The enduring impulse to defamiliarize — that is, to (re-)present something as novel or new — is at the heart of Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists. Directed from a script by Robin Schavoir and James N. Kienitz Wilkins, this 76-minute feature opens in programmatic, low-budget indie form: a pair of hipster intellectual-artist-types, Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and her boyfriend Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), have some car trouble on their way back from a friend’s bougie, oft-Airbnb-ed vacation home. In short order, Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), an older black man from around the neighborhood, offers them some help, and the couple soon find themselves in his home for the evening. As liquor and conversations start to flow, we learn that Anna is a budding novelist writing her first book, while Tyler is an aspiring filmmaker who works mainly as a DP on commercials. Those who might want to take this as a sly send-up of American indie filmmaking pretensions — both in front of and behind the camera — will find much to support that assessment. (Tyler namedrops Dogme 95 at one point, though he can’t remember whether it comes from Denmark or Norway.)
And yet, with its particular attention to film/video formats (it was shot on an ‘80s TV-news camera), The Plagiarists reveals itself to be something more maddeningly, if also productively, contradictory. In particular, the film hinges on an extended, eloquent childhood reminiscence from Clip that, Anna discovers months later, was plagiarized in its entirety from Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. “This is not about art!” Anna exclaims, visibly unsettled by this discovery. And yet it is. (It’s no accident that the snippet we hear of Anna’s novel — not a memoir, she emphasizes — relays the experiences of someone she’d met on a trip to New Guinea.) Bringing in a skein of talking points, including artistic (mis)representation and cultural appropriation, The Plagiarists explores the enduring, Duchampian question of what constitutes art, especially in a content-saturated environment where the notion of the “readymade” feels more fraught than ever. Appropriately, then, this film only becomes knottier — and thereby more interesting — the more one tries to untangle it.
Published as part of June 2019’s Before We Vanish.