“Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea.”
Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), Poésies II (1870).
“Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.”
Guy Debord, Thesis 207 of The Society of the Spectacle (1967)
The term “Movie Rip Offs” implies a lot of things, but mostly triggers thoughts of low budget b-movie oddities. Rip Offs, regardless of their ruthless invention or sheer entertainment value, can often be defined as a group by their cynical commercial instinct. However, while most of them trade on association – overt or otherwise – with their subjects, there are many films that are more explicit in their ‘theft’, whether it’s for artistic, political or comedic purposes. From the found footage genre of art cinema (pioneered as early as the 1920s) to the détournement proposed and practiced by the Situationists in the 1950-60s and beyond, artists have used repurposed films as raw material for new work. On the other hand, from mainstream/low-brow dub parodies to the anime ‘fandub’ culture of the 1980s, comedians (professional and amateur) have made sport of wholesale re-appropriation. Subverting the originals to various ends, through various transformative means (including reediting, subtitling and dubbing), these films are as much hijacks as they are Rip Offs. They turn b-movies into surreal elegies, kung fu movies into political statements and swords-and-sandals epics into Ocker soap operas.
The most straightforward way to repurpose a film is too simply re-edit it, introducing little or no new constituent elements. Dating back to the likes of Padenie Distanii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Esfir Shub, 1927), the found footage or collage film has become a diverse genre. In 1936, Joseph Cornell took the film East of Borneo (George Melford, 1931) and re-edited footage from it to make Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936), named for the character actress whose performance in Melford’s film Cornell had become obsessed with. The artist slowed down the film speed to recall that of silent films, projected it through blue glass (a later print would be rose-tinted) and played records from his own collection to accompany it. Although Cornell did add a small amount of new footage (from documentaries), the resulting film is only 19 minutes long, compared to the original film’s 77 minutes. Rose Hobart is generally considered the earliest example of a film being entirely repurposed for new ends. It was reportedly considered so groundbreaking that, at an early screening hosted by Cornell, Salvador Dali tipped over the projector and, incensed at having been beaten to the punch, accused Cornell of stealing his idea. Dali explained, “I never wrote it down or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.”
Artist Bruce Conner was hugely influential in his use of pre-existing films, although he worked as often with found footage, television and newly shot material. His A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1958) further laid the groundwork for many generations of artists manipulating extant films. Films like La Verifica Incerta (Gianfranco Baruchello, 1964) took the concept to an extreme, editing together clips from dozens of Hollywood movies to create a manic but technically cohesive, if surreal, visual narrative. Perhaps the simplest example of this approach is 24 Hour Psycho (Douglas Gordon, 1993), which attempts no editorial interference at all, beyond slowing down Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film so that it lasts exactly 1,440 minutes, completely transforming the film and the experience of watching it in the process. Conversely, at the same length, Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) consists of thousands of distinct clips from a huge variety of films, all depicting references to a specific time, or simply related to the concept of time. In a dark echo of Joseph Cornell’s groundbreaking film, Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) recycled footage of Barbara Hershey from the already-disturbing The Entity (Sidney J Furie, 1981) into a psychotic black and white maelstrom lasting just ten minutes.
“How can we fail to proclaim our admiration for this bleak magic, for these ingenious audio-visual deformations?”
Jorge Luis Borges, On Dubbing (1945)
The quote above derives from a short essay in which Borges responds to the practice of dubbing Hollywood films for foreign audiences. Inspired by the experience of hearing the dialogue of Hollywood actors replaced with that of Spanish actors, he contends, “Worse than dubbing or the substitution that dubbing implies, is one’s general awareness of a substitution, of a fake”. Borges’ revulsion at hearing Greta Garbo speak with a stranger’s voice illustrates how the integrity of any film is compromised when translation is necessary. While dubbing can be subtle, effective and even normalised over time (in Italy, dubbing is standard practice), it’s obvious that the mechanisms of translation fundamentally run counter to cinema’s generally immersive intent. The intellectual effect that Borges ascribes to dubbing is similar, if less acute, to that created when reading subtitles.
The furore over the US DVD/Blu-ray release of Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) is a good case study for the transformative power of subtitles. When Let The Right One was released for home viewing, some viewers immediately noticed that the English subtitles were bowdlerised and truncated compared to the theatrical release. The new translation subtly transformed the dialogue, removing subtext in many cases and leaving it, if you’ll forgive the pun, generally toothless, if not entirely castrated. The ensuing scandal (detailed here) illustrates the effect of ‘bad’ subtitles. Although the subtitles in the home release were unsatisfactory, they were apparently technically correct, “A more literal translation than any prior version”. While there is some suggestion that the DVD/Blu-ray subtitles derive – somewhat misguidedly – from the English translation of the original book and that the theatrical subtitles are more accurate to the Swedish dialogue onscreen, the fuss should also focus attention on the work of the theatrical subtitler, Ingrid Eng, who clearly held the power to completely transform the film.
Anyone that is deaf or hard of hearing – or who by habit is exposed to more than their fair share of obscure foreign films – can attest to the importance of subtitles. If they are too fast or out of sync, if the translation/transcription is clearly inadequate (as detailed above), if they contain grammatical errors or if – as is often the case with cheaply made, make-do subtitles for the ultra-obscure film – they are simply unintelligible, the effect is extremely frustrating for those that rely on them entirely and also immediately wakes the viewer from under the film’s spell. Watching films with subtitles seems to be problematic for a large amount of people and many are happy to sacrifice the integrity of the original work – i.e. dubbing the voices of the actors – so that the cinematic experience is less ‘work’. This impulse can seem freighted with a certain philistinism (“If I wanted to read, I’d go to the library”) or even perverse xenophobia. However, while it can be perturbing, when buying a ticket or renting a film, to be cautioned that the film is subtitled, the notion is not necessarily negative.
The truth is that subtitles, acting as an intermediary between the viewer and the film, create a potentially problematic distance. Rewriting the script in another language is just as problematic and potentially damaging a process as it is in literature, while reading subtitles or watching lips make shapes that don’t correspond with what is heard distracts the viewer from and dulls the visceral experience of cinema. The jarring effect that bad subtitles create between the viewer and the immersive film experience often allows for a greater degree of ironic appreciation (see Turkish Remakesploitation) and demonstrates the potential for subtitles to be used to radically subvert the intentions of the original filmmakers. Dubbing, in this regard, is simply the lesser of two evils though it is equally as open to subversion.
“Let it be said: all films can be détourned: potboilers, Vardas, Pasolinis, Caillacs, Godards, Bergmans, as well as good spaghetti westerns and all commercials.”
La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? (René Viénet, 1973)
The Situationists thoroughly exploited the opportunity provided by the methods of translation to deter and hijack the intended meaning of a film. Led by Guy Debord, their potent mix of art and revolutionary politics was a visible influence on the Paris 1968 uprising and later Malcolm McLaren’s intellectual framing of punk music. Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is the group’s key text and in it he proposes, “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (the full text can be found here). Passivity and the ability of the so-called spectacle to recuperate and commodify rebellion led Debord to the concept of the “détournement” of media, which Ken Knabb, the foremost translator of Situationist texts into English, has succinctly explained as “the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes.” (The term, from the French verb “détourner”, to divert, has been anglicised because direct translation is unsatisfactory to describe what the term was intended to mean). Perhaps the best elucidation of the term in relation to cinema belongs to Debord, who regarded it as the medium in which détournement “can attain its greatest effectiveness”:
“We can observe that Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of the cinema because of its wealth of innovations. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which are continuing in the United States even now.”
Guy Debord & Gil J Wolman (Mode D’Emploi Du Détournement, 1956)
Debord’s adaptation of his own book, The Society of the Spectacle (1973), was his first feature length film and is more of a collage or found footage film than a singular détournement. It contains clips from many movies, newsreels and adverts but the commentary comes from voiceover and intertitles, rather than redubbing or subtitling. Filmmaker René Viénet resigned from the Situationist International in February 1971, having been a member since 1963. The films he made in the years that followed are perhaps the most straightforward cinematic détournements to be made by a key Situationist figure. For obvious reasons, they are not widely available and in fact some are practically impossible to track down.
La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? (Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, René Viénet, 1973) which immediately declares itself, “The first entirely détourned film in the history of cinema” consists of a Hong Kong martial arts film – The Crush (Tu Guangqi, 1972) – redubbed in its entirety with new French dialogue. Over the opening credits, Viénet’s narrator translates for us, “A film produced by the person listed here, who naturally has no idea what has happened to his film.” What’s happened is that its narrative has been transformed into a radical but also darkly comic illustration of the conflict between proletarians and bureaucrats in a capitalist society, “A toast to the exploited, for the extermination of the exploiters.” The break-out star is the young boy who asks of an older woman, “Hey girlie, you ever read Philosophy in the Boudoir by the divine Marquis Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, comrade of the Picques Section?”
Les Filles de Kamare (The Girls of Kamare, René Viénet, 1974) further demonstrates the technique of hijacking the translation of subtitles into English to divert meaning and transform a film. This time, however, he leaves the original soundtrack intact and uses the presumably more economical approach of simply re-subtitling the original’s dialogue. Viénet uses the soft pornography, violence and exploitation-level gender politics of the original as a vehicle to continue his attack on both the politics of desire, Chinese society post-Mao and to scorn European cultural figures he doesn’t agree with. Viénet makes repeated reference to the film being “the first subversive Japanese porno film” and, strident as his tone is generally, its debatable whether he’s mocking the original or making a claim for his own détournement. His insertion of hardcore footage where the original demurred (a suggested hand-job is made explicit) makes explicit the implications of the original work and seems to challenge the spectator by presenting them with images that fulfil the ‘desires’ that the film ostensibly exploits and/or creates.
Viénet’s film détournes Kyofu Joshikoko: Boko Rinchi Kyoshitsu (Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom, Norifumi Suzuki, 1972), the second in Japanese studio Toei’s four-film series, although Viénet claims the title of the original is “Une Petite Culotte Pour L’Été” (“Panties for the Summer”). Les Filles de Kamare also opens with a scene from Asagure Anego Den: Sokatsu Rinchi (Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition and Torture, Teruo Ishii, 1973). Both original films star pinky violence icon Reiko Ike and Ishii’s film was a sequel to Suzuki’s more famous Furyo Anego Den: Inoshika o-Cho (AKA Sex & Fury, 1973), in which Ike also starred. Almost 40 years later, pinky violent films like these enjoy a much bigger status in the west than they had at the time and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which was heavily influenced by them, broaden the audience for them substantially. At the time, however, it must have been easy for Viénet to assume they would age as well and travel as far as The Crush.
Of Viénet’s other films, L’Aubergine Est Farcie (The Aubergine is Stuffed, 1975) and Une Soutane N’a Pas De Braguette (A Cassock Has No Fly) seem to be lost while others, including Chinois, Encore Un Effort Pour Être Révolutionnaires! (One More Effort, Chinamen, If You Want To Be Revolutionaries! AKA Peking Duck Soup, 1977) focussed their attention on Mao and Chinese politics while utilising a collage approach to documentary footage rather than feature films.
American Situationist affiliates made Call It Sleep (Isaac Cronin & Terrel Seltzer,1982), which again attempts to détournes a selection of clips rather than an entire work. In 1984, following the assassination of his producer, Gerard Lebovici, Debord withdrew his films from circulation and they have only recently been re-released on DVD, albeit in French, following his suicide in 1994. It seems fair to note that détournement as a ideological weapon has rarely been wielded in the way Debord proposed and has more and more often become a tool for parody. As Knabb explains:
“Détournement has been widely imitated, but usually without real understanding. It does not mean merely randomly juxtaposing incongruous elements, but (1) creating out of those elements a new coherent whole that (2) criticizes both the existing world and its own relation to that world. Some artists, filmmakers, and even ad designers have used superficially similar juxtapositions, but most are far from fulfilling (1), much less (2).”
Ken Knabb, notes on The Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord, 1973)
La Classe Américaine (AKA La Grande Détournement, Michel Hazanavicius & Dominique Mézerette, 1993) takes the form of a parody of Citizen Kane, but consists of footage from dozens of Warner Bros films edited together and redubbed for purely comedic purposes. To mark its centenary, Warner Bros granted French TV channel Canal + free use of its back catalogue (with some exceptions, including the films of Clint Eastwood and Stanley Kubrick) to make a promotional film. The directors, who had previously produced short form variations on the same theme (Ça Détourne (1992) and Derrick Contre Superman (1992)), fully exploited the opportunity. They even engaged actors familiar to French audiences as the voices of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas to record their new dialogue.
“Aw, get real, Mum, I’m not marrying someone with bigger tits than me!”
Labia, Hercules Returns (David Parker, 1993)
There are many examples of films being re-edited or redubbed for foreign markets usually in a benign, if ruthless attempt to make the end product more marketable (notorious practitioners include American International Pictures (AIP) and the Weinstein brothers with Miramax). The enterprise is generally based upon the assumption that the films have little or no worth to an English-speaking audience in their original forms. AIP’s back catalogue contains many low-budget classics, including Roger Corman’s Poe cycle and countless science fiction, horror and exploitation staples. They also imported and distributed many foreign productions, ruthlessly reworking them for domestic release as standard practice. Lauded director Peter Bogdanovich cut his teeth on Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), which amazingly is a recut of a recut. Bogdanovich’s film, produced by Roger Corman for AIP, consists of footage from Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (Curtis Harrington, 1965), an Americanised edit of Planeta Bur (Pavel Klushantsev, 1962). Harrington filmed some new scenes with American actors, including Basil Rathbone, and removed all Russian credits. Ikarie XB-1 (Jindrich Polák, 1963), a Czech film that is credited as an influence on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, was similarly reedited for American release as Voyage to the End of the Universe (1963) – credited to “Jack Pollack”.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (Woody Allen, 1966) takes a more creative, if arguably equally cynical, approach. AIP had developed a relationship with the Japanese production company Toho, distributing their Godzilla films in America. AIP executive Henry G Saperstein returned from one Japan trip having picked up International Secret Police: Key of Keys (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1965), a James Bond Rip Off which Toho had already dubbed into English. However, a screening of this version for his fellow executives was met with laughter and derision and Saperstein was faced with a dilemma. Finding the solution in the problem, he was inspired to invite Woody Allen to a screening with no sound, suggesting the comedian provide and perform a self-aware, comedic rewrite.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? combines two films from the series of Japanese James Bond Rip-Offs (International Secret Police: A Barrel of Gunpowder (Takashi Tsuboshima, 1964) and International Secret Police: Key of Keys) with newly shot footage starring Allen himself. Allen was aware of the likelihood that the joke would wear thin at feature length, later explaining, “I wanted to do it one hour, but the producer wanted a commercial venture so he padded it”. Scenes featuring The Lovin’ Spoonful playing were shoe-horned in against Allen’s wishes (he later sued AIP for tampering with his work) and the resulting film is indeed overlong, dated and suffers greatly from the smugness of Allen, pre-neurotic overload.
Allen’s film built on a style pioneered in television by the show Fractured Flickers (1963-64) and, indeed, the approach is perhaps better suited to the condensed TV format (The Magic Roundabout (1965-77) was arguably one of the earliest examples of a dub parody, in that it took French TV series Le Manège Enchanté (1964-71) and redubbed it with entirely different storylines to the original). There have been a number of TV series based upon comically redubbing old movies. The LA Connection, founded by Kent Skov in 1977, have been reinterpreting films in “Dub-a-vision”, live from cinema front rows, since 1982. Their performances eventually led to a TV series, Mad Movies with the LA Connection (TV, 1985), and Blobermouth (Kent Skov, 1991), a feature-length dub parody of The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958). J-Men Forever (Richard Patterson, 1979) was a dub parody written and performed by Peter Bergman and Philip Proctor, members of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe. Stitching together clips from old Republic serials with newly filmed scenes, it tells the tale of the villainous Lightning Bug (voiced by DJ Machine Gun Kelly) who aims to take over the world with sex, drugs and rock n roll. It’s a well-produced and genuinely funny, if also very silly, counter-culture gem. J-Men Forever is also notable for having sound effects by Alan Splet, David Lynch’s sound designer of choice until his death in 1994.
It becomes clear that the most successful dub parodies have their roots in live performances by comedy groups and are at their best when the central joke isn’t over-stretched to feature length. Honing the parody in a live context obviously allows the performances to develop in improvisation and to jettison what falls flat in front of an audience. Films that have their roots elsewhere tend to be harder and more tedious work. Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters (Charles Kaufman, 1982) is a scatological dub parody of Perempuan Bergairah (AKA The Fighters, Jopi Burnama, 1982), an admittedly uninspiring original. If you chuckle at the thought of a young boy stricken with backed-up semen rushing to his brain and have a high tolerance for generic dick and fart jokes, you might make it to the end. FFFF was produced by the legendary Troma studio (of Toxic Avenger and Sgt Kabukiman NYPD fame) and they tried a similar approach 20 years later, with Parts of the Family (Léon Paul De Bruyn/Gabriel Friedman & Lloyd Kaufman, 2003). The studio released the original Belgian film simultaneously alongside its “Tromatized” version, both terrible.
Equally disappointing is A Man Called…Rainbo (David Casci, 1990), which tries to make a comedy from an early Sylvester Stallone film, No Place To Hide (Robert Allen Schnitzer, 1970). To round off the run-down of rubbish dub parodies, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D (James Riffel, 1991) is a dub parody of Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968) and is as dull as its title is long. Two sequels followed; one in 2005 using The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962) and another in 2011, using episodes of Bonanza and The Andy Griffith Show. The long-running TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-99) took a slightly different approach to parodying obscure films, presenting them with its cast superimposed over the screen, as if watching in a cinema, and providing snarky commentary.
Hercules Returns (David Parker, 1993) isn’t as well known as What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but it’s still one of the most successful dub parodies. It avoids the tedium of other similar films by placing the dub parody inside a narrative that makes sense of the convention and also by being consistently, genuinely funny. The story follows a disaffected film executive Brad (David Argue) as he quits his corporate job to reopen an old cinema. Brad decides to launch with the last film shown there – Samson and His Mighty Challenge (Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli Invincibli, Giorgio Capitani, 1964). When his old boss (Michael Carman) sabotages the opening night by arranging for an untranslated print to be delivered, Brad and his team of cineastes (publicist Lisa (Mary Coustas) and Aussie icon Bruce Spence as rebel projectionist Sprocket) are forced to improvise new dialogue and sound effects themselves.
Hercules Returns’ framing storyline is compelling in itself, while the juxtaposition of the original film with the Ocker-accented dub is funnier and much less smug than Allen’s film. The new dialogue is so well-matched to the action and yet obviously comedic that it entirely supercedes the original (yet, ironically, Hercules Returns is one of the few dub parodies that explicitly identifies its subject). The effectiveness of the new ‘improvised’ dialogue belies Hercules Returns’ thoroughly rehearsed origins in the live show Double Take Meet Hercules, written and directed by Des Mangan. Mangan formed Double Take in 1986, the team sitting in the back of cinemas and performing their carefully plotted scripts with a looseness that allowed for improvisation. The almost immediate success of their live redub of Astro Zombies (Ted V Mikels, 1968) led to Hercules and then a show based around The Bees (Alfredo Zacharias, 1978). When producer Phil Jaroslow caught the Hercules show, he decided to buy the rights to the original film and Mangan’s new script. Jaroslow then hired director David Parker to help write the framing story for cinema release and Double Take to perform their show for the actors to mime. Hercules Returns strikes a near-perfect balance between the parody and the ‘real world’ story and it’s disappointing that none of their other shows have been filmed to date.
The last feature-length attempt at dub parody of note was Kung Pow: Enter The Fist (Steve Oederek, 2002), which took Tiger And Crane Fist (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1976), recut and redubbed it and, through special effects, replaced the original lead with director Oederek. Although the visual effects budget was several times larger than the average dub parody, nothing else about the film is particularly groundbreaking. Kung Fu babies and Kung Fu cows aside.
The unfortunate, although obviously sometimes intentional, side effect of both détournement and dub parody is the sublimation of the original films. Perhaps because re-dubbing or subtitling movies is the easiest way to Rip Off a movie – easier even, historically, than re-editing – both approaches have mostly been the province of similarly trollish digs and toilet humour. Even the most ‘respectable’ examples have in common the filmmakers’ willingness to take a snide and snobbish approach to the films they are recycling. Whatever basis they may have to justify their approach and tone, it’s never that compelling to watch an artist score points off the back of a perceived lesser. There must be some middle ground between impenetrable intellectualism and fart jokes, but the techniques of détournement and dub parody have more potential than they have proven success. Most feature-length dub parodies are tedious at that length and have the contradictory effect of inspiring interest in the originals, which are sometimes far more engaging.
While technological advances have made re-editing and transforming films easier than ever for the average, non-professional viewer, that power is most often used to make humorous clips in bite-size portions. The true antecedent of these clips is not necessarily the détournement of the Situationists or dub parody pioneered by Fractured Flickers and Woody Allen. They could just as easily be an extension of the fandubs/fansubs culture of the 1980s and 1990s, where the lack of official English subtitles for some anime TV series meant that fans had to take matters into their own hands. Some fans inevitably saw the potential for parody and began to replace the soundtrack with their own comedy dialogue and those short films became legendary in their own right.
Today, there are certainly plenty of people practicing forms of détournement, but rarely any full-length works. Brad Neely’s Wizard People, Dear Readers (2004) takes the form of a CD recording that is designed to be played in sync with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001), but is parodic rather than political. The St01en Collective have produced a couple of shorts which détourne footage from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring of Free Trade (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Twin Towers (2004) simply add new subtitles to the footage, transforming Sauron into The WTO, Gandalf into Noam Chomsky and Mordor into the US. Mostly though, the recuperation that the Situationists cautioned of certainly seems to be in full effect.