Every couple months or so, my wife and I host an event we call Twice-Baked Tales. We’ll have friends over for a home-cooked meal followed by a screening of a movie (usually from the 1930’s, 40’s, or 50’s) and its remake. So far we’ve watched Out of the Past (1947) and its 1984 remake, Against All Odds, and both versions of The Killers and The Manchurian Candidate. We’ve considered Cape Fear for an upcoming installment, but I’m not so sure I can sit through the Martin Scorsese version again.
One thing has become abundantly clear over the course of these three screenings: The newer versions are never a patch on the originals. Hollywood seems incapable of updating a movie from its Golden Age without piling on all the sex, violence, and profanity that are now de rigueur in modern films. Directors and writers may cloak this crass pandering under the guise of exercising their hard-won “artistic freedom,” but whatever they want to call it, it means that we the viewers have to suffer through stink bombs such as Against All Odds. Director Taylor Hackford makes every wrong decision imaginable: replacing the stoic Robert Mitchum with a simpering Jeff Bridges; adding tedious fight scenes and unerotic sex scenes; introducing an absurd subplot involving professional football; and insisting that every minor character’s “motivation” be dissected in excruciating detail. When we get to the point where Rachel Ward stares searchingly into Jeff Bridges’ eyes and says, “I would have loved to have seen you play football,” I wish Robert Mitchum would magically appear in Bridges’ place and respond, “Baby, I don’t care.”
Our guests for the Twice-Baked events— Jessica and Stjiepan, a couple from my wife’s graduate program—did not start off as old-movie buffs. Early on, Stjiepan made the crack that he would probably have trouble staying awake during the black-and-white features. But just a month or so later, upon hearing that the remake of The Killers was from 1964, he commented, “Hey, that’s good; they’re both old. Maybe they’ll both be good this time.”
We started the screenings on a lark; it was a nutty variation on the “dinner and a movie” concept, a chance for us to get together, cook something, polish off a bottle or two, and laugh at the TV set for a few hours. But, as we soon discovered, the act of watching two generations tell the same story also made for a fascinating and sobering cultural study. I, for one, was honestly shocked to see how far Hollywood had fallen—both in its standards of decency and the quality of its storytelling—in such a short span of time. I now understand the look on my grandfather’s face every time he witnesses some new depravity on daytime television—the look that seems to say, I fought in three wars to defend this?
This is not to say that I am in any way nostalgic for the Hays Code (a draconian set of standards that dominated the film industry from the 1930’s through the 1950’s), but I am nostalgic for the creativity and discipline that resulted from working under its constraints. Even as the power of the Hays (later Breen) office began to wane in the mid 50’s, a shared set of values remained—for a while at least. What’s more, the idea that films didn’t explore “difficult” subjects back then is a myth; a viewing of either The Man With the Golden Arm or Anatomy of a Murder should dispel such condescending notions. The difference is that the “edgy” films of that period addressed their tough themes with intelligence and taste, carefully pulling the viewer into the narrative in such a way that the more unpleasant aspects of the story could be faced without necessitating a shower afterward.
I am of the generation that brought Trainspotting to the screen. While it’s true that the film depicts the horrors of drug addiction with unflinching accuracy, its relentless profanity and scatology ensures that just about anyone over 50 will find it unpalatable.
The Man With the Golden Arm, on the other hand, is just as effective, but it can be watched across the generations. It provokes discussion rather than revulsion.
There is precious little art to modern cinematic storytelling, only technique. And that technique is most often employed to make things louder, faster, bloodier, sexier. If that’s what the audience wants, fair enough. It’s a business, after all. But could Hollywood at least leave its own classics alone? Is that too much to ask? In what twisted world was the original Cape Fear not scary or violent enough? Did we really need to see Robert De Niro bite some girl’s ear off? Did that add anything to our enjoyment of our brief time here on Earth? And what kind of hubris fuels these repeated attempts to remake movies that originally starred Robert Mitchum? Is there a new Thunder Road in the wings, swapping moonshine stills for meth labs?
Obviously there is a lot of insecurity at play in Hollywood these days, not to mention a dearth of ideas. Any appeal for restraint gets met with spittle-flecked cries of “Censorship!” Perhaps it’s best, then, to cloak the criticism in a summons to action. We challenge Hollywood to be original again, to rediscover subtlety, to forego computer-generated effects in favor of a little thing called story, to stop insisting that everyone from lawyers to doctors to school principals talks like a street thug, and—for God’s sake—to have enough humility to recognize that The Manchurian Candidate cannot be improved upon.
The time frame between original and remake, as well as the criteria for what constitutes a classic in the first place, is shrinking. It was announced recently that a remake of Footloose is in the works, and new versions of Halloween and Friday the 13th have already come and gone. Hell, they remade Walking Tall and set it in the Pacific Northwest! (They kept the stick, though.) Today, movies based on toys (Transformers and G.I. Joe) are surefire blockbusters, yet you could arguably have a more substantive experience watching the home videos I made as a boy, dropping rocks on action figures and sending toy spaceships over the garden wall.
The practice of remaking movies dates back to the beginning of the medium itself, and they haven’t all been bad. The versions of Ben-Hur and The Wizard of Oz that are now considered classics are essentially remakes—or at least new adaptations. But now it is difficult to find a movie that is not a remake, a sequel, an adaptation of a comic book, or a “re-imagining” of an old TV show. It seems we are fast approaching the point where there are no original ideas at all, only dumbed-down rehashes of earlier triumphs.
So I’m gearing up for another round of Twice-Baked Tales. Only this time, I may do myself a favor and skip the second reel.