Imitation has become an artform in itself, resulting in repetitive cinematic offerings.
Walking past a poster for Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver the other day, I was struck by an instant sense of familiarity. Featuring an oversized gun shooting out a speeding car against a pink backdrop, the print has the unmistakeable feel of a hard-boiled 1970s exploitation film.
The image called to mind a poster for Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation flick homage from 2007. With its grainy silhouettes and menacing souped-up car, this poster similarly feels plucked from another era. That was the point with Death Proof, which formed part of a nostalgic horror double bill with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.
The familiarity of Baby Driver makes sense. Both Wright and Tarantino are fetishistic filmmakers that delight in referencing cinema’s past in their own movies. Tarantino has done so throughout his career, referencing old shots, music and tropes that only the most cine-literate nerds can fully comprehend.
Consider how Reservoir Dogs is partly inspired by esoteric Hong Kong action film City on Fire, or how Uma Thurman’s outfit in Kill Bill is stolen wholesale from Bruce Lee in his incomplete 1972 film Game of Death.
Wright, the younger man and clearly influenced by Tarantino (among others), wrote his first film Shaun of the Dead as a direct spoof of Dawn of the Dead and the zombie genre, while the final act of Hot Fuzz features a manic tribute to John Woo-style action.
These directors brazenly lift ideas from older movies, so of course they would imitate the posters and artwork, too. Yet upon viewing that particular Baby Driver print, and registering the odd sense of déjà vu it generated, I wondered whether we have hit something of a wall with this kind of cinematic apery.
When one poster feels reminiscent of another made ten years prior, which was itself imitating a style from several decades ago, I would argue we are trapped in an imitation loop that is not conducive to the most interesting work.
This may seem like a strange complaint given all the rave reviews for Baby Driver. The film is fun for sure, once again demonstrating Wright’s command of his craft and his ability to deftly fuse action and comedy with an emotional, hero-led story. But it doesn’t feel like a huge stretch for him either.
In a lot of ways the film is just a vehicle for Wright to play his favourite tunes, as the ever-present soundtrack matches the songs playing on main character Baby’s iPod. It’s a device for papering over a rather thin, high-concept plot, just as Tarantino fills the void in Death Proof with niche references and jukebox tracks during a long, drawn-out bar scene early in the film.
The movie references are all there again in Baby Driver, covering the likes of Fight Club and Monsters, Inc., but this time around they feel rather tired and tacked-on. There’s even a scene where main character Baby and his girlfriend Debora sit in a diner discussing the finer points of Beck’s song Debra. It’s a sequence that could appear in any Tarantino film, where diners are often the setting for ruminations on pop culture (including in Death Proof).
I don’t mean to take the comparison too far, or even denigrate the work of two excellent directors. All filmmakers, and all artists, take inspiration from what has gone before, but it can also lead to self-indulgence at the expense of ideas that break new ground.
Familiarity breeds contempt, after all.