John D’Amico and some guy with glasses.
John D’Amico’s film blog, Shot Context, is like a film buff’s dream coffee table book. Since 2010, John has cataloged over 1,000 instances in which movies and TV shows have deliberately or unintentionally aped shots, dialogue, or music from ones that have come before. These aren’t your typical comparisons, either—he and his contributors have a knack for spotting ones you never would’ve noticed in a million years. You can get lost for hours browsing this addictive site, and as if all that brain food weren’t enough, he also sporadically posts epic film analyses and essays, such as this one covering the entire cinematic history of the Abraham Lincoln myth.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with John and discuss his cinematic treasure trove:
First off, how’d this site come to be?
My first plan, actually, was to recut the first Star Wars movie line-for-line using only movies it was inspired by. Eventually my enthusiasm waned but I had a whole bunch of pictures and notes left over, so I sorta just re-applied them.
How would that have worked, the Star Wars idea? Do you have an example of how a particular scene would’ve gone down?
Well like the Cantina bar scene, a lot of the beats and timing of that are from the bar fight scene in Shane. Obi-Wan suddenly chopping off that guy’s arm is right out of Yojimbo, when Mifune does the same. And Han shooting Greedo suddenly in the middle of the bar and then tossing the bartender a coin is right out of Gunfight at the OK Corral, when Kirk Douglas does the same, only by throwing a knife. Thing is, I could never think of how to stitch it all together.
Very interesting. Hearing it put that way, Star Wars almost seems like ‘collage art’—a derisive term sometimes applied to works by Tarantino, for example. But from reading your site, it seems as though all the greats have borrowed heavily from greats of the past.
Well it’s the basis of art. There’s this sense that it’s a bad thing, like Tarantino for instance. People trash him for biting from Sergio Leone, but Once Upon a Time in the West is nothing but a sampling of other movies, from the end duel in Duel in the Sun to the opening of High Noon. There’s nothing wrong with it, just so long as the artist has a perspective worth exploring. How many great authors started out by trying their hand at doing Dickens or Faulkner? It’s the same with film. John Ford was doing his Griffith, Spielberg his Kurosawa, Leone his Ford, and so on.
Have you ever had an experience where you saw something in a movie you thought was completely and utterly unique, and then realized later it was very much lifted from something previous?
I’m still a little blown away by how much of The Shining came from other stuff. The axe thing was done in The Phantom Carriage and Broken Blossoms back in the early 1920s, that long tracking shot into the photograph at the end is from Wavelength, and on and on. It’s interesting because it has a really singular feel, but it’s cobbled together from other films, just spun in a really unique direction.
All news to me, and I’m sure to many of our readers! Have you noticed that certain directors tend to borrow from certain eras or genres? From how you describe it, it sounds like Lucas was a big fan of westerns and Japanese cinema.
Absolutely. Kubrick, on the other hand, grabs a lot from the ’60s avant garde and pop art-y stuff like the early color Godzilla films. He had kind of broad, strange taste. He would grab things from movies that seem totally unrelated to the end project, because he saw something in the composition or color choices. Altman grabbed a lot from the classic late ’40s, early ’50s Hollywood dramas, which is reflected in his Hawks-ish overlapping dialogue and long comfortable shots. Hitchcock borrowed a lot from himself.
Wow, what did Kubrick grab from Godzilla exactly?
That’s some pretty indisputable evidence. Great find! What I love about your site too though is that sometimes you throw up ones that are quite obviously blatant, although eerie, coincidences. Do you have any favorite silly ones?
Do you remember when that old lady “touched up” a priceless painting? I still say the end result looks like a Twilight Zone monster.
Haha, I can see it! And I suppose it’s plausible that the old woman saw that Twilight Zone episode as a young woman. So maybe it was rattling around in her subconscious when she created her masterpiece. I want to believe.
I get angry emails and comments sometimes from people clarifying that there’s no way that one happened on purpose. Also for other ones that are obvious homages, assuring me that “THAT WASN’T A RIPOFF IT WAS ON PURPOSE.” People get real defensive.
I guess a lot of fanboys have trouble thinking of their favorite director as anything but completely and utterly unique and original. Have you found any directors that you could safely say are way more ‘original’ than most? Ones where you can’t seem to find any previous films that they draw from?
Nobody really comes to mind. Some you have to go back further, to fine art.
And then even then, I’m sure we could find fine art experts who would point out blatant ripoffs. It seems like any way you slice it, we’re all in this ‘art’ thing together, constantly building and growing it all.
Absolutely. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. What’s the point, if you’re not presenting to the world your take on what strikes you from the images you remember and love?
Amen. Alright, so what’s your background? How long have you been studying film?
Well that’s kind of a tricky thing. I never went to film school. Most all of what I know I taught myself. I got into it when I was 5 and my parents took me to Jurassic Park. A few days later, they bought me a making-of book that had all these pictures from the film in it. I asked my dad how they got the pictures from the movie into the book, and he misunderstood me and thought I meant how did they got the dinosaurs in the movie, so he took me into the yard with a camera and my dinosaurs toys. We took pictures of them angled to make them look big, which was like a magic trick, and from then on I’ve always been amazed by movies. Then in my teens I got into them for real, taking advantage of Netflix to get all these foreign films and classics I’d heard about.
What were some of the first foreign films and classics you checked out? Ones that really resonated with you?
Well, I think I saw Casablanca before I was able to walk. It’s both of my parents’ favorite movie, so I saw it at least once every year of my childhood. I was also raised on classic sci-fi, so stuff like Forbidden Planet, The Thing From Another World, and The Incredible Shrinking Man were deeply formative. Later, in early high school, I discovered Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, and those two really changed my idea of what you could do with a movie camera. Oh, and Chaplin.
Foreign-wise, I started with Kurosawa because I had heard so much about his influence on Star Wars. That led me to Bergman, who’s kind of the second name you hear when you mention you’re getting into foreign films. I saw 8 1/2 when I was about 14 and that one really blew me away, to the point where I’ve always had a vague dissatisfaction with Italian film because it never lived up to the gut-punch impact of that first taste of it.
Oh, and then I discovered Deny Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions and Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, which were my first steps off the beaten path of your usual ‘best of’ lists. Memories of Murder is a big part of why I make a point of seeking out lesser-known films, though it’s grown in stature a lot since my first viewing of it.
I too never went to film school, by the way. I feel like every year it just seems less and less necessary, especially because of changing technology. What are your thoughts on it?
Well I never went, and I’m not exactly a veteran of the industry, so I can’t really judge too definitively, but it seems to me that more than anything it’s a statement of intent. It feels like it’s a big mental leap to say “I’m going to film school.” Maybe less so than it used to be. Beyond that, you get to play with some cool equipment and network and everything, but I never felt the pull. The one thing I do feel strongly about in regards to teaching film though is the importance of teaching the early years. I know people who went to 4 years of school dedicated solely to studying the art of film, and they never bothered seeing more than one or two silent films and hardly any foreign films. Missing a lot of great work and a lot of amazing film technique because they never grew up, and evidentially none of their professors ever challenged them to learn it. It’s like being an art major having never even seen a pre-Renaissance painting.
It does seem like a shame, especially since the beginnings of cinema really aren’t all that long ago. What have you personally learned through exploring early cinema?
It’s just really fascinating to see how non-natural every bit of filmmaking is. There’s this sense—and this is one of the reasons I made the site—that our standard framing and blocking and all that is inherent, but it’s not. That had to be invented. For example, Birth of a Nation has that chase scene at the end where it cross-cuts between the damsel in distress and the riders on their way to save her. It’s now a standard set-up of filmmaking that we hardly even think about, but Bosley Crowther’s review of the film singled out the cross-cutting as a negative, a “passing fad” that was “sure to fade away.”
Other things too, like what ‘editing’ even means, I mean that’s something that took decades to figure out. The Russians used to have very explicitly symbolic edits, like those cuts to the stone lions in Battleship Potemkin, which strike me as literary thing, like they were trying to compose a sentence with film images—”they fought like lions.” It took a long time, maybe not even until television in the 50’s, for film grammar to settle down into a unique and codified toolbox. And the exciting thing about early cinema is you can see all these alternate paths the medium could’ve taken.
What are some examples of ‘alternate paths’ film could’ve taken? Techniques that didn’t exactly take off, for whatever reason?
Well the Russian style of editing, which at the time was considered the only true art in filmmaking (there’s a great book by V.F. Perkins called Film as Film that goes into that) those cuts were sort of a meta-commentary on the events, like a very present narrator in a novel. Other films, like the works of the great comedians, were glossed over in early film criticism because their more functional editing was harder to talk about critically, but in the end their style—the comedians—was more enduring because the meta-commentary of the Eisensteins and so forth tends to get in the way of building a rhythm. David Bordwell just put out an excellent video essay on the transition from tableau style staging to classical staging. There’s also a lot of interesting questions about how the addition of sound changed things. Silent film in 1927-28 was hitting extraordinary highs that would’ve been unthinkable even 5 years earlier. Sound locked the cinematography down because of the mammoth scale of the equipment, and the wild camerawork of filmmakers like Abel Gance came to an end. Obviously I don’t think movies should still be silent, but it would’ve been really interesting to see what silent cinema would’ve looked like another five or ten years after that. We get some glimpses of this in the later works of Chaplin, who held the line against sound throughout the 1930’s, and also in the works of filmmakers like Hitchcock and John Ford who always held an affection for silent film. Those long quiet stretches in films like Psycho and The Searchers point to a whole alternate universe of filmmaking.
There’s something really beautiful about the early days of cinema where everybody was learning by doing, the playing field completely leveled. You can see some of that today with the DSLR revolution—everyone figuring out these new cameras at the same time, and learning what the cameras like and dislike. Same thing in a way with big-time directors playing around with 3D and 48fps. What are your personal thoughts on where film is headed?
I’m really interested in what’s going to happen with distribution. Film and television are both migrating to the same physical media and online platforms. In the early days of television, you had a lot of these shows where film directors would direct a feature-length film for television, while in theaters, you had serials that were 15 twenty-minute episodes. The hardline division between the two mediums isn’t necessarily a natural thing. It wasn’t there at the outset and I don’t think it’s going to be there in 10, 20 years. I don’t think there’s going to be any meaningful difference between film and television for the next generation of artists. And that would mean the total irrelevance of the FCC, and a lot more flexibility in regards to story structure and length, among other things.
Sounds exciting! I’d definitely be all for that. You know, I think it’s safe to say you have an extremely comprehensive knowledge of film. Are there any areas of it still uncharted to you?
Oh god yes. I know nothing but scraps about the huge filmmaking communities in India, China, South America, and Iran. That’s a point of shame. I really need to put some time aside and get into them. I’m also trying to get into Soviet cinema from the Thaw era, but there’s surprisingly little written about it if you don’t speak Russian. And I mean, even in the genres I feel pretty comfortable in, like the classical western, I’m constantly uncovering new surprises. For years I’ve called the Henry Hathaway/Randolph Scott western To The Last Man one of my all-time favorites. I only found out last month that they made three others together. I’ll always be a little lost at sea.
Getting a hold of some of these films would of course have been damn near impossible before the internet. What are some of your favorite online resources for finding rare ones?
Oh man that’s a good question. Ok, well, Ubu.com is a great site with a love of all things weird and experimental. They have up Bruce Weber’s Broken Noses, which is just such an amazing film. Then there’s Archive.org, which is an almost incomprehensibly vast collection of half-forgotten films. I like to go spelunking on there, just clicking around until I find a title that sounds interesting. I found an alternate English-language cut of Vampyr on there once! (http://shotcontext.blogspot.com/2012/04/castle-of-doom-american-cut-of-vampyr.html) I mean how unbelievable is that? And of course, YouTube has way more films than anyone realizes, but you have to act quickly because they come and go pretty fast. In the pre-streaming days, I used to buy a ton of titles from one gray market bootlegger who called his site Revenge is My Destiny. He used to run these 5-for-3 sales that blew my mind when I was a teenager. He’s long since closed up shop, unfortunately. Nice guy. He would sometimes throw in extra movies for the hell of it. That kind of person with a genuine passion for rare film is, in their way, doing as much for film preservation as the folks at BFI and AFI.
Those sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing! In my teens I worked at an extremely hole-in-the-wall video store with tons of rarities that you probably would’ve drooled over. Ones that I’m sure are way more commonplace today, but at the time were quite hard to find. For instance, lots of bootleg VHS film noirs with covers that were basically the posters photocopied onto colored printer paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if the owner ordered from that guy you mentioned. Did you ever have any stores like that where you grew up, or just Blockbuster and whatnot? Do you have an affinity for the now mostly-gone video store experience?
Ya know, I’ve always envied those stories. I never had much experience with those places. In college, I lived down the block from a shady electronics store where everything was off the back of a truck. They had an amazing collection of blaxploitation and kung-fu movies. Once a month or so I’d go buy 20 dollars worth of whatever had the coolest cover. That’s as far as I ever went with that sort of place. It’s a shame—there’s a kind of grimy beauty to the whole idea. They feel like the kind of places that could really nurture an interest in movies, if only by virtue of the human interactions. When you buy a movie off Amazon, the computer doesn’t get all excited because it’s a favorite, and recommend you a bunch of others you’d like, too. That’s actually one void I hope my site fills—I hope people find some movies they wouldn’t've seen otherwise from my site.
Well, speaking for myself, that’s definitely true! And luckily, unlike mom-and-pops, your site isn’t gonna disappear forever one day. It’ll always be around for people to learn from. Thanks a lot for talking with us, and thank you for your site. I’m always in support of great ‘free film school’ type resources, and your site is one of the best out there, for sure.
Thanks bud. Wouldn’t be surprised to see some collaborations in the future.
Yes, the door is quite open for you here at Smug Film! Take care.
If you have any questions for John, leave them in the comments section and he’ll reply to as many as he can. You can also reach him on Twitter.