Thursday, December 10, 2009

To Remake or Not to Remake?

One of the coolest aspects of Fantasmo is the conversations that are generated during the course of the evening by the films being screened. At our most recent outing with Dr. Syn, discussion veered off on a tangent to Patrick McGoohan’s classic series The Prisoner. Specifically talk was directed toward the new AMC remake of sorts starring Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. Before I go any further I have to warn you that this piece may get into some spoilerish territory of The Prisoner and other things, so proceed with caution. It is safe to say that the majority of the folks involved in the conversation were fans of the original show, myself being included. In fact for my part, I would say The Prisoner is perhaps my favorite piece of filmed fiction ever produced (television, movie, or otherwise). McGoohan created a truly timeless work of art that is as relevant today as it ever was. When I initially heard about the possibility of a remake I was skeptical, as the original was quite surreal and unlikely to lend itself well to a retelling. After all the end of the show sees McGoohan literally confronting the dark side of himself, and learning he was (as portrayed in a living, breathing metaphor) his own jailer. Once you’ve witnessed that punchline and all that it represents, the thought of doing it again wouldn’t appear to make much sense. Who would care? This point was what fueled the discussion, as it brought up the larger issue of the validity of remakes in general. Is there such a thing as a worthy remake, or are they all just bankrupt endeavors from folks who have run out of ideas, wishing to make a quick dollar off of a familiar property? This is the question I seek to answer.

My knee jerk reaction to remakes, and I think many feel the same way, is that they tend to be rather lazy. Take for example the recent reboot of Friday the 13th. It plays around with familiar elements of the films, but it captures neither the essence which made the originals great, nor covers any new ground that makes the territory worth revisiting. It’s just empty calories that make for a big opening weekend box office, but not a lasting impression. And how many of these have we seen in recent memory? Last House on the Left, The Hitcher, The Fog, The Hills Have Eyes, Death Race 2000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, etc. And the list just keeps getting bigger with remakes of Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and others on the way. If you run the numbers, the sheer volume of terrible remakes out there do not inspire much enthusiasm for the artists behind these endeavors, nor the potential quality of the final products. As such it’s easy to understand why fans don’t react well to these, given their dime a dozen nature.

For me the notion of a classic or beloved piece of work being revisited is not in and of itself a bad thing. The perfect example of this would be in the theatre world where you have numerous interpretations of the work of Shakespeare. Not only are his works given inexhaustible life by the interpretations of the performers, but in many instances they are spun in a new fashion (e.g. an update of the time period). This is evident in recent film adaptations as well such as Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. One may question the quality of any given interpretation, but the notion of staging a unique Shakespearian production is not the subject of fiery debate. New generations of artists pick up the baton and keep the work fresh and relevant for their own particular moment in time. And like him or not, one would be hard pressed to argue that Shakespeare is not one of the most (if not the most) important artistic giant with regard to the written word. With that in mind, the next question would be if we can remake and retell the greatest works of literature, then why should The Prisoner, much less Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, be untouchable?

My own personal answer to the question is that no piece of art, no matter how revered, should be untouchable (even The Untouchables itself was re-envisioned . . . not to mention DePalma’s reboots of Scarface and Mission: Impossible). Once an artist puts something out in the open forum of the entertainment universe, it becomes a part of that fabric and forever altered by the perceptions of those who experience it. So the only “pure vision” is actually in the mind of its author (which is why I don’t have a big problem with folks like Lucas or Friedkin revising their classics, even if the final result isn’t pleasing to me). By extending their work to the world of artists and critics, which on some level is all of us, they are accepting all the risks of compromise that come with that action. All art is a collaboration. There is the issue of copyright of course, but that is an issue of economics more than artistry. Outside of any legal considerations, the morphing of that original concept by other “artists” is fair game. When you think about it, sequels fall under this banner as well as they are often extensions by others of an original concept, even if they don’t follow the exact plot. For example Dan O’Bannon may have come up with the story for Alien, but chances are he didn’t envision the place James Cameron eventually took things . . . yet most would agree that Aliens was a worthy film.

The trouble, and general lack of goodwill toward remakes/retellings/re-envisionings in the current climate, stems from the quantity vs. quality angle. It seems that Hollywood has veered away from concerns of putting forward visions that truly expand or enhance original material, and instead seek to cash in on pure name recognition. The template is to find a hotshot director, hand over a revered property the studio owns, and have them crank out a slick-looking update of the original in the minimum time/cost required. Even if the movie goes down in the second weekend due to bad word of mouth, chances are it will make a profit from the first weekend. And that’s not even counting foreign grosses and video. Consequently it is a rare occasion when remakes in this day and age manage to be both profitable and interesting. Despite this condition, those few films (and I’m including television here as well) that manage to say something new with the classic material have a right to make their artistic case. In my mind they constitute an experiment, and therefore provide food for thought – even when they aren’t successfully executed. The fact is that they are attempting to push forward in some fashion, and that is often a worthy endeavor in itself. It is only through the encouragement of such experimentations, that other artists are emboldened to chart new paths.

It’s taken me a while to come around to making this conclusion, and I can clearly identify the turning point. When I was reading Vern’s Seagalogy, he talked about his admiration of Seagal for making the wildly non-commercial environmental epic On Deadly Ground. While noting that Seagal’s vision was a departure from grounds less deadly to box office receipts, he admired him for cashing in his clout to do something personal (even if it wasn’t perfectly executed). In making his case, Vern drew a parallel with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot (mostly) remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He felt some admiration for Van Sant for using his Good Will Hunting clout, and undertaking a project that was maligned by practically everyone from the word go. Van Sant thought it would be interesting to see what would result in trying to (mostly) perfectly replicate Psycho using the tools/artists of the day. In this sense he was not simply remaking a film to cash in, he was engaging in a true experiment with purpose. Now mileage may widely vary as to what folks thought about the worth of the purpose, but that’s the nature of art anyway.

The fact is when I saw Van Sant’s Psycho during its original run, I along with just about everybody else thought it was a travesty. I haven’t seen it since, and suspect my assessment of its success as entertainment or a good film would likely not change very much. That being said, having listened to Vern’s argument, I became firmly convinced that Gus Van Sant’s Psycho had a right to exist. Going further I believed it was good that it did exist, and that Van Sant courageously tried a bold experiment. Although the experiment was not successful in terms of garnering praise or producing a great film, I believe he answered the question he sought to answer (even if it was not the answer he and the audience were hoping for). If nothing else that answer will insure there are no shot-for-shot remakes of Vertigo anytime soon. And let’s be honest, what he attempted was a far cry from what we’re given in lesser remakes such as Friday the 13th. There was something behind what he was doing beyond making money. To look at more recent efforts for comparison, I would say his stab at Psycho was close in spirit to Rob Zombie’s Halloween I & II. Zombie parroted certain elements of the originals, particularly in Halloween, but he took it a step further and gave each his own spin. The fact is both directors had a vision and an artistic reason for what they were doing, and I can respect that even if I didn’t care for the films.

I keep picking on Friday the 13th, but it’s not just these flash in the pan types of remakes that lack vision. One can look at more respected auteurs and encounter the same problem. There are few directors I hold in higher esteem than the legendary John Carpenter. Yet when he sought to update Village of the Damned, the results were decidedly mediocre. Instead of putting his own touches on a film I’m sure he was fond of, he produced one of the empty calorie remakes. It has all the plot elements of the original film, cool ILM effects, and a great genre cast, but it lacks anything that would distinguish it as being a worthwhile endeavor. There are a couple of minor plot re-workings, but they add nothing significant. What’s interesting though is that Carpenter is actually a director who happens to be adept at remakes. For example Assault on Precinct 13 was an amazing update of Rio Bravo, and he even produced a clever remake of AOP13 years later in the form of Ghost of Mars. Furthermore, Escape From L.A. was a good remake of Escape From New York, which tread the same plot points with a new message. So one can even see the pitfalls and values of remakes within the filmography of a single director.

Bringing this all back to AMC’s The Prisoner, despite my devotion to the original show I feel that it (thus far) is worthy. I’ve only seen the first four episodes of the show, so the ending may disappoint, but it is clear that the makers have done enough to establish that it is not a by-the-numbers, hollow retread. There are visual touches that recall the old show, and the Village/Number Two/Number Six structure is similar, but the execution is much different. This new Prisoner is even more surreal (who would have thought that possible), features a weaker Number Six, and sports a pretty hopeless atmosphere out of the gate. Additionally, the underlying purpose/theme of the show is both a mystery and a departure. McGoohan’s Prisoner early on established personal identity and the struggle against those who would squash it as a central theme. Caviezel’s Prisoner pays lip service to this, but genuinely seems more concerned with just getting out. Now that’s a simpler construct, but I’m thinking they’ll attempt to tie the disjointed narrative together with some message in the end. Whether that’s successful or not is another story, but it’s clear they’ve made a decision not to try to outdo McGoohan (unless Caviezel discovers himself in an ape mask in the end, and launches a rocket).

As far as my enjoyment of the new Prisoner goes, I’ve found it to be interesting but nothing I’ll add to my all-time favorites list. If I were seeing it with no knowledge of the original, I’d probably say it’s a solid series worth seeing (again four episodes in). In the context of the original, it’s certainly nowhere near matching McGoohan’s efforts. It’s stylish and well-mounted, but it doesn’t resonate with me as strongly, nor is it as engaging. That may sound harsh, but remember it’s up against what is perhaps my ultimate favorite. A strength I should mention though is the performances. McKellen is outstanding as one would expect, and Caviezel does a good job with the spin on this Number Six. Six spends much of his time disoriented and is not particularly strong, and that works within the context of this version. Caviezel has taken some hits for a limp portrayal, but it’s smart that he didn’t try to imitate McGoohan . . . because no one could. I think reviews have been overly negative in the press, largely focusing on its comparison to the original. If taken on its own merits, this Prisoner is an interesting diversion and riff on the original.

The most persuasive argument that was advanced during the course of the Fantasmo debate, was that McGoohan had a strong vision that was intensely personal. As such any attempt to replicate or modify that is unacceptable. I understand this position, and on some level feel that myself. However what I would counter with is that appraisal of art, be it merit of concept or execution, is subjective. I don’t think one can apply objective principles in determining whether the artistic endeavor of a remake should be commenced. In other words I couldn’t look at the original Prisoner and objectively state that McGoohan had a strong artistic vision (X) + strong execution of that vision (Y) = the material should not be tampered with (Z). As I said in the beginning, due to the nature of art as a collaborative experience between artist and audience, I believe we must assume that modification will happen on some level once the art is exhibited. The ability to objectively identify merit (e.g. technical/aesthetic values) will be more possible once the modification (in this case remakes) has occurred, but even then subjectivity is going to be a greater factor. There may be a consensus that something is bad (e.g. Friday the 13th), but there will always be some contingent who find the updated/modified material worthwhile on some level.

Long story short, I would suggest that despite mine and the tendency of others to dismiss the majority of remakes out of hand, the right for remakes to be undertaken is legitimate. Unfortunately the trend is toward the by-the-numbers efforts that lack inspiration, but those few which have a vision make the sifting through process worthwhile. Even the noble failures, among which I would count the new Prisoner as it is not the equal of the original, are worth experiencing for what they have to offer. To go back to an earlier example, while I don’t plan on revisiting Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, I’m glad I saw them. They gave me a few new elements to consider, even if the ride was uneven. For what it’s worth I’d love to see Zombie remake Halloween III, as I’m sure he’d do wonders with the evil toymaker plotline. He couldn’t top the original though unless he was able to get Tom Atkins back for the lead, I think we can all agree on that!


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hey Jim!

I really enjoyed reading this piece. I think you lay out the argument about remakes very well.

You don't want to knee-jerk reject them; on the other hand...many do tend to "lack inspiration," just as you said; relying on a brand name rather than a good script or a unique interpretation.

John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and other movies HAVE gotten it right.

I also enjoyed the remakes of Les Diaboliques, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Many speak highly of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (though I would need to see it again to make a personal assessment).

And clearly, many people really liked the re-imagined Battlestar (though it drove me crazy...)

Since we live in a time of remakes, reboots and re-imaginations, this discussion isn't going away any time soon...


Jim Blanton said...

Hey John!
Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed it. It's a discussion that comes up frequently, because there are sooooo many of these remakes at the moment. Keeping an objective eye can be tough because of the predominantly lackluster nature most of them exhibit.

The fact that there have been a number that have gotten it right, such as the ones you mention, serve as a reminder that they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Dawn of the Dead is a good example. I really enjoyed it for what it was, as an exercise in pure entertainment. Others got hung up on the fact that it didn't have a message like the original, and just was cashing in on the title. To a certain extent the title argument holds water, but I found it just a different take on the Dawn of the Dead playground. I'm glad Snyder didn't try to duplicate too much, and it paid off.

Battlestar is an interesting one for me as well. I was totally against it initially, and the concept left a bad taste in my mouth. Once I started watching it however, I was hooked. I didn't always like or agree with it, but I felt that the effort was worthy even if it didn't all come together satisfactorily in the end.

As you point out, they aren't going away anytime soon, so in my opinion its best to address them head on despite the frustration with the glut we're experiencing . . . because they all aren't bad.

Best, Jim

Now if they'll just remake the timeless classic Rats: A Night of Terror . . .

Moor Larkin said...

It's about time they remade Dr. Syn isn't it? And this time they can do it in the spirit of the new prisoner and make it so that General Pugh kicks the vicar's ass.

Never let a dream get in the way of reality I say.

Jim Blanton said...

It's not that far out in left field. After all (spoiler) Cushing doesn't make it through the end of Night Creatures!