Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Conceptual Blending

Heard a great term recently. Conceptual Blending.

It means borrowing from one creative property to another.

Another term that is similarly used is Homage.  Paying tribute to a former work by copying it. 

In music there’s the term Sampling. Sampling is when a rap musician lifts an existing part of a previous record and weaves it into his song.

I have another term. STEALING.

It is not an homage to take a story or style from one show and re-use it as your own. It is not conceptual blending to rip off someone else’s jokes in your stand-up routine. Nor is it sampling to use Motown tracks in your hip hop song.

There's a term called permission.  You need permission to use someone else’s material. And if you don’t receive it and use the material anyway you are liable for damages. Good luck to the defense attorney who argues to a jury on behalf of conceptual blending.

We now live in an age of spin, of Alternate Facts. But there’s one term that never seems to need a pretty euphemism:


That’s the term that exists in my vocabulary, especially when referring to these others.  


E. Yarber said...

You might as well describe 95% of the internet. "Look at the clever thing I did with Photoshop. I just improved a Diane Arbus photograph by inserting an exploding car in the background. Now it's MY work."

slgc said...

Friday Question - Your Conceptual Blending post feels very personal. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it? Does it concern one of your works?

Dana King said...

I think your definition of "homage" is too broad. It's not copying; it's paying tribute. I wrote a novel several years ago that I made no bones about being an homage to THE MALTESE FALCON. It dealt with an actor who bore more than a passing resemblance to Sydney Greenstreet who used what he claimed was a prop from the movie in a one-man show. My PI was hired to work as personal security. In the course of the interview they banter a few lines from the movie, giving credit as it went along.

Actor: Are you a close-mouthed man?
I knew where this was going so I played along. "No, I like to talk."

Like that. The detective forgives the woman who hires him for lying to him by saying he never really believed her story, he believed her $10,000. It was more than the job was worth, but enough more to make it all right. To which she says, "You HAVE seen the movie."

Top me, that's homage. Well short of stealing.

Lily said...

Whatever happened to the term "inclusion rider". I thought entire Hollywood would be revolutionized by that speech and the term will be in news constantly.
Nope! Nothing happened.

Now it looks like just a term conjured up for an Oscar speech. Now every year, winners will start pulling the same stunt.

404 said...

I enjoy a good rant as much as the next guy, Ken, but I feel like here you've painted too broad a brush stroke and just lumped everything in together. Sampling, homages, tributes, whatever ... they aren't all the same. While I know you're not really doing this, this comes across as someone basically demanding that everything be 100% original, with zero influence or inspiration being taken from outside sources. It simply doesn't work that way.

And, as far as music goes ... there are strict rules put in place now that determine what is, and isn't, stealing. After the crazy days of the 80s and early 90s when everything was up for grabs, they did put regulations in place. When that new song comes out now that's basically just an old tune with new lyrics? It's not stealing, because the owner of the work gives permission, and gets $$ for it, too. You and I might roll our eyes at the lack of originality and lament the state of music these days, but it's not, by any technical definition, stealing.

Mike Bloodworth said...

slgc, I was going to say something similar. You beat me to it.

Paul Duca said...

As Jack Warner said to Warren Beatty when he told him BONNIE & CLYDE was "a homage to the classic Warner Brothers gangster movies"...

"What the F&@# is a homage?!?"

Unknown said...

Lifting jokes and story elements aside - I really love when my favorite shows pay homage to my other favorite shows through the characters interests or attitude. Big Bang Theory does it well.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

What about parodies though? Parodies supposedly fall under Fair Use, in which you don't need permission - or so, that's how I understand the Fair Use Act works.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

But there are limits. There is a reason the US has "fair use": you are allowed to quote, parody, make a pastiche, or critique. These things always depend on context, and while copyright maximalists like to characterize *every* reuse as stealing that's just not the case. WICKED was full (too full, IMO) of in-jokes from the movie THE WIZARD OF OZ. Were they stealing? Certainly not. Should someone who creates a knitting pattern for a STAR TREK puppet be prosecuted for violating copyright? Not in my opinion.

Go back before copyright and you find the classical composers quoted and commented on each other's work in their own works all the time; we were taught to look for those things in music school. The same is true of novelists, non-fiction writers, and painters. I see no reason why pop music, TV shows, or movies should be any different.

If you disallow every form of reuse, imagine how many things would be copyright violations. Nearly every genius+sidekick investigative show is a pastiche, copy, parody, or new twist on Sherlock Holmes. On the list would be: NUMB3RS; PERSON OF INTEREST; MONK, ZERO EFFECT (a great movie no one appears to have seen), and, in books, all of Nero Wolfe, and on and on.



Pat Reeder said...

I remember how appalled I was when "sampling" first became popular, and people were ripping off tracks left and right from other people's records. Not copying and playing the same riffs, which would at least require some musical ability, but just lifting them directly off of the older recordings. The early hip-hop stars thought it was outrageous and unjust when they got sued. I was in radio at the time and thought, "How could you NOT expect to be sued?" At the syndication company where I was working then, we would say that recording artists used to play instruments, now they play records.

On another topic, you might enjoy today's Hollywood Hi-Fi post, in honor of the news from Korea. It's an "homage" to "M*A*S*H." https://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook/posts/373905873098728

Anthony said...

To be fair, rappers and other groups have been getting sample clearances since the 90's.

gottacook said...

In music composition, someone else's previous work is a practically unavoidable influence. (I don't mean sampling.) For example, a great many songs have a verse or chorus that includes the chord sequence vi-IV-I-V (or I-V-vi-IV), and someone must have come up with that originally (search on "vi-IV-I-V").

Everyone from Bach to Billy Joel has reused melodies or other elements of someone else's preexisting work, consciously or otherwise, and except for a few blatant cases that went to court - for example, the "He's So Fine"/"My Sweet Lord" case of the 1970s and the recent "Got to Give It Up"/"Blurred Lines" case - these are well enough integrated into the new work that most people don't notice or care. (There's also the 1997 Rolling Stones track "Anybody Seen My Baby" where Keith's daughter pointed out the chorus's similarity to k.d. lang and Ben Mink's "Constant Craving," whereupon the Stones added their names to the credits. That was friendly - sharing the proceeds and avoiding a lawsuit.)

Covarr said...

I think whether or not something is homage or stealing (or parody) largely depends on how the original content is used, how much is used, how transformative the new usage or context is, the intent of the new usage, etc. Similar to the legal definition of fair use.

For example, I would call the movie RAT RACE an homage. In the broadest terms, the premise is virtually identical to IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, but every joke and character and scenario that supports that premise is so wildly different that it would be a real stretch to actually call anything stolen.

THE SIMPSONS also did a lot of homage and parody in its early years, referencing classic movies with a wink and a nudge, but in such a wildly different context or with a such a massive change, that the meaning and purpose of the original material has been defeated. In the episode "Itchy and Scratchy and Marge", for instance, there is a moment that mirrors an iconic moment from the film PSYCHO, but in both such a blatant way that anyone would get the reference (which is an important point of both homage and parody; you're supposed to recognize it), and such a tongue and cheek way as to make a joke of something that was originally serious.

You also mention style. The Weird Al song "Bob" is very recognizably done in the style of Bob Dylan's music. He calls this a "style parody", although one could also reasonably call it homage. Is this theft? I think the vast majority of people, both the creators and consumers of media alike, would say no, it isn't.

When it comes to sampling, one example I'd point to is Kanye West's "Stronger", which is deeply reliant on Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," as an example of how it often works in the music industry. Daft Punk agreed to let their West sample their song; one can hardly call that theft. That is common in music, and it's certainly not fair to apply a blanket label of "stealing" to all such sampling just because some artists (Vanilla Ice) need to get themselves sued for royalties.

Intellectual theft is obviously a bad thing, but that doesn't mean we need to be overzealous when defining it.

Tom said...

No! I swear! It was just a homage to my neighbour's vase when I broke into their house, took their vase, and put it into my house!

Unknown said...

Agreed. Like the guy who started America’s Test Kitchen had a fight with his board, quit and started Milk Street Kitchen, which is basically ATK. Got sued. That’s theft, simple.

Now if Big Bang Theory decided to do a Dick Van Dyke sort of episode, that would be an homage. BBT has its own voice, so borrowing from a classic for one episode would be fine. Others have done it.

Dr. Phil said...

Ken -please relax on my sofa and let me know what is troubling you today.

Mark said...

Hi Ken,

On Saturday I had posted a Friday question asking your view on "weirdos" who try out their gags on Hollywood community.

And just now I found out they hit big time :)

That weirdo gang called "Yes Theory" has challenged Will Smith to bungee jumping out of a helicopter. And guess what? Will Smith accepted. And guess who will be flying the helicopter? Tom Cruise.

Here is the link to Will Smith's YouTube video where he accepts the challenge.

That group do act weirdly sometimes but they generally spread positive message to the community. You can check their channel too:



Janet Ybarra said...

Yep, Van Halen took Tone Loc (Remember him?) to court--and won-- because he lifted "Jamie's Cryin'" for his hit "Wild Thing."

Didn't we all learn plagliarism is bad in high school?

Sebastiaan said...

As a musician, I kind of want to make a small remark here.

Although I agree that sampling has had a troubled past, nowadays the music industry has evolved to a point where most samples for commercial productions are officially licensed. When you hear a sample in a modern pop or hip hop song, the copyright owners (both mechanical and compositional rights) have given permission for their song to be used in this way and have been paid in full.

Take for instance 'Somebody that I used to know', the huge Gotye hit from 2011. Before releasing the song, he made an agreement with Louis Bonfa's estate to use the two-note sample in exchange for 50% of the royalties. Considering how well that song did, I wouldn't say that they were shortchanged.

Of course, there will always be people who sample without permission, but they usually get caught and are forced to pay. (Also: screw those guys.)

Leaving all that aside, love the blog Ken!

MikeN said...

I'd like to know in what category we should put David Baldacci's books about John Puller a tall, smart, MP.

Dr Loser said...

Friday question: how do you feel about pastiches? (Supplementary: what differentiates an hommage from a pastiche?)

As noted by Dana King, above, it's quite possible to do an hommage (within the legal terms of "fair usage," which I agree can be a little tricky) without resorting to outright theft.

To take an example. and I have no idea whatsoever how the contractual arrangements were sorted, "A Fistful of Dollars" is very clearly an hommage to Yojimbo. That very fact is allegedly one of the reasons that Clint Eastwood signed up to it. But, even though there are a remarkable number of obvious rip-offs, I wouldn't actually claim it to be theft.

Interestingly, Sergio Leone (whose political motto was probably "All Property Is Theft," just to muddy the waters) described it as "a thematic debt." Which is pretty much like claiming that Kurosawa's Ran has a "thematic debt" to King Lear, to which it was obviously an hommage.

E Yarber might well be right. Times are different now.You don't need to acknowledge your sources on the Internet, and if you did, nobody would even care, because quite frankly the number of people who (to sustain the two cases above) know about classic Japanese cinema, or even Shakespeare, is dwarfed by the number of people who don't care and just consume, consume, consume. Just as long as they don't have to pay for the privilege.

(Well, that got bitter very fast, didn't it?)

The Silver Fox said...

I, too, am wondering what inspired this post, and how the delectable Natalie Wood figures into things. True, she did appear in West Side Story which borrowed its plot from Romeo and Juliet, but I don't think that was your reason for placing her photo atop your post.

E. Yarber said...

Kurosawa sued Leone and won. Akira K. got Asian distribution rights to the film and 15% of the worldwide gross. Clint Eastwood, who saw the project as a career breakthrough, had to wait a few years before FISTFUL could be released in the US, since no one would distribute it until the legal issues were settled. Not a good case for plagiarism.

I'd consider Kurosawa's RAN and THRONE OF BLOOD interpretations of Shakespeare rather than outright theft. Neither of them simply transposes the originals on a surface level but are fully developed symbolically from the inside, just as Grigori Kozintsev made masterful adaptations of KING LEAR and HAMLET with translations into Russian by Boris Pastrernak and music by Dimitri Shostakovich. Joyce's ULYSSES may use incidents from Homer as templates for the action of the book, but James could hardly be accused of coasting on another's writing.

Now, there are legal aspects to this in the present day (I myself am trying to prevent a guy from pretending he owns work of mine he didn't pay for), but there are also aesthetic issues involved.

I spent this morning at the Getty observing two exhibits that explore art within different perspectives. One was a collection of ancient Greek and Roman art depicting Egyptian figures, juxtaposed with ancient Egyptian art depicting Greek and Roman figures. You were seeing many of the same icons viewed through drastically different mindsets. In another building was a series of drawings Rembrandt had done of art that came from India, back when you had to physically copy a piece instead of drag it to Kinkos. This really WAS creative blending, as Rembrandt's style came through in his drawings of Eastern potentates and in turn introduced him to artistic devices he could employ in original works later.

These are cases of drawing from the same well and coming up with different flavors, like Sinatra singing "Be Careful, it's My Heart" after Crosby introduced the number in HOLIDAY INN. It's not the same as taking someone else's inspiration and bringing nothing to it yourself.

E. Yarber said...

Let me clarify that a little more. Two people can draw creatively from the same well and have independent works of art as a result. If one person uses the other AS the well they draw from, it's theft.

By Ken Levine said...

Someone used the term conceptual blending and I thought it was bullshit.

For new readers of my blog -- if I can't find an appropriate photo for that day's post I always post a picture of Natalie Wood.

DBenson said...

I usually encounter the word pastiche in reference to serious attempts to create a persuasive Sherlock Holmes story in the style of Doyle. It originated as something of a sport among dedicated readers -- possibly the original fan fiction. "The Seven Percent Solution" likely qualifies, as Nicholas Meyer strives to keep in the Doyle style (as filtered through Watson's narration) even though the story itself runs up against some of the real stories. The excellent Mary Russell novels by Laurie King are not pastiches, even though she's very scrupulous about Sherlockian detail and she has a first-person narrator. The difference is that Russell is very much the focus of the books, and she explores themes and subjects far from Doyle's proper Victorian universe.

DBenson said...

Homage is passing off a ripoff as a compliment. Parody is what you call a failed homage. Deconstruction is what you say when your parody isn't funny.

Peter said...

Donald Trump has stolen his entire persona from the character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future Part II.

Anonymous said...

John Lennon

Todd Everett said...

The Silver Fox said...
I, too, am wondering what inspired this post, and how the delectable Natalie Wood figures into things. True, she did appear in West Side Story which borrowed its plot from Romeo and Juliet, but I don't think that was your reason for placing her photo atop your post.

Ken has explained, many (though apparently not enough) times that when he can't find an appropriate illustration for a column, he runs a photo of Natalie Wood. Why Natalie Wood? LOOK at her!

gottacook said...

To me, parody (in the sense of setting new words to preexisting music) is not a "failed homage"; the great work of Frank Jacobs, which I was exposed to as a kid reading Mad magazine, could never be called that.

The best example of pastiche I can think of is "Kitty's Back" (1973) on Bruce Springsteen's second album. It has a definite life of its own but clearly was assembled from other musical sources.

Geoff Garvoille said...

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. - T. S. Eliot
Quote "lifted" from https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/

VP81955 said...

In my romcom "Stand Tall!", I have an homage scene. Scientist Keswick Fletcher has been kidnapped and hopes Colleen Cossitt, the waitress he accidentally made more than 16 feet tall, will come to his rescue, although they've had a falling out when she learned he owed a six-figure gambling debt. He imagines Colleen coming to the one-story house where he's being held, lifting the roof off a la the 1958 "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman," picking him up and carrying him to safety. What actually happens is something else entirely, but what I hope is emotionally satisfying.

Brian said...

The New Odd Couple, with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson, got caught recycling scripts from the Tony Randall-Jack Klugman show, in one of the weirder steals I know of.

Also, MAD Magazine is or was recycling old Dave Berg "Lighter Side of..."s and giving them new, darker captions. It's the same magazine, but...?

One can certainly argue that, with a the press of a button or two, whole passages can be lifted from a song to augment another work. I say, if you pay for it, go on, but I would also argue that it takes a special set of ears to hear something and re-use it. Some samples can be pretty far flung.

However, the CONCEPT goes way, way back. In 1460, Guillame Dufay (well before his star turns in "Soap" and "Benson") composed "Missa L'Homme Arme", which was a Mass, based on the melody of a popular song, called "The Armed Man", hence the name.

Charlie Parker in 1942 (Well before his breakout role as Sissy Knox in "A Mighty Wind"), recorded a song called "Koko" which used the same chord progression as "Cherokee" by Ray Noble.

Digital sampling is not the same as "analog" sampling, but the concept is not new.

FRIDAY QUESTIONS: I just re-watched the great Cheers episode "Smotherly Love", credited to Kathy Ann Stumpe. Do you have any anecdotes or recollections of her? There is not a lot on the internet about her.

Also, if the writer's room morale is low, what have you done or what have you seen done that breaks the bad mood?

The Silver Fox said...

I apologize for not knowing about the Natalie Wood thing. I'm sure it's been explained many times, but I've only been a regular follower of this blog for two or three weeks.

And yes, she's an excellent choice!

Jeff Boice said...

Parody is when you copy (or "evoke") another work in order to demonstrate that work's shortcomings. The most memorable parody case was 2 Live Crew vs Acuff-Rose Music over the former's version of "Pretty Woman". That case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Which brings up the image of 9 old Supreme Court Justices huddled together listening to 2 Live Crew. An image both amusing and frightening.

Janet Ybarra said...

We all know how much you love your "gratuititous" Natalie Wood pics ;) But the definitive pic for this post? Mili Vanilli!

Craig Gustafson said...

Well, now I feel bad; as I should.
My recent entry for a screenwriting competition has a scene where my lead character needs information. Anytime something like that comes up, I think of Jack Benny accosting Frank Nelson.
"Oh, mister... mister!"
Figuring that nobody judging the screenplay would have a clue who Jack Benny was, let alone Frank Nelson, I threw in Nelson. All the jokes are mine, but I was tailoring them for that character.
Many shows and cartoons have used the character, but that's no excuse. (Although I just used it as one, didn't I?)
It's only a half page; but still.
I'm one of the first round winners, so I have one (hopefully two) more round(s) to go. I won't be committing that sin again; after all, there are so many other sins to explore.

E. Yarber said...

One last observation (I hope). When Hollywood remade SEVEN SAMURAI and RASHOMON, Kurosawa didn't sue the filmmakers. The Americans paid in advance for the rights to adapt those stories. The point of the original post was that a creator should be reimbursed for the use of their work, even by someone who claims that another's art is fair game for appropriation.

Dr Loser said...

@E Yarber (belatedly)
Thanks for updating me on the Yojimbo question.
A mine of useful insights, this place is!

Greg Ehrbar said...

One of this week’s biggest hit movies is an astonishingly obvious example of conceptual blending I like to call “Rosemary’s Archie.”

The big shocker isn’t in the movie, it’s in the critical reaction. While the film has scored abysmally low with audiences, most critics, many of whom made it and its director a darling of Sundance, are falling all over themselves in praise. Wasn’t Redford in attendance at his own festival to see half of his movie being remade with crawly buggies and stuff?