Mark Sykes’s Sixth Sense of Humour


From Issue 15 (Nov 2011)

Activate Rip-Off Rant Mode

AT ANY POINT IN a movie I’m watching, it’s always fun to see the director drop in a knowing homage to another movie. It not only tells me a little more about the director’s influences, but also gives me a moment of self-satisfaction if I’m the only one who recognises the reference – then I can patronisingly explain it to whomever I’m watching the movie with, and feel like a smug git for a while.

Homage comes in various forms, and in varying sizes, but less is usually more; just a single element borrowed from a classic movie can be enough to honour another film, if deftly delivered. One of my favourites is from Sideways (2004). In one scene, Paul Giamatti’s breakfast comprises an omelette, tomatoes and wheat toast. This is a direct yet subtle homage to 1970’s Five Easy Pieces (and its infamous diner scene), greatly admired by Sideways’ director, Alexander Payne.

Alternatively, a director could show his love for a cult movie by borrowing from it a whole character and giving them entirely new, and hilarious, dialogue. This is what happened when director Stephen Surjik teleported Withnail and I’s Danny the drug dealer (Ralph Brown) and plonked him in Wayne’s World 2 as super-roadie Del Preston. I call it genius, but then I’m slightly biased, Withnail being my all-time favourite film.

There are, of course, different areas of homage to be explored, but it’s the grey ones that allow some directors to get away with just about anything, as they fly right past homage, and veer dangerously close to Mount Plagiarism. But if you can write ninety minutes of cracking dialogue that people will be quoting for decades to come, and if you just happen to be in possession of a pair of brass balls the size of cantaloupes, then you can avoid crashing. Cue Quentin Tarantino, who famously blasted his way into the mainstream with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. However, fans of foreign cinema recognised that this brilliant debut movie was arguably a remake of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, made five years earlier in Hong Kong. Was it a deliberate homage, or a sneaky rip-off? Who knows! Did anyone care either way? No!

Then again, if you’re going to lift whole movies, you can always go the Wes Craven/Scream route, and make your film so overtly self-referential that for anyone to criticise it for being derivative would be pointless. It worked like a charm for Craven, and Scream was a huge hit in 1996. (Personally, I loathed it – but loved Scary Movie.)

But (and if you’ll bear with my aeronautical analogy just a bit more – it seems to be working) it’s when people fly right into Mount Plagiarism, punch through the other side, and tailspin into the land of Utter Rip-Off, that I feel like strangling things. I’m talking now about the bottom-feeding scum that ham-fistedly Xerox the summer’s latest blockbuster, have it perfunctorily rewritten by Pongo the Happy Gibbon, shoot it in about ten minutes with no budget, edit it with a blunt saw, and send it out there with their fingers tightly crossed. Not only do they all deserve to be rounded up and shot in a muddy field, but so do all the cretinous mongs that fill their coffers when they go to see these films.

The horror genre is probably the one that gets hit worse than any other. For instance, back in the 80’s, various producers gambled that enough sheep would pay good money to see stuff like Ghoulies, Critters, Hobgoblins and Munchies (all shamelessly piggybacking on Gremlins’ success – the latter was even directed by Gremlins’ editor, for Christ’s sake, while Hobgoblins was so terminally terrible, it was used in an episode of MST3K) to make some kind of return on investment, and that’s why these pustules on the ass of cinema get made. It blows my mind to know that an entire franchise can spring from the original movie that wasn’t even original, but a thinly-disguised doppelganger of something else. Sorry, did I say ‘it blows my mind’? Because I meant to say that it annoys the living fuck out of me.

If I were Steven Spielberg, and for some reason I’d been roped into seeing any of the glut of Jaws wannabes that sprang up, like so many sickly hydra’s heads, in the late 70’s, I’d have had difficulty deciding whether to take some kind of medication until the pain was over, or simply go into the lobby and phone my lawyer. He probably went through exactly the same crap after Close Encounters, ET, Jurassic Park… and of course, the Indiana Jones trilogy (the fourth one don’t get mentioned ‘round these parts). I mean, look at The Mummy (1999): it was practically made up from Raiders/Temple of Doom/Last Crusade set pieces, and the ones they couldn’t fit in the first movie just got bumped into the next one. Jesus, does being one of the most admired and well-loved directors in cinema’s history really also mean you have to be the most ripped off? I despair.

But I’m ranting. Before I sign off, let me get back to more examples of good homage. There’s plenty to be found on TV; The Simpsons does it so often and so well that they make it look easy, and any given episode of Family Guy is simply one keenly observed in-joke after another. But I’d like to bring your attention, if you’ve never had the pleasure, to the Channel 4 series Spaced, which ran from 1999 to 2001 in the UK. Not only is it an infinitely re-watchable work of genius that, thanks to inspired visual gags and some unforgettable characters, gives us two seasons of near-perfect comedy, but it manages to cram in so many movie references that the DVD box set comes with a ‘Homage-o-Meter’ that, once activated, lists by subtitle every homage written into the script by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. Most of them come – surprise, surprise – from the first Star Wars trilogy, but things like Close Encounters, An American Werewolf in London, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Resident Evil, The Shining, The Sixth Sense, Jurassic Park, Robocop, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, The Matrix, Buffy, and even Scooby Doo are all given a spot, and in some cases you don’t even realise it first time around.

Is it true that there’s nothing original under the sun any more? Honestly, I don’t know. But there’s still a good number of men and women out there in movieland, fighting the good fight against repetitive tedium, and standing out from the crowd as they find new ways to tell otherwise old stories. Two examples that spring to mind are Neill Blomkamp and Zack Snyder; the former brilliantly re-explored a well-trodden theme (District 9), while the latter brought to life two already-extant graphic novels (300 and Watchmen), and yet they still were able to be fresh and creative. For my money, the breathtaking results that come from their passion and vision – not to mention that of their contemporaries – are more than enough to render the question of originality irrelevant.

Okay, that’s me for this issue – see you next Wednesday!


Image from Raiders of The Lost Ark © 1981 – Lucasfilm, Ltd.

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Mark Sykes

What can be said about Mark Sykes?

Film actor, world traveller, model, novel writer, piano and violin player, ballroom dancer, deep-sea diver – he is none of these things.

Actual achievements include the odd play or musical, avoiding death by starvation through singing to people around London, and completing all three Halo games on ‘legendary’ level.

Literary influences include Philip Pullman, Carl Hiaasen and Iain M. Banks. Favourite activities include vacuuming, buying stationery, applying sun lotion to total strangers, catoptromancy, going to Paris to see his brother, getting lost in Derbyshire, and trying hard to tell the truth at all.

After being Something Wicked’s “Man In London” he now lives in Cape Town and is enjoying the sun.

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