Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remake, Remake and Remake Again

Hollywood has always been quick to remake movies. Astonishingly it made three versions of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon between 1931 and 1941. (It's actually the third, John Huston-Humphrey Bogart movie we generally remember.)

Still, Hollywood was different then. The remakes were part of a far higher output of feature films, a major studio like MGM putting out one movie a week. And film was seen as nearly disposable back then, a bit more like how we view TV than movies, the more so because of how rapid changes were seen as making older material unsalable. With the talkies, "no one" wanted silent movies, while color and widescreen changed the terms yet again. At the same time the more straitlaced "Hayes' Code" meant that a lot of older material made in a freer period was no longer screenable--while if you were going to screen something to which you would have to sell tickets in competition with brand new movies, why not have new stars in it when they were what people wanted to see? All this was reflected in, and itself reflected, the fact that the studios didn't work very hard to old onto older material, much of it literally lost over the tumult of these decades, while the relaxation of censorship later meant that old stories they had to treat in bowdlerized fashion could get more faithful adaptation. (This was, in fact, a justification for the flurry of remakes of noir classics in the '70s and early '80s--The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

None of that applies now. The output of feature film is limited in quantity, each film representing a bigger proportion of the whole. The medium is no longer going through such flux as it did earlier, and the same applies for the bounds of censorship. We no longer think of films as disposable--each and every one treated as representing precious intellectual property, to be clasped tightly until the end of time. In fact, far from competing for ticket sales because it is the only way that one can see movies, TV, the Internet and the rest mean that audiences have never had cheaper, easier access to older movies. In the process, much of the justification for remakes has disappeared. Accordingly, it was possible to justify three Maltese Falcons over the '30s in a way that it does not seem possible to justify three Spidermans in a decade of the twenty-first century (2007-2017). That Hollywood insists on doing it anyway is solely a matter of a critical (or is it uncritical?) minimum of people being willing to come in and see it, as has undeniably been the case. In commercial terms, high concept remains a success. And so long as that remains the case, it too will remain with us, no matter how much film critics and cultural commentators complain.

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