September 25, 2016 - Look Back in
Not too long ago, I was briefly into the hobby of online focus-group surveys...At that time in my life, a man would do many things he wasn't proud of for a free $10 Domino's or Amazon gift card. Most surveys and home-sample tests were for consumer goods, but once in a rare while--if you answered the initial questionnaires that you went to movie theaters at least every other month and bought Blu-ray disks--the survey might be from a studio trying to sample reaction to a script they were understandably a little nervous about, and hoping to get the good or bad news out of the way early before marketing.
Remakes Reboots (or, Come Back, All is Forgiven!)
Thanks to such nervous focus-group surveys, I was warned of the scripts--in three pages of excruciating, scene-specifically synopsized detail--to After Earth, Grown Ups 2 and Disney's The Lone Ranger, full months to a year in advance, and blessed with such future knowledge, was able to hate them well before it became cool. Not to mention playing prophet of doom to anyone who would listen, and being Cassandra, no one would. ("Johnny Depp as Tonto? That's gonna be so freakin' cool!")
One surveyed would-be script I remember (which, since it didn't later show up with the others, apparently wouldn't be) was an unholy 00's-Hollywood mess of a would-be 80's-classic reboot, that was so determined to "update" itself to the controversial timeliness of modern Mexican drug-cartel headlines, to try and steal from other more recent 00's dramas on the subject, and try and make our antihero seem "good" so the audience would keep their sympathy in him, it ended up having deliberately zero resemblance to the original, except for the one or two iconic scenes/lines it had to homage for sacred nostalgia value...And pretty much reduced any significance the title had to one new bonehead-literal screenwriter interpretation that wasn't in the original movie, just so they could play up a subplot of the hero's "destiny" to make him seem even Cooler and Heroic, and focus more narcissistic attention on the star that was to play him.
(Due to legal non-disclosure agreements, if you asked me which movie was considered to be rebooted, I wouldn't be able to answer, so you'd just have to say hello to my little friend...)
One multiple-choice question at the end of the survey dropped a particularly loud penny:
"What action movie franchises(sic) would you like to see rebooted next?:
- The Godfather
- Pulp Fiction
- Die Hard
- The Magnificent Seven
- The Dirty Dozen"
None of these projects was in production at the time (although we know what eventually happened to one of them). The producers just happened to be so pleased with what they could do with the one movie with the Big Famous Title, and asking whether we'd want those other movies with Big Famous Titles back again...Hey, we did the one, how hard could it be?
This weekend's current hit at the box office is a remake of "The Magnificent Seven", tooled for Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role. (As one favorable review put it, "So, you waited until September to deliver a reasonably good action movie? Thanks, I think.")
The new 2016 version deviates from the 1960 John Sturges US version somewhat: Instead of a band of Mexican banditos led by mangy Eli Wallach, the town is now under siege from railroad baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, and yes, he dresses in black), lifted wholesale out of a Sergio Leone movie--or maybe Hedley Lamarr from "Blazing Saddles"?--who sends seven hired specialist outlaws to drive the peasants off their land, to further his nasty scheming West-domination plot. And, as the plot description tells us,
And because the Seven are led by Denzel Washington's mysterious Chisolm, it only serves the story that he be the one to ultimately take Bogue down.It's the only time, at least that I can remember since the Clash of the Titans remake that I ever looked at the specific plot review of a 21st-century remake and actually said, out loud, to no one in particular, "Nooo, nooo, NO." In exactly the same manner as you might rub your puppy's nose in his little living-room indiscretion before putting him outside, or as a parent scolds a 2-yo. for thinking there was nothing wrong with drawing on the wall with crayons.
(Actually, it was just as much in the sense of "No, no, that's just...plain...wrong, and you KNOW it!", like listening to your friend show off at a karaoke party where he messes up the Misheard lyrics--Wrong, you can take, Loudly and Embarrassingly Wrong is a little harder.)
A point that Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn muse over in the US western's most famous speech:
Both old films end on that nobly fatalistic note, as Takashi Shimura, playing the leader of Kurosawa's samurai, observes that "The farmers have won, not us" over the graves of the four who sacrificed themselves in battle, while Brynner in Sturges' western realizes that more is now dead and buried in the West than simply their fallen partners: "We always lose."
So, the question is, why did a highly-paid producer, screenwriter, and director bother to "labor of love" remake a movie they clearly did not functionally understand? It's a question we've all been asking more and more lately.
The one complaint-answer every weary audience member leaps on is the easy one--"Hollywood must have run out of ideas!" No, if they ran out of ideas, they'd just make more new movies with the remaining storehouse of old "safety-net" ideas they thought still worked...That's generally what they do.
In the case of remakes, it's not ideas that's the thing they've run out of. There may, in fact, be more than one answer to the question, and not the easy one:
1) "How hard could it be?" - The minute most of us discover that a classic film, like a classic book, in fact had a surprisingly universal plot that could be described in one sentence in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, a lot of the awe and mystique suddenly disappears--Ohh, so THAT'S what it was about!
Let's say you want to pitch a comedy where Adam Sandler inherits a fortune, and gets to have fun acting like a rich jerk. Standard stuff, no one would pay attention. Now let's say you take your standard off-the-shelf high concept, go back, look up all the films that Leonard Maltin's Guide ever described as "Normal guy suddenly becomes rich", discover someone more famous had the idea first, and then proclaim to the world that you're actually setting out to pay tribute to Gary Cooper's populism in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town". Well, now your project's important...See what a good and devoted film buff you are? You're following in the footsteps of Frank Capra!
2) "I wanna make my favorite scene!" - As the joke goes, no one ever does remake bad films when they should, and no one ever should remake good films when they do.
But it's the good ones that stick in our memory, and it's not every single line of the ninety minutes that stick there. We tend to remember just the Cool Scenes, and jump directly to them on the DVDs.
The new breakout directors who get their first offer at a studio mainstream project, and realize that Hollywood has finally accepted them as Real-Gosh Directors, want to pay homage to the cult scenes that first influenced them, as their own Mecca-tribute to what movie shaped their careers, and pass that influence down father-to-son to the next future film student...And not only be the one from their generation who grabbed the honor to make it themselves, but make it COOLER! (Qv. Gil Kenan's 2015 remake of "Poltergeist" that put the clown scene on the poster, and pretty much didn't bother with remembering whether any other scene in the entire rest of the 1982 movie even existed.)
Richard Linklater's '05 remake of Michael Ritchie's "The Bad News Bears" seemed to be made solely to pay auteur tribute to the fact that there was a cult-favorite potty-mouthed 12-yo. in the original--And while the '01 "Planet of the Apes" started out for a variety of crazy reasons by a number of directors, by the time Tim Burton was finished with it, it was all about seeing how far they could outdo the original Sta...er, the you know, for the "twist" ending every fan knew it was supposed to have. It just wouldn't have been THE film otherwise.
3) "It would have been easier if they'd all had cellphones." - I'm going to let this clip do the talking--Just listen to VH1's comics try to explain the special effects in the original 1981 Ray Harryhausen "Clash of the Titans": I Love the 80's Strikes Back: 1981.
Okay, have we all finished crying now? The Millennial generation has what we could call a conflicted Love-Hate relationship with old films--They like the fact that there WERE classic films long ago to give some prestige and famous names to their favorite hobby, and they like the historic image that certain films gave to their decades, but those films would've been so much better if you could make them today! I mean, they had to make them without CGI back then!
Although modern generations today have long since become jaded about blockbusters desperately throwing CGI in their faces, it's the mentality that Our Parents Must Have Done Everything Wrong that suggests that sitting down and watching an old film is a self-defeating waste of time, because for a film to have been silent, or in black-and-white, or with old-school special effects, was just a technical problem caused by ancient days. To suggest the idea of remaking Ben-Hur might sound heretical if you just said it flat-out...But to a production company hoping to tap into the "new Inspirational outreach" by trying to bring 50's Biblical sandal epics back, just say the magic words "Chariot race in CGI!", and watch the spell take hold.
With apologies to JFK, we choose to watch these old movies not because they were easy, but because they were HARD--Orson Welles did not put his sets in cavernous B/W shadows simply because RKO couldn't afford Technicolor. Ray Harryhausen did not spend three years painstakingly moving every limb and tail of every mythological monster in the '81 Clash--by hand--because a studio was "embarrassed" that computers didn't exist and wanted to save money, and Charlton Heston and his stuntmen did not risk on-set life and limb thundering up dust with real chariots and real horses hoping it would someday look as good as digital. The very act of making the movie, in a real-captured world that doesn't exist digitally, is what wows us as audiences, commands our respect, and may even temporarily convince us is real. Take that away, make it look simple and seamless, replace the scenic foreign shooting locales, or the huge stylized soundstages of 80's fantasy epics, with crisp new digital universes created in a computer, blow up an even bigger bridge that didn't really exist over the River Kwai, and all you do is remind us of how hard other people once worked for a living.
But in the end, that one focus group question--about whether Pulp Fiction or Die Hard was due for an "update" twenty years later--just seems to stick in your head. It's something you can't un-hear once you see a remake announced:
4) Somewhere along the way, we just FORGOT - There's a reason why we got all those 80's remakes of Footloose and Robocop. Why we got those horror remakes of Carrie and The Fog. And why we're now getting 90's remakes of The Craft, Hackers and Point Break (to another generation, the 90's were the 80's). A generation now remembers the 80's and the 90's as the last time it was actually fun to go to a movie theater. Even if they weren't there--and their parents were when they were the same age--they miss those days. Tell a Millennial that, like me, you sat in the audience the day Back to the Future opened, or Ghostbusters, or The Princess Bride or The Lost Boys, or The Goonies (we hated it), and it invokes a kind of mythologized jealousy for movies anyone Under The Age of Thirty only had to memorize on video.
To remember "80's movies" as their own genre, conjuring up the image of good-hearted escapist thrills, has hit horror and sci-fi fans the hardest. One sci-fi generation got to see the comic-book thrills of Robocop and Total Recall, the new one has to watch the muddled intellectual metaphysics of Ridley Scott and Chris Nolan and pretend that those belonged to "their generation" just like the Star Wars prequels. Horror fans watched the 80's slasher film of the previous decades disappear, replaced by real-estate yuppies, concerned moms, and found-video exorcisms, and wished Jamie Lee Curtis could come back. Maybe if they brought back the titles everyone remembers the decade for, it might summon the decade to reappear...Quick, keeping making 70's and 80's movies, and maybe 70's and 80's moviegoing will come back again!
What were the biggest hits of 2015? Movies that specifically tried to bring back Star Wars, Mad Max and Jurassic Park, and, unlike many others, got them right. And it wasn't the titles we liked, it was WHAT about their originals from twenty and thirty years ago that they got right--Because the newer movies around at the time weren't doing it.
And now big studios have started noticing something else that scares them in particular: Nobody seems to know how to make an Action movie any more, either. Those were from the 60's and 70's, you know, with Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, and delivered three hours of explosions with a stirring Elmer Bernstein soundtrack that marched in your head as you left the theater...But all the studios have now is a series of brand names trying to sell themselves, with movies crafted to keep the branded eight-figure-salary star happy and attended to. As long as Paramount can let Tom Cruise hang from whatever airplanes his Scientology engrams convince him he can in real life, or Jason Bourne has this year's Bourne Noun to tie their studio to as summer tentpole, as long as Universal has a number on this year's Fast & Furious sequel and promises us that Vin Diesel will be back in it, the genre will never die out. But audiences aren't caring, because the movies aren't distinctively different enough to care about--Studios set out to sell us a house-branded product, and now we look at them like cans of peas on a grocery shelf. And if US audiences don't care anymore, don't worry, there's always China.
But Hollywood studios don't want China to pay all their bills, or to send their heroes to London or Paris or Tokyo in the sequels, if the US won't. It's still a pride issue for them: If the Great Shark Tank of Tinseltown execs have lost their golden touch to make an action blockbuster on demand anymore, what CAN they give their loyal audiences?
And like the frustrated horror fan, or the frustrated escapist-summer fan, they find themselves asking, well, just what was a Classic movie that made it what it was?
Oh, you know--It's the ones they have at the video store. The great ones. Our parents' ones. Like, from the days when they had Pulp Fiction, and the Dirty Dozen, and Scarface, and The Magnificent Seven. And all those other ones that must have been so great if, or when, we'd lived to see them in the theater.
Which leads all the way back to the very question the Nervous Survey asked us:
"Would you come back to the theater if we brought The Godfather back?"
Well, that depends. I might if you brought the REAL one back. They knew how to make them, back in 1972, and that was why going to the theater was fun.