal story that turns out not to be his own – that is, not one based on his lived experience. Can you talk about how race in particular plays into this debate?

Plagiarism is not a crime. I think most people assume plagiarism is a crime, even if they cannot point to a statute. So, what exactly is plagiarism? The act of copying someone’s work and passing it off as your own. An act of kidnapping, in a sense. Kidnapping is definitely a crime. But plagiarism is not about kids, beyond feeling that your precious creative endeavour sprung from you like a child. As far as plagiarism is concerned, your feelings do not matter, or maybe that is all that matters, because if you cannot demonstrate actual damages, the law could not care less. Only when there is economic damages – like less books sold or tangible losses – does it become copyright infringement, which may encompass plagiaristic acts but is not a law against plagiarism. So, plagiarism often hangs like a spectre in social instances. You could say it is on the spectrum. It is a perceived moral lapse that pseudo-authorities – book publishers, conduct review boards, professional associations, critics, Oprah Winfrey – decide on the severity of using extra-legal, arbitrary standards and punishments.
So how this plays into ‘race’ is fairly simple: it is an issue of judgement. Being judgmental. Race also hangs like a spectre in most social instances. In the movie, Clip is just a guy. Anna and Tyler work very hard to reserve judgement when they are in need of his help. But once things have fallen to pieces, the knives come out, with every miniscule detail possibly meaning something. Since they cannot prove that plagiarism happened or was even wrong, Clip’s ‘blackness’ is weaponised against him as something he has been using incorrectly through a kind of weird reverse cultural appropriation. Since they do not agree with the outcome, Anna and Tyler assume that by betraying them, Clip has betrayed his essential experience as a black man. But of course, they have completely applied a value to Clip that completes their narrative. They do not know him at all. They have taken or borrowed from him what is most convenient – his outward appearance – and used it to their end. This opens up the thorny question of whether experience can ever really belong to anyone.

At this particular moment in time, there seems to be acute widespread nostalgia for the 80s and in particular the 90s. Movies like Jonah Hill’s MID90S are predicated on this nostalgia and soaked in the visual aesthetic of that era, which now appears ‘authentic’ in the age of Instagram filters. Given this backdrop, can you talk about the decision to shoot the movie on a Sony camera that is nearly 30 years old?

People are always obsessed with their birth decade: a period they feel entitled to without any useful contribution. The catch now is that people born in the 80s and 90s have come into positions of power. I think filmmakers have always been trying to do this, and now it is the younger generation’s turn, fuelled by the self-referential all-encompassing knowledge of the internet. I have not seen MID90S but there is something almost charming about how behind-the-times it sounds, which I guess is quite literally the point.
For instance, why shoot that movie on 16mm? It is not because the 90s looked like 16mm film; it is because the indie filmmakers of the day were still using 16mm because new video technologies had not yet thoroughly saturated. And they were using super 16mm the way people use 4K video today: to get as close to ‘professional’ as budget allows with the goal of blowing up to 35mm, etc., and entering Hollywood. So it strangely makes sense that a Hollywood figure like Jonah Hill would ‘misremember’ the historical trajectory by focusing on aspirational cinema of the time – not to mention using 1.66:1 aspect ratio super 16mm presented in artificial 4:3 aspect ratio, which looks and feels more retro even though it makes no technical sense – and create a piece of mannered, vanity cinema. I guess he made a fake indie?
This strikes me as part of a broader trend to associate one’s work through style with canonical works of an era in order to enter the canon, like some sort of aesthetic shortcut to quality. Yet, ironically, it has become more efficient, easy and rewarding than ever to shoot on 16mm film, given advances in digital scanning and film stock. It does not even really have a fixed look depending on how it is handled. So it is not necessarily the mediums that carry the weight, it is our expectations of them. And our expectations are inaccurate. Nostalgia is inaccurate. As a form of longing, it misremembers, and becomes synthetic: a mix of then and now. This is a core reason why we decided to shoot THE PLAGIARISTS as a contemporary story that happens to be captured on old videotape which still exists as new videotape – ‘deadstock’ or ‘new-old stock’ as it is called on eBay.
And the technology is cheaper than ever. The $60,000 camera is now $400. All of the tape stock for the feature cost us $60. Materially, it is as real as it gets. But, of course, it is going to be processed through the mill of today, digitally preserved, representative of the desires of now. What do you do with an image that belongs to neither the past nor the present? What do you do with a memory defined by someone else? You can either ignore it while benefiting, or you can point it out while benefiting, which is what we chose to do: the look of things is an important subject of the movie.

(Interview: Paul Dallas, January 2019)

Production Paul Dallas, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Robin Schavoir. Production companies Paul Dallas (New York, USA), Automatic Moving Co (New York, USA), Robin Schavoir (New York, USA). Director Peter Parlow. Screenplay James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Robin Schavoir. Cinematography James N. Kienitz Wilkins. Music Pond5. Sound design Josh Allen. Sound Eugene Wasserman. With Michael „Clip“ Payne (Clip), Lucy Kaminsky (Anna), Eamon Monaghan (Tyler), Emily Davis (Allison).

Premiere February 09, 2019, Forum


2015: The Jag (88 min.). 2019: The Plagiarists.

Photo: © Automatic Moving Co

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