MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Accepting Remakes

Over the years, as the movie industry’s fetish for remaking anything and everything has become more prevalent, there have been tons of articles written about how “remakes” are destroying the very fabric of film or some such other hyperbolic thesis. You see, for me, I’ve never been truly offended by the idea of remaking a film, just as I’ve never been upset about James Joycere-writing The Odyssey and calling it Ulysses; remaking and repurposing stories is a part of making art. Hell, it’s become such a common practice on Broadway to restage classic plays and musicals that the Tony Awards even has a category for the best revivals.

So why is it that film fans have such a problem with the idea of remakes when it is widespread in other artistic endeavors?

One problem I see with my fellow movie addicts is the over-valuing of the original films. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of remaking Friday the 13th – and really, couldn’t we think of a different horror film set in a summer camp? – but I wasn’t about to grab my pitchfork either because the original film is a silly B horror film about a crazed woman killing a bunch of sex-crazed camp counselors. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of the first film all throughout my adolescent years and I still jump every single time Jason pops out of the water at the very end. But, I’m sorry if I don’t think the filmmakers behind the remake were working with a sacred text.

Recently it came out that Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were planning on remaking Chan-wook Park’s Korean revenge flick Oldboy and I thought the internet was going to break from all the caps-locked screaming on message boards. But again, the original is a blood-soaked revenge film that already owes a huge debt to other material like the Death Wish films and Oedipus Rex. If the remake ever comes to fruition, it won’t be like Spielberg would be working with an already perfect film either; Oldboy, entertaining and violent as it is, takes a lot of silly detours and has a long-winded explanation for a pretty straightforward plot. There are fixable element in the first film that can be tightened in a remake and if the remake turns out to be a better film, then shouldn’t we all rejoice?

I can already hear the e-mailers screaming, “but Noah, what if they ruin the film and make it PG-13 and completely change the plot and blah blah blah?” And the answer to that is: go watch the original again. That’s the other thing that bothers me when people get up in arms about remakes; just because a film is remade, that doesn’t mean that all copies of the original get thrown in the garbage. In fact, chances are that more people will see the original in anticipation of the remake. So if Brett Ratner wants to remake Conan the Barbarian, nobody is forcing you to watch that film and if you do see it and it (inevitably) sucks, you can pop in the DVD of the original and pretend like you never saw the remake.

Every couple years, there is always some gossip BS about a remake of Casablanca and how so-and-so is attached to star and direct. And whenever I hear talk like this – and Casablancais one of my favorite films and it should be one of yours – I always chuckle and think, “good luck.” If somebody really has the temerity to think they could make that film better, then quite honestly, I would love to see them try. I’ve seen the original a hundred times and could quote every line from memory, but I would love to see which actor has the balls to think they could step into the role of Rick Blaine, made so famous by Bogie. And I’d love to know which actress thinks she’s beautiful enough to step into Ingrid Bergman’s shoes. To me, the real interest behind a remake of Casablanca is not about whether or not it would be any good – because even if it is, it wouldn’t touch the original – it would be about who has an ego big enough to tackle it. And that, my friends, is fascinating to me.

Remember in 1995 when Sydney Pollack decided it would be a good idea to remake Billy Wilder’s incomparable Sabrina? That film was an out and out disaster, not because the film was so bad, but because of the inevitable comparison to the original. If you had never seenBilly Wilder’s original, I’d venture to guess that you might even enjoy Pollack’s version; but, I would also guess that you wouldn’t fall in love with the film like you would with Wilder’s version. But what was so interesting to me was how they came up with the casting for that film; is Harrison Ford really the modern day Bogart and Julia Ormond the next Audrey Hepburn? Those were actually casting choices that seemed almost inspired to me compared to Greg Kinnear being casted in the William Holden role, another example of Holden being so underrated (in fact, I think he’s the most underrated actor of all-time, but that’s a column for another day). The bottom line is, though, that for fans of the original versions of films, it can actually be fun to watch a remake just to see how the process shakes out.

And I think that kind of “what-if?” question that is so prominent in sports – what if Barry Bondsnever left the Pirates? – is usually the kind of experiment that never makes it to Hollywood outside of remakes. So, if you look at remakes as a kind of grand experimental film, I think the helps to enjoy them more.

Look at Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho; I’m a huge Van Sant fan, so of course I wonder why he would tackle such a ridiculous project. And I would have to guess that this must have been something like a pet project for him since it was the first thing he decided to tackle after he gained some cache with the financial and critical success of Good Will Hunting. Of course the remake is awful, but perhaps that was the point. Van Sant tried everything he could to recreate the exact film that Hitchcock made and everything from the plot, the shot selection, and the running time is identical.

So if we watch the movies back-to-back, we’re forced to see what works the first time around and what doesn’t the second time around. And what those two Psycho films do is to teach the importance of casting. Anthony Perkins makes Norman Bates believable and scary and lonely while Vince Vaughn makes him laughable; Janet Leigh is enigmatic yet likeable while Anne Heche is just lost. It’s a fascinating case study in how two actors can play the same part in the same movie with the same lines and play it completely differently. Much as he did with his Bela Tarr-style films later, Van Sant showed that he has a desire to experiment and see why film works and what the essentials are to making a film connect to an audience. His Psycho might have been a failure, but it was a noble and notable one.

Van Sant’s Psycho is a notable contrast to Michael Haneke remaking his own Funny Games last year with the same script, word-for-word and the same exact shot list. In fact, if you have seen one version of Funny Games, you have seen them both, making this a very strange and unfruitful experiment for Haneke because it was almost akin to dubbing his original version in English. But the alternative, I suppose, is to go the George Sluizer route, changing the ending of his own film The Vanishing when he remade it in the United States. That didn’t work too well, either, compromising his own vision, about four years before Ole Bornedal did the same thing with his film Nightwatch.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see a remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and I just saw Craven’s version for the first time about a week ago. And if there’s anybody who is offended by the idea of this remake, it should only be because the original was so ridiculous that it’s astounding somebody could see something worthwhile enough to remake. The original is not high art, it’s a fetishistic exploitation film that would be unsavory and unsettling if it wasn’t so silly. But it’s a cult film and it has a built-in audience so the studios rounded up the usual suspects and remade it much in the same way they remade Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, one of those odd remakes that is infinitely better than the original. The remake of The Hills Have Eyes replaces the wooden acting of the original with more accomplished thespians, making their screams much more piercing because their characterizations were that much more fully realized.

We’ll see if Last House on the Left is better or worse than the original when it comes out, but either way, I hope the fans of Craven’s version will think a bit longer before writing diatribes about damn remakes ruining the damn world. If you want to get really irrational about remakes, we could talk about how everything is ultimately the same story according to the wisdom ofJoseph Campbell. But really, what we should be doing is watching the films and deciding if they are better or worse than the original. And if they are indeed worse, as many remakes are, then we can shrug our shoulders and move on. Or we could just watch Casablanca again.

– Noah Forrest
February 25, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon