Monday, July 22, 2013

On Plagiarism, “Lianne Spiderbaby,” Tarantino, and when “borrowing” is theft

I don’t ever comment on doings in the film-fan universe, because they usually need too much explaining to the general populace and often concern disagreements about films I don't care about. In the case of the latest online genre-movie fan controversy — the discovery that a horror reviewer who called herself “Lianne Spiderbaby” was stealing chunks of her reviews from genre-movie reviewers and online bloggers — I just wanted to weigh in to explore how this relates to what one commenter on the controversy called “our cut-and-paste culture” and also offer my own take on what seems to be behind these incredibly stupid actions. 

First, the details: the reviewer in question is a Canadian horror fangirl named Lianne MacDougall who has acquired a modicum of online celebrity for two things: being a woman who reviews horror movies; and dating Quentin Tarantino (more specifically attending the Oscars with him in a flashy-topped dress and going out on a boat with him in a bikini).

It was revealed on various genre-movie websites last week that in her reviewing she systematically and shamelessly cut-and-pasted lines from other peoples’ reviews, most often of film synopses and comments about individual films (to be included in her "profiles" of these people). Specifics of what she nabbed can be found on Mike White’s terrific “Impossible Funky” site and on the Latarnia Forums, where horror movie expert and former access host/Funhouse friend Mirek Lipinski led a discussion about the revelations. One of the first people whose work was stolen who spoke up in detail was MaryAnn Johanson, who put a piece up on the “Bleeding Cool” site, which removed said article abruptly the other day (her update on the story can be found on her blog).

Because of MacDougall’s connection to Tarantino, the plagiarism story gained traction online, with stories appearing on the mainstream Defamer and Guardian sites. The important thing to realize about her actions is that she used lines stolen from other writers all throughout her work, even in her online videos (now all set to “Private” on YouTube).

I saw a few of the videos before they were “locked,” and they definitely were elaborate little productions — she and her friends would act out horror sketches and then she’d discuss specific movies with her brother (whose opinions, thoughts, and reviews were his own), followed by her doing an on-camera review of a low-level cult pic, which included stolen lines from reviews that could easily be looked up on Google.

As time went on, it appears that MacDougall’s theft got more and more daring. From stealing entire chunks of other folks’ hard work, she began to discuss film in her pieces in a more academic way. In a piece she wrote about Almodovar’s wonderfully weird The Skin I Live In for the very reputable Video Watchdog magazine, she decided to cite the esteemed film theorist Laura Mulvey by appropriating (okay, *taking*) a Mulvey citation by film academic Steven Jay Schneider. If it’s too hard to watch and write about films, trying to namecheck an academic you’re not familiar with is certain suicide.

A few points about this story:

She wanted to get caught. There’s definitely a pathology at work here, similar to the kind of thing that is manifested by celebrities who decide to pick up hookers on the street or in their cars. It takes a curious mixture of ego, blunt-edged craftiness, and misguided ballsiness to do what “Spiderbaby” chose to do. She may have had passing thoughts about getting caught, but there was clearly also an air of hauteur involved — “these lowly Internet writers did all the research for me. And the readers? They’re not worth my time….”

She mostly used online sources. See above — if she was not wanting to get caught, there are countless other ways to go, including other methods of gathering reviews to “borrow” from and hiring interns to do the work for you (a number of different reviewers over the years have had interns or freelancers who do their work for them — one film historian who was very prolific for years would hire entire teams to write his books for him).

The reason this story got so much traction in the fan world is that “Spiderbaby” was earning money selling reviews that she stole from other people's work. Many of those writers were bloggers who get no money for their writing; they are doing it as a labor of love (ahem ahem) and are happy to do so. MacDougall was SO eager to purloin prose that she even took lines from IMDB reader reviews!

She piled lies on top of lies. One of the first people to defend her on a horror-fan threaded forum was Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. He stood by her, he said, because he felt the abuse heaped on her was a result of her being attractive and Tarantino's girlfriend. Also and this is key because she had assured him that the two pieces she wrote for him were entirely free of plagiarism. 

On further research, Lucas publicly admitted that he was wrong and that she had lied to him. There is an analysis of her latest piece for his great magazine – the best around, along with Videoscope and Shock Cinema – and its stolen elements on the Video Watchdog blog. Lucas has a lot of respect in the horror/zine/genre film community, so her swearing to him she didn't steal was obviously a desperate move, made around the same time she publicly apologized for her plagiarism on Twitter (a Tweet that has since been removed).

It's apparent she didn't enjoy watching movies (or writing about them). A lot was made, of course, about Lianne's dating Tarantino, since he was the news “hook” (this is really news only to a small tight-knit community of genre-movie fans and writers). I was a “true believer” when he hit the scene, loving Reservoir Dogs to pieces (still do). The problem was, that as his exploitation-driven filmmaking “vision” got more and more epic, I began to see little more than genre-pic citations carried off with much flair – and enormous budgets and big-name stars.

One thing that has always been true about Tarantino, though, is that it's apparent he's seen the films he “borrows” from. I found his advocating Sergio Corbucci as one of the best-ever Western directors (with him intentionally negating Ford, Hawks, Boetticher, Mann, etc.) to be nothing short of ridiculous. But it is clear that Quentin watched Corbucci and honestly, misguidedly, felt that a somewhat talented craftsman (read: hack) deserved to be in the company of Leone and Peckinpah (jeezis!) and was better than the truly great Western filmmakers of the past.

For instance – and here, yeah, I'm falling into the same trap as other journalists of talking at length about Tarantino when talking about “Spiderbaby,” but it's so easy, since the topic of “borrowing” is common to both, albeit in different modes – the man who shrinks from journalistic inquiry and has formulated theories of “cinema studies” (and, recently, American history) out of sheer adulation for certain exploitation directors' work (and I love exploitation directors, as regular readers and viewers will know), does have a proactive stance toward “borrowing.”

The most blatant case, and one that I don't see addressed often enough (if ever), was his blatant “acquisition” of the skewed chronology used in The Killing. Mike White, who coincidentally was one of the first people to enumerate the thefts of “Spiderbaby,” has addressed at length how Reservoir Dogs was based on City on Fire, whether consciously or unconsciously (a la George Harrison evoking “He's So Fine” note for note). What has not been emphasized is that Tarantino used the skewed chronology created by Jim Thompson and Kubrick not once, not once twice, not thrice, but a total of four fuckin' times.

It began with Reservoir Dogs, where it was openly purloined from Kubrick, seemingly as an “homage.” Then it showed up again in Pulp Fiction, seemingly to cover over the fact that there were several different plot strands going on (from different scripts?) and to give the film an “epic” feel. THEN it was used in Jackie Brown in an utterly gratuitous fashion to “spice up” a caper scene.

And THEN (!) in Kill Bill, again to make what could've/should've been an exploitation flick (with an enormous budget and big-name stars) an “epic,” it was used, causing viewers like myself to literally say out loud, “no, no... not again!!!” (Is it possible that Quentin was "borrowing" from Alain Robbe-Grillet's time-shifting scenarios, or Harold Pinter's Betrayal, or Jane Campion's Two Friends? Nah – he just watches violent pitchas....)

So, we come back full circle to “Lianne Spiderbaby” (as her goofy writing credit ran). No matter what we may think of his cinematic output, we do get the impression that Tarantino really loves watching films; whereas, with her cut-and-paste style of assembling a review (rather than writing out what she's seen), we come to the conclusion that MacDougall really doesn't like watching movies – OR she really loathes being a writer.

She never made a library visit. I recently reread the short-story collection The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman (in conjunction with this piece – which contains all my own opinions and wordings, for good or ill). Shulman wrote these stories back in the Forties, and even THEN he had the formula for “innovative” plagiarism down (so that Dobie can do something "crooked" and then feel bad – and then get caught): you find a really obscure source and steal from that, assuming no one can find the text.

Using texts that can easily be Googled, and were in fact expressly written for the Internet, is simply daring the reader to discover where you got your “ideas” from. (Return to the first point above.)

She was content to use only one source! I haven't often talked about my professional experiences (well, there was this one time), but early on I had two jobs in which I was required to “assemble” short reviews from other sources. I was not comfortable with it, but the pieces didn't carry my name (and one was my first important job out of college, so I was just thrilled to be getting paid for "creative writing"). In another instance I was instructed to assemble critical opinion and cite the sources in the text; that assignment had my name on it.

In both cases, I found that the way one puts together a review of a movie one hasn't seen is to use more than one source, preferably at least three (how can you trust what only one reviewer says?). Also OF COURSE one *rewords* what one has read elsewhere – otherwise where does the notion of “writing” come in? That's what a writer is supposed to be able to do, on occasion: summarize an argument or opinion using one's own words....

As a friend remarked to me in discussing the “Lianne Spiderbaby” stupidity, “didn't she even think of using a thesaurus?” Well, the answer is no, because she wasn't into writing at all. One of the few joys that comes from this discipline/craft/art/whateverthefuckitis is that you are exercising your skill in expression, even if you're just summing up arguments made by others. To re-use their words and not put quotation marks around 'em? Well, that's stealing.

What was also extremely interesting – to genre-movie fans and freelance writers like myself – was that the outing of MacDougall raised other issues: the fact that one major publication has (or doesn't have, this was disputed) a “sliding scale” for its contributors; the sad notion that MacDougall was able to score not one but *two* book deals through the connections she made submitting stolen reviews and dating Tarantino (UPDATE: the impending book about grindhouse actresses has been "withdrawn" by MacDougall – the introduction contained a number of lifts from other writers); and the very sad fact that her “outing” was going to possibly make dumber readers think that many women horror-fans and reviewers (for whom she was becoming a “symbol” of success) are like her. (This notion was countered in a list of dedicated female horror-film reviewers who write their own work!)

UPDATE (7/25): The posters on the Latarnia forum have continued to look into the immense amount of plagiarism MacDougall committed. One poster, "Udar55," has discovered that parts of her thesis for college on Deep Throat contains chunks lifted from several sources, including, the official Watergate site (!). Udar55 also has kept an ongoing list of her "sources" (read: confirmed plagiarism) and it now includes DVD liner notes, Wikipedia, IMDB reviewers, Janet Maslin, film professors, a true crime author, biographer Patrick McGilligan, and countless bloggers and others who provide their writing for free online.

Here is a proud quote from Tarantino that was also uploaded to the Latarnia forum: “I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it – if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together. If people don’t like that, then tough titty, don’t go and see it, alright? I steal from everything. Great artists steal; they don’t do homages.” A poster named Michael Elliott added the obvious corollary "Perhaps [his films are acclaimed] because mainstream critics don't know much about many of the films he borrows from."

For me, this whole affair was a fascinating and pathetic revelation, for it showed how this one reviewer, this inconsiderate, unethical individual, this soulless, uncaring movie “fan,” was willing for her own nefarious purposes... to blaspheme the title of Jack Hill's classic weirdo horror-comedy.


Unknown said...

The skewed chronology structure of THE KILLING originated in the novel on which it's based: Clean Break, by Lionel White. Tarantino thanked White in the original screenplay for RESERVOIR DOGS.

Gerald Groy said...

Lovely ending. Somehow I missed this debacle at the time and wondered why she disappeared. Ah. That's why.