Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why a remake?

For most of the history of dramatic storytelling, originality of the plot was not considered a primary virtue. The ancient Athenians expected to know the story of the play they were going to see in advance--in fact, most of them were traditional stories they had known from childhood, or perhaps soon after. The playwright's art was the expression of that story and the character's reaction the events through verse and dance. Making up a new story would have completely confused your average Athenian, sort of like those two old ladies who always sit behind you at the movies and try to figure out the story out loud while you're trying to hear the dialogue.

Shakespeare, as we all know, swiped his stories from legends, from from Hollinshed's Chronicles from Plutarch's Lives and Italian and other story collections. Nobody faulted him for that in his own era. It is only since short story writers such as O'Henry and Maugham popularized the twist ending that it became bad form to give away the story, culminating in the great story conspiracy of Hitchcock's Psycho.

So the idea of a remake is not inherently dishonorable, at least in historical perspective. So why retell an already told story?

1. We know everybody likes it. The trouble with this in the home video era, is that we can always go back to the source. Back in the day, when MGM remade Little Women in 1949, they knew that not many people would have a good memory of the 1933 RKO version, but just to make sure, they bought the earlier film and suppressed it. But nowadays, if we're jonesing to see Wuthering Heights, we have the choice of about eight different versions, including a number of television adaptations. But none of them have the heat of the Olivier-Oberon 1939 version, one of the sexiest movies ever made where people keep their clothes on. (Other contenders: Notorious and To Have and Have Not.)

Worst example of "we know everybody likes it:" Gus van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Color film, lesser actors and nothing gained (and quite a bit lost).

2. Let's see how the story or the characters change when we bring them into a new era. So The Front Page, which has been filmed four times since 1929, was most recently set at a cable news network in 1988, to see how the story is different. Turns out, not much, but that was OK. In the case of The Women, the original 1940 characters lived in a world of severely limited possibilities for women, and competing for men was one of their few active options. Today's version makes those women seem even more petty and small, given all the other choices they could make with their lives. Body Heat is not a remake, but it frankly reworks themes and story tropes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice with the sexual frankness of the 1980s, not available to filmmakers in the 1940s. This may sound like the basis of a Skinemax epic, but Kasdan uses the sexual heat to add a layer of tension and ambiguity to the already complex characterizations.

3. Let's see how the story or characters change with different actors. A hit-and-miss matter. For example, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr seem to click better in 1957's Affair to Remember than do Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in the 1939 original, Love Affair. On the other hand Audie Murphy in 1954's Destry can't hold a candle to Jimmy Stewart in 1939's Destry Rides Again. (Besides, we all know that 1939 was a phenomenal year in film.)

4. Let's take the story in a different direction. This is not attempted very often. For one thing, there is often common source material, such as a novel. (Sometimes a remake will be done in order to return to the original story, such as the various remakes of Wuthering Heights and Dracula which purport to return to the source works and discard the "improvements" of the original Hollywood films.) The dreadful remake of Sleuth and Planet of the Apes felt compelled to add a new twist, since the original twists were so well known--in neither case did that work out well.

This final tack is how the French sex melodrama Nathalie (2003) became the American stalker flick Chloe (2008). In both cases, a woman decides to test her husband's fidelity by hiring a woman to try and have an affair with him (when was this ever a good idea?) The first half-hour of each film is almost scene-for-scene identical. Then they begin to diverge, and the final half-hour of each is almost utterly and completely different. Interestingly, Anne Thompson, co-writer and director of Nathalie participated in the reworking and approved it, presumably because the result was a completely different (and inferior) movie.

The differences are also illustrative of the differences between American and French ideas about sex and adultery. In France, adultery seems to be an almost inevitable hazard of long-time marriage, something to be gotten through, but survived. In the States, when the adultery is long-standing and has an emotional content (not merely casual sex), most people believe the marriage is and should be over. (I have not desire to point out who is more correct--it is merely an observation about the two cultures.)

Thus, when Fanny Ardant hires Emmanuel Beart to have an affair with her husband (Gerard Depardieu--who else?) she did not expect them to consummate it at first, but when it happens, she is not repulsed but intrigued. She sees an opportunity to gain perspective on her husband in the bedroom through this other woman's eyes. Ardant demands that Beart describe their encounters in graphic detail, and apparently derives a sexual frisson from that language. Ardant and Beart have a more obvious chemistry between each other than either has with Depardieu, and their bond seems deeper. Consequently, when it is revealed that Beart has betrayed Ardant's trust for the sake of a few Euros, Ardant is hurt; nonetheless, she has learned and grown from the experience, and husband and wife return to each other with a renewed commitment. (SPOILER ALERT - It helps that the Beart-Depardieu affair never happened.)

Americans are not so natural about their sexuality, and so Julianne Moore in Chloe never really ceases to be uptight. It doesn't help that Amanda Seyfried still looks she just got her high school diploma, not at all the experienced sophisticated seductress of the French film. It looks as though Moore is inviting her husband to be a pederast, not a roue. Like the original, the hired girl has her own agenda, but in Chloe it's not money she's after, but love. SPOILER ALERT - In the remake, the hired girl is unhinged, and pursuing the wife, who succumbs. Then, given the American penchant for hyped melodrama and the legacy of Fatal Attraction, Chloe goes completely around the bend, violence ensues, and Chloe dies a violent death, ostensibly because she wanted to hurt Julianne Moore, but subliminally as a punishment for being bi-sexual. (That minx--she betrayed all her customers in the strip club by not desiring them!)

So points for not doing a cookie cutter remake, which never works anyway, because once you've changed the artists--the actors, designers, photographer, director--you have a different film; not to mention the different setting in time and place. But points off for taking the initial story premise and steering straight for the cheap, the obvious and the fake. There is nothing to take away from Chloe to reflect on--it says nothing about marriage, sex, love or life. The only takeaway is "watch out for crazy people," which is something that I personally figured out a while ago. (Although it's not always possible.) Still, there was some creativity involved, though the result be largely negative.

The 1945 musical State Fair was remade in 1962 for straight-up commercial reasons. Musicals were becoming popular again, the songwriters Rodger and Hammerstein were money in the bank, and had a relationship with 20th Century Fox, the studio that filmed all the adaptations of their plays except the somewhat neglected Flower Drum Song and Fox already owned the story and six songs from the earlier film.

There were some problems. The 1945 State Fair is short at 100 minutes and lacking lavish production values, given the standards of 1962. The cast, settings, score and length would all need to be inflated. Moreover, only one of the six songs, "It Might As Well Be Spring" is integrated into the action of the story in the manner developed and popularized by Rodgers and Hammerstein. 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck once sent out an edict that songs in a musical had to be justified. That makes sense--the song should fit the characters who sing it and the story situation they are in. But that's not what Zanuck meant. He meant that if there was instrumental accompaniment, you should at least show a guy with an accordion, or else the audience would wonder where the music was coming from. Which demonstrates that for all his story sense in other areas, in musicals Zanuck was an idiot. Yes, musicals use an artifice and convention that people sing to express their emotional states, and that to make it more pleasing we provide an accompaniment. But cowboy movies, monster pictures and war pictures have just as many artifices and conventions--don't get me started.

The next time somebody says, "Musicals are stupid because they start singing and you can't figure out where the music's coming from," tell them, "All movies are stupid because people do all kinds of stuff in front of a camera but they never notice there's a camera and a cameraman." So there. It's all artificial, so get over yourself.

Another problem with the 1945 State Fair is that there are not enough songs for the story and a lot of key character developments go by without being musicalized, especially in the second half of the film, which starts bursting with chatter and even sprouts a strange character, a song-plugger played by ever-reliable Frank McHugh who talks for pages and pages about the music business but is really just there to provide the information that the young hero's sweetheart is unhappily married. It's really very lumpily put together.

So in 1962, some things are smoother and more professional. Where "That's For Me" was sung by a chanteuse before she has even met her sweetheart, it becomes an explosion of emotion for Pat Boone's character just after he has met Ann-Margaret. (It's Ann-Margaret in 1962--you can forgive a guy for wanting to run around singing. Or doing something.)

(Sorry, the actual clip from the 1962 film is not available, so here is the soundtrack with a montage of photos of Ann-Margaret. You should get the idea that the second version was more explicitly passionate.

"Isn't It Kind of Fun" is a harmless ditty in 1945. In 1962, it's the ammunition for a sex bomb, that is Ann-Margret one year before she tormented American youth with "Bye Bye Birdie."

And I really wish I could show you Tom Ewell singing, "Sweet Hog of Mine" to an enormous boar he is showing at the fair. Or Alice Faye teaching her daughter to "Never Say No To A Man" (meaning you can tell them no without actually saying the word). Where Dana Andrews in 1945 plays a city guy enjoying the rural sights, Bobby Darin in 1962 looks like he's on his way to another, better movie and trying to get this part over quick.

Whereas the cast of 1945 is sincerely committed to this candy-coated view of American rural life (part of the American Way we were defending so hard in 1945, in 1962--except for Pat Boone and Pamela Tiffin who were trying to launch film careers--everyone else looks like they showed up to pick up a paycheck.

Oh, and the setting of the Fair changed from Iowa (losing a charming song) to Texas. Blee-a-a-ah. Let's face it, the only good movies about Texas are the ones that show what narrow-minded hell it can be, like Giant, Hud and The Last Picture Show. Trying to make Texas lovable would be like making Kevin Spacey cute.

True, the Hollywood production system demonstrated that it was not always necessary to have passion to make a great film. Casablanca was churned out by the great production machinery like any other sausage, and it came out really tasty. But still, it helps if you have some else on your mind besides a meal ticket. That goes for remakes as much as any other kind of film.

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