On 'remakes', and five suggestions...

13 February 2011

MP here

As the second adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Rowan Joffe’s debut feature Brighton Rock has been labelled a ‘remake’, of the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film starring Richard Attenborough. The label might be unfair in some respects: Joffe himself claims to be adapting from the source material more than anything else, and in doing so, he has made efforts to make the film his own, not least in updating its setting to the 1960s so that its story unfolds against the backdrop of the Mods and Rockers clashes. In the most glaring respect, though, the label isn’t unfair: Joffe retains the ending of the earlier film, which was itself famously unfaithful.

Whatever of this discussion, though – you can read my further thoughts on the film here – what I’d like to present here are a few films that, like the earlier Brighton Rock and its newer version, accommodate or even invite a re-envisioning, an update, or as crude industry standard puts it, a ‘remake’ (‘reboot’ is a tosh term for the endless self-enabling cycles of comic book franchises currently in the perpetual works).

Too frequently these days, the remake is of a classic: a film already known for being so fine-tuned and complete. The result is that the newer version falls prey – often rightfully so – to critically unfavourable comparison. Neil LaBute’s 2006 The Wicker Man is a good example, an ‘Americanised’ version of Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror whose ‘best’ moments cannot be watched on YouTube without hilarity. More often, the ‘remake’ seems to be a product of commercial cash-in, by the studios if not the directors making them: think of the ‘fan-homage’ franchise remakes of Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday 13th.

Other films seem too singular to be open to a re-interpretation. You can’t really imagine a direct ‘remake’ of Welles’s Citizen Kane, or films like Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage or Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts… Touch wood.

My point is, though, that as with Brighton Rock and the new Coen Brothers film True Grit, as well as Simon West’s recent ‘update’ of Michael Winner’s 1972 The Mechanic starring Jason Statham, some film ‘remakes’ aren’t immediately obvious in their appeal. In short, for whatever reason, some films invite a re-interpretation if not outright improvement. And here are five films that I’d like to suggest for an ‘update’ of sorts:

Prime Cut (1972), directed by Michael Ritchie, is a competent, taut genre piece starring Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman and a young Sissy Spacek; something of a minor masterpiece, its action unfolds over the course of three days, and yet it has that rambling casualness that seemed to run through many of the fine American films of the period. Ritchie’s film is visually appealing but with some revision the sly, sleazy humour could make for a dark, menacing film. I’d offer directorial responsibilities to Debra Granik, whose excellent Winter’s Bone reminded me at points of Ritchie’s film; perhaps it would merit a shift in focus, from Marvin’s character to Spacek’s…?

Punishment Park (1971), by Peter Watkins, is a faux documentary of political activists meeting their fate without fair trial. No doubt seriously intended and still very interesting, it seems dated and quite obvious now, almost undone by its own unsympathetic 'characters'; all of its activists are anti-establishment hippy stereotypes whose own anger ultimately gets the better of them. A film of this sort, with this material, demands re-interpretation given the current climate, in which democracy and truth are being hounded every day in the interests of a ruling political elite. Director… Steven Soderbergh?

Scanners (1981), pictured above, is David Cronenberg’s classic body-horror whose ‘cult’ status might help to veil how badly it’s dated, not least of all Stephen Lack’s wooden leading performance. Whatever, though, its initial concept, of ‘telepathic’ humans recruited to be corporate spies, remains an inviting and serious allegory today, and ias such is in much need of an update. Of course, Cronenberg himself would have to direct, though we'll happily indulge his current projects in the meantime.

Broken Blossoms, or the Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), by D. W. Griffith, was itself a kind of variation of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 film The Cheat, and is an example of American cinema’s early fascination with Orientalism. Its issues, of social prejudice and the confusions that stem from it, are still pressing today, but Griffith’s once innovative techniques give the work a preachiness today that demands a more subtle take. Suggested director: Todd Haynes, whose cine-literate skills in adapting Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) for his own Far From Heaven (2002) should be suitably tested in re-interpreting a silent film.

Passport to Pimlico (1949), the Ealing Studios film directed by Henry Cornelius, gained topical significance upon its release: as a film about a patch of London legally declared foreign soil, and as a comedy that follows that surreal gag with strict ‘what-if’ logic, it echoed the Berlin blockade, which was happening during filming, and recalled how quickly a 'state' with its own rules is isolated by the 'states' surrounding it. The film is charming but often clumsy, and in the right hands it could be fine-tuned a welcome Ealing throwback that brings new fans to those films: my vote is for Edgar Wright, and I’ll happily cast Pegg and Frost and co. too.

These might happen, these might never happen. But I’ve suggested mine; now, what are yours?