Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Identity theft

I hear with sorrow that Peter Jackson is remaking The Dam Busters.

Well, actually, I'm quite glad that the project has escaped the venomous grip of Mel "England is Satan" Gibson. In fact, if Jackson wants to win me over, he only needs to make one major change: the title.

The Dam Busters (1955) follows in a long line of classic movies whose memory Hollywood has defacated on by making a modern version with the same title as the original. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/2008), The Pink Panther (1963/2006), War of the Worlds (1953/2005), The Italian Job (1969/2003), Psycho (1960/1998), The Ladykillers (1955/2004), School for Scoundrels (1960/2006), Bedazzled (1967/2000)... Jackson himself perpetrated the similar desecration of King Kong. All of these are movies that really, seriously didn't need to be remade. In every single case, the popular vote recorded at IMDB supports my own prejudiced judgment - that the older version was better.

(I'm not counting TV movies. All of the above remakes were budgeted for, and received, major theatre releases.)

It's always gone on, of course. I'm not forgetting Ben Hur (1907/1959) and King Kong (1933/1976, before the recent silliness). But it's accelerated sharply, in recent years. There's been a whole bunch of remakes of movies from the 50s and 60s that were not blockbusters, but were generally accepted as classics of their genres.

It's easy to put this down to the risk-averse, creativity-starved nature of modern Hollywood, and I'm sure that does play its part. Similarly, there's a lot of British movies in the list, and obviously Americans are too chauvinist to appreciate them, so they have to be remade with American casts and settings. If that were all that was going on here, I'd just sneer quietly and keep my opinions to those who ask for them.

But it's not. There's something bigger, something far more sinister at work. A kind of naked greed that does not hesitate to rob our culture to enrich itself.

See: when someone takes the title of a movie, and then pours a lot of money into promoting it, they attract name recognition to their new version. Result: the old version gets hidden. Walk into any video store today and ask for The Italian Job, and what you'll be offered first is that pointless drivel with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. You'll have to ask again, and quite possibly root around the remainder bins, to find the Michael Caine/Noel Coward classic. (It's well worth it, if you haven't seen it.)

And I think the reason for this identity theft lies in one of my most harped-on words: copyright.

Movies aren't like books, or songs, or poems, or even pictures. Copyright on movies doesn't date from the death of the author: it dates from when the movie was first shown to the public.

Hollywood's first attempt to extend this duration was "remastering". By touching up old films, it claimed, the clock gets restarted for the "new version". But that interpretation wasn't universally smiled upon by the courts. So instead they set about rewriting the law, so that now copyright on movies in the USA lasts an eye-watering 95 years from first publication. However, in backwards countries such as New Zealand, the studio has a paltry 50 years from the date of first showing to recover its investment on a movie, before it becomes free for anyone.

(Barbaric. How can anyone be expected to make a return in just 50 years?)

That means those older movies belong to all of us, and no-one can stop anyone else from doing as they please with them. That's a lot of fine movies. What Hollywood is working on, now, is a systematic effort to erase those older movies from our collective consciousness.

You can help. Whenever you hear of a movie that's been remade, nip down to your video store and ask for the old version. Borrow it from your library. Buy it, if you like it, and lend it to your friends and force it on your family. Make sure the stores keep those movies on their shelves.


SMG said...

I still waiting to see remakes of "Gone with the Wind" and "Citizen Kane". I find it simply amazing that Hollywood is so afraid to try something new. Although after attending several screenings at the Tribecca Film Festival, I can say that new does not always mean good.

Annamaria said...

Vets, thanks for taking the time and leaving those words of well-thought out wisdom on my blog. Just wanted to say that my grand-daughter, just turned eight, requested the old version of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" for her birthday, so you have a young follower of your ideas on this post. Well said.

vet said...

SMG, I wondered about those two titles. I came to the conclusion that the name-theft trick doesn't work so well if the movie was promoted as a huge blockbuster first time around. That's why the original 'King Kong' is still remembered, despite the remakes. Most of the titles I list were kinda second-string - not B-movies, by any stretch, but not hugely promoted either.

Hmm... thinking about it, here in NZ, both of those movies are now free...

There are good new movies being made. Not many, but it does happen. But Hollywood pours a lot of resources into projects that are not merely pointless, but actively destructive of our culture, and that's what I resent.

Annamaria, glad to hear it. Have you tried her on 'The Pink Panther'?

Xigent said...

Let the record show that there have been several instances where the remake equalled or was considered virtually equal to the original. 'Tis the exception, after all, that proves the rule, and here are three.

The example that comes first to mind is Twelve Angry Men. The original made movie history, with its superb acting and cast (Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda). It deservedly got an almost unheard-of 8.9 on IMDb after 90,000+ votes. The TV remake, amazingly, was of movie quality and had considerable star-power of its own (George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Ossie Davis, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell). Although one wonders what could possibly have prompted a remake at all, even in TV land (the 40th anniversary?), it was impressive enough to deserve a 8.1 or 8.2 rather than merely the respectable 7.6 it got (1957/1997).

Films that shouldn't be remade but that are remade, to bridge a language barrier or to exploit it by capitalizing on the American aversion for subtitled foreign films, probably fall into a different category entirely. In most cases the original is virtually unknown in the remake country.

Only six years separated The Seven Samurai (Takashi Shimura, ToshirĂ´ Mifune, directed by Kurosawa) and The Magnificent Seven (Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, directed by Sturges). The blinding technicolor of the latter, its sound track (later rebranded by Marlboro), the scenery and sets, and the cast accounted for a lower-than-expected 0.9-point rating spread. (1954, IMDb 8.8/1960, 7.9)

Even though in reality there was no contest between Oscar-nominated Cousin, Cousine featuring two ordinary-looking but unpretentious, and therefore hot, French actors, and the sexed-up, rather fulsome American remake with neutered title (Cousins, Ted Danson[!], Isabella Rossellini, Sean Young), IMDb users still ranked them much closer to parity than they deserved. (1975, 6.9/1989, 6.0)

I could come up with two or three more instances of equal or greater lameness if I weren't so slothful.

Project Savior said...

To make it worse, there are some movies that could have been great but were ruined by Bad Directors, "Brave New World" comes to mind.
If you have the chance and the desire, pick it up and watch actors spout off lines that they have no concept of what they mean as fast as they can. No need for pesky breaks between sentences.
This and other movies are in desperate need of a remake, but instead Hollywood would rather stick with destroying well made movies and replace them with trash.

Jantar said...

I'm not sure Hollywood is trying to destroy the old culture. For that, you would have to accept the idea that they understand the importance of it - and I seriously doubt that they do.

I think it's part laziness, part cowardice and part expedience: Why invest time and money in new ideas, when you can pick and choose stuff that already proved it worked from the old archives.

Mind you, it's not only in the world of movies that this kind of grave robbing occurs. Look at the book publishing market, with all its disgusting follow-ups: From 'Peter Pan' to 'Gone with the Wind' - not to mention cheap shite as that Jane Austen zombie book.

I think all of the above is just done because it seems to be an easy way to make money. The desecration is more or less unintended. They are like illiterate survivors of some apocalyptic event, throwing precious manuscripts on their camp fires, in order to keep warm,

vet said...

Xigent, true that there have been worthwhile remakes, such as the ones you cite. I would give a pass to remakes of recent foreign-language films, such as 'The Magnificent Seven', because that's just trying to expand the audience.

I don't object to that, even when the remake steals the title and is patently inferior (as in 'The Vanishing' (1988/1993) or 'The Ring' (1998/2002)). In those cases, the dates don't look like trying to extend the life of control. They may not be enriching us all that much, but at least they're not impoverishing us either. (Although I do recall hearing that Dreamworks went to some lengths to prevent TV channels and stores in the US from showing or stocking the Japanese original of 'Ringu' before their version was released.)

PS: Too right! There are a lot of movies that could benefit from remaking, but it doesn't happen. Even in those cases, though, I'd appreciate it if the makers could come up with a variant on the title. There was a brief vogue, in the early 90s, for putting the names of authors into film titles (as in 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992), which wasn't particularly faithful to the book, but at least it's differentiated from all the other bastardisations).

Jantar, I'm sure all the things you mention do play their part. But I don't think we should underestimate the ravenous, black-hole-like greed of Hollywood. I think that when the heads of companies like Sony or Time Warner think of people enjoying culture without giving them a cut, they experience actual physical pain.

And when that 'culture' is something that was originally created by a company that was bought by a company that was bought by a company that their company then bought, then anyone who consumes without paying them is obviously and blatantly stealing from them, just as much as if we were in their house helping ourselves to their own DVD collection. I'm too lazy to do it now, but there are plenty of quotes to that effect made back when the Sonny Bono Act was undergoing what passed for 'debate' at the time.