After my last post, regarding the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I received quite some negative replies – as well as some positive comments. I’ve replied/clarified some of my points in a number of forums and on the IMDB. I’ll let this long winded series of musings serve as a final summing up of points I’ve not had space to address on previous occasions. Almost all the negative feedback had to do with the perception that I, being more or less familiar with film history, could never view a remake “on its own terms“; meaning, I assume, that the spectre of an original – and fondly remembered – film, would always come between me and the new “work of art”.
I mainly disagree with this notion, but I can’t dismiss it altogether. Film reviewing and criticism has as much to do with knowledge of what has come before as with anything else. Film criticism, it seems to me, is not the art of analyzing a film and only that single film, as if no other films have been made. Without the ability to compare films, to hold them up against each other, it would be very hard to decide what quality is and what it is not.
Can one, for example, fully appreciate L.A. Confidential with no knowledge of the period in which it is set – and in the kind of films they made in that period? One can like it for its plot, suspense, action scenes and to a certain degree its characters, but I would certainly claim that a more thorough appreciation hinges on recognizing certain archetypes and archetropes of film noir and in seeing this film’s treatment of such. Also, while one can easily like the film without any comparative knowledge, one can never know whether it is really good; if there has already been made 1000 better films in the genre, one would be hard pressed to find the thousandandfirst film more than average at best. No one ever sees all the films ever made, so a truly exhaustive comparison is never possible, but if one hasn’t seen enough films to have at least a tentative understanding of what constitutes a genre, one can well rent films and privately consider every seeming novelty the best film in the world, but one should keep silent about them in polite company, if not on the internet…
Genre is one of the ways we can make sense of films. It is also a tool that enables us to talk about films that in some ways have something in common, usually having to do with subject matter and/or film style. It is usually ridiculous to compare a film (in terms of quality )of one genre to one in another genre. While I may like, say, the anime Mononoke-hime better than Die Hard, I can’t really claim that it is definitely the better film (it is!!!), as both seem to succeed in what they set out to do in a manner that is exemplary for their respective genres (Anime and Mainstream Action). I can, however say that Die Hard is better than American Gangster. I could also imply that I prefer a well made Anime over a well made Mainstream Action film, and thus validate my preference. It is after all the reviewer’s subjective take on the films that constitute the review. However, this must not mean that he disregards films in a genre that he doesn’t hold in especially high esteem as positively inferior. Ideally a reviewer should be able to appreciate all genres for what they are, what they can be.
Genre, thus, constitutes one way we judge newer films by what has come before. As mentioned above, there were some protests that implied that I, having seen the original TDTESS, was incapable of judging it in a way that had anything to say to those that had not yet seen the original. This is not far from claiming that the less informed a reviewer is about the history of film, the better equipped he is to communicate what the general public is likely to appreciate. I will approach the matter of judging and validating remakes by another example, that of sequels.
In the case that a film is deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, one of two things generally occurs: 1: The studio hopes to earn some easy money by replacing everything that made the original any good (if it had ever been good in the first place) with a second rate production or less known faces in front of and behind the camera. Often these films end up going direct to DVD, or at least sells gradually less and less (a number of Disney films come to mind as well as any sequel featuring members of Saturday Night Live. And let‘s not forget any mildly or very successful horror-film; Puppetmaster, Halloween, Friday 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Tremors, Resident Evil, Child’s Play, Critters, Jaws, Highlander, Mimic, etc, etc. By the way, none of these has less than 2 sequels, and some have already been remade as well). 2: Other films were maybe so-called sleeper hits, or films that the studio felt insecure about upon their original release, and when having proved successful beyond expectations, a bigger, more expensive and expansive sequel is arranged, with as many of the same players as possible. Sometimes these films do reasonably well commercially, such as the mentioned Die Hard-films, the Jason Bourne– or the Matrix Trilogy, other times they bomb as if there is no tomorrow, as, let’s say, Speed 2. Once in a blue moon, the sequels are actually almost on par with the original of what has now become a kind of franchise, or it betters them: Godfather II, Superman II, Spiderman II, Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max II, The Dark Knight (which is not called Batman II, so I don‘t know if it counts as a sequel) and let’s not forget Revenge of the Nerds II.
In the case of the lower budgeted sequels, it is generally not that necessary to have seen the first part of the series in order to understand/appreciate the following films. I find that the opposite is usually true for the ones that add a bigger budget. This is strange, as one would assume that the more expensive a film is, the more the studios would want the film to be able to stand alone. Oh well, I digress. My point here is that in order to determine whether, say, The Matrix: Revolutions is any good, or rather, how bad it is, one would be expected to have seen the preceding film(s). Seen by and for itself, one could perhaps confuse it for an original sci/fi-action film utilizing exciting and ground breaking new technology. I find it strenuous to think that someone would accuse a reviewer of being biased because he had seen the first of the trilogy and found the sequels to be severely lacking in comparison. Again, the point is that the quality of the film is in some ways bound to comparisons with already existing films. I doubt that the fact of having seen Tremors invites the viewer to base his entire impression of the quality of the sequels upon whether they follow the same formula as the original. There are other aspects that come into play, such as competence, direction and story. I fail to see that judging sequels differs enormously from reviewing remakes.
In the matter of remakes, one has a very definite and literal source of comparison. The film makers have decided for some reason – and these reasons can be good or bad – that they want to have another go at a cultural product. I put it as loosely as that, because in most instances they don’t really want to make the same film again – Gus van Sant’s Psycho being the possible exception – but to take a story, a character, a concept or – in too many cases – merely want to capitalize upon an established title, a brand, so to say, and try to make something new or financially viable of it.
Seeing as the film makers – or studio – has thus invited comparisons by retooling an already existing cultural entity (how’s that for being obscure?), I think any reviewer would be amiss if he didn’t consider how the newer version differs from, improves upon, takes away from, or expands upon the original concept. This by no means implies that the reviewer should automatically perceive the original version as a biblical text and any deviations from it as heresy. I very much like Anthony Asquith‘s original The Winslow Boy, and, seeing as it is based on a play by the excellent Terence Rattigan, I could see very few ways in which to improve upon the film. In David Mamet’s remake, almost the exact same story was told in almost the exact same way, with a very few exceptions. These exceptions had to do with some of Mamet’s usual concerns, a certain delivery of speech and stressing of relationship between truth and seeming truth. For me some little extra scenes and a very slightly different ear for dialogue was enough to more than appreciate Mamet’s new version.
I think the biggest problem some reviewers and many mere viewers have with remakes has to do with the quality of the original. If a film was really good, why remake it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remake a flawed product that one perceives as having potential to be better than it actually turned out to be? In other cases, usually concerning some supernatural or sci/fi- concept, the effects available at the time of the original were so few that one thinks that adding green screen and blue screen and sensors on everyone’s faces will automatically make for a better viewing experience. The idea is not silly. The better the effects in these kinds of films, the easier to lose oneself in the reality of the film, one might say. So one “reinvents” Planet of the Apes and The Day The Earth Stood Still. It is needless to say that none of these will survive the test of time. I think part of the reason is that it was not the technology per se that made them function as films but the story and direction. So any remake has very little to gain but much to lose by relying on better visual effects to validate its existence.
Sometimes the results are indeed honourable, as in the recent versions of King Kong and War of the Worlds. I still prefer the 1933-version of the former. This has to do with being able to compare it to other films of the time, and thus seeing how inventive and adventurous the film really was and is. Another reason might be almost archaeological in nature, as if it stands before us as a beautiful artefact of a time gone by, and we should be glad it still exists for our pleasure. Both these reasons might be said to be more theoretical or intellectual than aesthetic, but I think that one can’t overlook that the story is extremely well told and as long as the story is captivating enough to hold our attention, the technical means of telling it does not matter a whole lot. My preferring the original did not, however, make me disposed to hate Peter Jackson’s remake. On the contrary, I liked it and thought it among the better block busters of its year. Much the same I can say for Steven Spielberg’s retooling of the classic invasion film. While not his best work, it was by no means a disaster, and I particularly liked how he made the action happen outside the reach of his Everyman. It reminded me in this aspect a fair bit of Marvels, the excellent comic book by Kurt Busiek.
This begs the question: Why remake films where the only available new technology to speak of is colour, and even that was available for most of these films? Why remake Father of the Bride, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 3:10 to Yuma, The Manchurian Candidate, The Women, The Pink Panther, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and many, many more? If it was the story that seemed old fashioned, why remake it, why not make something entirely new? If one thinks the acting style seemed too old fashioned, well, why pander to fads and make everything so goddamn easy for everyone? And why have Steve Martin try to badly copy Peter Sellers? Even some of my favourite directors are guilty of this meaningless retooling of already very good films, as in the case of the Coen Brother’s remake of the Ladykillers. And that, as they say, is a shame.
Maybe the first lesson the Remakers should take is “never remake a film made by a distinct director, someone who has/had their own vision”. Try to remake some journeyman director instead. I don’t think anyone alive, maybe except Stephen King, much appreciates the remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Well, at least they had the wits to call it Stephen King’s The Shining… I shudder to think of the day they decide to remake A Clockwork Orange. David Lynch has made one film that is not a master piece, but seeing as that was based on a series of novels and not even he was satisfied with the final version, I don’t find it scandalous that they remade Dune. However, imagine in 20 years a producer wanting to have a go at Blue Velvet or conceive of Eraserhead: The Mutation!
Now, while mentioning The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, I took pause, wondering if any new version of a novel or play is really a remake of the film or just another version of the literary source. In, let’s say films based on works by Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, one doesn’t really think of them as remakes of films, does one? Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Hamlet are not really remakes of Olivier’s versions as much as interpretations of Shakespeare, methinks. Neither are new versions of Emma, Othello, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights or Dracula as much remakes of existing films as they are yet another way to bring the book to life. War of the Worlds, though, is considered a remake of the 1956-film more than an interpretation of H.G.Wells, and a number of Western films that have later been remade also had a literary antecedent, without this being considered when we talk about the remakes. Maybe it has to do with the classic status of the original work, or whether the novels predates Film itself?
In closing, I’d like to take the opportunity to mention a case where I saw the remake first and only much later the original work. I have seen Mike Figgis’ film The Browning Version two times. It is based on a play by already mentioned Terrence Rattigan. Neither viewing left much impression on me. I thought it a so-so film, with good actors trying to play as good actors should. Recently I saw Anthony Asquith’s original and was blown away. Michael Redgrave delivers a portrait of the retiring teacher that put Albert Finney’s portrayal if not to shame, than at least rendered more or less meaningless. The difference in acting and actors was not all, though. It was made in another time, yet the original felt emotionally a hundred times more relevant to me than Figgis’ remake. Why this is so, and why the earlier film was so much better is something I hope one day to put into more words, maybe here. Perhaps they just made better films before, or perhaps when something has been made once, it can very seldom be bettered. I don’t know. I do not, however, hate those that try. Unless they insist on bringing Steve Martin along. And unless they fuck with my favourite films. Now, go and remake the Phantom Menace. With a director.