Yesterday the Internet got its first look at HowardCantour.com, a short film that
marked the directorial deBeout of Shia LaBeouf, which had previously made the rounds, to some acclaim, at Cannes last year. HowardCantour.com stars Jim Gaffigan as an online film critic, whose interactions at a press junket for a director he used to admire form the backdrop for a bleakly funny rumination on the nature of criticism. It was hailed as a surprisingly sharp, empathetic look at a profession that has not always been kind to LaBeouf—and all in all, an impressive first effort. Naturally, it turned out that LaBeouf stole it.
Shortly after HowardCantour.com was first posted to Short Of The Week (which has since taken it down), BuzzFeed noted the striking similarities between it and Justin M. Damiano, a 2007 comic by Daniel Clowes—a cartoonist of whom LaBeouf is a documented “huge fan.”
Those similarities were so egregious, you could reasonably call Justin a storyboard for Howard: Both comic and film open with the exact same, very specific monologue. The very next scene, in both comic and film, find the critic interacting with a naïve young freelancer—played in LaBeouf’s movie by Portia Doubleday—with lines that are, again, identical. And it just goes on from there, with LaBeouf’s film continuing to lift its dialogue and even visuals verbatim from Clowes’ comic. In fact, just about the only original line in Howard is in the credits, which deems the work “A Film By Shia LaBeouf.” In retrospect, that line is also the funniest.
Not long after these similarities were brought to light, Clowes’ publisher at Fantagraphics, Eric Reynolds, branded the film a “shameless theft.” Elaborating to Wired, Reynolds said:
My first reaction, before I even watched it, was basically that as much as the plot sounded like the Justin M. Damiano, I presumed that LaBeouf would be smart enough to change everything just enough to make it his own thing and shield himself from any legal liability, even if it didn’t excuse him from being a weasel. Which is why, when I actually started watching it, I almost spit out my coffee when I realized he lifted the script, word for word.
Eventually, Clowes himself responded, in a statement to BuzzFeed:
The first I ever heard of the film was this morning when someone sent me a link. I’ve never spoken to or met Mr. LaBeouf. I’ve never even seen one of his films that I can recall — and I was shocked, to say the least, when I saw that he took the script and even many of the visuals from a very personal story I did six or seven years ago and passed it off as his own work. I actually can’t imagine what was going through his mind.
And while Reynolds charitably allows that LaBeouf at least “subconsciously knew what he was doing”—with HowardCantour.com never officially crediting a screenwriter, but just implicitly claiming ownership of the story (“which makes it even more egregiously shameless,” Reynolds says)—the interview LaBeouf gave Short Of The Week doesn’t exactly bear that out. He describes the film’s development thusly:
I know something about the gulf between critical acclaim and blockbuster business. I have been crushed by critics (especially during my Transformers run), and in trying to come to terms with my feelings about critics, I needed to understand them. As I tried to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at me and the people I’ve worked with, a small script developed.
Of course, when LaBeouf tried to “empathize” with those who implicitly leech off someone else’s work, he ended up doing so with a film that leeches off someone else’s work—something he might have contextualized as intentionally ironic, had LaBeouf not gone out of his way to make it sound organic. There’s also the fact that LaBeouf is already a well-known plagiarist, having lifted his recent, semi-apology to Alec Baldwin whole cloth from an old Esquire article. Unfortunately for LaBeouf, this sort of thing just makes it all the easier for critics to continue taking “potshots” at him, such as pointing out that he’s a lying thief by using a critic’s cheap tricks, like “evidence.”
Unlike the Esquire incident, the backlash against HowardCantour.com was so swift and widespread that LaBeouf himself felt compelled to respond in a series of tweets:
Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work. In my excitement and naïveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation. Im embarrassed that I failed to credit @danielclowes for his original graphic novella Justin M. Damiano, which served as my inspiration. 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. I deeply regret the manner in which these events have unfolded and want @danielclowes to know that I have a great respect for his work.
Naturally, there’s room to quibble with LaBeouf’s explanation that he simply “neglected” to credit Clowes, given that he’s been promoting this film for more than a year as his own original work—and only recently realized, after it was publicly pointed out, that in his year-plus of “excitement,” he just forgot that he may have committed intellectual property theft.
But it turns out there may be a deeper artistic intention and/or psychological problem behind this whole thing, seeing as LaBeouf also seems to have plagiarized his apology, again: His first tweet is incredibly similar to a Yahoo! Answers comment from four years ago, written in reply to a question about plagiarism. Which, again, is either deeply ironic, or deeply pathological.
So the question becomes: Is LaBeouf’s entire public persona—including the affected self-comparisons to Warren Beatty, and the clichéd bad-boy bar fights—some sort of living-art, Warholian commentary on the thin line separating plagiarism and creativity within the Hollywood factory, whose scope also encompasses the repetitiveness of celebrity scandal? Or is Shia LaBeouf just a fucking asshat?
“I fucked up,” LaBeouf most recently tweeted—either by way of admission of guilt, or by way of putting a knowingly arch title on this, his grand unifying thesis on the laughably empty pretension of modern-day stardom. It’s unknown as yet whom he stole it from.
[A previous version of this article called HowardCantour.com LaBeouf’s “directorial deBeout,” when it’s actually his fifth credited short as a director since 2004—which only makes LaBeouf’s claims of being an inexperienced, “amateur filmmaker” all the more ridiculous.]