About 24 hours have passed since Shia LaBeouf’s short film, HowardCantour.com, came online and was deemed to be plagiarized from the work of artist Daniel Clowes. For the life of me, I can't seem to grasp why this happened. I mean, at this point, is there anything LaBeouf can say or tweet to make us think, Yes, that makes perfect sense? I mean, if I were Shia LaBeouf right now, how would I explain this?
Let’s back up a second, just in case you don’t know this story. Shia LaBeouf directed a short film titled “HowardCantour.com,” about an independent movie critic, and premiered the project during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. For the most part, the reviews were solid. Many noted that the depicted life of Howard Cantour (played by Jim Gaffigan) is fairly accurate for someone whose career is online film criticism. At the time, Kyle Buchanan at Vulture reported that LaBeouf had some concerns about how his short film would be viewed within the critical community. “Still, even if the short suggests that the actor has made peace with his critics -- or at least attempted to understand where they're coming from -- LaBeouf seemed nervous about the potential reception for 'HowardCantour.com,'" Buchanan wrote in 2012. (That sentence takes on a whole new meaning now.)
On Monday, over a year and a half after its Cannes debut, the short found its way online and was immediately picked up by online outlets. (As would be expected: it's a film directed by Shia LaBeouf, and many of the people writing about “HowardCantour.com” lead a similar life to the title character in the film.) It was just a few hours later that the Twitter whispers started about similarities between LaBeouf’s film and Clowes' comic, “Justin M. Damiano.”
What was really shocking about this whole situation is that usually when allegations of plagiarism are charged, what we’re comparing are similarities between two works of art. Like, say, when Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. because “Ghostbusters” sounded too much like “I Want a New Drug.” If I listen to both of those songs back to back, I kind of hear what Huey Lewis was getting at. I think? (Ray Parker Jr. did wind of settling out of court with Lewis.) It wasn’t until BuzzFeed’s Jordan Zakarin posted a panel of Clowes’ work that it became clearly obvious that LaBeouf had lifted the story verbatim, only changing the characters' names. I mean, there’s no apparent effort at all to change anything.
As we found out after Zakarin spoke to Clowes himself, Clowes had no prior knowledge to this film. So, Daniel Clowes had his work adapted into a short film a year and a half ago that people had seen and reviewed, yet he had no idea. (In an updated post on BuzzFeed on Tuesday, Clowes' editor, Eric Reynolds, said the artist is weighing his legal options.)
LaBeouf’s Twitter apology is even more bizarre. (Even when we ignore the charge that he may have plagiarized some of his apology from a four-year-old Yahoo! Answers post). This one, in particular:
I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it.
— Shia LaBeouf (@thecampaignbook) December 17, 2013
First, he was “truly moved” by Clowes’ work, except for the names of the characters, I suppose. (If he hadn’t changed the characters’ names, I could almost buy the fact that he was doing this as some sort of tribute. Changing the names of the characters just makes it looks someone is trying to hide where the source material came from.) Second, this is just insanity, not “naiveté” -- a word he uses in another tweet. It would be like any one of us reading “A Catcher in the Rye,” thinking, Huh, I’m going to make a movie out of this, changing Holden Caulfield’s name to Sebastian Bittmore, or something, and proceeding to show the resulting movie at the world’s most famous film festival without ever contacting J.D. Salinger's estate. The insane part is thinking, I bet no one will notice.
LaBeouf is no stranger to controversy, but it’s mostly relegated to his nightlife activities that can at least somewhat be explained away as youthful indiscretions (much of LaBeouf's behavior was documented here in a 2011 Details profile). But this is worse: When it comes to artistic integrity, plagiarism is the scarlet letter of the industry. It’s a hard designation to lose. Even someone like George Harrison was haunted for years after the fallout from “My Sweet Lord,” a song that a court found was indeed too similar to The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.”
Anyway, where does LaBeouf go from here? (Other than work out some sort of deal with Clowes, which apparently he wants to do.) I joked on Twitter that he might just want to claim that he's illiterate (that excuse worked for Kate Winslet in “The Reader” and she was a Nazi). But, in reality (for the sake of argument, let's just assume that Shia LaBeouf is not illiterate), I’d still like to believe that this is, somehow, one big misunderstanding. That maybe LaBeouf really is a big fan of this particular comic and he made a short film that was never meant to be seen by anyone else. Maybe someone close to him submitted the film to Cannes on his behalf, thinking he or she was doing LaBeouf a favor -– and then it was too late, even though LaBeouf got away with it for 19 months.
It reminds me of the scene in “The Squid and the Whale” when Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Walt, tries to pass off “Hey You” by Pink Floyd as his own song at school talent show. (It still amazes me that no one in that audience apparently owned “The Wall.”) In “The Squid and the Whale,” that moment is looked at as a sort of desperate plea for help from Walt. Maybe this is a plea from LaBeouf? Maybe he wants help? Maybe he doesn't care? Maybe it's somewhere in between? For now, it will be quite some time before he’s not known as a plagiarist. And it’s a shame to see that happen to anyone, even when they probably deserve it.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.