August 31, 2011

In Defense of Remakes (Sorta)

One common complaint about Hollywood these days is that nobody there has any original ideas. It’s not true, of course, but that perception is fed by the big budget blockbusters that seem to be either sequels, remakes, or adaptations from some other source. As luminaries like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee embark no remakes, Matt Seitz over at Salon defends the whole concept of remakes. In the process, all he does is prove that any given remake is about as likely to suck or be great as any other movie.

He does makes one important historical point first, however: none of this is new. Hollywood’s always been a remake factory, to the point that in earlier generations directors would remake their own films a few years after the fact. I suspect it seems more prevalent these days because, thanks to DVDs and cable/satellite TV, the originals don’t slip quietly into memory any more. It’s hard not to compare the remake of, say, Fright Night* with the original when it’s on Starz every few days.

That being said, it seems obvious that some remakes suck and some don’t. But not all remakes start out with the same goal and I think that what the remake is trying to do. Simple recycling usually doesn’t get the work done.

In that sense, the most infamous remake of recent times is Gus van Zant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Aside from some sort of performance art experiment, that seems pointless to me, but what do I know? Still, I wouldn’t expect any remake taking that route to appeal to a large audience, particularly where the original is so iconic.

More common are remakes like the aforementioned Fright Night (or an earlier Friday Review subject, The Wicker Man), which takes a decent mainstream movie and updates it for modern technology and tastes. I’ll be the first to admit that the inspiration for such remakes is probably completely financial (to tap into an existing fanbase), but that doesn’t mean the end product will inevitably suck. It does run a good chance of backfiring if said fanbase is pissed because the remake ruins the memory of the original.

Other types of remakes strike me as completely different beasts, though, and probably have a better chance of being interesting products in their own right. I’m thinking particularly of something like the Spike Lee project, Oldboy, which is a remake of a recent highly praised South Korean film. Taking a movie made in another culture and language and translating it into your own seems like a worthy justification for a remake.

If done correctly, you get both a new and entertaining/interesting film exposed to a wider audience as well as the original for the auteurs to seek out. People who decide they’ll never see a foreign flick because they don’t want to “read the movie” shut themselves out from a lot of meaningful movie experiences. But I’m not naive enough to know that The Magnificent Seven reached a lot more people in this country than Seven Samurai. As long as the adaptation is cognizant of what it loses and gains by changing settings, I’m all for it.

Beyond that, you really start moving out of the realm of “remakes” and into new works inspired by older ones. West Side Story, after all, isn’t a “remake” of Romeo & Juliet, any more than Ran (to keep the Kurosawa theme going) a “remake” of King Lear. Given that no idea in the 21st Century is truly original, it’s hard to take issue with anybody doing such reinterpretations.

So, as I said, that’s a long winded way of saying remakes are just like any other movie. Apply Sturgeon’s Law: 95% of them will be crap. Not because they’re remakes, mind you. Just because.

* FWIW, the remake is pretty good fun. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see The Doctor as a lush foul mouthed con artist.

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