Central to hip-hop and its related sub-genres is the concept of sampling, wherein another artists’ music is remixed and recontextualized. Most recently, Eric Andre under the moniker of “Blarf” released his debut album Cease & Desist, a wry nod towards the legal issues one can face when sampling. The opening track alone presents a cacophony of sampled noise, ranging from the original Super Mario Bros. to The Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump.” With his second film, The Plagiarists, Peter Parlow demonstrates a similar idea, yet context makes all the difference. The anxiety running through The Plagiarists concerns the morality of uncredited sampling, so to speak.
When their car breaks down, the budding writer Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and her videographer fiancé Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) cross paths with Clip (William Michael Payne), an enigmatic figure who offers to shelter them until their car can be repaired. In Chabrol-like fashion, the couple is initially wary of Clip, who seems to be too cool and too generous. Although Clip is single, he’s taking care of a young boy, which Anna reasons can’t make him a serial killer. In fact, Anna becomes enamored with Clip, who not only listens to her worries about being a successful writer but offers her reprieve in the form of a child-hood story.
A year later, Anna discovers Clip’s story wasn’t his own, but an excerpt from Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle. Suffice to say, she’s shocked at Clip’s blatant plagiarism. Yet neither Tyler nor their mutual friend, Allison (Emily C. Davis) understand Anna’s frustration. What’s the big deal? For Anna, Clip’s fraudulence becomes a question of authenticity. Anna reflects not only on the morality of the issue but also how it relates to her own voice as a writer. Tyler, too, has his own struggles. He’s a commercial director but aspires to make his own films and despite his experience behind the camera, hesitates to call himself a director.
Although Tyler provides the film’s script with a rapid-fire pace due to his own wit, there’s also a sense of a more slow-pace indicative of the couple’s interiority. The ending of the film is serene, mostly composed of shots of water. The question then becomes, what does it mean to be authentic? Oddly enough, I’m reminded of the “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment, or similarly, of Cypher’s speech in The Matrix (1999). In that regard, perhaps what matters isn’t Clip’s own authenticity, but rather, the experience of listening to Clip’s story. Whether Clip’s story belonged to him or not doesn’t change the affect it had on Anna of spurring her artistic ambition. Further along, when Anna is in crisis, Allison writes her an encouraging e-mail. When the credits roll, we realize, Anna’s e-mail is also plagiarized. Yet, I would argue that Clip and Anna’s encouragement is authentic nonetheless. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.