Using a phrase like “Hollywood is shameless” is such an oft-repeated practice, that, as a professional critic, doing it can only mark you as gauche. But, at the risk of once again sounding like a whiner, I think we can all easily agree that the statement is true. On the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I discussed, briefly, that two remakes are in the works, both of Alfred Hitchcock films. And while they’re not remakes of Hitchcock’s better-known classics, it seems like a line is being crossed. Like Hollywood is, once again, making the sacred profane.
But, of course, this has happened plenty of times in the past. Many may remember the 1998 remake of Psycho, directed by Gus Van Sant. Despite being a shot-for-shot remake, Van Sant’s little experiment only revealed that old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, even great ones, cannot be translated directly into a modern idiom. Hollywood has spent plenty of time and money remaking older films, and, most often they’re remakes of little-known films. Gone in 60 Seconds or 3:10 to Yuma, for instance, are not immediately recognizable by the public at large, so it’s fine to jump in and muck around with the material. A classic is not being besmirched. Ditto with the largely identical English-language remakes of J-horror films or other foreign classics (like The Grudge or Let Me In). They’re pretty much useless, especially considering how subtitles are more and more widely accepted these days, but only purists like me get huffy over the idea.
But, sometimes – and with an alarming increase in frequency – the remake machine is turning to more and more legitimately classic films. I felt that remaking J-horror films was tolerable, but I thought there were certain movie monsters so well known to the horror community, that Hollywood wouldn’t dare touch them. Sadly, they’ve all been groped roughly in the subway of the showbiz machine. The four big ones have all been remade: Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Either young audiences are less well-connected than I assume them to be, or (and this is more likely the case), Hollywood is giving us all a big ol’ middle finger. They also redid John Carpenter’s The Thing, and we keep hearing tales of The Evil Dead and even Hellraiser. Put down my horror icons. You’re getting your greasy hands all over them. If you prefer any of these remakes over the originals, then you are a fool.
As a professional film critic, I do try to remain objective and scientific in my expectations; each film, after all, has to be given the chance to speak for itself. But sometimes the material is so familiar to me, I find myself struggling. And then if the material is not only familiar but well-loved and well-established in the public consciousness, I begin to react negatively. In a fair voice, I have to judge what I see on the screen. It doesn’t have to be greater than the original, it just has to be well done. But then I begin to openly resent that a studio is trying to crassly insert themselves into any conversation about a classic film, even if only as a footnote, i.e.; “I love Halloween a lot, but the original, and not Rob Zombie’s remake.”
Other great films that have been remade, and should have been left alone: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Casablanca. Planet of the Apes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cat People. Sabrina. Charlotte’s Web (!). Fame (!). Y’know what? I’ll stop. The list is pretty much a rundown of 80% of films to have been released over the last three years.
Are there films too sacred to be remade? Indeed there are. And I don’t just mean films that shouldn’t be remade, but films that cannot be remade. Some just would never work (even though I’m sure someone would love to try). Some are too familiar. Some are too special. Some have shaken the zeitgeist so entirely that a remake would be laughed off stage by even the most cynical and greedy of ad execs. What films can we never touch? Here’s a few I could think of:
The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
Yes, there have been several adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s famous children’s novel over the years, and there was even a sequel made in 1985 called Return to Oz (which is actually weird and fun), but most of these little re-examinations are smart to only quote the famous 1939 original, easily one of the most famous films ever made, and acknowledge that they will never stand up next to the shining monolith that is The Wizard of Oz. This is one of those films that kids manage to see without trying, and has pervaded popular culture in such a way as to make all cinema seem unable to exist without it. There are some future Oz projects in the works, of course (can’t let a familiar name like The Wizard of Oz go unexploited), but they, like Return to Oz, allow the events of the original film stand outside of the new action they propose; one, for instance, is supposedly about the early days of the Wizard after landing in Oz for the first time. Even the shockingly complicated and blisteringly stultifying musical Wicked left the events of the original film alone. If someone actually tried to redo what we saw Judy Garland do, there would be a public lynching.
2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Well, for one, we’ve already passed 2001, so this vision of the future is now 11 years in the past. For another, how can you possibly re-capture the grandness of Kubrick’s sci-fi epic? Maybe you can re-film the events, but the events would not implicate what was really being said: That we are mere children in the arms of the cosmos, and that space is much more enormous, and perhaps better calculated than we, puny mortal humans, can possibly understand. Kubrick was a master of the cinematic craft, and had important things to say about the imagination-destroying vastness of space. Others have tried to update Spartacus and The Shining. I once heard rumors of a remake of A Clockwork Orange. But no one has tried to even approach – or even suggest approaching – the whacked out meditation that is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is so very much of itself. A remake would be churlish.
Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977)
Again, a film too much of itself. As Hollywood rushes to grab anything iconic and cast newer, younger actors (anything from Footloose to Star Trek is fair game), it can be a relief to realize that some icons will always have to remain hermetically sealed into their own idiosyncrasies. Surrealism is already pure in itself , and a surrealist films like Eraserhead (which Lynch doggedly claims is not, technically speaking, surrealist) are examples for pure imagination dumped onto the screen. They are so singular of vision, that there is no “new direction” to take the material. Eraserhead cannot be “re-imagined” because it was so powerfully and vividly imagined in its full form already. Also, just about any film made by Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, or any number of other “experimental” filmmakers. I think this should be the goal of an imaginative filmmaker: try to make a film that can never be remade. Imagine a visual aesthetic, a story, or a character so awesomely unique and so undeniably of itself, that no one would dare undercut it. Only a few filmmakers work with this ethos in mind. Herzog, for one, has said that the world of cinema is constantly struggling for new images, and he does his part to provide them.
Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989)
This film is, unlike the others, less a striking and original piece of art (although it is certainly that) than it is a marked piece of its time. In 1989, race relations were bubbling up, black filmmakers like Lee were beginning to have a louder voice in the filmmaking world, and the cultural visibility of hip-hop was on the rise. Sure, one could make a film that relates the events of the film (various people’s relations and experiences on a hot day in Bed-Stuy, leading to a violent climax of explosive release), but, well, the impact wouldn’t be there. One could update the names of the characters, update the music to a contemporary idiom, and even set the events in post-Giuliani New York, but, y’know what? You wouldn’t have a film. You’d have a vague connection of urban characters leading to a meaningless action sequence. The cultural relevance of Do the Right Thing only works because it came out when it did. The lessons are still relevant, and the film is still striking, but it has to exist in 1989 to lave its mark. Many films are great, but can have come out at any time, and remain great. Some bold voices are direct reactions to the politics of the day, and Do the Right Thing has a desperate immediacy that couldn’t be recaptured in an update, a remake, or period piece.
From Crave Online By Witney Seibold & William Bibbiani