Imitation versus innovation

There is a definite demarcation point between imitation and innovation. Imitation is simply referential; we have seen it before, and the implication is we've seen it too often. It's become somewhat of a cliché. The gunfight in George Stevens' Shane (1953) is a good example. The gunfight between Shane (Alan Ladd) and his antagonist (Jack Palance) is staged in a careful manner. It is referential to many other gunfights we have seen. The result is predictable, imitative. That is not to say that Shane, as a film, is an uncreative film. On the contrary: Stevens has respected the Western myth and affirmed in this tale that primitivism will have no place next to civilization. But the gunfight itself is imitative of other gunfights in other Western films.

More novel is the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) or the gunfight at the end of Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959). Some Westerns prefer to reference earlier films—the killing of a miner in town in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985) references the murder of a homesteader in Stevens's Shane. Others choose to parody earlier films. The train sequence at the beginning of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) references the opening of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952). The point here is that in order to create a new insight to a point of view, straight imitation does not do the trick; it's necessary to alter the narrative or visual style of the scene to make it seem new. The very length of the train sequence in the Leone film creates a tension about the anticipated arrival as powerful as the arrival of the train in High Noon. The length and the exaggerated interplay of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots in Leone's film make the train sequence and the shoot-out that follows it a fitting prologue to the epic that will follow. Leone makes something new by imitating a famous sequence from the earlier Western film.

My point here is that there is a relationship between imitation and innovation. But the filmmaker has to recognize that our engagement with the imitation will depend upon his making it seem novel and innovative.

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