the perks and perils of self-reflexivity

First published on Ampersand on April 2, 2019.

There’s a moment in Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists that captures the crux of the movie’s sly, self-reflexive satire. When young, white couple Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) suffer a car breakdown on their way back from a weekend in the woods, a middle-aged Black stranger, Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), offers them shelter for the night. They accept cautiously, and as they make small talk in Clip’s home, Tyler suddenly seems to recognize him as a friend of a friend on Facebook. “That’s where I fucking know you, man!” he says. “You made that comment about abortion?”

Tyler turns out to be mistaken, but his phrasing encapsulates one of the film’s central preoccupations: the fact that we now claim to “know” people not from personal intimacy, but from thumbnail-sized representations and digital networks of familiarity.

Anna and Tyler seem to navigate the world entirely through the lens of such mediated tropes, which become hazy substitutes for the notion of authenticity. Their initial (and racially-tinged) suspicion towards Clip’s hospitality soon turns into an almost fetishistic trust, as he reveals himself to be mysterious and wise, conforming to their image of a Magical Black Man.

Months later, when Anna discovers that one of Clip’s whimsical anecdotes was plagiarized from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” she seems infuriated not just because he misrepresented his experiences, but also because he defied her stereotypical expectations of him. “It was completely uncharacteristic of him—the language, the vocabulary,” she says. What might have been perceived simply as eccentricity were Clip a white person, becomes, in Anna’s eyes, an act of illegitimate passing. 

Parlow’s film begins in this tricky terrain of race and then slowly unspools its questions of skin-deep authenticity onto various other contexts—questioning, ultimately, its own form.  Tyler finds an 80s news camera at Clip’s house and becomes enlivened by the prospect of making something “raw, like Dogme 95” (although, comically, he struggles to remember what exactly Dogme 95 is).  As it turns out, Parlow himself shot The Plagiarists on the same camera, giving the film the lo-fi, retro Sundance vibe that a character later scoffs at. 

Anna, on the other hand, worries about the obsolescence of the written medium and the difficulty of communicating in the poststructuralist age—a concern doubly driven home in the film’s coda. Anna’s friend reads aloud a letter emphasizing the enduring value of books that is revealed in the credits to be lifted from an article in “The Guardian.”

These are interesting meta-narrative gestures, making the film an intellectual mise-en-abyme that embodies everything it critiques with witty, one-on-one precision. But that constant mirroring also voids The Plagiarists of any provocative or argumentative heft. The film plays out like a one-sided conversation. It sets up intriguing premises—what happens when authenticity becomes a commodity? how are our ideas of the “real” racialized?—only to confirm them immediately with its own form. And any grievances one may have with its form are rendered moot by that infallible alibi: the claim to self-referentiality. There’s no room for viewer engagement here; how exactly does one critique or even interpret a film which insists on critiquing and interpreting itself incessantly? As a send-up of postmodern discourse about art, The Plagiarists is hilariously on-point. But as a work of art in itself, it feels uninviting and closed off, insulated by its own convictions. 

“The Plagiarists” played at the New Directors/New Film Festival in New York on Friday, March 29, after premiering in February at the 2019 Berlinale. 

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