"True Detective"
"True Detective"

Mike Davis of LovecraftZine, a fansite dedicated to the master of macabre H.P. Lovecraft, recently posted a long piece detailing the myriad, sometimes jarring similarities between the existentialist ramblings of "True Detective's" Rust Cohle and the writings of cult horror author Thomas Ligotti, specifically his nonfiction book “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” Davis, reproducing a conversation he had with Jon Padgett (the founder of a Ligotti fansite), lists various instances in which Cohle seems to be channeling Ligotti’s work. Some of the similarities are banal — both Cohle and Ligotti mention the “illusion of a self,” which is basically Intro to Nietzsche — and some are more overt, such as comparing the world to a meat grinder and a gutter. Davis is now fully embarked on a furious, one-man crusade against "True Detective" creator Nic Pizzolatto — who was, ironically, plagiarized by a self-published poet before the show even aired — and his phenomenally successful HBO series.

Davis, echoed by many of his commenters, opines that this is plagiarism, pure and simple. (You’d think the writer of a Lovecraft fansite would be more open-minded to writers borrowing from other writers, since Lovecraft heavily riffed on Edgar Allan Poe and the less-famous Algernon Blackwood, and has subsequently been rip-offed so many times by so many writers it’s hard to keep track, but irony abounds.) Yet, contra Davis’ invidious article, plagiarism isn’t such a cut-and-dried matter. This isn’t a freshmen seminar on American Literature, and Pizzolatto isn’t just copy-and-pasting lines off of Wikipedia: It’s art, and art isn’t so straightforward.

Davis makes repeated mentions that Pizzolatto’s show has become insanely popular, pervading the modern pop-culture lexicon, while Ligotti continues to dwell in near-obscurity. That’s sad for Ligotti, though he’s made very little effort to break on through to the other side. (Has anyone even asked him how he feels about “True Detective?”) But this is hardly an unheard-of phenomenon. Actually, if Pizzolatto is vying for greatness by “stealing,” he’s in good company.

Some writers view plagiarism as a natural part of the organic, ever-evolving process known as art. In his enthralling essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem likened writing to jazz, where musicians have always tapped other musicians, taking their stuff and manipulating it, changing it, rendering it their own. Citing Bob Dylan and Williams S. Burroughs as writers who have “plagiarized” and receieved praised for it, Lethem argues that plagiarism has always been a part of writing:

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called “Naked Lunch,” excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

More succinctly, a little-known writer once quipped, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” His name was T.S. Eliot.

As Quentin Tarantino once said: “If it’s done well, it’s homage, but if it’s done badly, it’s just plagiarism.” The library of films that have ripped off other films is vast and deep. Some filmmakers, such as Tarantino (of the VHS generation) and Spielberg (of the network-TV generation), amalgamate their influences to engender their own style; you know a Tarantino film or a Spielberg film when you see it. They have distinct personalities, laced with self-awareness and spurred by the commingling of established film styles, and have since been rip-offed themselves. Tarantino in particular lifts from obscure films that inspired him, and he’s been extremely open about it. He doesn’t just cobble together some hodgepodge vanity project and call it a day. Of course other filmmakers do just that, suffusing their films with so many references and allusions to other films they start to resemble an Ouroboros, a fat entity stuffed with pop-culture knowledge chocking on its own ass. (See: Kevin Williamson, struggling to recapture the brilliance of the first two “Scream” movies and failing ungracefully.) But Pizzolatto is not Kevin Williamson. He’s more akin to Tarantino.

Some of the most adored films in American cinema blatantly steal from other films. In the original “Star Wars,” as wholesome and beloved as any American film, George Lucas lifts shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s (technically brilliant, morally repulsive) Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Brian De Palma, who has long battle accusations that he’s just a second-rate Hitchcock pillager, transferred a scene from “Battleship Potemkin” for his iconic baby stroller and staircase shootout in “The Untouchables.” Kubrick yanked a shot from “The Phantom Carriage” for the iconic “Here’s Johnny!” shot in “The Shining.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” steals its rolling boulder scene from “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Sergio Leone blatantly remade “Yojimbo,” and got sued for it, as “A Fistful of Dollars.” The beloved Pixar movie “Up” bears a striking similarity to a short French film called “Above Then Beyond.” And “The Matrix”…  well, just watch this:

 The fact of the matter is that artists rip off artists all the time, and what Pizzolatto did isn’t unusual or morally decrepit. More importantly, it makes sense within the structure of the show: Rust Cohle claims that we’re all under the illusion that there is a self, which is an idea he got from an obscure writer who borrowed from Williams S. Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. People are always trying to pass off things they’ve read as their own ideas. Why should Cohle be any different?