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Intertextuality in Film: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Kelly Bryan

Kelly has taught English in five different countries, mostly recently in Dublin, Ireland. She has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language.

Filmmakers often find inspiration in other films, including elements of those films in their work, a type of intertextuality. Explore the characteristics and types of deliberate and latent intertextuality and discover some examples. Updated: 01/12/2022

What Is Intertextuality?

If you are perusing the listings for this summer's big blockbusters, you might come to the conclusion that Hollywood is out of ideas due to the endless onslaught of remakes, reboots, and sequels. You might be surprised to learn that even the most iconic and original films might have borrowed heavily from other source material. This is due, in part, to a little thing called intertextuality.

Intertextuality is the point where two works of art overlap. In terms of film, it's where a movie overlaps with another work of art, whether that be another film, a work of literature, or another art form. Since no art is created in a vacuum, intertextuality occurs throughout most genres of art, not just film. Another way of thinking about intertextuality is the way in which works of art purposely or accidentally connect and intersect. Let's look at a few examples from famous films.

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  • 0:04 What Is Intertextuality?
  • 1:03 Deliberate Intertextuality
  • 4:49 Latent Intertextuality
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Deliberate Intertextuality

Deliberate intertextuality occurs when an artist intentionally includes and/or makes reference to other art forms. In Jordan Peele's 2017 debut, Get Out, for example, the director uses subtle references to classic horror films to create an ominous atmosphere. For instance, while navigating a subdivision, a character says, ''Man, I feel like I'm in a hedge maze out here,'' referencing the hedge maze in The Shining. In another scene, a villainous character is seen strumming a ukulele, similar to the boy plucking the banjo in Deliverance.

Let's take a closer look at some of the different types of deliberate intertextuality out there.

1. Allusion

An allusion is a common form of deliberate intertextuality where an artist refers another work of art directly. Sometimes, allusions come in the form of brief references, like Easter eggs that many directors leave in their movies for sharp-eyed fans. Disney included an Easter egg in its animated feature Moana when the character, Sven, from its film Frozen appeared for a brief, flashing moment.

Deeper, less obvious allusions can be found in other films and are not always references to other movies. Many directors use classic literature as inspiration. Clueless, for instance, is a fun, teen comedy about self-absorbed Cher from Beverly Hills trying to find her friend a boyfriend. Look a little deeper, however, and you'll see its characters and story line are lifted directly from Jane Austen's classic novel Emma.

The Coen Brothers' film, O Brother Where Art Thou, borrowed so heavily from The Odyssey that they even gave Homer a writing credit. Many characters and scenes are heavily based on the ancient Greek epic poem. John Goodman's one-eyed character, ''Big Teague,'' is like the Cyclops, and the beautiful women in the river who seduce the main characters allude to the Sirens in The Odyssey.

This might seem like outright thievery, but it also gives viewers a chance to connect with a classic story in a more contemporary setting. Classic literature like Emma or The Odyssey relies heavily on references meant to appeal to readers of their own time period. Modern readers might miss out on Austen's biting social satire, for instance and see it as a simple romance story; but the satire becomes very clear when played out by Cher and her friends in Clueless.

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