Though many a director believes himself to be an artist, it’s rare for someone to successfully straddle the worlds of film and art. But James N. Kienitz Wilkins, a thirty-six-year-old Brooklynite, seems to have achieved that balance. His docufictions question the authenticity of their own imagery and form through the use of found material, a strategy with a rich tradition in art as well as film. They have been exhibited in a variety of venues: a solo show at Gasworks in London, a group show at the Centre Pompidou, the film program of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. His latest is The Plagiarists, a narrative feature that was co-directed with Robin Schavoir under the pseudonym Peter Parlow. It recently received a first run at Film at Lincoln Center, and in August it will screen as part of BAMCinematek’s “We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film” series. It’s rare for a filmmaker’s second feature to go into such heavy rotation upon its initial release, especially when it’s a seventy-six-minute experimental film, in this age of plentiful repertory programming and streaming.
Yet for all the conventions it breaks, there’s something deeply unsatisfying about The Plagiarists. The film’s central conceit is to lampoon bad, mid-2000s mumblecore movies by being one both formally and narratively—but this parodic layer doesn’t add anything of value to the film’s exploration of authenticity. Most of the runtime is taken up by the half-baked observations of its badly behaved protagonists, who could have been torn from a baby boomer’s Facebook status about avocado-eating hipsters. Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), an obnoxious white couple, are having car trouble when Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne, of the band Parliament Funkadelic) appears by the side of the road and offers them assistance. After their attempts to fix the situation prove fruitless or too expensive, Clip, who is older and black, allows Anna and Tyler to spend the night at his home. Tyler, a cinematographer for hire, stumbles upon a cache of ’80s video equipment, and Clip gifts him a video camera—identical to the one The Plagiarists is shot on. As Tyler wanders through the house, filming nothing in particular in order to test the camera out, Clip rhapsodizes about his youth in Detroit for Anna. The significance of these details grows to enormous proportions in Anna and Tyler’s recollections of the evening.
An aspiring novelist, Anna is captivated by Clip’s words—though, as a copy editor by day, she should have known something was up when he said that he “shuffled into the classroom, with red cheeks.” The film flashes forward to another semirural car trip months later, when Anna discovers that Clip’s monologue was lifted verbatim from the third book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the modern king of confessional literature. Anna, who has by then finished writing her own book, is deeply (and performatively) unsettled, and begins questioning the “weird” details about Clip (his video equipment, the little blond boy in the house who appeared to be under his care). At first, Tyler accuses her of racial bias, making a meal of her assertion that it was “completely uncharacteristic of him, like, the language, and the vocabulary.” Yet it’s clear that Tyler’s stance comes less from a place of genuine sensitivity than from his annoyance at her for giving him shit about something he’d said not five minutes earlier. They don’t seem to like each other very much. His resistance is worn down after Anna presents him with the classic white feminist talking point: “Would you believe me if I said I had been groped?” The possibilities that Anna was misremembering what Clip had said or that his experience as a man roughly the same age as Knausgaard might have been very similar are taken off the table. Riled, they continue to the home of their predictably annoying friend Allison (Emily Davis), and proceed to hash out the banalities of this “betrayal,” which is somewhat complicated by the fact that Allison is acquaintances with Clip—until they start arguing about something else.
Even if you’re in on the joke, watching this “satire” unfold is often unpleasant, at least as unpleasant as any real, overly talky indie. This grating clumsiness is also inherent in the use of bouncy, hand-held camerawork that focuses on the actors’ faces, and the inclusion of Tyler’s and Clip’s camera tests. There’s nothing here that might be called cinematic. In the film’s final section, this shakiness becomes the dominant aesthetic. What must be Clip’s test footage is accompanied by Allison reading a letter that she wrote to Anna about the worthiness of the written word. The most impassioned (and inarticulate) section of the text is taken from a 2013 Guardian blog post by TheBookAddictedGirl on why books are always better than movies, which is only revealed after the screen fades to black and a list of “works cited” is shown, invalidating, in the most literal sense, any plagiarism committed by the screenwriters. These mirrorings and reversals ultimately seem more cruel than constructive. While it’s easy to laugh at how plainly terrible Anna, Tyler, and Allison are (and, more ambiguously, how bad Clip is), this laughter feels unremarkable, considering the abundance of unironically talky indies. A bolder filmmaker might have made Clip the center of attention.
The nearly universal praise The Plagiarists has received (the New York Times called it “a social and philosophical investigation disguised as a gleefully barbed satire”) focuses on how rich its ideas about authenticity are, but these are more like gestures toward familiar signposts that require only a quantum of cultural literacy to appreciate. See the use of Knausgaard, whom everyone has heard of but no one has actually read: Anna says My Struggle is considered “revolutionary” and valuable by the literary establishment because it’s confessional literature by a straight white man . . . but that celebration and criticism is all that is said about the six-volume work in The Plagiarists. (Anna thinks it’s brilliant, while Tyler opposes Knausgaard, whose name he can’t say properly.) This is a screenplay that coyly copy-pastes blog posts and rehashes half-remembered arguments from a college seminar. It’s not that deep. During a post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Modern Art following its North American premiere at the New Directors/New Films series, the directors could not answer a simple question about indie films’ obsession with authenticity—you know, the thing that this film is supposed to be about.
The existence, not the solidity, of political readings in a film, has slowly become the lone criterion for assigning a film value—a truth that applies equally to Marvel capefests, A24 genre fluff, and no-budget experiments like The Plagiarists. Discussions of aesthetics and form seem to have largely faded from film writing; reviews mentioning camera movement are few and far between.
This shift toward viewing films as only worthwhile when overtly “political” (in the broadest sense) can be attributed in part to the realities of Trump’s presidency. But it also comes from a puritanical view of the moving image as fundamentally perverse and frivolous: a movie is only good if it’s something more than a movie. Perhaps film is realigning itself to become more like art, where context makes the work; there may be more Kienitz Wilkinses on the way. But there have always been filmmakers who sought to explore larger ideas through experimentation, and have usually done so with much more nuance, texture, and thoughtfulness than the would-be showrunners and auteurs of today. While film criticism should not measure every work to the standards of the great masters (Agnès Varda or Yvonne Rainer would always crush a “Peter Parlow”), the reluctance to suggest that something isn’t half as clever as its press materials claim it to be stifles the medium in a different way. Heralding a film something that recycles rather than complicates degrades the medium much faster than any superhero dreck.