The Role of Allusion in Cinema
When, with the corpse of Agamemnon sprawled at her feet, the vengeful Clytemnestra confesses his murder, the unrepentant queen compares to morning dew the blood that spattered her as she struck the mortal blows against her husband: "I exulted as the sown cornfield exults / Drenched with the dew of heaven when buds burst forth in Spring" (1391–92). The bitter irony of the image would have echoed for Aeschylus's fellow Athenians far more innocent lines in the Iliad (Garner, 180): "And Menelaos was refreshed at heart / as growing grain is, when ears shine with dew, / and the fields ripple" (23.597–99).
For well over twenty-five hundred years, Western writers have invoked the authority of earlier works through the trope of allusion. Though the etymology of allude (deriving, of course, from the Latin ludere ) may suggest a certain playfulness in the exercise of this device, the function of allusion has most often served the essential task of investing a work of literature with a lineage, a tradition, quite literally a context, within which an interpretation may be grounded. Thus provided, the reader will discover in the transposition of the old, known text onto the new, unknown text a dialectic of correspondences that will illuminate both works, demonstrating the relevance of the old and confirming the authority of the new. Allusion is, therefore, one of the primary mechanisms by which authors themselves establish and maintain the canon.
However, the richness of the Western tradition poses its own problem. Working in genres that have existed for millennia, the contemporary author faces a dilemma similar to that of which Italian poets complain—everything rhymes. It is virtually impossible today to pluck a note on the poet's lyre that will not reverberate all along our three-or four-thousand-year-old tradition.
The filmmaker, however, working in a medium barely a century old, does not dance among so many graves. Though we speak of "classic" films, the adjective has far less resonance than in older art forms; cinema, after all, is in its infancy. So it is especially surprising to discover how common are allusions in films and how diverse is the taxonomy of cinematic strategies of alluding.
Though one might expect the construction of visual images to serve as the fundamental mechanism of alluding in films, the various forms of literary allusion are frequently employed. In fact, direct references to classic literary works, such as the Bible, are common. But gaining in frequency with the growth of mass media are allusions to popular culture. Music, both classical and popular, serves as another means of buttressing a film with an earlier work of art. But, far and away, cinematic allusions most frequently point to other films. Whether it be a direct reference by title or the inclusion of an actual clip from another film, a similarity to a famous character or a repetition of a classic shot, an imitation of a well-known scene or an allusion to an entire film genre, filmmakers demand of their audiences a knowledge of the history of cinema. These subtle strategies of creating a subtext in a film through allusion constitute, in a very literal sense, the briefest form of "remaking."
As just noted, the filmmaker has the opportunity to use allusions of both literary and visual varieties. The visual arts have an ancient tradition of their own in the use of allusions. In the twentieth century, a tradition of "appropriations" has been established, running back at least to Marcel Duchamp's 1919 L.H.O.O.Q., his famous altering of the Mona Lisa with a goatee and mustache. Is it mere vandalism or is it allusion writ large? Eschewing Duchamp's impudent wit, Francis Bacon demonstrated in his 1953 Study after Velazquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X just how serious a work of art appropriation could engender. In fact, in the entire series of paintings Bacon completed based on the Velazquez portrait, we discover something of the same relationship of the contemporary to the classic as we do in film remakes.
However, the visual allusion often results in the creation of an icon, which, as Peter Wollen explains in paraphrasing Charles Sanders Peirce, "is a sign which represents its object mainly by its similarity to it; the relationship between signifier and signified is not arbitrary but is one of resemblance or likeness" (122).
From André Bazin to Christian Metz to Erwin Panofsky, the defense of realism as the vocation of cinema has been waged at the expense of the significance of iconography in cinema. Along with Roland Barthes, they castigate any attempt to employ imagery as a rhetorical strategy (Wollen, 147). Essentially, the visual is impugned as primitive. As Wollen notes, "[F]rom
the early days of the film there has been a persistent, though understandable, tendency to exaggerate the importance of analogies with verbal language. The main reason for this, there seems little doubt, has been the desire to validate cinema as an art" (140). This argument finds its origins in the criticism of Baudelaire, who condemns photography to serve as the mere "handmaid of the arts" (297). But it is obviously self-delusion to minimize the visual in hopes of equating film with literature by asserting that it is fundamentally an extension of the verbal tradition. Wollen concludes his argument with an enthusiastic defense of imagery: "The film-maker is fortunate to be working in the most semiologically complex of all media, the most aesthetically rich. We can repeat today Abel Gance's words four decades ago: 'The time of the image has come'" (154).
If we are willing to join with Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg in affirming the visual as a legitimate vocabulary and grammar in its own right, then we must not stop with verbal allusions in film but instead examine those images that convey references to other works of cinematic art.
But let us at least begin with the strictly literary allusions that are offered in films. Here, as elsewhere in a consideration of allusions, we are engaged in a meditation on the obvious. However, a patient examination of the obvious sometimes yields the unexpected.
The bitter prologue of Wolf Biermann's poem at the beginning of Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976) is so integral to the work that it might not even be considered an allusion. However, the references in My Own Private Idaho (1991) to Shakespeare's Henry IV (as well as to Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight  seek to lift the small story of a band of male prostitutes into the company of such immortal tales of love and betrayal as Shakespeare's. Here literature is at its most useful to the filmmaker, elevating the merely sad to the tragic.
Similar in function are cinematic allusions to popular culture. In Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Jack Singer, the mark in a gambling con, wins a pot with a full house of aces and eights, the "dead man's hand" that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back; the attentive viewer will anticipate the ill fortune about to befall the young man. If one misses the allusion, which goes unremarked in the film, little is lost. But in Children of Paradise (1945), a similar reference to popular culture will soon require a footnote for its viewers. In the police inspector's questioning of Garance, there is an exchange about playing the violin like Monsieur Ingres. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a fine painter, but his pretensions as a violinist were the joke of nineteenth-century France. Just as Jack Benny is still remembered for his wretched fiddling, poor Ingres was still invoked in scornful reproach of dilettantes in the first half of our century. Unfortunately for Marcel Carné, he hitched his wagon to a dying horse. With each
passing year, those lines of the film become ever more obscure. Whenever an allusion on which a scene depends fades from memory, a lacuna spreads across the screen like a hole burning in a jammed frame.
Another nonvisual strategy, the self-consciously false elevation of light material through musical allusions, is the source of much parodic humor. How many times since the hero of Rocky (1976) first climbed the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has the audience of another film endured his trumpet theme? Similarly, when the Big Kahuna rides a monster wave in Back to the Beach (1987), is anyone surprised to hear the march from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)? However, though an allusion to classical music rather than to another film, the use of Beethoven's setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in Die Hard (1988) when the German terrorist succeeds in opening the vault perhaps offers a bit of comic relief in the intense action adventure.
But the most obvious method of cinematic allusion is literally mentioning another film. In Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), the company of affable ghosts who invade the flat of a former lover of one of the deceased argue about whether to watch Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Fitzcarraldo (1982) on the VCR. Here the good taste of the departed goes a long way in establishing a new and modern characterization of ghosts. In My Blue Heaven (1990), Vinnie Antonelli, resplendent in a white suit, passes in front of a movie marquee advertising White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) as he escorts an attractive district attorney and her two sons to a baseball game. Always in question in the film is Vinnie's sincerity, so when the viewer sees him hauling the proceeds from a charity drive under the marquee a few days later, with only "Black Heart" visible overhead, the likely conclusion is drawn. Of course, the happy ending of the film contradicts our expectations, which have been established in part through the allusion to the title (rather than the film itself) of the current offering at the local movie house. As is often the case, these simplest allusions are directed to some narrow aspect of the film mentioned.
Some films employ a kind of cinematic quotation by working in clips from other films, a form of alluding only slightly less obvious than actually naming the other works. In The Grey Fox (1982), Bill Miner, an outlaw fresh from a stretch in the penitentiary for the robbery of a stagecoach, is inspired to change with the times when he sees his first movie, The Great Train Robbery (1905). In Home Alone (1990), clips from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (dubbed in French) fail to transform the hugely successful film into a Christmas movie. Though John Hughes does work in a sentimental holiday reunion of an old man and his estranged son, the film follows traditions that are very different, as I will argue below, from those in the classic holiday movies to which it alludes.
A film that uses a clip, among other strategies, in the development of a
highly allusive structure is Mario Van Peebles's New Jack City (1991). Following an opening sequence that begins with the Statue of Liberty, Van Peebles introduces a thematic motif through allusions to I Corinthians 6:9–10 (edited to exclude the "effeminate" and the "covetous" from the iniquitous whom Saint Paul condemns). The Biblical verses, painted on the side of a ghetto building shown just after the opening sequence, return midway through the film in the sermon of the preacher at a police informer's funeral and again on the lips of an avenging old man in the conclusion. While Van Peebles works hard to demonstrate the morality of his message (even prefacing the video version with a monologue about the film's good intentions), he seems much more interested in placing his work in the long tradition of American gangster films. As Gee Money, the gang leader's lieutenant, crows after his discovery of crack cocaine, "Brother, we gonna come off like the mob."
The most unmediated allusion Van Peebles employs (in which an interpolated clip of another film functions as a kind of Greek chorus counterpointing the hero's hubris) is a private exhibition of Scarface (1983) in the midst of a New Year's Eve party. As Nino Brown and his gang watch the Marielito refugee and cocaine king Tony Montana in his final shoot-out, the woman who will eventually prove the gang's undoing assures Brown that "[t]he world is yours, Nino. Only you won't be as careless as Tony Montana." As he dances with the woman, who has now begun a striptease in front of the screen, the image of the dying Montana flits across Brown's shirt as he repeats, "The world is mine."
After his drug empire begins to crumble following police infiltration, he calls his lieutenants together. In a clear homage to Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987), Van Peebles seats the gang at a large table as Brown circles with a dog chain and cane, trying to establish blame for the disaster. In a sequence similar to a scene in which Al Capone beats one of his lieutenants to death with a baseball bat in retaliation for the loss of one of his illegal operations, Brown suddenly turns on his own responsible underling. But instead of continuing the allusion to The Untouchables, Van Peebles switches to one of the most famous scenes from The Godfather (1972). Drawing a sword from the cane, he drives it through the hand of his unfortunate accountant; then, as the surprised man writhes, Brown wraps the chain around his neck and is prevented from strangling his terrified victim only by the other gang members. The attack clearly mimics the murder of the Godfather's devoted bodyguard.
Finally, in the most explicit allusion to the tradition of gangster films, Brown exults, as he frolics in a huge indoor pool, that his life has turned into "some George Raft, some James Cagney type shit." Van Peebles is obviously quite anxious to drape New Jack City in the distinguished Hollywood mantle of the immigrant-turned-gangster tradition. Thus the film closes
with a shot that flees the Manhattan skyline and leaves behind the Statue of Liberty, as if to reject the immigrant dream promised in the opening shot of the film.
In yet another motif developed through allusion, Van Peebles uses camera angles to enforce a sheer verticality in some of his shots. In the opening sequence, following a bird's-eye view of skyscrapers, the viewer witnesses Brown execute a man by having him dropped from a bridge. When Brown finally falls in the end, he is seen sprawled at the bottom of a spiraling staircase, in a shot reminiscent of Vertigo (1958). Through internal allusions to earlier shots, Van Peebles is able to suggest the rise and fall of Nino Brown.
The possible allusion to Vertigo raises the interesting question of whether certain shots become so well known that they cease to serve as allusions and become mere conventions. Hitchcock's film has little to do with New Jack City, and up to this point in his film, Van Peebles has chosen his allusions very carefully. It makes little sense to insist upon every boom shot of a spiral staircase as an allusion to Vertigo .
Many apparent allusions may, in fact, fulfill quite different functions. Dream On, a situation comedy on HBO, intercuts very brief clips from cinema and television to comment on the action or to dramatize the hero's thoughts. Serving as a kind of Greek chorus (as in New Jack City ), these clips are actually closer to the metaphoric device developed in Morgan! (1966), where encounters with humans engender images of animals in the mind of the hero (a device that harks all the way back to Eisenstein's Strike (1924)). If the reference does not invoke the subject of the work itself or at least its title, it makes little sense to describe it as an allusion. Thus, the singing kitchen boy in the vast, vertical sets of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) cannot be said to allude to a similar singing boy and high sets in the little-seen Scrooge (1935). Nor can the Paula Abdul music video Cold Hearted (1989), whose choreography echoes the dance staged in the rehearsal hall for nervous investors in All That Jazz (1979), be said to allude to that film. Although the two highly erotic dance sequences are similar in the use of scaffolding, pilot's hats, group groping, and flustered spectators, the music video is interested only in the choreography, not the subject, of the Bob Fosse film. Perhaps it is best to consider such coincidences a homage to the earlier work rather than an allusion.
A similar problem presents itself when a filmmaker alludes to his or her own work. In A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick impishly includes the sound track to his own 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the rack behind Alex when the nasty teenager picks up two girls in a record store midway through the film. Though clearly meant as no more of a joke than Hitchcock's brief appearances in his own films, the sharp-eyed viewer will not find the distraction a positive contribution to the film. Less disruptively, in
A Little Romance (1979), George Roy Hill hides his young lovers, awaiting their chance to kiss at sunset beneath the Venetian Bridge of Sighs, in a movie theater playing The Sting (1973), his earlier hit. Also, the film's opening montage includes Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) along with clips from films starring Humphrey Bogart, Burt Reynolds, and John Wayne. Movie allusions are so much a part of the characterization of one of the two children that the director may be forgiven for slipping in his own films. Another of such self-references appears in Cat's Eye (1985), based on a trio of Stephen King stories. When a father returns from tucking in his daughter, who is troubled by bad dreams, his wife is reading King's Pet Sematary . The humor of the inside joke leavens the horror of the tale by hinting at a kind of self-deprecating irony.
Since a sequel is, by nature, a self-referential allusion to an earlier work, it is not surprising to find numerous references to the first film included in the second. In fact, promotional materials for a sequel invariably focus on such allusions. The well-known signature line of Tobe Hooper's successful Poltergeist (1982) is the whining "They're he-ere!" Early trailers for the sequel, Poltergeist II (1986), began with the cute face of the same little girl who had been the object of the poltergeists' affections in the first film turning away from the static of a television set to inform us, "They're ba-ack!"
Steven Spielberg demonstrates a more innovative approach to allusion in his sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark . In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the eponymous hero is confronted by a pair of adversaries who approach him with a dazzling display of swordsmanship in assuming an en garde position. Jones, smiling, reaches for his revolver, as he had done to dispatch a similar virtuoso of the sword in the earlier film. This time, however, there is no gun: his holster is empty after he has bounced through a death-defying roller coaster ride in a coal hopper. So, with a smirk that he shares with the audience, the hero is forced to fight the two swordsmen. The pleasure of Jones's simple solution to the problem of an untutored modern man facing a master of a centuries-old martial art delighted viewers the first time but would have bored them if repeated. The second time around, the joke has to be on Jones. (It is tempting here, but mistaken, to suggest an allusion to the death by gunfire of the master swordsman in Seven Samurai . The melancholy image of the exquisite world of the samurai shattering in a burst of gunpowder is Kurosawa's nostalgic lament for a time when a master of an art could not be overcome by a ruffian with superior technology. Untroubled by melancholy, Spielberg knows it is unlikely that a Western audience, devoted as we are to such technology, will pause in our laughter over the corpse of the elegant and well-schooled swordsman of Raiders of the Lost Ark to consider what it is, precisely, that we applaud.)
Few contemporary filmmakers have so reveled in the use of cinematic
allusion as Brian De Palma. Throughout his career, he has yielded to this device over and over again, thus presenting an excellent test case to see cinematic allusion in action.
There certainly can be no doubt about De Palma's intentions in his use of a baby carriage tottering on the broad marble steps of a railway station as federal agents shoot it out with mob goons in The Untouchables . Those viewers with even the vaguest notion of film history will recognize a homage to Eisenstein's most famous montage from The Battleship Potemkin (1925). While Eisenstein uses the Odessa Steps sequence to indict the cruelty of Czarist troops against the Russian people, the allusion in The Untouchables demonstrates the bravery and compassion of the state's representatives as they defend citizens against ruthless mobsters (who, in the first scene of the film, murder a child in the bombing of a shop). In both instances, the filmmakers wish to portray the unbridled savagery of a cruel regime—whether led by Nicholas II or A1 Capone—and to imply that their own, current governments, in having opposed these earlier regimes, prove the morally superior authority. Though the villains are reversed—in one case the state and in the other the enemy of the state—the motive remains the same, and so the allusion succeeds.
However, when, in the more recent Raising Cain (1992), De Palma repeats the allusion to Eisenstein (and—ironically, one must suppose—to his own earlier use of the image in The Untouchables ), its function is far more problematic. Detached from its original context and treated more as parody than as allusion, the baby carriage ceases to resonate as an image of society in jeopardy. Instead, the director's clumsy, self-conscious handling of the carriage destroys the suspense of the film's climax. In fact, it is difficult to explain the maniac's movement of a baby carriage, not down stairs but on an elevator, as anything other than a kind of in-joke for cineastes.
In De Palma's two homages to Eisenstein, the double edge of allusions is revealed. When an appropriate reference to an existing work is knit seamlessly into the fabric of a new film, the director invokes a context that enriches the film. But when the allusion is merely a wink and a nod to knowledgeable viewers, the effect is likely to undercut the narrative line of the film through the self-consciousness of the device. At its worst, it is a condescending gesture on the part of the director to acknowledge that he or she is superior to the material being presented: it becomes a snide joke for the elite.
Eisenstein's imperiled infant finds a brother, of sorts, in another endangered child of the cinema. In this film, however, both structure and subject depend upon allusions. The enormous success of this box-office hit suggests how fundamental allusions can be in the creation of a film.
In Home Alone , writer and producer John Hughes (in collaboration with his director, Chris Columbus) tells the story of an abandoned child who is
menaced by two larcenous adults. Such a tale obviously descends from both a literary genre, the fairy tale, and a cinematic genre, the cartoon. In both traditions, the archetypal story recounts the adventures of a small and vulnerable creature who is imperiled by a large and fierce predator. To draw upon the rich psychological resonances of the fairy tale and the comic visual strategies of the cartoon, Hughes quite rightly resorts to allusion.
Kevin McCallister, the child who angrily wishes away his family and wakes to find his wish fulfilled, is typical of the young and resourceful heroes of "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." Facing the monstrous villainy of wicked adults, the children, separated from their parents, must save themselves by wit alone. The fate awaiting these innocents, once they are properly fattened by the warty witch or slobbering giant, is cannibalism. The profoundly dark intimations of a story in which adults feast on children need not be dredged up for examination in this discussion; it is enough to note that, as the climax of Home Alone approaches, the infuriated villain lifts the child's hand to his mouth to make good his threat to bite off the boy's fingers, one by one.
Having invoked the tradition of the fairy tale through such structural allusions, Hughes turns to the most famous endangered child of the genre, Little Red Riding Hood, to save Kevin from the devouring jaws of the wicked burglar. In both "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack and the Beanstalk," the children effect their own escape from the clutches of their evil captors. But the moral lesson embodied in the tale of a self-sufficient child, superior to adults and fully prepared to survive without his family, might trouble parents (and they, after all, are the ones who pay for the tickets to the movies). So Hughes rather gracelessly hands over Kevin to his enemies, to sport with the boy according to their vile whims. Hung from a peg, Kevin endures a terrifying recitation of how the villains plan to punish his temerity in opposing them. But at the very moment they are about to take their revenge on the helpless child, an old neighbor, whom Kevin has earlier encouraged to reunite with his estranged son, brings his snow shovel down on the heads of the robbers. Like the woodsman who slaughters the voracious wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," an adult bursts in at the climactic moment to save the imperiled child. Thus Kevin is restored to the bosom of his family, and (at least until the sequel opens) everyone lives happily ever after.
The joyous conclusion of the film masks a much darker drama that has been played out between child and tormentor. Hughes might very well be accused of exploiting the molestation of a child by evil adults in order to titillate an audience that has been primed by a decade of hysteria about child abuse. To escape such an indictment, the filmmaker demonstrates an awareness of the implications of his story through a stylization of its violence that is drawn from animated cartoons. In the process of buffering his
audience from the frightening potential of his subject through obvious allusions to the slapstick sources of his mayhem, he subtly points to another film against which Home Alone can be understood as a serious, if subtle, exploration of the child as prey. Through this brief allusion, Hughes succeeds in placing his comedy in a context that transforms our understanding of the film.
The booby traps with which Kevin bedevils the efforts of the burglars to gain entrance to his house are likely to remind many members of the audience of those children's cartoons in which an intended victim, such as the Road Runner, turns the tables on a hapless villain, such as the forlorn Wile E. Coyote. The key moments of each episode involve the plotting of the villain's nefarious plans, the intended victim's reversal of those plans, the attack (which the audience already knows is doomed), the close-up in which the villain's face reveals his late recognition that the violence prepared for the victim is about to engulf the perpetrator himself, the act of violence accompanied by exaggerated sound effects, and the exasperated retreat of the foiled villain, who hobbles away bearing the visible mutilations of the violence—only to return in the next scene for yet another variation on the same theme. (See figure 17.) Hughes's careful choreography and editing of the burglar's assault on the McCallister house clearly invoke
this animated tradition. In doing so, he displaces the horrendous violence to a stage on which we know that no scar is ever permanent, no wound is ever fatal, and—as with contemporary versions of fairy tales—no villain ever prevails.
Though there are many examples from which to choose, one scene adheres, virtually without variation, to the traditional form of the cartoon. Having blindly yanked an overhead string, Marvin, the luckless assistant of the evil mastermind, Harry, is caught in close-up as he peers up a laundry chute at a heated iron that is plunging toward him. After he is struck (with appropriately enhanced sound effects), we discover that his whiskered, hangdog visage has been branded by the hot metal; as he stalks off, he carries the impression of the iron on his face. From the close-up recognition of impending doom to the crushing injury to the visible mutilation—the hapless Marvin reenacts the fate of all cartoon villains.
Hughes' allusions to two genres in which violence against the vulnerable is safely contained—the fairy tale and the cartoon—are certainly of use in defusing the explosive ramifications of his subject. However, in the midst of constructing these concurrent systems of allusion, Hughes refers to a classic film that provides a context through which we might come to a much more serious view of his work.
Kevin has cleverly heated his house's monogrammed doorknob with a charcoal lighter. When the nasty Harry grasps the knob to enter the McCallister house, he burns his hand. Leaping back down the steps, he plunges his hand into the snow, and then holds up his palm to his face. Branded into his flesh is the letter "M." Even the least imaginative student of film will recognize Hughes's allusion to Fritz Lang's masterpiece, M (1931), the story of Hans Beckert, a child murderer.
Kevin McCallister shares similarities with Beckert's first young victim, Elsie Beckmann, and all the other children who have been menaced by adults in the history of cinema. But, unlike Lang, Hughes holds out the happy possibility that the innocent may prevail. Though the brief allusion succeeds in counterposing Home Alone to M , it also serves to darken the character of Harry by suggesting a parallel to him in Hans Beckert. Thus, Hughes hints that Kevin is in greater jeopardy than first supposed, increasing the suspense for the sophisticated viewer of the film. Finally, the allusion to M attempts to lift the film from the humble ranks of popular culture to the ethereal realms of serious art, where even a boffo box-office bonanza like Home Alone is self-conscious of itself as a work of art.
But what if the M on the doorknob were unintentional, a mere coincidence? And if it were unintentional, would it even be an allusion? John Hollander, echoing Quintilian, insists that "one cannot in this sense allude unintentionally—an inadvertent allusion is a kind of solecism" (64). We need look no farther than the sets of Hollywood productions to find evi-
dence of such inadvertence. As John Bailey, the distinguished cinematographer of such films as Ordinary People (1980) and Mishima (1985), complains, "[I] have to worry whether or not I should mention to this director that this scene is similar to a sequence in Beauty and the Beast or A Man Escaped " (Schaefer, 70).
If one is merely trope hunting, it is difficult to distinguish the intentional from the accidental. But if the allusion underscores elements buttressed elsewhere in the film through other allusions or related devices, then intentionality becomes irrelevant. Are we limited in our interpretation to those relationships that the director consciously wove into the fabric of the film? It seems a rather simpleminded stance, and one that most artists would reject. A perhaps apocryphal anecdote about Robert Frost circulated for years at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. According to the story, a woman had objected to a critic's elaborate explication of a poem, demanding to know whether Frost had actually intended all the meanings ferreted out by the ingenious critic. The curt old poet assured her, "Madam, if he read it, I wrote it."
Similarly, the diversity of cinematic modes of alluding and the sheer number of allusions themselves in films ought not to be ignored merely because intentionality cannot be proved. Rather, acknowledging the fundamental role of allusions in cinema, we should remember, as Flaubert reminds us, that "even Homer had his Homer" and seek out the intertextualities of films that do indeed demonstrate the relevance of the old and confirm the authority of the new.
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Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Writings on Art and Artists. Translated by P. E. Charvet. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Carroll, Noë. "The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond)." October 20 (1982): 51–81.
Garner, Richard. From Homer to Tragedy: The Art of Allusion in Greek Poetry. London: Routledge, 1990.
Hollander, John. The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City: Doubleday, 1974.
Rabinowitz, Peter J. "'What's Hecuba to Us?': The Audience's Experience of Literary Borrowing." In The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation , edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Schaefer, Dennis, and Larry Salvato. Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.