I think we have a new winner in the category of “most bizzare form of cultural appropriation.”
Our story begins with a promotional video for French Connection (well-known to everyone who’s ever been confused to see what appears to be a curse word on an otherwise trendy item). The video, entitled “Fashion v. Style (embedded video link),” features two women (“Fashion” and “Style”) engaged in cartoonish hand-to-hand combat in a series of dank stone basements. In addition to a few bits of acrobatic cliché, it features a quasi-operatic soundtrack and several ever-so-convenient incidents involving clothes-ripping, water, and oil. As if there were any doubt that yes, this advertisement showcasing women’s clothing is in fact targeted at youngish men, the ad concludes with a kiss and a headbutt. Not one or the other. Both. (The sax and violins have made it the subject of numerous complaints to the British Advertising Standards Agency.)
Although the video is the centerpiece of a French Connection advertising campaign, it bears a certain resemblance to another, earlier, video,for the Groovecutters song “We Close Our Eyes (video link).” That ad also features two women engaged in cartoonish hand-to-hand combat in a series of dank stone basements. It too, features acrobatic cliché, convenient excuses for the removal of clothing, and the one-two kiss-headbutt combination to seal the deal. The most significant difference is that it is a genuine music video, set to a dance song.
Groovecutters, noting the similarity, posted a side-by-side comparison of the videos and called out French Connection. They notified the lawyers at their record label and dropped words like “rip-off” and “bootleg.” Two choice lines:
It would have been nice for them to use the music too….instead they went with some very odd classical/opera piece…..Cutting edge, controversial, provocative - FCUK you are soooo SS05, Groovecutters were there a year ago! Click here to see our video and click here to see the rip-off version that FC are using.
It just makes me laugh that something that was created for our track has been changed into something that symbolises French Connection’s latest corporate message.
It’s worth at least a look at the side-by-side pictures to get a sense of just how similar the two videos are. (It’s hard to watch the videos themselves without feeling at least slightly degraded by the experience, but if you can bring yourself to look, the juxtaposition is even more striking.) It might be more accurate to say that we are not even dealing with two distinct videos, one of which is a copy of the other, but rather with the same video, filmed twice. As Brand Republic reported in February (I can’t find a public Internet version of their story, sorry):
The French Connection spot uses the same models, the same choreography and even the same director, … Duncan Jones, as the original Groovecutters video. It also appears to be shot in the same location.
Read that last quotation again, closely: “the same models, the same choreography …the same director … the same location.” Duncan Jones made the video, and then he made it again.
There are so many issues here, I barely know where to start. The legal questions turn out to be surprisngly bland; we know just enough to know that we don’t know. Everything turns on what kind of contractual arrangements the prodution teams had with their clients. What did the warranties, indemnifications, representations, and assignments say? We don’t know. Perhaps Jones and company had the right to give Groovecutters and French Connection substantially similar videos. Perhaps they didn’t. But that’s a matter of contract law, and the contracts here aren’t, as they say, in evidence.
The cultural-slash-academic issues have more to them. I don’t mean the eternal question of whether it’s really “plagiarism” if you’re copying your past work. That question isn’t so helpful, because saying that this was or wasn’t plagiarism is just arguing about definitions. The real issue, around which the definitional one merely dances, is whether this sort of double-dipping involves a commitment to forms of honesty that we consider situationally appropriate and that are consistent with the norms of the relevant cultural community.
So did it? I really don’t know. Jones did, after all, film the darn thing a second time. False claims of credit tend to involve a core element of laziness. But Jones didn’t take the footage and just slap new music and French Connection title card over it. No, he went back into those tunnels, brought back the same actresses in new FCUK clothes, and ran through the whole shoot again. There are a lot of shots in there; this can’t have been an easy or a cheap project (even with the benefit of having done it once already).
In this, it resembles another, literally quixotic creative endeavour. I’m reminded of Pierre Menard, the Borges charcter who so immersed himself in the world of Cervantes that he successfully re-created Don Quixote, line for line, from scratch. There are also elements of another notable shot-by-shot recreation: Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Jones, however, goes them both one better—even Ol’ Gus didn’t get the same actors, and where Menard made himself into Cervantes, Jones immerses himself in himself.
Groovecutters frame the question as one of “ripping off” or “bootlegging.” Those terms are ethical and aesthetic. They suggest a certain possible relation of authenticity between a purported creator and a work. For a group of remix-fueled DJs, to fail to add new elements or make any meaningful recombination when working with the old is a deep insult. It’d be like, oh, I don’t know, playing the exact same setlist over and over at every gig. There’s no re in the remix.
Then again, those implicit claims to authenticity are also problematic here. For one, the greatest contribution Groovecutters made to the video—the music—is the one element inarguably not present in the French Connection ad. For another, the video was produced for them, bears a Virgin Records copyright logo, putting Groovecutters in a a slightly odd position to be talking about “their” video. And finally, let’s not forget that this is a video aimed squarely at the adolescent groinal and steroidal impulses. Hott chixx! Beating the crap out of each other! And kissing!
Or perhaps we should read these two videos against a more banal backdrop. Chicksploitation is not a new genre. The pouting and the pummelling are tropes. Remaking this plotless basement fight is either the ultimate capitulation to the formulaic displays they involve or a wry commentary on it. You enjoy watching catfights? You liked that one underground? Well, have I got a treat for you!
One last twist. I cut out a few words from the Brand Republic quotation above for the sake of dramatic revelation. You see, Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie. Pretty much everything here has a whole additional layer of irony and oddity when you ponder the problems of replication, recreation, and presentation posed by Mr. Space Oddity, the crown prince of sexually-ambiguous glam rock. According to Wikipedia, Jones himself, formerly known as “Zowie Bowie,” wrote an undergraduate thesis on the mind/body problem and artificial intelligence and later dropped out of a Ph.D. program to attend film school. The mind reels.
In short, I’m still in a state of amazement at this juxtaposition. There are entire cultural studies conferences in here. I’m just happy to live on the shores of a cultural ocean that regularly beaches such curious creatures from the briny deep.