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Plagiarism, criticism: what’s the difference?

Plagiarism, criticism: what’s the difference? (photo)

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You may have heard about the scandal surrounding Australian junketeer Paul Fischer, who was caught straight-up taking chunks of his Sundance reviews from the catalogue’s official synopses. My two-part reaction to this kind of news: First, “Wow, you have to be an idiot to plagiarize on the internet in this day and age.” Second, “AS A HARDWORKING FREELANCE WRITER, I AM OUTRAGED.” And then this other voice intruded — and it said: “Who cares?”

We’re not exactly talking about Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass here: we’re talking about a guy who wrote harried capsules of Sundance premieres for what the Vancouver Sun‘s Chris Parry unkindly but accurately describes as “mid-level online outlets.” The fate of film criticism — or even the forward motion of the blogosphere — isn’t at stake. And the reason people caught on, according to Parry, wasn’t anything more sinister than complaints from filmmakers that negative reviews (since pulled from their host websites) were being propped up with blatant laziness.

But Parry goes on to detail how, for years and years, Fischer was a quote-whore of the most unregenerate kind without anyone but fellow critics noticing, placing him in the same category as the infamous Earl Dittman, Pete Hammond (late of “Maxim” magazine), et al. That apparently wasn’t a problem, because plenty of readers who are totally cool with that. So why all the outrage over this indiscretion?

Film writers often think the wrong way about blurb-chasing — the argument is that especially soulless, careerist and traffic-grubbing writers are perfectly happy to churn out easily snippable adjectives of praise for the most implausible garbage in return for studio junket perks and traffic. And they blame the writers for this. But you know what? Blame the readers.

Most people don’t want to read Cinema Scope or elongated theses on the work of Tsai Ming-Liang. They don’t even want to know how, say, a blockbuster like “Sherlock Holmes” fits into the work of Guy Ritchie (a guy for whom plausible claims can be made) or doesn’t or anything of the sort. What ordinary filmgoers want are, in fact, plot synopses (to see if it sounds interesting) and bottom line blurbs — to know that something is “exciting” or “scary” or “heart-pounding” or “hilarious” or whatever.

02042010_norbit.jpgWhich is fine, and no disparagement upon people who have no reason to spend most of their waking hours overanalyzing entertainment. We’re all wired differently. When, say, “Norbit” director Brian Robbins celebrates the financial victories of his movies by claiming “The only films that get good reviews are the ones that nobody sees,” he’s correct in relative terms. Many of the movies that get “good reviews” do, in fact, get less of an audience — just take a look through the past year’s indieWIRE critics poll.

So, in an odd way, I don’t blame Fischer for swiping his material. He was just giving his audience what it wanted: simple, punchy ways to hyperbolize the entertainment value of what you’re about to see. That Fischer’s about to be drummed out of journalism wasn’t a judgment of taste, a decision that enough was enough; it was a stupid plagiarism scandal. Otherwise, he would’ve kept working and no one would’ve really noticed except his fellow journalists.

Normal people don’t complain about hacky critics; they complain about “elitist” critics and the great grey myth of the especially snobbish one who says “If you don’t like it, you don’t get it” (something I’ve never actually seen in writing). Blame Fischer? Sure. Drum him out? Absolutely. (I work hard; I don’t appreciate his transgression any more than the next guy.) But the problem isn’t this guy: it’s a system congested on every level — blog, print, TV, what-have-you — with criticism where what harried readers, studios and editors want is exactly the same: short, simple and stupid. He’s not the illness: he’s the symptom. That he prospered for so long (and he’s far from the only one of his kind) is the real scandal.

[Photos: “Shattered Glass,” Lions Gate Films, 2003; “Norbit,” Paramount, 2007]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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