Non-interchangeable Parts: the Trouble with Remakes by Peter Fraser

My film students first told me about it. Miramax will be coming out in October with a remake of the great Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996). Worse yet, it will star Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, and Stanley Tucci in the role of the beloved character, Mr. Aoki. When the students told me, I was tempted to check the urban legends website, until I had the story confirmed.
        No doubt, this was some twisted idea of a Miramax production committee teased by the success of The Ring, adapted shot for shot from the Japanese cult classic Ringu. The difference, of course, is that Ringu is driven by its story and eerie effects – matters that can be imitated. Shall We Dance is driven by its characters and its cultural moment – matters that cannot be imitated.
        The history of the movie business offers far more examples of failed re-makes or sequels than successful ones, a head-spinning number in fact. Yet, studios keep trying it as they have little to lose – remakes usually draw enough curious viewers to turn a profit, and perhaps especially in a case like this when the subtitles may have kept some potential viewers away.
        Miramax thinks Shall We Dance is a sure bet. To turn a profit – perhaps. To be a great film – think again. Paramount thought that about Falling in Love, the 1984 remake of the David Lean masterpiece Brief Encounter (1945). After all, Brief Encounter only had Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. Falling in Love would have Bobbie DeNiro and Meryl Streep. Bomb. Universal thought that way about remaking Hitchcock’s Psycho. After all, Vince Vaughan is better looking than Anthony Perkins, and Gus Van Sant would do color for the shower sequence. Bomb.
        Shall We Dance may recover the costs of its production (using Gere and Lopez inflated the budget), but its chances of artistic success are very slim. Like most remakes, it overlooks the performance factor. What is this? Consider an analogy – take some classic song that made a particular singer famous and consider the chances of another singer making it even better. Take “Material Girl” and have Brittany Spears sing it. For every one time such a venture succeeds, fifty other singers humiliate themselves trying it. Now that is one performance by one singer. Consider the case in a film like Shall We Dance. There you have completely realized comic performances by an ensemble of veteran Japanese performers who are completely familiar with the cultural milieu behind the film, and its thematics. And who, during one magic moment in time, capture an artistic vision bigger than themselves – perfectly. How do you replicate something like that?
        Film is not live theater, so a cross-reference to stage productions doesn't really work. Performers take into film much more baggage. Into this quaint foreign film, Shall We Dance, Richard Gere drags American Gigolo and Pretty Woman and Cindy Crawford and unrepeatable urban legends. Jennifer Lopez drags Ben Affleck and The National Enquirer and thimble-like dresses. Informed audiences will inevitably approach their performances with sly skepticism, since their “star” presences operate as a subtext contradicting the message of the original film. That is, the original Shall We Dance concludes by suggesting that Japanese culture needs to assimilate the best of Western culture (ballroom dance, open communication between the genders) while retaining its honor and integrity. Without a line of dialogue spoken, the remake dismisses Japanese culture, and in place celebrates “stars” whose iconography tells of some of the very worst aspects of Western culture (self-indulgence, sex-ploitation, conspicuous consumption).
        We shouldn’t fault Gere and Lopez for looking for projects that will draw a crowd (although Stanley Tucci, as an advocate of independent film, should really know better). Gere and Lopez are both very competent performers and will be very… competent. But they are “stars,” and that with a capital “S.” And, this is one of those matters that producers and directors, who want to consider themselves part of an artistic community, ought to understand better than this undertaking suggests. In film, who is performing can mean as much as how they are performing.
        
Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has written two books and numerous articles about film and culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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In The Bedroom, Sitting Up by Peter Fraser

Nothing beats a good short story, one that captures the whole of a life in some subtle gesture. The lifting of a cork from the floor, a boy turning away from a booth at a bazaar, a servant with the legs of a dying man on his shoulders-these images from the masters (Carver, Joyce, Tolstoy) haunt us after we read them, since we, too, have seen our entire lives summed up from lime to time in flashes, in the way we nod and listen to a woman over the table, or ask for another cup of coffee.
        Todd Field's debut film In the Bedroom from the masterful Andre Dubus' short story "Killings" ends with just such a haunting gesture, a casual line of dialogue delivered (outside the bedroom actually) with such precision that it steals your breath. Brilliant. The screen goes black.
        Once that line is offered over the final image, the film plays in reverse and starts again for us, and everything fits. While we initially squirmed through parts of the drama and wondered which character to fall in love with and which event to decry or laud, we had received many reassurances that our patience would be rewarded. We might not have known where events would lead, but every syllable of the compact dialogue and every framing of the landscape around Camden, Maine, reassured us-the film says, I know where we are going; just wait.
        The story follows the line of a Greek tragedy. A young man (Nick Stahl) falls in love with a beautiful older woman (Marisa Tomei) with two small children, whose disturbed soon-to-be ex-husband (William Mapother) won't let go. The young man's parents (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) differ on how to counsel their son" an effect of their long years together – and their hesitancy leads to an acceleration of the conflict, and then tragedy. Afterward, the parents wrestle with how to respond to the events which slipped past their control, the wife silently frustrated until the husband finally finds appropriate means for achieving catharsis.
        This story of interior conflicts gets played against a cool New England backdrop, which suggests a cosmic indifference to the turns of Fate’s wheel that destroy the happiness of such little people. This is not the New England of Jonathan Edwards, nor even of John Cheever. It's much much colder – Raymond Carven's world comes to mind. And the characters don't struggle for personal redemption and human companionship. They just want to ward off the pain and get through another day.
        Toward the end of the film, one of the husband's card-playing friends offers as consolation some verses by William Blake that suggest the folly of older people trying to understand the "long thoughts" that motivate the young. It's a great touch – the secondary characters each have their own tales to tell. But I thought of the dour Robert Frost while I listened, not the romantic mystic Blake. A New Englander himself who suffered his own set of family catastrophes, Frost wrote, "I'd like to get away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin over". The characters in this drama grow very weary by the end, too weary to think through what has happened. All will be covered in silence, after all.
        Like most great artistic achievements, the seamless ones, this film needs to be seen, rather than talked about. Whether or not Sissy Spacek or the film itself will win an Academy Award is idle matter. Perhaps if we incline toward the auteur approach and believe that the director stamps each component of the work with his own imprint, we might be compelled to argue that Todd Field deserves acclaim. If so, the assist should go to the late Andre Dubus whose forceful story pushed Field toward this excellence.
        Better, however, to leave that discussion and reflect on the film's depiction of the human condition, that is the point, after all. The film asks us to understand why events unfold in our lives as they do, and suggests that were we to probe those areas that trigger our actions we might find things unexpected. For a film as devoid of religious and philosophical speculation as this one, on the surface at least, one cannot help but walk away wondering why so many deep cracks run through our humanity.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modem Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. He has authored two books on film and culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Lights, Computer, Action!

You Don't Need Film To Make Movies These Days by Michael Horne

When there comes the time that a product that gave its name to an entire industry has become outmoded, while the industry rolls on, you have to marvel at the staggering pace of technology.
        We refer here to film, the product of choice for a century when you wanted high-quality photographic reproduction. From its earliest black and white days, when the product had an unfortunate tendency to self-ignite, to its Technicolor apex, this transparent polymer with its light-sensitive emulsion was unsurpassed for everything from home movies to the most extravagant Hollywood productions.
        Although it was the medium of dreams, film itself was a bulky product, that spawned sub-industries of its own, ranging from the chemists and technicians involved in its production, processing and manipulation to highly-skilled professionals who would splice thousands of disparate bits into completed works of the whole, it was a very linear process, as befitted a linear product stored on reels. Film also gave English a new term the cutting room floor, that repository of wasted effort. As a medium for the recording of images, film is soon to go the way of clay tablets, thanks to those ubiquitous zeroes and ones and the very powerful machines that can now process them seamlessly.
        The "digital revolution," (to coin a phrase) is now working its way inexorably through the motion picture industry. At the very least, it has settled the debate between film and video partisans as to the pre-eminent platform for recording moving images. (Video won.) Currently, waves of the revolution are rippling through back-lot backwaters, where the once manual job of readying movies for release is undergoing a radical change. "Nonlinear production," (NLP) is now the watchword. In the celluloid era, a single foot of film passed through many steps in a very precise order as it was processed, edited, color corrected, cut, spliced, and had special effects, sound and titles added. While one set of workers exhausted themselves with they’re given tasks, the next in line were left to expensively twiddle their thumbs. The studio system, with its assembly line flow of movies, was developed in part to circumvent this sort of idleness. But the inherent physicality of the medium, and the many alchemies involved in its creation made it prone to the bottlenecks that caused the delayed release of many films in the past, costing producers millions and delaying the public's enjoyment by countless lifetimes in the aggregate.
        Well, that excuse is gone. Today's movies are shot with digital cameras, with digital sound. This data is then downloaded to finishing machines like the Avid DS HD v5.0 machines that, according to company literature, allow editors and digital artists to "experience total creative freedom with full access to a complete rage of seamlessly integrated picture and audio editing, compositing, paint, titling, animation, and media management tools at all times, unobstructed by the barriers or limitations of traditional postproduction."
        Gone are darkrooms, and the noxious chemicals they contained. Banished forever are the splicing blocks, the boxes of razor blades, the white gloves and the wax pencils. The cutting room floor may still exist, but it's now in a place called cyberspace.

Sneak Preview
        Since it would be unthinkable for any revolution in Hollywood to bypass Milwaukee, it was thought that a demonstration of a digital editing system would be in order. Acting with the audacity that is characteristic of all his enterprises, Jim Searles arranged with the folks at Midwest Media Group to have a suite of editing tools, complete with a technician, show off this new and very expensive equipment to a small group of interested filmmakers and friends. The event took place on an otherwise bleak March day at the upstairs screening room at the Astor Street Performing Arts Center, the proposed film and video production facility that Jim Searles is putting together at the Brady Street Pharmacy (nee Astor Theater.) The screening room is just a part of the 20,000 sq. ft. building on Milwaukee's East Side. The screening room-editing facility is 27 feet wide, 65 feet long and has a 14-foot ceiling height. Just the week before crews from Creative Construction sprayed the ceiling and upper four feet of the walls with a sound-deadening black coating that really made the place look just like something out of a Hollywood back lot, especially with a darn near million dollars of equipment humming away in the room.

Meet the Machine
        The heart of the operation is a rather simple workstation dominated by a two 21-inch HDTV monitors. On the screen are images to be edited and a host of pull down menus for an array of options. These include at least 22 tools for picture editing, and eleven "effects, filters, time effects and transitions," like "high-speed Gaussian blur, noise effects, fractal noise generator, edge detection, emboss, fades, sharpen, reticulation, stamp, ripple, threshold and gradient effects; deflickering, dithering, posterize and solarize effects." Did we ever think the day would come when dithering would be so easy?
        The menus also include options for character generation, keying tools, color correction, paint and audio editing and mixing. Keypad and mouse control everything. Fired up and ready to go, the display, with a frozen image on the screen and all sorts of menus, looks like a very expensive computer with an attractive screen saver.
        It certainly is a muscular unit. With such hardware components as 1.5GB RAM, dual 1.7Ghz Pentium 4 chips, 40GB Ultra-ATA system and audio drive along with God knows what else, there is a lot of power to this computer as the demonstration was soon to show.

Roll Em!
        The show opened with the picture of a mountain that was frozen on the screen as the viewers arrived. Soon, the mountain came to life, as the technician zoomed into the action of a few climbers deep in a crevasse. Soon that picture was blended with some rafters and then it dissolved to some mountain trekkers. Skillfully, with just a flick of a mouse, the picture was cropped, edited, dissolved and generally moved around. Every editing effect from lightening shadows to deepening colors and adding titles was achieved instantaneously as soon as the proper command was entered. In no more than a few minutes an entire finished piece, with all sorts of special effects was completely, and nonlinearly, edited and finished. In the linear celluloid film era this would have required multiple handling of the film, passing it from one department to another, encountering possible bottlenecks and eating up a whole lot of expensive time.
        In a digital studio environment many of these tasks could be performed simultaneously on a number of workstations. Titles, for example, could be inserted in the film even before, say, color correction. In the past, this would have been unthinkable.
        Rob Yeo, chairman of the Film department at UWM was among those witnessing the demonstration. He pointed out the device's potential in education. With digital editing he would be able to both critique a student's work as well as demonstrate his point to the student by editing the piece on the spot.
        Let's say Yeo felt a certain scene would have been more effective with a "tighter" shot, and maybe a softer focus. As it stands, he now could only mention this to a student, who may or may not get the point. With digital editing Yeo could tighten the shot, soften the focus (and do a little dithering, if need be.) The student could see Yeo's changes on the spot. And, with a flick of a button, the student could restore his original version once the professor turned his attention elsewhere. Thanks to the system's Internet capabilities, a student's complete output could be available for streaming at any time. This would vastly simplify the process of submission of films for festivals, critiques or as proposals. UWM would consider using the facility for student and graduate projects, and the demonstration at ASPAC was to acquaint possible funders of the potential of the machine and the space. In the opinion of Jim Searles, Milwaukee needs a facility to produce and edit films for the public good. "Once you graduate from UWM you can't use their facilities. We need a place where graduates and students can work together."
        This is no small goal, and Searles has prepared some preliminary budgets to show that his dream of a tax-exempt, non-profit film production center can make sense. "I can make money from commercial productions," he says, "but that's not what's important. Open windows! Give the young filmmakers a chance to reflect Milwaukee's explosive talent. I want to see a one hour special on channel 10 on the City Ballet Theatre."
        Of course, he wants to see it with digital production, editing and presentation. "There is no reason to have it done any other way. This is the future; there is no turning back, and nobody's doing it on a community level. We have already lost a generation to Hollywood junk. We have lost our values and our moral compass. It is time to return filmmaking to the people, and we must use state-of-the art equipment."
        With equipment like the Avid DS HD v5, and its dozens of features and myriad possibilities, Jim's dancers will float onto the screen, defying gravity in front of an animated cityscape teeming with color. And with a flip of a switch, the editor will be able to access the "film effect" menu, which "simulates the appearance of celluloid film." After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
        Questions? Comments? Call 414 273-5478 or e-mail horne.milwaukeeworld@gmail.com
        Coming Soon to a Theater Near You – Digital editing and production is only part of the technological revolution in film. The next step will be an expensive one – the retrofitting of movie theaters worldwide with digital projectors. This hot topic will be covered in the next issue of Filmmakers.   Back to topics


Lost In Translation by Tim Lambrecht

As the film Lost In Translation opens, we find Bill Murray in the back of a cab being driven from the airport to his Tokyo hotel.
        Murray gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Bob Hams, a movie star whose best years are behind him. He is in Tokyo for photo shoots for ads for the whiskey he is pitching for the Japanese market. He the stranger in a strange land, disconnected from everything around him. He has a comfortable lifestyle, married with kids. However, on this trip, his wife is reduced to a disembodied voice and an incoming fax at 4:00 in the morning. (4:20 to be exact...)
        Bob sticks out like a sore thumb in Japan, nearly a foot taller than the other men riding an elevator in one scene. The scene is not played for laughs but instead it shows us how strange this must be for him.
        A lot of Murray's acting is simply reacting. The scenes in which he is adapting to his new hotel surroundings are priceless... the unfamiliar shower, the complimentary razor.
        Charlotte, (Scarlett Johansson) is in town with her husband, (played by Giovanni Ribisi) a famous celebrity photographer. She has a degree in philosophy, but she can't get any attention from him. He is too wrapped up in his work and his lifestyle. He is so disconnected he can't even see that she is upset. He leaves her to herself in their hotel room day after day until she is literally bored to tears. She is a strong independent woman, yet going off and exploring Tokyo on her own is still a bit overwhelming for her, and not as fun as if she had someone to share it with.
        Lying awake in bed, and flipping through cable channels gets old fast for both Bob and Charlotte and they both end up in the hotel bar, a surreal loungy dark bar where American music is played and sung by lounge musicians for Japanese businessmen. It seems they are both happy to find a kindred spirit in each other. It's just nice to find someone else who speaks English and two lonely people find each other.
        Having a drink at the bar together, they talk. The dialogue is careful at first, the way you might be when you first meet someone, including awkward pauses and quiet moments but eventually they develop a nice chemistry. The dialogue rings true, it's not cliché-ridden or set-up lines delivered for punch lines for laughs. These are two real people, and each of them has their own situations they have to deal with. (I'd be curious to know how much of Murray's lines were written and how much is his own ad-libbing. It feels real.) He comes across as a most real person. He's Bob Harris, a celebrity yes, but underneath it all, he's still a man, and at this time, a lonely man. Both Bob and Charlotte are disconnected from the world they know, and their failed attempts to make things right, just gives them both impetus to pursue this interesting new friendship with each other. They decide to go out and explore the city a little and then go to a house party of a friend of Charlotte's.
        There is a sweet scene when Charlotte takes a break from the party festivities and sits in the hallway to smoke a cigarette. A few moments later, Murray walks in sits down with her, takes the cigarette, takes one drag off it, gives it back to her. She then lays her head on his shoulder and he puts his hand on her hand. Not a word spoken between them yet this simple scene says so much. In many films, this would be the point where Bob and Charlotte would begin a sexual relationship, but not here. The feelings are there, but both are tied down to others, and choose not to take it to that level.
        This film is full of nice quiet scenes where Bob and Charlotte simply spend time together talking. Just as you might expect from Murray himself, Bob is a clever well-rounded guy and his conversations with Charlotte show us what he really thinks about his life and his family and what he's going through. Charlotte opens up as well, and asks questions like "Does it get any easier?" They open up to each other through conversation and they develop a friendship that helps them make it through the time they are spending in a place foreign to both of them.
        Sofia Coppola wrote and directed this film. It is her second film following 2000's Virgin Suicides. She has also directed a few music videos and has probably picked up a few pointers from her husband, award winning film and music video director Spike Jonze. She chooses different camera lenses for different feelings; a wide-angle lens for shots of the city, so we too can be overwhelmed by the hugeness of it all. A hand-held camera follows Murray and Johansson through the streets as they explore Tokyo together.
        She also uses music to hold a mood as she segues from one scene to the next. From the karaoke scenes to the moody sounds of bands like Air and Jesus And Mary Chain on the soundtrack, music is a big part of this film.
        Murray is both charismatic and yet vulnerable as Bob Harris. He conducts himself as a gentleman, and is kind and endearing. Johansson is wonderful as Charlotte just reaching out for someone to talk to. This is one of the best and most thoughtful films in recent memory.
        The film ends as it began, with Bob in a taxi leaving the city for the airport and eventually back to his wife and family. There are lots of disconnected people in the world, for various reasons. Sometimes a friend to talk to, or do things with is all you need to lift your spirits. Back to topics


Monsoon Wedding by Tim Lambrecht

Mira Nair should be recognized as one of the world's best directors. Her previous films Salaam Bombay and Kama Sutra were both excellent films and Monsoon Wedding is also. Nair's films look lush and rich in color and texture. In this film, Nair's use of rain, as both a metaphor and as a natural weather device is exceptional. You can almost feet the humidity of India after a rainstorm.
        
The story is set in modern-day Delhi. The city is trying hard to Americanize itself. Economically, the city is not unlike a US city, but there is still the clash of modernism versus Punjabi tradition.
        Aditi is the daughter of a Delhi businessman. (We see him playing golf with his friends and worrying about paying for the wedding.) She works for a television studio where her married boyfriend is carrying on an affair. He has told her he will leave his wife for her, but she has been waiting for too long. She is about to enter into a prearranged marriage with an Indian businessman from Houston.
        Both Aditi and her husband-to-be express concern about the arranged marriage, but figure all marriages are a gamble. How well do you really know someone else? They make a very engaging couple also, forced to share themselves and their feelings in a vulnerable time to a stranger.
        As the generations of family members converge on the wedding day, the differences between generations and opinions can be seen. At one point, a beautiful wedding song is interrupted by a cell phone call.
        The beautiful gown she wears as a bride is just covering a modern Indian woman. And like the beautiful, rich tapestries, there is a tapestry of emotions and feelings and secrets woven into this family's history.
        There are also some very sweet scenes here, featuring the lonely wedding planner who goes from businessman to lovesick puppy when he meets a girl in the wedding party.
        This film works on many levels. As a love story, it is a very interesting, sweet story. However, it is also a document of the changing times in places like Delhi, India where becoming Americanized means becoming successful. And the reason this film can cross over to American audiences is… although Nair tells the story of modern-day Delhi, this is not a film about India, it is a film about people and their lives, to which we can all relate.  Back to topics


Pirates Sail New Virtual Seas by Peter Fraser

When viewing a bit of summer fun like Pirates of the Caribbean, one ought to avoid the trap of over thinking, as it may lead to a muddle. What can you really say about a film that is designed, in part at least, to promote a theme park ride? Or for that matter, how do you wrap your mind around a PG-13 movie with a plot suitable for a ten-year old made by the director of The Ring?
        
If you can block these paradoxical complexities out and sit comfortably the requisite two hours and twenty minutes that it takes to unfold the film's three story lines, Pirates of the Caribbean will indeed prove to be a great deal of fun, which is, after all, what one wants it to be – nothing more. Johnny Depp's over-the-top rendering of Captain Jack Sparrow and several Evil Dead 2-styled action sequences featuring fighting corpses are worth a few bucks to see. And, rising starlet Keira Knightley {Bend It Like Beckham}, only seventeen when the shooting began, does like the camera, and the camera likes her.
        
Beyond that, well... the film seems to be a post-modern farce. Depp's character, for instance, is a bit of a joke, Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks fed through Keith Richards (by Depp's own admission), and the painted images on the Disneyland ride.
        
And so with each major performance in the filmself-conscious renderings of older fictions, Keira Knightley's damsel is a kind of inflatable doll, a visual toy based on an image conjured by Alexandre Dumas. The other lead player, Orlando Bloom, smitten by this damsel, makes swords for a living, until he gets caught up in the antics of the Black Pearl's crew – the weird significance of this being, of course, that we last saw him as the elf Legolas in The Lord of the Rings, a set of films which will no doubt prove to be a boon to the cutlery industry.
        
Likewise, the mysterious ghost ship, The Black Pearl, once Sparrow's, but now commandeered by a troupe of zombies, speeds through a virtual sea – Coleridge's poetic vision blended with something from Nosferatu, yet drawn by an artist from Marvel Comics.
        
And so with the film effects, following the trend of the summer – The Hulk, Matrix Reloaded, Terminator III, X-Men – there is a video-game quality to the fight scenes and to several lingering images of ships on the sea, which keeps us constantly aware that we are watching a movie with cutting edge visuals. It's just immodestly plastic, like a big red and white beach ball.
        
Perhaps that is okay. It just seems mixed up, however. Who are these films for? I've wondered this all summer. If Hulk was for kids, why was it so dark and seriously toned? If Matrix Reloaded was for adults, a "more thoughtful" sci-fi and special effects movie, what in the world was going on in that torturous love scene between Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss? It's confusing if you try to put words to it – our collective sense of propriety having all but disappeared.
        
There are two points to be made really. Marketers have forever changed Hollywood – can a film be a blockbuster, can it find a new definition for what is being cool, and so be profitable? If so, anything goes.
        
Second, the space between fiction and reality has become in our culture increasingly thin. Is authenticity possible any more – in either fiction or reality?
        
Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has authored two books and numerous articles on film and popular culture.   Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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