Recently, Shia LaBeouf released his short film Howard Cantour,which he wrote and directed. It stars Jim Gaffigan as a cranky online film critic. All in all, it's a pretty good film. It's well shot and well acted. In short, it's the kind of thing that could make people think about Shia as more than just a dumb face in bad movies. So, what's the problem?
The problem is that Howard Cantour is largely plagiarized from a Dan Clowes comic titled Justin M. Damiano. Huge swaths of text are lifted verbatim and used in Shia's film. The framing, casting, tone, and (of course) writing are all directly copied from the Clowes comic. You can view the short film and the first page of the comic at this Buzzfeed article.
This is especially troubling because, in the basest sense, art is an expression of the soul. Art exists to communicate ideas and emotions in a palpable, cerebral way. LaBeouf spoke of how personal Howard Cantour was for him. In this interview with shortoftheweek.com he said, "I have been crushed by critics (especially during my Transformers run), and in trying to come to terms with my feelings about critics, I needed to understand them. As I tried to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at me and the people I've worked with, a small script developed."
LeBeouf is trying to express something. He has feelings. He wants to share them. He just doesn't know how, apparently.
LeBeouf has never been universally appreciated as an actor, despite the fact that he appears in numerous blockbuster films. So, I can see why he would identify with a story about a bitter film critic. LaBeouf strikes me as someone who, now that he's got universal fame and a large sum of money, is desperate to be taken seriously as an artist. A few years ago he went to C2E2 in order to sell his self published comic book, which is really less like a comic and more like what a gallery artist would produce if he was trying to do some kind of comic styled interactive art piece. LeBeouf will also be starring in the upcoming Lars Von Trier film, Nymphomaniac, and nobody ever accused Von Trier of being "not artsy enough".
So, I can only assume this intense desire to be a respected artist combined with an intense desire to express himself artistically drove LaBeouf to plagiarize the Clowes comic. He cant's reconcile his artistic needs with his lack of talent. Or, to put it a little nicer, he can't seem to recognize his artistic strengths and weaknesses and understand how to best utilize them. It's like he's a character in a Ricky Gervais show.
What we have here is unchecked hubris. What bothers me the most about this whole debacle is that LaBeouf is in a position, because of his fame and money, to successfully produce a short film adapted from a Clowes comic. If he really respected Clowes like he claims to, he could acquire the rights to Clowes' story or even hire Clowes himself to work on something new. He had no problem hiring Jim Gaffigan and the rest of the crew to make this film happen. So, why not get Clowes on bored also? I can tell you right now that if LaBeouf had done that, if he had worked with Clowes, tried to bring a Clowes comic to life, really championed Clowes work and tried to put his own spin on it, he would be hailed as the champion of the comics genre and people would be thinking of his as more than a dumb face in bad movies. He would be respected as the artist he wishes to be.
But no, instead LaBeouf flat out steals the story, because it's more important for his ego to have people think he wrote it. There is nothing wrong with being a patron of the arts. After all, the only way to grow as an artist is to work with people who are better than you or challenge you artistically.
The whole debacle offends me on a very personal level. As an artist (both writer and musician), I find it incredibly difficult to "find your voice" without outright aping the artists who inspired you in the first place. It's tough, it really is. There is a fine line between ideas, themes, and style repeating in art and outright plagiarism. Howard Cantour is a very clear case of shameless plagiarism.
I hope LaBeouf learns from this incident, but I have my doubts. I also hope Fantagraphics or Clowes, which ever owns the rights to Justin M. Damiano, takes legal action against LaBeouf. All LaBeouf needs to do is publicly apologize, retroactively pay Clowes, and add Clowes name to the credits and he can save a little bit of face. For the record, LaBeouf's fake twitter apology doesn't inspire confidence.