Tuesday, October 24, 2006

’Til Art is No More: Hollywood Devours Its Young

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? An axiom that Hollywood regards with all the cynical opportunism of an unscrupulous mechanic—not only fixing things that don’t need fixing, but deftly messing them up in the process.

The 2006 remake of The Omen is the latest example of Hollywood opportunism run amok. So far as I can tell, the only reason the film was made—the only vaguely “creative” rationale behind it—was to make a big marketing strategy out of releasing it on June 6, 2006, (06/06/06, geddit?). Big, fat, hairy deal. They could have saved themselves $50 million and re-released Richard Donner’s original film, now thirty years old, with Gregory Peck (whom Liev Strieber does a peculiar, nostalgia-inducing impersonation of in the current film). Audiences would then have received a decent (if dated) bit of movie horror hokum, instead of a shallow rehash with nothing but some “cool” imagery and the stunt casting of Mia Farrow (remember Rosemary’s Baby?) to distinguish it.

The only thing that makes The Omen remake worth writing about is how it provides one more piece of irrefutable evidence as to the complete poverty of imagination or innovation in the higher echelons of Hollywood studios. Remakes have been the rage for a couple of decades now, but it’s only in the last few years that the industry began to cannibalize itself with such speed that, within another decade (Armageddon permitting), it will be remaking its hit movies fasting than it can come up with the originals. Where once there was at least the pretense of a creative justification for such remakes (i.e., old movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice, being done over to take advantage of the new permissiveness), there is now a total void of artistic rationale to cover the mercenary and soulless agenda at work.

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was perhaps the turning point. Ironically, the movie was supposedly a “labor of love” on Van Sant’s part (so he would have us believe), a grand follie that remade Hitchcock’s movie, shot for shot and word for word, as a “homage” to the master. (Can pissing on someone’s grave be considered a homage? Only in Hollywood.) The studios probably approved Van Sant’s heroically demented enterprise because it meant getting a Psycho that was in color, hence could draw in mass audiences. (Colorizing Hitchcock’s original would have caused far too much of a stink even for studio execs to want to deal with.) Van Sant’s misguided Psycho was neither a commercial nor a critical success, but even so it seems to have set a precedent for “paint by numbers” sequels (and “join-the-dots” profits?).

Nowadays, it is perfectly natural for studios to employ no-name (and usually no-talent) directors to remake “classic” horror movies that aren’t even that old and where a simple re-release would serve. As prophesized by Robert Altman’s The Player, such a procedure may represent Hollywood executive dreams come true: the means for entirely removing writers from the filmmaking process. (All emphasis here on process, none at all on filmmaking.)
Assault on Precinct 13, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hills Have Eyes, When a Stranger Calls, and now The Omen and The Wicker Man, have all enjoyed the Hollywood “upgrade” in recent years, always to the detriment of the original movie (in cases such as Amityville, admittedly no great loss; the one exception to this rule is Dawn of the Dead, which almost justified itself by being a rip-roaring bit of splatter fun, just like the original.) So what’s next? A remake of Eraserhead, with Bill Murray as Henry? Or how about a new, extra special edition of Close Encounters (by James Cameron?), now that we have CGI? Hell, let’s remake E.T while we’re at it! Soon there will be no way to tell new releases from old favorites.

What I have to ask is, why not, for heaven’s sake, remake horror movies that might actually benefit from being done over? Either films whose potential wasn’t tapped the first time around or that didn’t have the technology needed to do full justice to the director’s vision? Let Cronenberg do a $50 million rehash of Videodrome, and inflict us with the postmodern paranoid epic he has always dreamed of inflicting upon us! What about all those horror movies with fantastically inspired plots that never managed to deliver on their promise? Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, John Carpenter’s They Live, the visionary but disappointing Dark City? What about the old Nigel Neale “Quatermass” TV shows? The answer is that none of these have the instant recognizability of those ’70s horror “classics” which, once remade, pretty much sell themselves because even younger audiences have heard of (but hopefully not seen) the originals. There may be something like morbid curiosity compelling people to see these movies, out of a mixture of nostalgic affection for the originals and a desire to see how awful these new versions really are. I, too, have allowed myself to be tricked into watching these films—actually paying money to see them—despite the absolute certainty that I will repent of it afterwards. And invariably, I do.

Judging by the continuing stream of this warmed-over dreck, remakes of movies that either didn’t need remaking or never had much potential to begin with—so long as they are easily identifiable by title—more or less guarantee a profit for the studios. What could be simpler than taking a previous hit and giving it a glossy, FX-happy make-over? If they are in the mood for a good scare, people will go to see a horror movie, just like they will go to a dumb-out comedy for a laugh (let’s face it, like they will go the movies, period), no matter what it is. Remakes share their title with some movie that audiences have heard about and which they assume must be great; the mere fact it’s been remade means it’s a classic, right? They go to the movie out of some fuzzy “logic” (or rather, irrational hope) it will provide whatever special thrills made the original special. Teenage audiences (the target audience of these movies) have next to no awareness of film history and even less interest in it; they have all the memory or discernment of MTV-raised, ADD goldfish, and apparently, they like it that way. So long as they’re served the requisite gore and cheap thrills and can max out to their popcorn, who cares if they’re eating moldy old leftovers—and not last week’s but last year’s? It’s all been microwaved and MSG-ed to cover the lack of nutritional value or of anything faintly resembling flavor. Their retinas, brains and eardrums are being assaulted; and that, man, is what the movies are all about.
Ye gods. And this Hollywood agenda looks set to proceed, with all the inexorable inevitability of a fundamentalist Armageddon, verily, until Art exists no more.

The only possible way to justify an Omen remake—with its ever-more topical “Antichrist in the White House” archetypal unfolding—would be either by coming up with a whole new twist to the tale or by making the scariest goddamn movie ever. The new Omen accomplishes neither goal; most depressingly of all, it doesn’t seem to aspire to anything at all. The strongest sensation I got while watching it was an eerie, unsettling déjà vu that took me back to seeing the first film (a dozen times) as a teenager. This new version is so similar to the original, and yet so fundamentally inferior in everything but the cinematography, that it creates a kind of vacuum in the viewer—at least in those of us who have seen the original. It’s exactly the sort of vacuum you’d expect when an art form had begun to cannibalize itself. It’s happening so rapidly now that an art form is disappearing before our eyes.

If the antichrist were among us today, I wonder: would he be running a Hollywood studio?

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