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Why ‘True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto Is Not a Plagiarist

Why 'True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto Is Not a Plagiarist

Mike Davis of LovecraftZine,
a fansite dedicated to the master of macabre H.P. Lovecraft, recently posted a
long piece detailing the myriad, sometimes jarring similarities between the existentialist ramblings of “True Detective’s” Rust Cohle and the writings of cult horror author Thomas
Ligotti, specifically his nonfiction book “The Conspiracy Against the Human
Race.” Davis, reproducing a conversation he had with Jon Padgett (the founder
of a Ligotti fansite), lists various instances in which Cohle seems to be channeling
Ligotti’s work. Some of the similarities are banal — both Cohle and Ligotti
mention the “illusion of a self,” which is basically Intro to Nietzsche — and
some are more overt, such as comparing the world to a meat grinder and a
gutter. Davis is now fully embarked on a furious, one-man crusade against “True Detective” creator Nic
Pizzolatto — who was, ironically, plagiarized by a self-published poet before the show even aired — and his phenomenally successful HBO
series.

Davis, echoed
by many of his commenters, opines that this is plagiarism, pure and simple. (You’d
think the writer of a Lovecraft fansite would be more open-minded to writers
borrowing from other writers, since Lovecraft heavily riffed on Edgar Allan Poe
and the less-famous Algernon Blackwood, and has subsequently been rip-offed so
many times by so many writers it’s hard to keep track, but irony abounds.) Yet,
contra Davis’ invidious article, plagiarism isn’t such a cut-and-dried matter.
This isn’t a freshmen seminar on American Literature, and Pizzolatto isn’t just
copy-and-pasting lines off of Wikipedia: It’s art, and art isn’t so
straightforward.

Davis
makes repeated mentions that Pizzolatto’s show has become insanely popular,
pervading the modern pop-culture lexicon, while Ligotti continues to dwell in
near-obscurity. That’s sad for Ligotti, though he’s made very little effort to
break on through to the other side. (Has anyone even asked him how he feels
about “True Detective?”) But this is hardly an unheard-of phenomenon. Actually,
if Pizzolatto is vying for greatness by “stealing,” he’s in good company.

Some writers
view plagiarism as a natural part of the organic, ever-evolving process known
as art. In his enthralling essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem likened writing to jazz, where musicians have
always tapped other musicians, taking their stuff and manipulating it, changing
it, rendering it their own. Citing Bob Dylan and Williams S. Burroughs as
writers who have “plagiarized” and receieved praised for it, Lethem argues that
plagiarism has always been a part of writing:

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I
was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my
very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of
something called “Naked
Lunch
,” excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance.
Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer.
Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an
effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to
understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets
of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have
called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American
science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition
for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was
central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally
believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on
my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating
the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors
was no plagiarist at all.

More
succinctly, a little-known writer once quipped, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great
writers steal.” His name was T.S. Eliot.

As Quentin
Tarantino once said: “If it’s done well, it’s homage, but if it’s done badly,
it’s just plagiarism.” The library of films that have ripped off other films is vast and deep.
Some filmmakers, such as Tarantino (of the VHS generation) and Spielberg (of
the network-TV generation), amalgamate their influences to engender their own
style; you know a Tarantino film or a Spielberg film when you see it. They have
distinct personalities, laced with self-awareness and spurred by the
commingling of established film styles, and have since been rip-offed
themselves. Tarantino in particular lifts from obscure films that inspired him,
and he’s been extremely open about it. He doesn’t just cobble together some
hodgepodge vanity project and call it a day. Of course other filmmakers do just
that, suffusing their films with so many references and allusions to other
films they start to resemble an Ouroboros, a fat entity stuffed with
pop-culture knowledge chocking on its own ass. (See: Kevin Williamson,
struggling to recapture the brilliance of the first two “Scream” movies and
failing ungracefully.) But Pizzolatto is not Kevin Williamson. He’s more akin
to Tarantino.

Some of the
most adored films in American cinema blatantly steal from other films. In the
original “Star Wars,” as wholesome and beloved as any American film, George
Lucas lifts shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s (technically brilliant, morally repulsive)
Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Brian De Palma, who has long battle
accusations that he’s just a second-rate Hitchcock pillager, transferred a
scene from “Battleship Potemkin” for his iconic baby stroller and staircase
shootout in “The Untouchables.” Kubrick yanked a shot from “The Phantom
Carriage” for the iconic “Here’s Johnny!” shot in “The Shining.” “Raiders of
the Lost Ark” steals its rolling boulder scene from “Journey to the Center of
the Earth.” Sergio Leone blatantly remade “Yojimbo,” and got sued for it, as “A
Fistful of Dollars.” The beloved Pixar movie “Up” bears a striking similarity
to a short French film called “Above Then Beyond.” And “The Matrix”…  well, just
watch this:

 The fact of the
matter is that artists rip off artists all the time, and what Pizzolatto did
isn’t unusual or morally decrepit. More importantly, it makes sense within
the structure of the show: Rust Cohle claims that we’re all under the illusion
that there is a self, which is an idea he got from an obscure writer who
borrowed from Williams S. Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
People are always trying to pass off things they’ve read as their own ideas.
Why should Cohle be any different?

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