10 Things I
Hate About You
Bridget Jones's

"Memory makes artists of us all," writes the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. But it is perhaps artists who work most intensely with memories of art itself. To create "new" works they gather, mix, and shape images of personal and social, local and universal significance. These memories may include experiences of art as much as experiences of life. Including these references in their works, they create allusions to other works of art. Filmmakers do this no less than poets, painters, composers or choreographers. In its most universal functions, allusion creates continuity and community. A work that makes reference to another can establish a line of contact between the near and the far in both time and space. By doing so, the allusion asks the spectator to be part of a community that recognizes and interprets that relationship

Apart from these general functions, allusions have different specific uses in films. A film may reference an entire earlier work. Thus West Side Story replays the plot of Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, it lifts the lives of Puerto Ricans, an economically and socially marginalized group at the time the Broadway musical and film were made, onto the plane of Shakespearean drama. In a comic vein, the recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? bases its plot on The Odyssey by Homer. Here allusion is double edged. On the one hand, the film suggests that the American South of the 1920s is as distant as Homerís Greece. On the other, it suggests that even its humorously inept protagonists can retain an admirable, if modest, portion of Homeric values in the face of a corrupt society.

Allusion, however, is not restricted to references to literature or to borrowing the structures of entire works. Allusion can work on many scales and in many tones. Bob Fosse's All That Jazz and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, for instance, have been long recognized as tributes to Federico Fellini's masterpiece of self referential cinema 8½. Here allusion works at the levels of structure, style, and characterization. The flipside of tribute is, of course, parody. The contemporary Austin Powers movies both make fun of certain prevailing British social mores of the 1960s and take on the many styles of popular culture from that age, most obviously the James Bond movies. In a different manner, filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard in France and Terrence Malick in the United Stares layer their works with allusions. Godard's Breathless, for example, uses references to artists as diverse as the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, the actor Humphrey Bogart, and the writer William Faulkner. With equal dexterity, Malick's Days of Heaven references, among others, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, American artist Edward Hopper, and novelist Henry James. To be sure, not all spectators will recognize the allusions, but those who do will find a work even richer than initially imagined. They are like the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (pictured here) who looks for a key to unlock a mystery hidden from first view. The quest for allusion stimulates memory, and thus helps make artists of us all.


Jerry W. Carlson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Coordinator of Critical Studies
Media & Communication Arts
O Brother,
WhereArt Thou?
The Killers
West Side Story

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