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Shia LaBeouf: Plagiarist or Genius?

Press Play By Seth Abramson | Press Play January 10, 2014 at 2:44PM

By now, most movie buffs have stumbled across the imbroglio involving Hollywood megastar Shia LaBeouf, whose short film "HowardCantour.com" was allegedly rife with plagiarism of cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes. Meanwhile, LaBeouf has flooded his Twitter account with apologies—all apparently plagiarized.
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By now, most movie buffs have stumbled across the imbroglio involving Hollywood megastar Shia LaBeouf, whose short film "HowardCantour.com" was allegedly rife with plagiarism of cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes. The brouhaha has recently expanded to include allegations that LaBeouf's mini-comic Stale N Mate was in substantial part a plagiarism of Benoit Duteurtre's novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. Both Clowes and Melville House, Duteurtre's publisher, are considering legal action against the twenty-seven year-old star of the "Transformers" film series and the forthcoming Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac. Meanwhile, LaBeouf has flooded his Twitter account with statements of contrition—all of which are apparently plagiarized from infamous apologies by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Russell Crowe, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, and the con-man who gate-crashed Nelson Mandela's funeral as a sign-language "interpreter." You'd think someone in the arts community—perhaps even someone at Melville House, whose list is full of literary performances with which LaBeouf's present schtick is sympatico (e.g., Melville House’s Tao Lin populated his novel Richard Yates with “characters” including real-life celebrities Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment)—would have noticed that LaBeouf's playing a game that has less to do with appropriating others' work than with a new and controversial form of artistic expression called "metamodernism."

"Metamodernism" was a term coined by two European cultural theorists in 2010, and since its birth the idea, a fairly simple one, has taken the Continent by storm. In America, it's still an emerging artistic philosophy—one that has infiltrated venues far more public than its European originators likely imagined was possible. The only text to be found on the primary website devoted to the idea is a somewhat obtuse manifesto that nevertheless threatens to permanently change the way we look at the performing, visual, material, and literary arts. The basic premise is one LaBeouf and many others in Hollywood appear to have taken to heart: oscillating rapidly between contrary poles of thought and emotion—for instance, truth and falsehood, sincerity and irony, reality and fantasy, optimism and cynicism—allows those who do it the best chance yet of transcending these conventional spectrums entirely. Moreover, proponents of the term claim that it's the Internet, with its myriad forms of social media and dubious level of accountability, that has forced upon us this new-fangled way of interpreting contradictory data.

All this would be no more than fodder for scholars if it weren't so en vogue in American cinema. If you’ve seen Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, in which an actor painstakingly plays several “roles” in the absence of any cameras—thereby challenging his (and our) capacity to distinguish between reality and artifice—you’ll know what I mean. Even outside Hollywood, examples of metamodernism in the American art world abound, such as Kyle Lambert’s photorealistic iPad “portraits” of celebrities like Morgan Freeman. In other words, metamodernism is no longer limited to those genres, like poetry, to which only the effetely academic still pay attention. Sampson Starkweather may publish a book of poems entitled The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather; thirty-three year-old poet Noah Cicero may cheekily publish The Collected Works of Noah Cicero, Vol. 1; and poet Adam Robinson may publish a collection entitled Adam Robison and Other Poems (mispelling intended), but Americans have not yet returned en masse to poetry as a cultural bellwether. More’s the pity; by framing their collections with titles that earnestly point to the vanity of publishing one’s Art but also the ironies inherent in that vanity (Starkweather’s boast of “four books” comprises only one book, for instance; likewise, Cicero can’t actually publish a compendium of his life’s work in his early thirties, or Adam Robinson access the gravitas of self-titling a collection when his readers suspect the cover sports a typo), these poems are challenging us to reconsider what’s real and what’s not, what’s sincere and what’s ironic. That these books have only a few hundred readers apiece limits the effectiveness of the statement, however. But few Americans could miss the insinuation into Hollywood of modes of expression that call the very nature of reality into question. In the recent film This Is the End, James Franco and several equally famous buds delivered a wildly fantastical tale in which they played only slightly tweaked versions of themselves. In Anchorman 2, Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy reveals his recent suicide attempt to a stranger in a tone that suggests he's lying about each and every detail--when in fact he's doing no more than delivering the honest truth. And now we find aspiring auteur Shia LaBeouf seemingly plagiarizing entire scenes from other artists, and then, when caught, plagiarizing each apology in a way he surely knew would be registered immediately by self-appointed cultural critics like Perez Hilton.

Hilton's mystification at LaBeouf's serialized (and possibly plagiarized) apologies is telling. "This is just really weird," Hilton wrote on his self-titled website. "Plagiarism should not be treated like a joke." Maybe not, but what we're learning is that plagiarism, much like comedy, can most certainly be elevated to the status of Art. Most recently, we've seen Netflix air (via its online streaming service) specials by Bo Burnham ("What.") and Reggie Watts ("Why S*** So Crazy?") that consistently discomfort audiences by willfully warping reality. Watts's largely improvised routine sees him shifting between languages in the middle of sentences, telling obvious lies seemingly without self-awareness, and using video editing techniques to comment on the artificiality of his medium. Burnham's "What." takes this mind-bending zaniness to previously unimagined heights, as the young comic repeatedly engages in conversation prerecorded robotic voices whose scripts Burnham wrote himself. For audience members to be offended when, for instance, one of these voices calls the Caucasian Burnham a "nigger," they must do a sort of mental gymnastics, reminding themselves that the animatronic voice they're hearing is not, in fact, an unaccountable robot, but Burnham's own script filtered through an off-stage editing booth. And Burnham’s repeated, subtly complex maxim—“Art is a lie; nothing is real” (emphasis added)—is the same sort of point young poets like Starkweather, Cicero, and Robinson are making, but it finds a far larger audience on Netflix than it ever could in your local bookstore.

Burnham, like Watts, routinely points to the divergent realities of the Internet Age—the way our many on- and off-line personas are mere approximations of the truth—by undercutting his comedy with a running commentary on his own performance. But what elevates the work to the level of Art is its additional and simultaneous dimensions: a secondary commentary that comments on the primary commentary, and even, sometimes, a commentary on the commentary on the commentary. These techniques call to mind LaBeouf's implicit skewering of America's massive and growing celebrity-shaming apparatus, of which Hilton is a primary proprietor. What better way to expose the complexities of influence and inspiration, or the silliness of celebrity worship, or the culture of gutter journalism America has lately developed, than to turn each stage of a needless media circus—rather than just the first few—into a cacophony of absurdity and manufactured outrage?

However abstract all these performances of the way contemporary technology warps our sense of time and space, they're not just intellectually provocative but also—audiences are more and more commonly reporting—wildly entertaining. The idea that the world's most important emerging art philosophy should not only be devoutly theory-driven but also consistently engaging is a cultural shift of significant proportions, even if we saw the roots of this phenomenon in cultural touchstones like Steve Martin's 1970s stand-up routines and the 1980s satire-pop of "Weird Al" Yankovic. What this new and much larger generation of metamodern artists promise, in the near-term, are many more confused responses on the order of Perez Hilton's; in the long term, this new mode of music, cinema, comedy, and literary art could open up a vital conversation about how we all think--and live--amidst the vagaries of our digitized realities.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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