Shai LaBeouf is having a rough week. In the blink of an eye he has seen praise turn to hate and the vengeful nature of the internet display itself. The whirlwind week all began when his latest directorial short Howard Cantour.com was released online with much fanfare. After making its debut at Cannes earlier in the year, many were eager to see what LaBeouf’s film had to say about online film criticism. Would it be a satirical mess like Roland Emmerich’s silly jabs at Siskel and Ebert in Gozilla? Or a scathing and unflinching rebuttal to the daggers that many critics have thrown at him over the years? Well it turned out that it was neither.
In fact Howard Cantour.com is a rather engaging film about a fictional film critic, Howard Cantour (Jim Gaffigan), who is conflicted about writing a scathing review of a new film from a director he once admired. The short offered a nice exploration of film criticism and how it has spawned a sense of self-importance within many critics. Of course none of this matters now. For all the accomplishments that LaBeouf achieved with the film, the discussion has changed from the film itself to the filmmaker.
I am sure you have heard by now that it has been revealed that LaBeouf’s film features several ideas and lines that were taking directly from Daniel Clowes ‘ 2007 comic entitled Justin M. Damiano. Clowes is an artist who is probably best known to cinephiles as the man behind the wonderful graphic novel Ghost World, which was adapted into a feature film back in 2001. While bad in its own right, what makes the situation worse is that at no point did LaBeouf give Clowes any credit. Clowes is not mentioned in the film’s credit, nor does LaBeouf bring him up in any interviews.
LaBeouf has issued an apology online stating that it was not his intention to plagiarize. He was merely inspired by Clowes’ work to create his own. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. LaBeouf could have defused things before they even flared up by simply going through the proper channels of getting Clowes’ blessing. At the very least including the words “inspired by…” or “based on…” either in the work or in interviews he conducted. Sure there might still have been a few people calling him a “fraud”, but the group of his vehement detractors online would not be as large as it is now. The short would simply have been appreciated for its own merits.
Of course this is not the first time the topic of plagiarism and film criticism have found themselves intertwined in conversation. Earlier in the year we saw film writer Lianne “Spiderbaby” MacDougall get raked over the coals for blatantly lifting portions of her reviews from other online film reviewers. MacDougall had a bit of celebrity status online not just for her work, but because she was Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend. In both cases, the fame of the individuals in question only helped to magnify the issue further.
The lesson that LaBeouf, MacDougall, and all of us for that matter should take away from this is that, in this changing world, your reputation is everything. I would argue it is more valuable than cash in some aspects of life. Whether you are creating art or critiquing it you must always be accountable for your actions. While this will eventually blow over for LaBeouf, do not believe those who foolishly say his career is done, the stench of being deemed a thief will linger in the minds of some. Especially since this incident is not the first time he has been accused of plagiarism. The benefit LaBeouf has is that he works in an industry that is quick to forgive and forget.
Unfortunately, the rest of us do not have that luxury. Regardless of the professions we all work in, or the hobbies we may have, it is important to be conscious of the reputation we convey. It is not worth sacrificing basic ethics for a brief taste of praise and fame.