Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Born At The Wrong Time

I may not have been as bowled over by Inception as most everyone else but I was still happy to applaud Warner Bros for putting money into something that was certainly different and a bit more intelligent than the usual pap spewed onto cinema screens. And since it was well–received by both the public and critics – when so many movies are lucky to get even the slightest approval from either – made a good bit of money, and is finding its way into annual award categories, you’d think that those studio executives with the wherewithal to green light projects would have figured out that making films that are new and different could be the way to go.

If they did mull it over during an odd moment between the usual hours of self–loathing the idea obviously didn’t stick, because the boobs at the studio have kicked off this new year by announcing a remake of A Star is Born, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring some singer called Beyoncé. At this point WTF? was reconfigured from “What The Fuck?” to “Why The Fuck?” I mean, really, why? It was only a few months back, appearing on BBC2’s The Culture Show to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, that Martin Scorsese related the tale of seeing the film in a screening room on the Warner’s lot in the company of the Vice-President of the studio who was thinking of remarking it. After the credits rolled and the lights came up the VP, who like Scorsese was watching it for the first time, declared, “Can’t top that!” and dropped the idea.

Since this is further proof that the studio executives back in the mid–1970s had brains, while the current crop appear to have shit for brains, maybe they should take an afternoon off and head to that same screening room to watch a print of George Cukor’s 1954 classic starring Judy Garland and James Mason called up from the vaults. That way it should soon become clear that they shouldn’t waste the studio’s time and money and actually make something new instead. After all, we already had a remake of A Star is Born in 1976 (which might discount the theory that every studio head had their head screwed on back then), this time shifting the story from the film industry to the music business and featuring Barbra Streisand as the young singer whose career is on the ascendancy, falling for Kris Kristofferson’s long established, self–destructive, star who is in decline.

Questioning the reasoning behind this prospective new version isn’t simply about having an axe to grind with remakes. After all, Cukor’s version was in fact a remake of a 1937 film, produced by David O. Selznick and starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester and Fredric March as the older, alcoholic, Norman Maine. And just to queer matters further, the William A. Wellman–directed original was so similar is terms of plot to the earlier What Price Hollywood? – also directed by Cukor and co–produced by Selznick – that RKO even contemplated filing a suit for plagiarism against Selznick International Pictures when this new film was released.

Almost a year ago, Brian Sibley kicked off an intriguing discussion regarding which film incarnation of various literary characters people preferred as every generation gets their own particular take on the famous creations of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. There was also Alexandre Dumas’ Musketeers to consider and even Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, especially since we had just had Guy Ritchie’s latest cinematic version of Holmes and Watson, with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ extraordinary contemporary take still waiting in the wings. Even if we don’t always accept the new versions, staying rooted to our favourites, there’s always something intriguing as to how the latest interpretation will play out.

Remakes, though, are a different matter, especially when they miss the point of the original. The remake of The Italian Job might have kept the minis racing off with the gold, but without the wit and sheer anarchy of Troy Kennedy Martin’s original that threw an almighty “Fuck you!” to the European Economic Community, which Great Britain was soon to join, the film was a run–of–the–mill caper movie filled with bland characters. But then the most revered film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade and written and directed by the great John Huston, was the third take on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday was the second film based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway comedy The Front Page and has never been bettered, not even by Billy Wilder with his 1974 version.

After blotting their copybook with a wholly unnecessary remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing Studios classic, The Ladykillers, the Coen brothers have currently found critical acclaim with their new version of True Grit. The rationale behind the project was not to remake the film but to produce a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, focusing more on young Mattie Ross seeking revenge for the death of her father. So maybe the unwritten rule studios should adhere to is to only remake a film if they and everyone involved has a valid reason for doing it and can actually improve on the previous version. Now that would be something original!


At 1:54 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

There are remakes and there are remakes... I think the True Grit remake benefited from replacing an icon with an actor, which made for a very different experience even though not much else seemed to change.

But I can't explain the almost shot-for-shot remake of The Omen other than as a churning of material with no new value added other than a generational update of names and faces. Which clearly is enough for the huge, casual audience who greatly outnumber those of us who find such a thing futile!

At 8:15 pm, Blogger Ian said...

I'm with you on "Inception" although still trying to figure out how the Academy can nominate it for "Best Film" but (again!) totally ignore Christopher Nolan for Best Director. It's not like he isn't totally involved in every aspect of his films (unlike many of those who DO get nominated).

As for remakes, well it's a new audience. Foreign remakes annoy the hell out of me (Why the hell would you remake ".Rec" as "Quarantine" or "Let the Right One In" as "Let Me In" mere months after they've been released to rave reviews. But then I speak to friends and it's scary how many people just won't watch a film with subtitles. Their loss!

Have to confess there's one remake I'm actually looking forward to: David Fincher's take on "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".

At 5:45 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Wasn’t the remake of The Omen thought up simply so it could be released on June 6th, 2006 – 06.06.06?! I suspect that would explain it, however piss-poor an excuse. As for that shot-for-shot remake of Psycho...

I was having a drink with Dick Fiddy and my circle of usual suspects last night, and before Kim Newman stopped by we touched on the subject of these damnable remakes, reboots, reimaginings (or whatever label gets thrust upon a new version of an old movie so as not to make it look like sheer laziness).

Currently Mark Wahlberg is being fêted for his role in The Fighter but in the first few years of the last decade he was bogged down playing the lead in the remakes of Planet of the Apes, The Truth About Charlie and The Italian Job. Remaking Charade with Wahlberg and Thandie Newton in place of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn... what the hell were they thinking? Even more disappointing was it was directed by Jonathan Demme, who then went on to mangle The Manchurian Candidate.

On the way to and from the pub, I got to thinking about the remakes I refer to the originals and could only really come up with The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. Actually I do like Soderbergh’s take on Solaris, and then of course there’s The Mummy, although it has been a long, long time since I’ve seen Karl Freund’s version starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep.

Can we excuse it as a generational thing? It’s obvious most folk don’t give a damn about the past and it bugs the hell out of me when contestants on quiz shows mutter, “this was before I was born”, when they get asked a question about old movies. Ultimately it’s their loss, but it means there are now so many great actors, writers, directors and producers that are simply being forgotten. I suppose we should be thankful that novels don’t get re-written for each new generation. Madame Bovary by Katie Price, anyone?


I’m with you there. Worse than the English language versions of foreign language films is when the original director is paid to “Americanize” their movie. Talk about making a deal with the devil.

And I have to say that I’m looking forward to seeing what Fincher does with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That reminds me I’ve got to watch the first couple episodes of The Killing on iPlayer before the weekend.

At 9:51 pm, Blogger Ian said...

Your comment about people not being interested in films made before they were born reminded me of when I attended a film-makers course a few years ago. It was full of 20-30 somethings, all working in new media. I was easily the oldest there EXCEPT for the instructor.

Anyway a discussion of some film techniques came up and the whole false perspective thing came up. A student said "Peter Jackson was the first to do that with Frodo on the Road when he first hears the Black Riders approaching". I was pleased when the instructor interrupted him.... to say that it was invented by Stephen Spielberg for the shot of the provincial mayor on the beach in his deck chair when he realises a shark attack is underway. Clearly he hadn't seen Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" made some years earlier!

At 10:38 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Oh dear God! I hope you pulled him up on his monumental gaff. Did you ask for you money back there and then? Speaking of exceptional ignorance, while I was taking a break from the computer, late this afternoon, I found myself watching some general knowledge quiz on the box where a couple of contestants were quite adamant that Anton Chekhov had written a play called “The Pigeon”. If you wanted to blow their brains out you wouldn’t need a gun, just hand them a handkerchief.


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