Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, however that doesn’t necessarily translate into great filmmaking. Countless filmmakers openly admit to being inspired by specific films they grew up watching, and while this can certainly lead to fantastic works, imitation should not be mistaken for inspiration. It would be wrong to say that this is a new trend, as some of films’ most famous and talented directors are clearly inspired by those they look up to. Woody Allen was inspired by Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese by Alfred Hitchcock but their films feel fresh and new.
Imitation comes from a director wanting to make something similar to another film or filmmaker but not having a genuine need to do so. Just as inspiration from real life events can drive a filmmaker to make a piece of work, so does exposure to certain pieces of cinema. It is this key difference that separates true inspiration from imitation. Scorsese is a great example of a filmmaker who is constantly driven by his love for cinema, and is genuinely inspired by others’ works. A recent film, Shutter Island, was made in tribute to Hitchcock, and while this is obvious, the film never feels like a cheap imitation. On the other hand you have a filmmaker like Hal Hartley, whose film Simple Men comes off as just a pretentious copy of a Godard film without bringing anything new to the table.
The upcoming Super 8 directed by JJ Abrams is an example of a film that has many wondering if imitation is masquerading as inspiration, but as the trailers have shown, the tone is more in line with Spielberg than the actual filmmaking is. Instead of wanting to imitate his filmmaking style, Abrams has instead opted to pay tribute to one of his favourite filmmakers by making a film with a similar tone. In this case, Abrams love for Spielberg has driven him to make a film that pays tribute, instead of just imitating style. The key difference between inspiration and imitation is where the need to make the film comes from.
Not all filmmakers are inspired by their contemporaries, as is the case with Terrence Malick, who seems to only inspire others. Malick is an interesting case as his style is so unique and distinct that when someone is inspired by him, there is no hiding it. Whether it be deliberate or not, films that try to imitate his style usually come off as cheap copies. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a film which, while impressive, felt too in line with Malick’s style. Dominik did not seem to understand the essence Malick’s style, opting instead to cheaply imitate it. This may not have been the case, as Dominik could very likely be directly inspired by Malick, but as Malick’s style took decades to develop and perfect, Dominik’s imitation failed to feel genuine.
While Dominik has yet to cement his style, another protégé of Malick, David Gordon Green, has developed a style that, while being inspired by Malick, is still unique to Green. Learning from Malick’s films, Green developed a filmmaking style which over several films has become a unique, signature approach which never feels like imitation.
Even with the best intentions, imitating another filmmaker is a tricky task, and as we have seen, too many filmmakers take the wrong approach to it. A case in point is Quentin Tarantino, who at his best comes off making unique films that pay tribute to his favourite filmmakers and at his worst seems to be simply imitating those filmmakers. And as we all know, Tarantino is a true film fan. Imitation does not mean a filmmaker is trying to copy, but more often than not it means that their tributes lack the soul of the original.