Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lucy Kaminsky, Eamon Monaghan, Michael "Clip" Payne, Emily Davis
Written by: James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Robin Schavoir
Directed by: Peter Parlow
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 76
Date: 05/08/2020

The Plagiarists (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Borrow or Steal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Although The Plagiarists looks like a purposely precocious indie comedy from the 1990s, it's actually something of an experimental film, slyly ridiculing the thing it's imitating.

Yet it also aims high in terms of what it wants us to think about, including art, perception, and privilege, and it's giddily intriguing.

Shot on a 1980s Betacam SP, complete with smeary image and square aspect ratio, the movie begins with two millennials, commercial cinematographer Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) and aspiring novelist Anna (Lucy Kaminsky), stuck in the snow with a broken-down car after a weekend getaway.

An older man, Clip (Michael "Clip" Payne, a onetime member of the bands Funkadelic and Parliament, making his acting debut with a wonderfully charismatic performance) offers to call a cheap, local mechanic for them. They end up having dinner and drinks and staying over at his place.

Tyler, an obnoxious, self-centered, intellectual contrarian (and certainly the most trying aspect of the movie), discovers a roomful of old video equipment, and Clip offers to give him the same camera on which this movie is shot. Tyler practices with it, shooting randomly, while Clip tells Anna a remarkable story.

Months later, while on another weekend getaway to see their friend Allison (Emily Davis), the couple makes a strange discovery. They argue, tossing around the possible meanings and connotations of it.

The Plagiarists ends with a sequence mirroring Clip's story, including more wobbling camerawork practice, and accompanied by a voice reading a letter.

The 76-minute film, written by experimental filmmakers James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir, leaves us with no answers, but plenty of buzzing, ticklish questions to be unraveled.

Perhaps most enthralling is the idea of ownership, not only of things, but of ideas. Does anyone really own anything? Do people deserve things, or are they entitled to things?

But the thing that's crucially most absent from our two characters — especially given that they are writers and filmmakers — is a sense of curiosity, a sense of wonder. They don't ask questions. Anything that comes their way is met as if it were a challenge to their already-established worldview.

It's a dead end way to be, the movie suggests. In a perfect world, this act of "plagiarism" might be seen as something shared.

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