lovelife, music, radar, screen

The Imitation Game

Bobbie James roses


I first listened to Blurred Lines (Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I.) when the song was repeatedly condemned for trivialising sexual consent.* The negative publicity peaked as several UK student unions banned the track from campus. So, I went and checked it out. 

Until that moment Robin Thicke had passed me by. I wish I could return to that edenic state of not knowing Robin Thicke…

Over on YouTube, two things stood out about Blurred Lines: the video is  sleazy and the song owes a lot to Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up (Part One). The Gaye family thought it owed too much. And recently a California jury agreed with them. But it is no cause for celebration that a talented songwriter and producer like Pharrell Williams must pay out $7.3m to Gaye’s children, who had nothing to do with the writing of Got to Give It Up. Meanwhile, the families of the musicians and producers who probably did contribute to the writing of the original song, are unlikely to see any of the pay out 

There were times Marvin Gaye took writing credits when maybe he should have shared more. And now his children are rich. Gaye was always a curious artist.  After all, he lived in Ostend for a while when he had the whole of Europe to pick from. He didn’t like to dance, but his music drew millions onto the dance floor. Some of his most memorable vocal recordings, that sound like a catharsis of the soul, wrestled from the deepest chambers of the heart, were actually recorded in brief mini bites. David Ritz’s biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, relays how Gaye would visit the recording studio, get dropped into a section of his vocal track, sing a couple of lines of torment and heartache, and get punched back out again. Then later, he’d return to the studio, get dropped back in again to sing another snippet of anguish. Gaye was no single-take artist. The raw emotional exposure of the LP Let’s Get it On was stitched together.

But what of it? You do whatever works. You don’t have to run all the way round Central Park to be a good actor. You can always pretend (as Laurence Olivier supposedly said to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man.) 

I remember a friend once assuring me quite crossly that Sinead O’Connor was genuinely deeply sad the day she recorded the video for Nothing Compares 2 U, and that her onscreen tears were for real. I’d suggested maybe she was acting.** Certainly the force of feeling in Marvin Gaye’s If I Should Die Tonight or Just to Keep You Satisfied – both the gut-wrench and the joy – are suggestive of a man who has lived and loved and lost. 

picture of artist Pharrell Williams and group N*E*R*D

Authenticity will always be a problem concept in art. In the early 2000s Pharrell Williams made his first steps in the transition from songwriter to recording artist as part of the group N*E*R*D (No One Every Really Dies).*** The debut N*E*R*D album, In Search of…, flows with a string of great dance pop songs. The tunes are good, but the material is also noticeably synthetic. The artificiality is underscored by the lyrics of hard-to-believe tales of thug life – from raunchy lap dances to run-ins with ‘Johnny Law’. Williams and his production cohorts were middle class nerds using the production handle of Star Trak, while the album title ‘In Search of…’ refers to a TV programme introduced by Leonard Nimoy. Any attempt therefore to pass as street is likely to fail. 

Until you realise that verisimilitude is not the goal. This is craft songwriting at a distance. The track Bobby James is the aural equivalent of a creative writing class exercise: imagine you’re 17, lonely at home, lost at high school, bullied and dumped on by life and the whole universe. And then one day a generic evil drug pusher sidles up, promising release from all the pain in the shape of a five dollar bag of crack cocaine. How does the rest of the story play out?  Not very well. 

The song’s writerly self-consciousness sees its core message foregrounded in verse two:

‘Man this would be cute if this were just a dream 

A lesson for you to learn except you’d learn through me 

You know like in the movies when it ends with a scream’

This sense of detachment is counterbalanced by Pharrell’s straining, heartfelt falsetto ‘Hey man, mister, give me some cash’. As the song peaks – ‘Hey there, can you help me, please’  – the listener is moved and feels empathy for the teen drug casualty, in spite of his cardboard construction

The Gaye family have alleged that Pharrell Williams’ song Happy is also a steal from Marvin’s back catalogue. Critics have rushed in to defend Williams, rightly exploring the complex nature of creativity – citing the intricacies of genre, legacy, influence, referencing, channelling, pastiche, parody and homage (so many words for imitation).  

What no one asks, is would it matter if all the people listening to Blurred Lines had never heard of Got to Give It Up? I think it would. I think there’s an issue with Blurred Lines beyond authorship, ownership and theft, or the need to make sure artists get paid. It’s about the roots and routes of music, and what happens when a culture forgets its history. It is plainly obvious that without Marvin Gaye’s song, Blurred Lines wouldn’t sound the way it does. It seems better that a lot more people know this now.

The Big Chill ( Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan) came out in 1983. Return of the Secaucus 7 (Writer/Director John Sayles) was released in 1980. Both films focus on a weekend reunion of survivors of 1960s student radicalism, who are battling to come to terms with the fact that it’s the 1980s, already; and that they’re turning 30, already. The former student radicals spend the weekend reminiscing, eating, drinking, having sex, and emoting; but mostly wondering where all the years went, and what happened to their dreams and ideals. 

Return of the Secaucus 7 is a modest low budget film with a meandering style and some stilted acting. It’s like an indy cinema template, before indy cinema had really got started. The Big Chill is slick and dramatic. It’s manipulative mainstream Hollywood at its best (and worst) with a catchy rock and Motown soundtrack working to ensure viewers feel the right emotion, on, cue. The acting is great (including Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Glenn Close) – and you don’t even have to put up with Kevin Costner spoiling the show, as all of his scenes as the suicide character were removed from the final cut. 

did someone say yuppie?

The themes of jaded idealism, lost youth and the onset of middle age doubt, are broadly threaded through the film’s dialogue. Even so, the writer/director Lawrence Kasdan leaves little to chance, with the headline message – that the 60s and its utopian dreams are officially over, dead, kaput, ready for burial – underscored by the fact that the Chillers have gathered together in order to mourn the recent death of their friend Alex. The golden boy of their group, Alex got lost in the after-swell of student activism and, having failed to find his place in the grown-up world, took his own life.

I remember The Big Chill as a guilty pleasure. Probably not one to revisit after all this time. (Likewise its TV offspring, thirtysomething, with its absorbing hand-wringing over friendship, parenthood, personal growth and the correct way to fold laundry.)

The thing I didn’t realise at the time is the Big Chill isn’t the original piece of cinema it appears to be. Kasdan has said he was aware of Return of the Secaucus 7 when preparing The Big Chill, but hadn’t seen it. Nevertheless the similarities and overlaps are considerable. 

A male character is interviewed by female character
is this a microphone or a large cucumber?

Apart from sharing a similar set up, structure, ideas and themes, the two films have the same number of principal characters and both feature a crux moment where the group play sport together. The two films show the characters making video diaries, and each one opens with a scene in a bathroom with two characters speaking at cross purposes.

Kasdan worked on The Big Chill between making his debut feature Body Heat – a sultry, unabashed homage to Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity – and Silverado – his brave, but misfiring attempt at rebooting the Western. It is possible that with all this genre play, Kasdan lost sight of issues of authorship. 

Or maybe the overlap between The Big Chill and Return represents an unintended commentary from the director on the nature of compromise – in that the arc from rad to corporate requires many sell outs, including one’s ideals and ethics; but even, perhaps, stretching to the appropriation of another artist’s work, re-routing the original material away from critique into blockbuster schmaltz.

As a movie writer observes: ‘You can watch Return of the Secaucus 7 and feel you’re getting an unvarnished look at how actual people lived during an actual point in time. But The Big Chill, despite all its ’60s trappings, is really a monument to another, less exciting occasion: The Day the Yuppies Took Over Hollywood.’

I don’t know if John Sayles has ever commented on the similarity between Secaucus and The Big Chill. You have to hope that he views imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. The overlaps between the two films were never tested in court, or widely discussed, and it is likely the vast majority of people who have watched The Big Chill think of it as an original piece of cinema. This not knowing bothers me. 

the night is young

In Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013), a likeable film of the mis-steps and growing pains of a twentysomething woman in New York, there’s a striking high energy scene where the lead character runs down the street to the edgy, percussive opening to David Bowie’s Modern Love. It lasts maybe 60 seconds. And the viewer goes wow, that was good.  

The only problem is, the same thing happens, with the same chunk of Bowie, in Mauvais Sanga French film from 1986 by Leos Carax. I assume Baumbach intends the lift as a nifty homage to Carax’s stylised tale of troubled youth – a film which is itself suffuse with references to the early cinema of Jean-Luc Goddard. But I just don’t know what to think about the likelihood that most viewers of Frances Ha will assume they just saw something bold and new, when they actually didn’t.

don’t breathe in

Playing the Imitation Game is more fun when you’re in on it. The first time I saw Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, I’d already seen Fellini’s , and his acerbic parody of the Italian original seemed cultured and intelligent. (That the opening scene, with its nightmare of asphyxiation, is a precise copy of Fellini, seemed a bit too much ‘parody’ though.) Both films are about filmmaking, celebrity culture, and the special kind of pressure that comes with being hailed a genius

black and blue film poster with picture of an old man looking anguished
ah, vintage foreign film poster

Allen has also serially rehashed the cinema of Ingmar Bergman over his career, with Interiors, Midmummer Night Sex Comedy (Smiles of a Summer Night),  and Another Woman (Wild Strawberries). So, you couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned. But it didn’t stop me from completely falling for it with Husbands and Wives (1992). Arguably the last of Allen’s film possessed with an aura of brilliance, I took Husbands and Wives and its documentary verite device to be a clever and original work. Many years later, I sat down to watch Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and discovered that this wasn’t the case. Bergman did it first, and Allen copied. And I didn’t feel so cultured and clever any longer – just ignorant and a bit duped. 

It’s  a bit like finding out your partner cheated on you years after you split up. 

The list of my cultural cuckoldings is a long and embarrassing one. As a clueless young thing I saw the band Echo & The Bunnymen play live a few times. I was always impressed at how the band’s encore included an extended version of Do It Clean, which would elongate into a medley of brief covers – 
songs by The Doors, Nat King Cole, James Brown, The Beatles, and so on. The medley would always segue through to the band’s version of Land of a 100 Dances.  ‘Do you know how to pony, like Bony Moronie?’ lead singer Ian McCulloch would warble on tiptoes with his haystack hair. ‘Do you know how to twist? It goes like this, goes like this, goes like this….’ And a discordant, fuzzy lead guitar would take over. 

I thought this was really clever. Years later I saw archive footage of Patti Smith doing the same sort of thing. She’d been doing it when McCulloch was still at school. Did she ‘borrow’ it from someone else? 
And so it goes, on and on and on.  Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel features a memorable love scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The visual tone of the romantic interlude differs from the rest of the film, switching to a colour pallette blending grey, beige and charcoal as the light becomes muted, and the texture gauzy. The love scene progresses from hotel bar to bedroom, using a series of smooth edits that re-arrange the time sequence of flirtation, seduction and consummation into a non-linear mosaic. 

It is sophisticated assembly. It it is also a bold ‘reference’ to the  love scene from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. As Sodebergh himself drew attention to this fact in interviews, maybe we don’t need to ask what happens if nobody realises. 

it’s not easy being me

I think I know the answer anyway. Richard Ayoade’s first film, Submarine, was lauded as wonderfully fresh and inventive. The poster plaudits celebrated the arrival of a new cinematic voice. Except the film was bulging with borrowings from the Truffaut trick book. 

Never mind. Originality is hard to come by, and if you’re going to look to borrow, then the filmic style of Francois Truffaut is a great place to look. The truth is, I love culture with references and influences and a family tree. I like nods and winks, good pastiche and well done parody. I don’t even mind downright plagiarism and lifts, really. I just don’t like it when I don’t get them. And I think critics should know where the fresh new cinema they’re praising comes from historically. 

Submarine was a nice film and Ayoade seems like a nice man – perhaps the wrong guy to moan about. There’s a personal note to his film. I took Vela (Ex no2to see Submarine on release. It was the centrepiece of a rare cultural day out together that didn’t go well. 

It was a sunny morning and we decided to walk across the park to then get the train into town. Spring was happening all over the park. The morning had promise. 

But as we passed a circle of daffodils, Vela suddenly announced that she was feeling down. She said she was actually so depressed that she’d be quite happy if that hanging tree over there finally toppled over and landed on her head and killed her. I looked at Vela in shock. She said she wanted to be erased for the rest of eternity. From there on in recovering our lovely day out proved a challenge….

     So, I almost made it all the way through a post without mentioning Vela, or sadness, or break ups, or illness. 

Not that these things aren’t on my mind. But I’m busy. (Or ‘busty’ as Vela used to say.) Also, it’s spring, at last. I’m cycling home in daylight again; and from my kitchen window I can see the bulbs I planted last autumn coming up through the soil. 

I thought to myself the other day it’s sunny, the sap is rising, you could start dating again. 

You fool. Remember, it was springtime when you first met Vela, nine years ago. Spring makes you go all light headed and romantic. Makes you believe in rebirth, miracles, and hope – against all the evidence. That’s the problem with spring.

That said though. Should I? Could I? After all, I’m an adult, I can do whatever I like. Maybe even have fun… 

And then I remembered how I felt on Valentine’s Day. 

And then there’s the crooked stick. I have an appointment with the surgeon in a few days… That’s a chilly thought.

* I think the lyrics are too vague and ambiguous to call Blurred Lines ‘pro rape’. However I can see why a lyric ‘I know you want it’, plus a sleazy video, might leave many viewers feeling affronted.

** Nothing Compares 2 U was O’Connor’s cover of the original recording of the Prince song by The Family, a band put together by Prince that only ever made one (obscure) album. To this day most people will not have heard their (superior) version of the song.

***  No One Every Really Dies? Tell that to the coroner.