Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hey, Russell - remake this!

I don't know about you, but I've never been able to set foot in a shower since I saw Psycho.
It's crazy, I know. But every time I see a shower curtain I immediately think of that immortal sequence, in which, one minute, Anne Heche is innocently washing in her motel bathroom, the next she is suddenly stabbed to death by Vince Vaughn disguised as his own mother. It's one of those sequences that will live forever in screen history, like that of King Kong rampaging through New York city with Naomi Watts clutched iconically in his paw.

The broad consensus among classic film bloggers is that remakes are bad. Whereas people who think that Gene Wilder was all very well but the ideal choice for Willy Wonka is an actor who looks like a waxwork of Charles Manson's eldest daughter are, to say the least, thin on the ground.
The tendency to unlock the rifle cabinet whenever a cherished classic is slated for crass remake is an obviously understandable one.

But does it really matter? It's not like the old days, when studios would actually suppress or even try to destroy earlier versions of movies before their remake came out, as MGM did with the vastly superior thirties versions of Gaslight and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Originals don't stop being good whenever a bad remake hits town; surely if anything it leaves them looking even better. If we're honest, what we fear most is not that the new version will be bad but rather that it will be good, if only by the standards of its own day, so that generations will rise not even knowing that An Affair To Remember, say, is a massively inferior rejig of Love Affair.
I feel a lot less personally threatened by flop remakes than by the ones that everyone loves.
The Nastassja Kinski version of Cat People is awful, but it is fascinating, and I'd much rather it existed than it didn't. A heart of flint is needed not to warm to such obviously charming follies, but if your answer to the question "who is the star of the movie Scarface?" is "Al Pacino" I will hunt you down no matter where you try to hide.
This week, the AOL homepage has been offering us its team's list of 25 remakes that outclass the original. Scarface is there, of course (Bridget Jones's Dairy to the original's Pride and Prejudice), along with such other abominations as Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Fly (1986) and Cape Fear (1991).
And you don't need to hate The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, the '54 Star Is Born or the '56 Man Who Knew Too Much to see that to express a preference for them over their originals is simply to fetishise lack of discernment.

The real problem for many of us, I think, is that the gesture of remaking a great film seems disrespectful, and also arrogant to a degree that would be not be tolerated in literature, for example. To the classic film historian a movie is as sacred as a novel - imagine a novelist proudly announcing that his next work will be a remake of Anna Karenina, as if the original book is merely a plot, and one, what's more, that has been waiting for him to tell it properly.
But to those who view cinema merely as a consumer's market, films are like pop songs, just recipes merely, always benefiting from revision with new technologies and styles. The friction lies in the distinction between these two different attitudes to cinema: the idea of remakes reinforces a conception of cinema as a lesser medium that angers those who insist it is a true artform. If, as I am certain, we are living in the last days of cinema as we understand the term, it will be interesting to see what perspective history takes, and which of its many faces will be the one or ones it chooses to preserve.

Viewed from a purely practical perspective, of course, remaking is almost always a mug's game.
For a start, it means that the film has something to prove before it's even begun. I adore the Mel Brooks version of To Be Or Not To Be: it seems to me to be almost perfectly constructed as a crowd pleaser and I've never known it to fail with audiences unfamiliar with the Lubitsch. But of course it was savaged on release, and those who cherish Lubitsch refuse to even consider its merits. The same fate befell Michael Winner's The Big Sleep (1978), which technically speaking isn't even a remake of the 1946 movie anyway: it's a different version of the same novel, which isn't the same thing at all. But it's very good in its own right: obviously inferior as a piece of fim-making to the Bogart version; just as obviously superior as an adaptation of the novel. But it, like the Brooks film, never stood a chance, simply because it was perceived as sacrilege.
The best kind of remakes would remake not great films but average ones, films that had the potential to be great but, for whatever reason, just missed their mark. But no studio would risk bankrolling a story that had already flopped once, so they go on restaging the masterpieces, hoping that lightning will strike twice. But the end result needs a lot of luck and goodwill even when it is good, and few would argue that most of the time they are not. From a commercial point of view, the compulsive urge to remake is mysterious indeed, no matter how short in supply originality may be.

Anyway, I say all this because I have just seen the trailer for the new version of Arthur, and it is so transcendentally, rhapsodically appalling that I couldn't not share it with you.
Now, it may be that you didn't much care for the Dudley Moore original. It very much hinges on whether you like Dudley Moore for one thing, and many do not, indeed, even the millions that thought they did when Ten and Arthur came out changed their minds almost immediately afterwards, ensuring that he never had another box office success in his life. It so happens that I do like him, and I do like Arthur very much, which has been a favourite of my family's for as long as I can remember. It's not perfect by any means, but it does recreate the ambiance of thirties screwball romantic comedy about as successfully as was possible in the eighties, and there are long stretches where it really does take flight, and you could almost imagine it's Peter Bogdanovich in the chair.
But, I stress, you don't have to like it one little bit in order to watch this trailer and want to die. When even the highlights selected for a trailer are less funny than the worst bits of any comedy ever made, you know you're in the presence of something very rare and very special. And this idiot Brand, entertainment's answer to entertainment, looking somehow even more sinister clean-shaven, is not a sight you'll forget in a hurry either: has there ever been anyone - man or woman, young or old, in the entire history of mankind - more utterly and extravagantly repulsive?
Here's the link: I did try to embed it straight into the post but Blogger kept rebelling and shutting down. It seems even computers know total and complete rubbish when they see it. And If you do like the original film, prepare to experience a sensation akin to watching your house burn down while the fire brigade just stand there laughing.