Imitation: The Insincerest Form of Art

March 28, 2007

Two lists, although in a sense this will be a third. My list of my most favorite pieces of criticism made me realize just how much I consider myself a student of narratology, even though none of my analyses of literature really pursue narratological questions, and hardly use narratological tools. The second list is Nathan and mine’s quest to watch every Best Picture and Best Director nominee; indeed, it was the subject of our very first post. As we don’t get many opportunities to see each other, Nathan and I are trying to breeze through 1990 during my brief sojourn in the New York environs (I’m trying to convince him to join me in Elm City for a Saturday of films and apizza). To that end, we’ve watched three of our seven films: Reversal of Fortune, Godfather III, and The Grifters. Of these, two of the films bear a serious influence problem, or as I prefer to see it, an inability to defamiliarize.

In the essay, “Art as Technique,” the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky described the process of defamiliarization. He wrote that “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” The best art is the art that moves us away from the realm of everyday experience, either in language or in elements. One of Shklovsky’s biggest points is that once something has been seen several times, it is no longer noticed, or it is no longer remarkable. Images can easily become type scenes and tropes, losing their unique meaning. Shklovsky warns against this tendency toward repetition, urging instead defamilarization.

The Grifters is emblematic of a particular subgenre of film-making, what I will call (for lack of knowledge of the actual term) “The Fawn Film.” A fawn film is an intentional ode to another director/writer or to a specific genre/time period/medium. More specifically, a fawn film attempts to be a recreation of its object. The Grifters, which earned its director, Stephen Frears, a Best Director nomination, is a recreation of “B” Film Noir movies: it mimics the visual style and plot elements of these movies. Here is an indelible image from the film.


The Grifters is, in many ways, held back by staying too close to its source material. Early on, the characters are more adumbrated than realized; they go throw the motions of various sequences from other movies. It isn’t until the last twenty minutes that the movie grows into its own, largely because the actors’ performances are so convincing and the reactions so well designed.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German is another great example of a fawn film. Soderbergh recreated both the ways movies were produced in the Hollywood studio era and recreated their look. The result was a movie overly constrained by style (Soderbergh himself pointed to a desire to play with lighting as a motivation factor). It’s plot and characters are determined by the frame around them, rather than by an organic process of composition. It has the look of the old movies, but none of the actual post-war resonances.

Sin City has a similar problem. The movie attempts to recreate Frank Miller’s comic book, to movie its images from one medium to another. The movie never overcomes what should have been an obvious problem: that images and devices of certain mediums do not carry over to other mediums. Sin City the comic relied heavily on narration, which makes sense given the limitations of speech bubbles at conveying information. Film, however, requires dialogue in order to bring out the most in its actors. The movie’s best scene is the Tarantino directed exchange between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro’s head. What had been monologue in the book was transformed into dialogue. Interacting with another actor dramatically improved Owen’s performance which was otherwise monotone.

The Godfather III has the bigger problem of trying to imitate its own forebearers. Even when it tries to tell the story of a mature Michael it brings in a new character whose only purpose is to be a young Michael. The movie has almost the same structure as the first movie, a surprise given the second’s willingness to imitate. It constantly reminds the viewer of the first movie, using repeated flashbacks and footage from the first movie. Some people blame Sofia Coppola for the failure of the third movie. In reality, the biggest problem with the third is that it never tries to be anything other than another Godfather movie, it never tries to defamiliarize, and move beyond the comfort of the earlier movies. I should note before I close, however, that Godfather III is nowhere near as bad as history has made it out to be. It’s a good movie–too long, but good.

One Response to “Imitation: The Insincerest Form of Art”

  1. […] of it is based around genres that no-longer resonate with us. Most people are no longer able to defamiliarize Hemingway, to separate his writing from the genres that gave birth to it. Newspapers aren’t […]

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