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Once is not enough

Is what's worth doing worth re-doing?

March 1st, 2012


One more time!
— Count Basie, not for the first time

I once wrote a throwaway bit for a radio show I was doing. It was a phony underwriter, the Once Is Not Enough Café, specializing in twice-baked potatoes, double-cooked pork, and refried beans. Once was enough for that one, because I couldn’t come up with any more examples of food done twice.

In my distant youth, the “do-over” had an honorable place on the sandlots and schoolyards. If there was an unresolvable dispute between two teams, you did a do-over, ran the play over. It was an article of faith, back when I still had some, that the do-over would set things right. It was considered good sportsmanship to accept the result without (much) grumbling. Gloating was very rare, and looked on as bad form. Would that the world ran on the moral tracks of sandlot baseball.

Recounts are not only acceptable in the slime-pit world of politics, they are often mandatory. If the activist judges on the Supreme Court had permitted the Florida recount to proceed, Dick Cheney would have been an occasional item in the medical news, and George W. Bush an increasingly-irrelevant former Texas governor. And almost 4,500 American soldiers might still be alive.

Sometimes, you just have to run the play again. But what about the world of popular entertainment?

I recently saw the “American” version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I had read all of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and seen the Swedish films. While I enjoyed the movie, it kept occurring to me that it was somehow superfluous. Yeah, okay, setting aside the profit motive for awhile, I guess we live in a country where subtitles are too taxing for many (most?) moviegoers. They are, in an average foreign film, more reading than many Americans do in a year.

Recall that in the silent era, the title cards were shown without images. Of course, we were far less educated in those days, and, allegedly, we should be better equipped to read titles today.

But I digress. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, or of lassitude? If some film or TV show was successful once, is it a sure thing to succeed twice? This past TV season had Hawaii Five-0 and Charlie’s Angels. Both of these were hit shows in the past and were revived in the hope of history repeating. There was a plethora of copycat shows, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, both trying to cash in on the retro vibe of Mad Men. All they lacked were the compelling stories and characters of that innovative show.

Aren’t there any original ideas anymore? I mean, did Shakespeare do remakes? Well, as it happens, yes. With the possible exceptions of The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost, he stole every plot, and even those two had antecedents. So, an argument can be made that a remake is justified by being better than the original, or at least a fresh interpretation of the material.

Shawn Levy, not the hack director but the primary film critic for The Oregonian, made a reference in his review for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He referred to it as “misunderstood.”

I was curious about this, because I know he thinks about film much differently than I do. He replied, “I think people attacked it as an update and a watering-down. But I understood Gus Van Sant, an acolyte of Warhol, to be attempting an experiment, in effect, in mechanical reproduction. What would result if you redid a classic film as close to exactly as possible? He shot in color, used different music, and made no efforts at recreating the period. He even added a few bits that Hitchcock didn’t do (Norman Bates watching Marian Crane undress through a hole in the wall and, apparently, masturbating to the sight). It’s not an altogether successful film, but it’s definitely an interesting experiment.”

So Levy believes that the remake was justified. I have avoided seeing it, because I have too much respect for the original. And because Van Sant had squeezed out a couple of later stinkers, most notably Gerry (2002), a tedious howler about two schmucks lost in the desert. By the time the film ended, I was glad they had been lost, and I wished Gus Van Sant had been with them. Its only notable accomplishment was to make 103 minutes seem like a week. But Levy’s comment makes me wonder.

As for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the new version was directed by David Fincher, who was probably the best choice for this kind of film, having a dark bent and all. He did a fine job, as did Rooney Mara, playing the diminutive Lisbeth Salander, a punkette angel of revenge. She was given more to do in this version, and the extraneous fluff in the Swedish film was missing.

So I am accepting this as a good remake.

The question that usually arises in a discussion of the phenomenon is why do they re-do the good ones? Why not re-do the bad ones?

Answer: The good ones were successful.

Sweden has been well served in the remake department, as the terrific vampire film Let the Right One In (2008) was recently redone, and the American version, Let Me In (2010) was in some ways better than the original. Both are worth seeing.
True Grit, a John Wayne vehicle from 1969, was remade in a sense. The 2010 version, much better, in my opinion, rather than rehashing the movie shot-for-shot, went back to the source material, the novel by Charles Portis, and came up with a great action/western with a fresh angle.

It is possible to do it better, but it’s not common.

Remakes are not new, and very common. Go to the Wikipedia article on Remakes. There are dozens of them, and they go way back in film history. Big Daddy (1999), starring Adam Sandler, is a remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). It’s a good thing Charlie is dead. A Star is Born was done first in 1937, then again in 1954, and finally (maybe) in 1976. The Thing (1951) was redone in 1982, a “prequel” done in 2011.

The sequel/prequel phenomenon is driven more by seeking to financially exploit a known commodity than a desire to add artistic content to the ongoing story. There are legitimate reasons for sequels. The Lord of the Rings was a trilogy, there were seven Harry Potter books, and way too many Twilight books. The Star Wars saga was supposed to run through nine chapters. If we go back to the Thin Man films, six of those, only the first was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, the rest the creations of screenwriters. In each of the last two examples, the law of diminishing returns had kicked in, as stories became less compelling with each iteration. Only the perceived existence of a ready-made audience justified the efforts.

It is interesting to me that in the theater, remakes are common, only they are called “revivals.” No one accuses a performance of King Lear of being a remake, or a touring company of Follies as being a bunch of copycats. It is not just semantically different, but conceptually as well. I will hurry to a performance of Waiting For Godot or West Side Story but hesitate to see a remake of Casablanca. Yes, they have tried to remake this perfect film, including two TV series, one in 1983 starring David Soul. I guess Adam Sandler was still too young.

The same idea exists in popular music, with a wrinkle. When the songwriter was king, songs by Cole Porter or Gilbert & Sullivan or Noel Coward were performed live and on record by thousands of artists. Ella Fitzgerald did a series of “songbook” albums dedicated to works by major composers. This was accepted practice, and still is for those composers. These are called “standards,” songs everyone knows and wants to hear.
Since the advent of recorded music, especially since the beginnings of rock & roll and the folk revival of the ’40s/’50s/’60s, the term “cover record” has come into being. It once had a pejorative connotation, because covers were released to capitalize on the success of an original recording.

In many cases, this was motivated by racism. Little Richard or Fats Domino might not sell in the suburbs or the Midwest, so get some squeaky-clean terminally white boy to cover the songs. Pat Boone? Perfect.

But other African American blues singers covered Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson. Back to the profit motive.

Groups as different as the Beach Boys and the Ramones have each done covers from the songs of their youth. Punk bands treated pop songs from the ’60s with surprising reverence (the Dead Boys’ “Hey Little Girl”) or with withering disdain (the Dickies’ “Nights in White Satin,” itself a kind of homage).

Bob Dylan provides an instructive case history. Early on, his voice and Woody-Guthrie influenced style were problematic. So get Peter, Paul and Mary to cover Dylan with a smoother, more commercial sound. It was sheer luck that the trio knew and respected Dylan and sang his songs with conviction and enthusiasm. The Byrds, who also covered the blacklisted Pete Seeger, did some of the best Dylan covers. Jimi Hendrix loved Dylan’s work and did at least one excellent cover, “All Along the Watchtower.” In effect, Dylan achieved what George Gershwin and Irving Berlin had a generation or two earlier. He became source material for anyone looking for a good song. Same with The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and so on. Standards for the ’60s generation.

Then came the tribute album, a whole set of covers usually done with reverence for the composer and her/his material. I have a Leonard Cohen tribute album, and one for the 13th Floor Elevators. There are others for Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, ad infinitum. The material is not covered for personal gain so much as love for the tunes and the bands.

I remember how we used to grouse about summer reruns, when TV shows took a break and showed programs from the past season. This is still done, although a TV season was 39 weeks in the ’50s and maybe 23 weeks now — we get to see a lot more reruns than ever. In fact, there are entire cable channels devoted to reruns, like TV Land. A quick look at their schedule tells me that oldies, M*A*S*H and Roseanne, cohabit with Extreme Makeover and Hot in Cleveland. There is a vast store of old and new TV shows for your delectation. Comfort food for the mind. I guess nostalgia pays. It always has.

So if you have missed seeing The Nanny, or wonder what Psycho would look like in color, your prayers have been answered. Me? I’m gonna watch some old movies and eat refried beans. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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