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In Defense of Shia LaBeouf

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Eric Hoffman

By now, most Comics Bulletin readers know the story. But for those without access to the interweb since this past Monday, it goes something like this: erstwhile Transformers actor Shia LaBeouf posted his short film HowardCantour.com, originally shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, online. The short features comedian Jim Gaffigan as the eponymous on-line film critic, and is an adaptation of a somewhat obscure 2007 comic strip by Daniel Clowes, entitled Justin M. Damaino.

Before you go congratulating LaBeouf, an admitted comics fan and admirer of Clowes’ work, for adapting such interesting source material, especially during this era of Marvel blockbusters, you should know that LaBeouf neglected to add Clowes’ names to the credits. Indeed, the short is credited only “A Film by Shia LaBeouf,” with no mention anywhere of a screenwriter or source material.

Before offering the possibility that LaBeouf somehow unintentionally internalized Clowes’ comic – a frequent defense of plagiarists – and you should know that, aside from sharing the same basic plot and eponymous title, the film contains numerous direct quotations from Clowes’ strip. For example, both film and comic begin with the following lines: “A critic is a warrior, and each of us on the battlefield has the means to glorify or demolish (whether a film, a career, or an entire philosophy) by influencing perception in ways that if heartfelt and truthful, can have far-reaching repercussions.” Moreover, both film and comic feature a young, blonde freelance critic, who asks Cantour if he will be attending a junket, and at that junket, comments about the films’ director: “He so perfectly gets how we’re really all like these aliens who can never have any meaningful contact with each other because we’re all so caught up in our own little self-made realities, you know?” Again, the dialogue is nearly identical in both film and comic. The similarities go on from there.

LaBeouf told the website Short of the Week, that the inspiration from HowardCantour.com resulted from his perceived mishandling by critics (he made no mention of Clowes): “I know something about the gulf between critical acclaim and blockbuster business. I have been crushed by critics (especially during my Transformers run), and in trying to come to terms with my feelings about critics, I needed to understand them . . . As I tried to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at me and the people I’ve worked with, a small script developed.”

Apparently, this isn’t the first time LaBeouf has been accused of plagiarizing; he apparently copied and pasted a number of quotes from an Esquire article into an email he sent Alec Baldwin and which was subsequently leaked online. 

The response among comics creators and readers (most hilariously Patton Oswalt’s tweets) has been justifyingly scathing; Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds called LaBeouf’s plagiarism “shameless theft!” “My first reaction,” Reynolds told The Onion’s A.V. Club, “before I even watched it, was basically that as much as the plot sounded like the Justin M. Damiano, I presumed that LaBeouf would be smart enough to change everything just enough to make it his own thing and shield himself from any legal liability, even if it didn’t excuse him from being a weasel. Which is why, when I actually started watching it, I almost spit out my coffee when I realized he lifted the script, word for word.” Clowes, who claims to have never seen any of LaBeouf’s films (far easier to believe than LaBeouf’s comments about its origins), was quoted as saying that the first he had heard of HowardCantour.com was Monday morning when “someone sent me a link.” “I’ve never spoken to or met Mr. LaBeouf,” Clowes told the website BuzzFeed. “I’ve never even seen one of his films that I can recall — and I was shocked, to say the least, when I saw that he took the script and even many of the visuals from a very personal story I did six or seven years ago and passed it off as his own work. I actually can’t imagine what was going through his mind.”

LaBeouf, for his part, takes the usual tack of a plagiarist, claiming that he wasn’t “copying” Clowes, but rather, was “inspired” by Clowes’ work and “got lost in the creative process,” this after filming several other shorts and acting in numerous major feature films. Apparently, somewhere along the line, the whole notion of copyright law just blew past him. Or, as Patton Oswalt tweeted: “Ah, naïveté. I mean, except for the 4 other movies you've directed and the 3 you've produced, this was all new, huh?”

Most interestingly, his subsequent apology, as The Onion’s A.V Club noted, is also allegedly plagiarized from an entry on Yahoo! Answers from 2009. There, “Lili” makes the observation, in response to the Yahoo! Question, “Why did Picasso say "good artists copy but great artists steal?”, that “Merely copying isn’t particularly creative work, though it’s useful as training and practice. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work, and it may even revolutionize [sic] the ‘stolen’ concept.” And LaBeouf’s tweet?: “Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.”  This apparent similarity lead the A.V. Club critic to posit that LaBeouf’s appropriation of Clowes' source material is in fact just another entry in a career-spanning exercise in postmodernism: “Is LaBeouf’s entire public persona some sort of living-art, Warholian commentary on the thin line separating plagiarism and creativity within the Hollywood factory, whose scope also encompasses the repetitiveness of celebrity scandal? Or is Shia LaBeouf just a fucking asshat?” (My guess is the latter.)

But in defense of Shia LaBeouf, I must state that, whatever his oversight (or due to his “excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker . . . got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation” or, put more simply a few tweets later, “I fucked up”), and whatever the outcome - LaBeouf’d coined as a new expression for plagiarizing (thanks to Peter Bagge) , much as “pulling a Homer” is to make a bonehead mistake -  whatever way you want to slice it, at the very least LaBeouf did make an admittedly watchable short film out of interesting source material.

There, I said it. In my opinion, HowardCantour.com makes for a better viewing experience than Art School Confidential. Maybe my standards are lowered. Maybe I expect less of our stars and starlets, particularly in this age of twerking, sex tapes, apprenticeships, and dance contests. And certainly the degree and type of lifting places LaBeouf's film in a far different (and less defensible) territory than other types of cultural appropriation; say, that of Kenneth Goldsmith's book reprinting the entirety of one day's New York Times, Charles Reznikoff's use of court documents in his multi-volume poem Testimony, or Bob Dylan's use of lines from Henry Timrod and Ovid (among countless other examples).

So while we may decry the source of LaBeouf's brazen use of Clowes’ strip without proper accreditation or permission, be it because of his sense of entitlement, Hollywood exceptionalism, excitement, naiveté (that one is a little hard to swallow, admittedly), or just plain stupidity, at the very least LaBeouf made something interesting. It’s too bad that, whatever his bonehead mistakes, and don’t get me wrong, they are pretty boneheaded, that fact has so far escaped notice. 

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