Art is inherently referential; everyone is influenced by something that came before. Great (and not-so-great) artists all get inspiration from somewhere and will sometimes show it in their works. If an artist makes a reference to something in their own work, that is often seen as an homage. But what is homage? Is it anything like copying? And how much is too much when it comes to references?
First, let's define homage
“Good artists copy, great artists steal” so goes the saying. In the case of homage, it’s definitely more of the latter, as we will make note of in our definition below. To clarify, this doesn't involve artists literally stealing ideas and claiming them for their own. For it to qualify as an homage, there should be a layer of acknowledgement included.
What is homage?
Homage is a dedication and/or “show of respect” for something or someone, often as a reference in a work of art. The work of art can vary (literature, poetry, theater, cinema) as can the type of homage. Coming from a French word representing a declaration of fealty to a feudal lord, the word now tends to just mean whenever an artist refers to another artist in their work. And homage can be as obvious or as subtle as the artist chooses, resulting in examples that are easy to catch or hard to notice.
How to pronounce homage (the "h" is silent):
- French (oh-MAJ)
- English (AH-mij)
Homage Definition Summary:
- Reference to something or someone in a work of art
- Obvious or subtle, depending on type of reference
- Meant as a sign of respect (almost never as an insult)
Homage in Art
It’s a good idea to briefly touch upon homage as seen in traditional forms of art. Plenty of artists known for their wonderful paintings have been inspired enough by others to make reference in their own work.
Since an artist can make any number of individual pieces, one or two (or more) of these can be direct or indirect homages to other works.
Direct references are intentional and more or less obvious, depending on your ability to recognize it as such.
Indirect references are more unintentional, usually created when a specific reference has been used to many times, it's simply part of the style.
Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous artists of all time who has some examples. These include Las Meninas (originally by Diego Velazquez), among some others, which stand as the artist’s own interpretation of the earlier work. In this way, the new work by Picasso functions as its own piece while being a direct homage to an older one.
Sometimes these references can look like copying, or just too obvious due to being so similar to the work it’s referencing. But the beauty of art is the artist’s ability to interpret older works and make them their own.
There’s also the fact that most artists make many individual works, so a few direct homages does not make up their entire collection of art.
It should also be noted that counterfeiting via copying is not the same thing as homage. It might seem obvious, but it’s important to make the distinction, which affects other art forms. Unless it’s a 1:1 copy for the sake of taking the place of the original, what looks like a copy might more likely be an homage.
Homage in Cinema
Homage is an ever present element in cinema, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to keep track of each and every example. That’s no exaggeration; cinema is so full of homages that we could be here for an infinite amount of time listing each and every time it happens.
With that in mind, it would be a bit easier to talk about specific homage examples and the different types that pop up in cinema.
Some of the world’s most famous filmmakers are known for their love of homage, like Steven Spielberg. Co-created with George Lucas, his entire Indiana Jones series (which include Spielberg’s best movies of all time) is essentially one big homage to adventure film serials of the 1930s and ‘40s.
And speaking of Lucas, Star Wars is seen as an homage to science-fiction serials, Westerns, and Japanese samurai films.
Some filmmakers are so big on paying respect to their influences that they get called copiers (or worse, rip off artists). For example, Brian de Palma, whose love for Alfred Hitchcock (as well as Italian Giallo) does not go unnoticed by most film scholars and fans. De Palma talks about his influences in the interview (with Noah Baumbach) below.
Quentin Tarantino is similar, but possibly even more obvious with his directing style full of influences and references. The Bride in Kill Bill wearing a yellow tracksuit is a direct homage to Bruce Lee in Game of Death, and the use of the airplane in flight in the same film was taken from a Japanese horror film, Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell.
Some movies have specific homages in them, like the most recent Daniels film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has homages to kung fu cinema and the films of Wong Kar-wai. Other movies are just one big homage, like Pacific Rim, which is an outright love letter to monster movies, being one giant homage to Japanese kaiju cinema.
There are also specific moments that get homages in other movies. One of the biggest is the famous Odessa steps/baby carriage scene from the Soviet cinema classic Battleship Potemkin, being directly referenced in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and de Palma’s The Untouchables.
Then of course there is the famous shower scene from Psycho, which has been homaged (and parodied) so often it’s become hackneyed.
Homages in cinema are ever present, but they can be implemented in many different ways. It is also perfectly normal to have them in such a visual medium, one which has benefited from influence and references.
So if you want to have an homage to something in your film, there is almost no wrong way to do it.
Spielberg’s Style and Technique
Now that you know a thing or two about homages, both in art and in cinema, take a closer look at one of the very best filmmakers who has mastered homage like no one else. Our overview of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking style and techniques helps you recognize the craft of a real cinematic artist while including plenty of examples.