Shia LaBeouf: Plagiarist or Genius?

Shia LaBeouf: Plagiarist or Genius?


By now, most movie
buffs have stumbled across the imbroglio involving Hollywood megastar Shia
LaBeouf, whose short film “” was allegedly rife with
plagiarism of cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes. The brouhaha has
recently expanded to include allegations that LaBeouf’s mini-comic Stale
N Mate
 was in substantial part a plagiarism of Benoit Duteurtre’s
novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. Both Clowes and Melville
House, Duteurtre’s publisher, are considering legal action against the
twenty-seven year-old star of the “Transformers” film series and the
forthcoming Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac.
Meanwhile, LaBeouf has flooded his Twitter account with statements of
contrition—all of which are apparently plagiarized from infamous apologies by
the likes of Alec Baldwin, Russell Crowe, former New York governor Eliot
Spitzer, Tiger Woods, and the con-man who gate-crashed Nelson Mandela’s funeral
as a sign-language “interpreter.” You’d think someone in the arts
perhaps even someone
at Melville House, whose list is full of literary performances with which
LaBeouf’s present schtick is sympatico (e.g., Melville House’s Tao Lin
populated his novel Richard Yates
with “characters” including real-life celebrities Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel
Osment)—would have noticed that LaBeouf’s playing a game that has less to do
with appropriating others’ work than with a new and controversial form of
artistic expression called “metamodernism.”

was a term coined by two European cultural theorists in 2010, and since its
birth the idea, a fairly simple one, has taken the Continent by storm. In
America, it’s still an emerging artistic philosophy—one that has infiltrated
venues far more public than its European originators likely imagined was
possible. The only text to be found on the primary website devoted to the idea is a somewhat
obtuse manifesto that nevertheless threatens to permanently change the way we
look at the performing, visual, material, and literary arts. The basic premise is
one LaBeouf and many others in Hollywood appear to have taken to heart: oscillating
rapidly between contrary poles of thought and emotion—for instance, truth and
falsehood, sincerity and irony, reality and fantasy, optimism and
cynicism—allows those who do it the best chance yet of transcending these
conventional spectrums entirely. Moreover, proponents of the term claim that
it’s the Internet, with its myriad forms of social media and dubious level of
accountability, that has forced upon us this new-fangled way of interpreting
contradictory data.

All this would be no
more than fodder for scholars if it weren’t so en vogue in American cinema. If
you’ve seen Leos Carax’s Holy Motors,
in which an actor painstakingly plays several “roles” in the absence of any
cameras—thereby challenging his (and our) capacity to distinguish between reality
and artifice—you’ll know what I mean. Even outside Hollywood, examples of
metamodernism in the American art world abound, such as Kyle Lambert’s
photorealistic iPad “portraits”
of celebrities like Morgan Freeman. In other words, metamodernism is no longer
limited to those genres, like poetry, to which only the effetely academic still
pay attention. Sampson Starkweather may publish a book of poems entitled The
First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather
; thirty-three year-old poet Noah
Cicero may cheekily publish The Collected Works of Noah Cicero, Vol. 1;
and poet Adam Robinson may publish a collection entitled Adam Robison
and Other Poems
 (mispelling intended), but Americans have not yet returned
en masse to poetry as a cultural bellwether. More’s the pity; by framing their
collections with titles that earnestly point to the vanity of publishing one’s
Art but also the ironies inherent in that vanity (Starkweather’s boast of “four
books” comprises only one book, for instance; likewise, Cicero can’t actually publish
a compendium of his life’s work in his early thirties, or Adam Robinson access
the gravitas of self-titling a collection when his readers suspect the cover
sports a typo), these poems are challenging us to reconsider what’s real and
what’s not, what’s sincere and what’s ironic. That these books have only a few
hundred readers apiece limits the effectiveness of the statement, however. But few
Americans could miss the insinuation into Hollywood of modes of
expression that call the very nature of reality into question. In the recent
film This Is the End, James Franco and several equally famous buds
delivered a wildly fantastical tale in which they played only slightly tweaked
versions of themselves. In Anchorman 2, Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy
reveals his recent suicide attempt to a stranger in a tone that suggests he’s
lying about each and every detail–when in fact he’s doing no more than
delivering the honest truth. And now we find aspiring auteur Shia LaBeouf
seemingly plagiarizing entire scenes from other artists, and then, when caught,
plagiarizing each apology in a way he surely knew would be registered
immediately by self-appointed cultural critics like Perez Hilton.

mystification at
LaBeouf’s serialized (and possibly plagiarized) apologies is telling.
“This is just really weird,” Hilton wrote on his
self-titled website. “Plagiarism should not be treated
like a joke.” Maybe not, but what we’re learning is that plagiarism, much
like comedy, can most certainly be elevated to the status of Art. Most
recently, we’ve seen Netflix air (via its online streaming service) specials by
Bo Burnham (“What.”) and Reggie Watts (“Why S*** So
Crazy?”) that consistently discomfort audiences by willfully warping
reality. Watts’s largely improvised routine 
sees him shifting between
languages in the middle of sentences, telling obvious lies seemingly without
self-awareness, and using video editing techniques to comment on the
artificiality of his medium. Burnham’s “What.” takes this mind-bending
zaniness to previously unimagined heights, as the young comic repeatedly
engages in conversation prerecorded robotic voices whose scripts Burnham wrote
himself. For audience members to be offended when, for instance, one of these
voices calls the Caucasian Burnham a “nigger,” they must do a sort of
mental gymnastics, reminding themselves that the animatronic voice they’re
hearing is not, in fact, an unaccountable robot, but Burnham’s own script
filtered through an off-stage editing booth. And Burnham’s repeated, subtly
complex maxim—“Art is a lie; nothing
is real” (emphasis added)—is the same sort of point young poets like
Starkweather, Cicero, and Robinson are making, but it finds a far larger
audience on Netflix than it ever could in your local bookstore.

Burnham, like Watts,
routinely points to the divergent realities of the Internet Age—the way our
many on- and off-line personas are mere approximations of the truth—by
undercutting his comedy with a running commentary on his own performance. But
what elevates the work to the level of Art is its additional and simultaneous
dimensions: a secondary commentary that comments on the primary commentary, and
even, sometimes, a commentary on the commentary on the commentary. These
techniques call to mind LaBeouf’s implicit skewering of America’s massive and
growing celebrity-shaming apparatus, of which Hilton is a primary proprietor.
What better way to expose the complexities of influence and inspiration, or the
silliness of celebrity worship, or the culture of gutter journalism America has
lately developed, than to turn each stage of a needless media circus—rather
than just the first few—into a cacophony of absurdity and manufactured

However abstract all
these performances of the way contemporary technology warps our sense of time
and space, they’re not just intellectually provocative but also—audiences are
more and more commonly reporting—wildly entertaining. The idea that the
world’s most important emerging art philosophy should not only be devoutly theory-driven
but also consistently engaging is a cultural shift of significant proportions,
even if we saw the roots of this phenomenon in cultural touchstones like Steve
Martin’s 1970s stand-up routines and the 1980s satire-pop of “Weird
Al” Yankovic. What this new and much larger generation of metamodern
artists promise, in the near-term, are many more confused responses on the
order of Perez Hilton’s; in the long term, this new mode of music, cinema,
comedy, and literary art could open up a vital conversation about how we all
think–and live–amidst the vagaries of our digitized realities.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

9 thoughts on “Shia LaBeouf: Plagiarist or Genius?”

  1. You should know that I fully intend to plagiarize the work of SETH ABRAMSON and profit from it….all in the name of "Metamodernism". Enjoy trying to sue me!


  2. This is a whole load of bullshit. He's a plagiarist. And he's just trying to weird his way out of it. He will keep doing it that until all the focus is on his attempt at performance art apology more than the fact that he stole other people's creative work and tried to pass it off as his own.

    And honestly, the first time LaBeouf heard the word "metamodernism" is after he saw it on his google alert for this article.

    He's been pretty well known in Hollywood for for being an idiot.


  3. 'The only text to be found on the primary website devoted to the idea is a somewhat obtuse manifesto that nevertheless threatens to permanently change the way we look at the performing, visual, material, and literary arts.'

    That Laboeuf rip-off is not the primary website, this the real deal (and in no way related to mr. Laboeuf's): www[dot]metamodernism[dot]com


  4. art is the plagiarism of truth. i am shia labeouf and this is the metamodernist manifesto film


  5. Hi Couch, definitely he's shown poor professional judgment, even idiotic professional judgment, as surely he knew that even if there was an artistic intent behind his expression of certain literary and cinematic obsessions (which include an exploration of plagiarism that is admittedly en vogue in the avant-garde right now), no one in Hollywood would "get it" and he'd be excoriated. Which he has been. But most of those I know who exhibit genius on an artistic level are simultaneously idiots about the professional side of things. So I think this is an instance in which he could be an idiot in one sense (professional) and a genius in another (artistic). But this notion that a decent enough guy/young auteur would plagiarize 25 public apologies knowing he'd get caught and filleted, and do it for no reason other than to give America (and his movie-going audience) the middle finger, is just silly. It's the low-hanging-fruit explanation–worthy of Perez Hilton, sure, but not the rest of us, I don't think. –S.


  6. "Maybe not, but what we're learning is that plagiarism, much like comedy, can most certainly be elevated to the status of Art."

    Uh, Laurence Sterne already proved this back in the 1750s. Tristram Shandy anyone?


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