“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

 

At least that’s what I always tried to explain to my high school teachers when they caught me copying and pasting my book reports from Wikipedia. It never worked. But luckily in cinema, it can!

An homage is a display of public respect. Or with regards to artistic works like movies, it is when the filmmaker references or imitates another filmmaker’s work. This can be done visually (eg. copying a movie scene’s style or action) or audibly (eg. imitating a recognizable musical score).

On occasion this game of “copycat” gets called out for simply ripping off a technique that another filmmaker has perfected. But it can also work as a tipping of one’s hat to another respected film or as a sly reference that only aspiring cinephiles may catch.

Let’s not overlook the fact that homages can also be done for creative effect. It can elicit a laugh from the audience, like a certain Psycho reference we’ll get to shortly, or to boost the emotional impact of a scene on the audience. However the catch is that the law of diminishing returns does apply here: the greater amount of times a movie or filmmaker gets referenced to in other works, the less effective it will be…and the more likely your audience will groan with disappointment when it is attempted over and over again.

To help you execute a well-placed and timely tribute to another filmmaker’s work, here are a few honourable (and dishonourable) examples of cinematic homages that you may recognize. As you’ll soon see, it can be achieved through visuals, score or even an overall style.

 

THE UNTOUCHABLES / BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

If you attended an Intro to Film course in university, you likely watched this stunning scene from Battleship Potemkin (1925). If you skipped that course, then you would recognize it as the equally tense scene from The Untouchables (1987) in Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness’ loose portrayal of his campaign to take down legendary mobster Al Capone.

 


 

In the former, the climactic scene of the black-and-white, Soviet silent film depicts a runaway baby carriage down a flight of steps of Odessa as a distraught mother chases after it. This is all against the backdrop of an army quelling an uprising of sailors who have staged a mutiny. It’s incredibly tense even for a silent scene.

Brian De Palma got a hold of that scene and baked it into his climactic action set piece of his historical crime drama (very loosely based on history) as Eliot Ness and his partner ambush Al Capone’s men at a train station, with the agent frantically chasing down a runaway carriage caught in the crossfire.

Which one of these did it better? It’s a tough call, but De Palma gets the point for taking an already intense sequence, maintaining an almost-silent approach (musical score, gunshots and the creek of the carriage wheels only are heard) and builds upon it with the stakes raised for our hero character: kill the bad guys, save the baby, look badass with a shotgun in slow motion. Check, check and check.

You get bonus points of shame if you watched these two examples and recognized them as the opening scene of Naked Gun 33 ⅓. For shame!

Video Links (Battleship Potemkin scene, The Untouchables Union Station scene)

 

FINDING NEMO / PSYCHO

Psycho (1960) is quite possibly the most oft-referenced movie in history. Who would have ever thought that this Hitchcock horror classic would pop up in the lighthearted, family-friendly animated adventure Finding Nemo (2003)?

 

 

Nemo is under threat of being given to a rambunctious child, Darla, who strikes fear in the hearts of fish everywhere for her tendency to accidentally kill her underwater pets. To us, she’s a child. To the residents of this particular fish tank, she’s a maniacal killer. So the buildup to her arrival means that she has to make a big entrance.

The door bursts open and we hear the sharp strings of the Psycho theme that indicate that danger has arrived. This sound is so universal that kids and parents alike recognize it, so everyone unmistakably knows what that sound brings: the horror that awaits Nemo if he doesn’t find a way to escape. And FAST.

This homage is played as much for laughs as it is to associate Darla with the menace that the fishes see when she arrives.

Video Link (Finding Nemo – Darla Arrives)

 

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS / ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

One does not simply choose a clever cinematic reference in a Tarantino movie at random. His movies are seemingly jam-packed with several references to obscure films that this list might just include his entire filmography. But let’s highlight one of his more subtle ones in his WWII exploitation masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds (2009).

 

 

Tarantino is not always so soft-handed with his film references in his movies, where other filmmakers give a small nod to other works he vigorously shakes his head like a paintcan. However his opening scene to this sweeping WWII story begins with a style reminiscent of one of his most idolized directors, Sergio Leone. Specifically it recalls the incredibly slow-burn start to his opus Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

In Leone’s spaghettit western epic, he opens with a drawn out introduction to our title character that takes place over 10 minutes almost devoid of dialogue. The passing of time makes the air so thick that when the scene finally culminates with our protagonist arriving, the musical score of strings slowly builds, and there is a flash of gunshots that shatters the tension.

Tarantino mimicked this opening with a similar pace, even starting with the title card “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” (the rumoured original title). The Nazis slowly approach the farm, our charming antagonist engages in a lengthy process of interrogation and observation before the scene explodes with an operatic crescendo.

As a filmmaker, Quentin has placed great emphasis on the use of sound and score to establish the environment of his scenes. He has constantly borrowed these elements from other films to achieve the desired effect when necessary, evidenced by the rest of his directorial credits. He’s not the only director out there who relies heavily on sound to set the mood; check out these other directors who creatively use sound in their films for great effect.

Both scenes serve to introduce characters masterfully (the hero in Leone’s film and the villain in Tarantino’s) and draw the audience in slowly, setting the stage for the rest of the story which we are assured will play out with as much intention as the opening.

Video Links (Inglourious Basterds – Opening Scene; Inglourious Basterds – Opening Scene)

 

THE USE OF HOMAGE IN CINEMA

Whether you see homages as a tool for ripping off material, enhancing your scene with a commonly-used tool or for parodying other works for a laugh, the truth is that cinema was built on them and will continue to for many years.

As a filmmaker you are influenced by movies that you grew up on, ones that horrified you, entertained you, struck you with awe and made you think. When you set out to craft your own stories for the screen, you draw from your well of cinematic knowledge that you created as an audience member.

This is why nostalgia is at a peak; cinema now is reflecting the movies that many of us grew up on for the last couple of decades. It’s speaking our language, reminding us of the stylistic choices that other directors implemented, the classic visuals that are still fresh in our minds and the musical themes that are resampled into something new.

In a way it shows respect to the filmmakers of the past and immortalizes their works for years to come. How else can we get the kids to watch Battleship Potemkin, which need I point out is a movie approaching its 100th birthday?

Further Links