Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Unsinging Sopranos, friendly footballers and copying without plagiarism

Plagiarism is unattractive, and so are other forms of copying: film remakes, for instance, are generally pretty dismal, as the successive versions of The 39 Steps show: just four steps but they head steeply downwards.

There is, however, at least one form of copying which is not just legitimate but highly fruitful. This is when a theme from an earlier work is picked up and turned into something different, and sometimes far superior, in a new one.

For instance, lots of people have told me what a fine writer EM Forster is. I’ve therefore read several of his novels – at least three – each time with the hope of finally being overwhelmed with admiration. Still waiting, I’m afraid. In particular, I find A passage to India deeply unsatisfactory: poorly structured, unfocused, disappointing. Interestingly, the theme of an inter-racial relationship in India, between an Englishwoman and an Indian man, leading to the man facing an accusation of rape, is much more brilliantly handled in Paul Scott in the first volume of his Raj quartet, The Jewel in the Crown. The story as he tells it is far more convincing, but it also has much greater drama and a much sharper poignancy: in structure, in dramatic tension and in emotional impact it’s far better than Forster. Scott must have set out consciously to draw the comparison with the earlier book, and demonstrates that he handles the theme far more successfully.

Of course, Scott is far less well known than Forster. This is presumably because Forster is a far better writer, in every respect other than his writing.

Tolkien does something similar. Now, I’m certainly not going to argue that Tolkien is even comparable to Shakespeare, let alone superior to him. Even so, there are two aspects of Macbeth that I’ve always left me deeply unsatisfied.

Burnham Wood, we are told, comes to Dunsinane – but actually what happens is that MacDuff’s soldiers rip branches off trees in Burnham Wood (eco-vandals) and march on Dunsinane holding the branches in front of them. I’ve never really understood why they would do this. Did they think the defenders in the castle would say ‘Hey! Burnham Wood has come to Dunsinane. Let us cast ourselves down and despair’? Personally, I believe the conversation would probably have gone like this:

First Soldier: What are those twits doing carrying branches?

Second Soldier: Dunno, but let’s use them for target practice.

Equally, Macbeth is not going to be killed by any man born of woman. So things turn sticky when he realises that he’s up against a man who ‘was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd’, i.e. delivered by Caesarean. OK, call me picky, but I reckon a Caesarean still counts as a birth, and his mother was still a woman.

So what did Tolkien do? Well, he had a forest actually travel to a battle: the Ents shepherd trees to Helm’s Deep. And the one who couldn’t be killed by man of woman born knew he was in trouble when he found himself up against – a woman.

Much more satisfactory.

Danielle and I have enjoyed two great reworkings of earlier themes recently.

One was The Sopranos, the most successful series ever shown on cable in the States. You can feel that David Chase, who came up with idea, had probably seen that inferior film Analyze this in which Robert de Niro plays a Mafia boss in psychotherapy. An idea with potential but the film failed to develop it effectively. Chase took that idea and turned it into an 86-episode, six-year long series of sustained brilliance. As it happens, the psychoanalysis theme rather declines in importance as the episodes advance; instead we get powerful characterisation and writing that makes you sympathise with people who are fundamentally vile. You’re seduced by their charm, however flawed it may be, so you’re all the more shocked when they turn vicious, yet again.

Then we saw Ken Loach’s latest film, Looking for Eric. Loach tends to send you home from the cinema knowing you’ve seen something powerful and inspiring, but you don’t usually feel uplifted. The final scene of Sweet Sixteen is outstanding, the perfectly appropriate culmination of everything that went before, searingly touching despite the calm and lack of drama. Extraordinary film-making, but if you’re looking for feel-good, look again.

Now Loach has shown he can do comedy. And surely the inspiration of the film has to be that excellent early Woody Allen, Play it again Sam, in which the Woody Allen character finds himself being accompanied and mentored by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart – not the real Bogart, but the Bogart character we’ve all come to know and love, the tough cynic with the heart of gold of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Eric, the protagonist of Looking for Eric, is a passionate fan of Manchester United and above all of its great star of the 90s, Eric Cantona. As he’s drowning in the difficulties of his life – Loach’s opportunity for some of his trademark gritty social realism – Cantona himself turns up to offer him advice. There’s some glorious self-parody: Cantona is famous for his obscure sayings with no obvious meaning, and much of the advice he offers in the film is similarly incomprehensible.

To top it all, the film includes clips of the great moments of Cantona’s footballing career, worth seeing even if like me you’re no great admirer of the game.

So two great film events that take up themes from elsewhere and build on them to give something new and fresh. Well worth seeing if you haven’t already.

And they show that copying isn’t always a bad thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That piece is about the most entertaining you've done in a long time; it's a great literary exposé as well.