The Art of Allusion, or: I Get That Reference

I was enjoying an episode of “Mystery, Incorporated”—and believe me, I could do an extensive essay on how neatly “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” fits in with the works of 18th century gothic romance maven, Mrs. Radcliffe—and musing on three references you don’t necessarily expect to find in a kid’s TV show: Cast AwayMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Aguirre: Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo. The last is both the most obscure and most integral to the series story arc, involving conquistadors who drag a boat full of gold over a mountain, creating the Curse of Crystal Cove (the Big Mystery the gang solves over two seasons). These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only references in the episode, most obviously the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia, and homages to “The Munsters” (or maybe “The Twilight Zone”) and “Deadwood”.

My blog. My opinion.

Scooby went with a hotter looking demon. IMO.

Not surprising for a show that’s oriented around the obscure ’90s doomsday theory of Nibiru and which borrows from H.P. Lovecraft, “Twin Peaks”, The Warriors, Marlon Brando’s The Wild OneProm Night IIBlood Beach, Terminator and on and on, and which is stuffed with myriad callbacks from previous incarnations of the show, like Don Knotts, Scatman Caruthers, Vincent Price and Scrappy-Doo (“We all promised we would never speak of him!”). What is surprising, perhaps, is how enjoyable it all is.

By contrast, one of the most loathsome books I’ve read in the past few years is Ready Player One. I read it as part of the bad book club/podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, but I had assumed that it would be fun trash, maybe not on the level of Tarzan or Conan, but at least on par with, say, some lesser graphic novels. But this New York Times bestselling book contains entire passages of nothing but lists of ’80s movies and video games. Rather than making me nostalgic for a decade I barely remember (being not quite 29), it made me rather embarrassed, forcing me to re-evaluate mildly pleasant past times as, perhaps, a huge waste of my youth. But a lot of people—intelligent people, I swear—claim to have enjoyed the book, so it must have provided some kind of pleasant stimulation.

It’s not just someone like Cline (who seems to be incapable of writing) who can fall for this kind of thing. Much more literary and erudite examples can be found in the poetry of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, who is at times my favorite author, writes some cringeworthy stuff calling out the great Romantic poets.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″—and all of its cultural inheritors, from direct clones like “Cinematic Titanic” and “Rifftrax”, to game play-throughs and other YouTube-based meta-commentary—is based heavily on referencing—alluding to—things the audience will associate with ostensibly unrelated imagery. (MST3K just lapped itself by doing a live riff of an old episode. In other words, they had the new cast riff the old cast.) This is popular enough to be a cottage industry, though the quality surely follows Sturgeon’s law.


The new Tom, Gypsy, Crow and the charming Emily Marsh in the “Joel” role, seen here riffing the original Joel, Tom and Crow.

Airplane!, the classic that redefined movie comedy, was almost entirely references to other things, including—intriguingly enough—being a direct lift of Zero Hour, a movie which was not that well known. Over the next 30 years, this formula would be repeated, finely honed and refined to make some of the least funny movies ever made.

One fascinating cultural change over the past 60 years is alluding to Jesus and Christianity: Provocateurs used to be able say something blasphemous or borrow the iconography for their art/horror/comedy film and get a little boost. These days the audience seems to be cleanly divided between those who yawn at such stuff for hackery, and those who have such a vague idea of any of it that it doesn’t really give any kind of boost (pace Dan Brown).

It's a sign!

If you don’t know Western Civilization, you’re not really in on the joke.

As consumers (and creators) of art, it seems that the technique of allusion is one of the trickiest ones to handle. Just as it is impossible to not “appropriate culture”, it is impossible to not reference other things. The forms we use for our art (landscapes, fugues, novels, sitcoms) all have grown out of past experiences. Our language is allusion to the real world. Ceci n’est pas une pipe applies not only to paintings of pipes, but all communications involving pipes. (And don’t even get me started on music, where serious composers would suddenly insert the equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut” or “Pop! Goes The Weasel” into the middle of their serious symphony.)

So, what’s the difference between good allusion and bad allusion? Ultimately, it’s whatever works for you, even if it’s (shudder) massive lists of ’80s movie titles. But the references (allusions!) above made me realize what doesn’t work for me: Even if I have fond memories of spending hours with my dad playing “Colossal Cave”, a mere reference to it—especially one made with a broad, cheerleading “WASN’T THAT GREAT!” attached—repulses me. A reference to something better (think of every shark movie that reference Jaws) tends to irritate me. A reference to something better that’s also critical is cold death. And an obvious reference—one that’s pervasive throughout the culture—tends to be tiring. (Kevin Smith’s “Star Wars” bits in his movies were quite amusing back in the ’90s, now if “Star Wars” vanished from the world entirely, I would not miss it.)

But if we look at Airplane! and “Mystery, Incorporated!” and, as I was writing this, I was thinking of those old Warner Bros cartoons I loved as a kid which were just gags based around long dead celebrities I barely recognized, if at all. And while most kids (most people!) haven’t seen Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Zero Hour or—hell, these days, how many people get the Folger’s Crystals, or the Saturday Night Fever, or the Howard-freakin’-Jarvis jokes in Airplane!?

It seems pretty simple: If you’re bringing something to the table that’s excellent and original, you can borrow more from others. In other words, the less you need to rely on mere recognition of past things (ref. again the latest Star Wars trilogy), the more enjoyment the audience will get from a well placed allusion. Those who are not aware of your references can still enjoy what you’ve made while those who speak the same language will enjoy it that much more.

Fite me.

On the left, the best “Star Wars” movie. On the right, the best “Star Trek” movie.

Picture credits:

  1. (left) Fantasia, “Night on Bald Mountain”; (right) “Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated” episode “Night on Haunted Mountain”
  2. “The MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along Special”
  3. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
  4. (left) Spaceballs; (right) Galaxy Quest

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