24 Aug 2016

Intertextuality in Film

Warning: This post includes plot spoilers for The Terminator, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ulysses, Spectre, Star Trek Into Darkness, Toy Story 2, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and The Cabin in the Woods.

In James Cameron's The Terminator, Schwarzenegger's titular character is refused entry at the police station where Sarah Connor is being held. He tells the officer behind the desk "I'll be back", before driving a car through the reception area and massacring the entire building. It's an action scene iconic in science-fiction that quickly helped to establish Schwarzenegger in the genre. "I'll be back" quickly became a catchphrase of his, using it in many more of his movies in the '80s and '90s, including Commando, Total Recall, and Last Action Hero. For many of Arnie's following movies, part of them were shaped by the popularity of that line from The Terminator.

Intertextuality is the structuring of a text by using another text. It's as old as literature itself; the New Testament of the Bible makes many quotations of the Old Testament. Such narratives then network to other pieces of classical literature, such as Greek and Roman mythology. It doesn't have to be just be a small nod, like in the Schwarzenegger example, but could even involve retellings or plagiarisms of already existing stories. Typically, these examples bear more importance to the reader than they do the text.

The first appearance of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars: The Force Awakens exists for the viewer's benefit rather than for Rey and Finn's.
James Joyce's Ulysses is a retelling of Homer's Odyssey, set in Dublin. The novel is structured using Homer's epic as a framework. Each chapter corresponds as a tale from the Odyssey, with a character aligning themselves with a parallel. The way Joyce turns a man's everyday life into an epic adventure through his thoughts is impressive, and although I didn't really enjoy the book, I admire the connection he made between the two texts.

In the 2015 film, Spectre, the main villain reveals himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This name means nothing to Bond, but the moment exists purely for a "Dun! Dun! Dunnn!" effect on the viewer. It's a use of dramatic irony; that we know who Blofeld is from our knowledge of the classic movies. It can really ruin a film's pacing by squeezing in something like that. 2012's Star Trek Into Darkness also did this with Benedict Cumberbatch's character revealing his name to be Khan (again, Dun! Dun Dunnn!), a plot point considered highly controversial amongst many Star Trek fans. In fact, most of the second half of Into Darkness could be considered a more flawed retelling of the earlier Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Product placement, such as this billboard from Alan Wake, can be considered a type of intertextuality.
Intertextuality becomes an area of ethical complexity when it takes plagiarism into account. The act of recreating an author's work without permission is something boldly enforced in some areas of art, but is never fully clear on what counts. The 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, is an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Director F. W. Murnau could not acquire the rights to the novel and as a result, several names and details were changed. Count Dracula became Count Orlok, and the setting changed from England in the 1890s to Germany in 1838, and instead of turning his victims into vampires, he kills them instead. All of this was done to avoid being an outright plagiarised work of Stoker's novel, however this did not stop his heirs from suing, and a court ruling that all copies of the film be destroyed (some prints survived and can be easily accessed nowadays, I highly recommend giving it a watch).

Newspaper headlines such as this one from The Sun use British reality show The X Factor as inspiration.
If you go looking for intertextuality, you will find it everywhere. In Toy Story 2, when the toys are running around Al's Toy Barn, Rex the Dinosaur can be seen in the wing mirror of the toy tour guide car, referencing a scene from Jurassic Park where the T-rex is seen in the wing mirror chasing the tour guide vehicle. Various fantasy texts include mythological beings, such as the appearance of a Hippogriff in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the protagonist Beatrix Kiddo is likened to Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent. The horror film The Cabin in the Woods is the definition of intertextuality, featuring dozens of monsters inspired by characters from all sorts of different movies.

When done right, intertextuality can be amusing or add to the story. When done wrong, it becomes a substitute for strong characters and a good story, ultimately distracting the reader or viewer from enjoying the text by ruining their immersion. It's why Hollywood seems so inflated with unpopular sequels and reboots these days; when we're flooded with a new Marvel movies, a Jason Bourne sequel, a Beauty and the Beast remake, Star Wars: Rogue One, Star Trek: Beyond, and a Warcraft adaptation, intertextuality is unavoidable.

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