Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 23rd, 2015

A recipe for remakes

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William Hurt in Altered States

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you actually want to see get a sequel or a remake?”

Whenever the old debate starts up again about Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, in which franchises and sequels have taken the place of original material, someone always pipes up to point out that nothing has really changed. The studios have loved remakes and seemingly safe bets from the beginning: the version of The Maltese Falcon that we know and love was actually the third movie made from Hammett’s original novel, and sequels were already a proven idea long before Son of the Sheik. As I’ve said before, the movie business is so predicated on risk and uncertainty that you can’t entirely blame it for trying to minimize the unknowns wherever it can. Even the cinema of the 1970s, which is usually held up as a period of unusual creative experimentation, was really an attempt to replicate a few big outliers, like Easy Rider. What made those years distinctive was less an idealistic embrace of artistic freedom than a pragmatic decision to turn over the keys to the kingdom. The studios no longer knew what audiences wanted, so they briefly trusted the likes of Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper to figure it out—although they were happier when they could throw something together like Exorcist II.

A more justifiable complaint is the fact that the movies that get remade are rarely the ones that need it. There’s a perverse kind of natural selection at work here: for a movie to stand out enough in retrospect to attract an enterprising producer’s attention, it’s usually one that holds up perfectly well on its own, when flawed or mediocre ideas that might actually benefit from a second attempt are forgotten soon after release. This only means that memory alone isn’t a useful guide, and might even be an actively poor one, when it comes to finding stories that would be promising candidates for another pass. I think it’s William Goldman who says somewhere that if he were put in charge of a major studio, the first thing he’d do would be to hire someone to read all the scripts they owned but had never made. Screenplays can be optioned, developed, and shelved for all kinds of reasons, including internal disputes or succession issues that have long since been rendered irrelevant—so there a probably a few neglected gems in every studio’s archives. It’s only a matter of looking for them. And the same is true of remakes.

The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent

Let’s pick a year at random—say, 1980, which happens to be the year I was born. It’s also a transitional moment, since it saw the release of both Heaven’s Gate, which destroyed what little remained of the auteur system in Hollywood, and The Empire Strikes Back, which vindicated the franchise model forever. A glance at the most successful movies of that year reveals a bunch of titles that have already gotten the remake, reboot, or belated sequel treatment: The Blues Brothers, Friday the 13th, The Fog, Fame, Prom Night, even The Shining. (And I’m not even counting movies like Airplane! or Caddyshack that had sequels released shortly thereafter.) Scroll down a little further, though, and the titles start to jump out at you: flawed movies with decent concepts that deserve another look. I’d love to see a remake of Altered States, for instance, using modern digital and practical effects. A contemporary take on William Friedkin’s Cruising could be fascinating, although I can’t imagine a studio these days that would want to touch it—much less De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. And movies as different as The Formula and Brubaker flirt with issues that might well be worth revisiting today.

None of these movies are especially likely to be made, of course—although I wouldn’t rule out Disney taking another crack at The Final Countdown. But I still think that the ideal candidates for remakes, which will always be with us, fall somewhere in the sweet spot between total obscurity and fond recollection. The originals aren’t so good that they fill us with reverence, or so forgettable that we might as well go with a fresh script. And at least one production company is exploring something along these lines: American International Pictures, founded by the late Samuel Arkoff, whose son has announced an effort to create a new shared universe out of such properties as Teenage Caveman, The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, and War of the Colossal Beast. It’s the kind of idea that seems faintly ridiculous at first glance, then oddly plausible, if only because these movies had plenty of personality. (Whenever I think of Arkoff, I’m reminded of the famous exchange he had with Rex Reed shortly after the premiere of The Winged Serpent. Reed: “What a surprise! All that dreck—and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff: “The dreck was my idea.”) The world doesn’t need another Seven Samurai. But we could do a lot worse than a few old movies in slightly altered states.

Quote of the Day

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G.K. Chesterton

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

G.K. Chesterton

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January 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

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