Essays (book reviews)

Film Remakes
by Constantine Verevis
(Edinburgh University Press, 2006, 198 pages)


In a collective think-tank posted on David Bordwell’s excellent blog site in 2007, the question of sequels – specifically, Part 3 instalments – was smartly debated. The heading for the entry put the polemical line up front: “Live with it! There’ll always be movie sequels. Good thing, too”. The discussion counters the prevalent journalistic line – now a rather tired and thoughtless cliché – that sequels are always inferior to the original, always a sell-out, always a sign of the imaginative poverty of contemporary blockbuster/franchise-crazy Hollywood.


Australian scholar Constantine Verevis’ book is about remakes, not sequels. But both forms certainly call forth the same polemical battlelines: remakes/sequels are either a sign that there are no new ideas in commercial cinema (whether blockbuster, arthouse or middle-ground genre cinema, judging by the contemporary deluge of English-language remakes of foreign titles); or they constitute an artistic or cultural practice that is in itself interesting, valuable, possibly modern, perhaps even new.


However, Film Remakes does not begin by staking or arguing a claim in this debate – which would undoubtedly have made it easier to stick a sensational blurb on the back cover. The issue of originality – and the value we tend to place upon it – comes in for much critique along the way, but it is not what centrally powers the book. Instead, Verevis begins from a less sensational premise: that remaking is “both an elastic concept and a complex situation” (p. vii). This rather Foucauldian notion may betray the book’s origins in a PhD, but it is an idea to which Verevis wisely sticks. He is not out to prove anything about remakes, to sort out the good from the bad, the valid from the invalid; rather he sets himself the more difficult and patient task of sifting through the available frameworks and definitions, and problematising the lot. His book provides an invaluable guide through the forest of often hazy and contradictory accounts of the film remake.


Film Remakes is structured around three different fields or registers of this cinema-object: remaking as an industrial category (the chapter “Commerce” offers a useful focus on cinema/television relations); remaking as a textual category; and remaking as a critical category. If there is a polemical slant to the project, it reveals itself right at the end, in a Conclusion merrily titled “Remaking Everything”. Here a certain idea, implicit throughout, is finally brought to the fore: everything is a remake and all remakes are good – or at least interesting and productive, inevitably and inescapably so – because every remake inscribes (it cannot do otherwise) the distance (in time, space and cultural difference) between itself and the original source. And it is precisely from those intervals that the work of culture – and criticism – begins. 


Verevis prefaces the book by acknowledging that contemporary Hollywood cinema is his main (although not exclusive) focus, and that more cross-cultural work needs to be done; I did regret, as a reader, the absence of illuminating comparisons with those very different industries of popular remaking which structure (for instance) Hong Kong or Bollywood cinema. And I wondered, at moments, how crucially dependent Verevis’ faith in “everything as remake” is on a like-minded assumption about genre, that “all films are genre films” – when this, it seems to me, is patently untrue, or at least worth arguing out. However, rather than dwell on the absences, it is better to engage with the project’s core theoretical methodology – and to speculate on its place within the intellectual scene of the 2000s.


In a sense, Verevis’ book is about one specific thing and another, much larger thing. The specific thing is the remake, while the larger thing is the process of remaking – which, as Verevis indicates, expands the topic to include all modes of parody, pastiche, quotation, and so on. His work on the remake has its origins in a philosophical exploration of Gilles Deleuze’s theories of difference and repetition. This philosophical edge is muted in the book, but it explains Verevis’ commitment to the most far-reaching research into intertextuality carrried out at least since Gérard Genette’s work on literature in the 1960s: a prime example is Lesley Stern’s remarkable The Scorsese Connection (BFI, 1995), which sets films – often films with little immediate connection to each other – into a swirl of echoes, questions-and-responses, mutual deformations, and so on, usually on the basis of a formal element (the colour red, for example) or a performance gesture, as much as on plot similarity or generic familiarity.


Here it is intriguing to read Film Remakes as a symptomatic sign – or weather vane – of the state of a certain kind of filmic analysis today. Much of the cinema studies field seems in a great haste to flee from – even disown – the legacy of structuralist, poststructuralist, semiotic and psychoanalytic work bequeathed to us during the hothouse period from the early 1960s through to roughly the mid ‘80s; a disowning which, in its zealous intensity, sometimes goes far beyond the natural course of rational critique. Verevis does not partake of this unseemly evacuation but, by the same token, he seems hesitant to push through on some of the most radical lessons of intertextuality – straddling, as he understandably and quite sensibly does, the contemporary space joining film studies with cultural studies.


Discussion of sequels, remakes, parodies and so forth remains constant in today’s cultural-intellectual sphere – usually flying under the banner of an approach it still labels as intertextual. But what is missing from today’s Quentin Tarantino-style intertextuality, in comparison with yesterday’s more philosophical and semiotic kind? Let us look briefly at a book that I consider to be among the most significant texts in the field of contemporary film studies – namely, Mikhail Iampolski’s The Memory of Tiresias: Intertexuality and Film (University of California Press, 1998). Verevis rightly cites it early in his study, pointing to Iampolski’s idea of the “semantic anomaly” that any quotation introduces into a text – its disruption of the linear flow by a kind of strangeness or enigma, thereby calling forth what Verevis describes as “specific moves of exegesis” (p. 19). It would be true to say, however, that such moves of exegesis are never really taken up or practised by Verevis himself in the remainder of his book. This aporia is intriguing.


For Film Remakes – as for Tarantino, the TV series Scrubs (2001-2010) or virtually the entire institution of cultural studies today, with its fix on fandom, appropriation and “prosumers” – remaking (in its broadest sense) is all about an explicitly conscious strategy. All of Verevis’ key examples chime in with this tendency: Gus Van Sant does a conceptual-art remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1998 (despite every fine thing Verevis says to justify its interest as an object or artifact, I still hate it); Jim McBride cannily updates Breathless in 1983 in terms of the American B movie texts that first influenced Jean-Luc Godard (like Gun Crazy [1949]), and also in terms of much post-Nouvelle Vague culture in music, design and fashion. However complex or rich the examples, there is nonetheless a simple one-to-one exegesis here: filmmaker identifies and appropriates source, critic/teacher spells out the ramifications of this reworking.


The work of Iampolski – like that of Marie-Claire Ropars, whose concept of the textual hieroglyph (elaborated from an idea of Eisenstein) vitally feeds the Russian scholar’s research, as well as that of Tom Conley – has almost nothing in common with such one-to-one exegetical moves. The exploration of an intertext is, above all, an act of semiotic interpretation for Iampolski – and it will often lead (as in Stern) down a dizzying backward-succession of texts that have engendered other texts, often in mysteriously associative ways. It is obvious why Iampolski’s method has not exactly caught on within the contemporary English-language academy: how many people have the erudition to spot the often fleeting but textually central reworkings in a film of some detail in a classic painting or a poem, the allusions to an obscure novel or theoretical text, in the way and to the extent that he does? A few, no doubt; but not hundreds.


What we are dealing with here, finally, is the very status of quotation itself. Most of the time in The Memory of Tiresias, quotation is rarely so direct as to be identifiable at first look or listen; rather, it follows the buried, sometimes self-censoring logic of the hieroglyph: the pieces or elements of a quotation are scattered, disguised, hidden. This realm of intertextuality – how Iampolski finds, say, a wicked parody of Marcel Proust inside Un Chien andalou (1929) – has a lot more in common with the merry Baroque plots of Raúl Ruiz’s films of intellectual detection (Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting [1978], Genealogies of a Crime [1997]) than with the modern mash-up of favourite moments and generic fixtures in Kill Bill (2003 & 2004).


There is an entire branch of critical work in Europe, flowering in the 1990s, which has devoted itself, in different ways, to the status of quotation – and thus of remaking – in cinema.  Verevis does not seem to have had access to it, as comparatively little has been translated into English – and one could hardly say it has “caught on” much within the English-speaking academy since its inception. Within this branch of theory and criticism sometimes labelled figural analysis, the great textual question of how one film begets another is paramount. In English, the closest neighbour to this work is Lesley Stern. Rather than beginning from notions of conscious appropriation or direct quotation, this loose method grasps any film of particular richness or interest as posing a question of representation which another text (consciously or not) answers, re-poses or re-figures. Stephen Heath was already there in the late ‘70s when he notoriously called Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) a “ruinous remake” of Max OphülsLetter from an Unknown Woman (1948)!


Filiation and transmission are key words for such analysts – complex concepts that strike out somewhere new, but without denying the legacy of semiotics or psychoanalysis as providers of important, generative intellectual tools. A preliminary example is provided by Alain Bergala’s lifelong work on Godard – and specifically on Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953) as the half-hidden generative matrix for parts of Godard’s cinema stretching into the 21st century. For Bergala, quotation is a poor word to describe this powerfully psychic and somatic process, since reminiscence (his preferred term) evokes the powers of forgetting, distortion and refashioning – in other words, everything that the unconscious brings to the creative act or process of filmmaking (which is Bergala’s main object of study in his work – see his later 2015 book of collected essays, La création cinema, as well as key passages in his great book on film pedagogy, The Cinema Hypothesis).


Let me offer my own telegraphic example, inspired by a piece by Nicole Brenez (translated into English and Spanish here) that speculates on, traces, and then imaginatively refigures the filiation between Jean Renoir’s classic Partie de campagne (1936) and Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998) – by expanding this duet into a veritable network that also includes François Truffaut’s Two English Girls and the Continent (1971) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002). (Further films could, no doubt, be added to this network.)


What unites all these films, otherwise so different in tone, mode and structure? They circulate the same motifs (as we weakly say in English) or, in a stronger conceptual sense, figures: in each one, the sexual act – placed in a powerful relation to the natural world – is associated with the violence of the Man-Woman encounter, with initiation as deflowering, and sometimes literally with a flow of blood, or more metaphorically with what André Gide called a “dissatisfaction of the flesh”.


In this context, it can be demonstrated that each film in the network addresses and indeed even remakes all the others (whether preceding or following it in film history!). More profoundly, the questions posed to representation and to culture by this network of four films are tearing, graphic ones: about gender identity in relation to the phenomenal world, about sexuality in relation to personal subjectivity, about narrative and narration in relation to time and significance. What can a body bear, what can the ground support, what can a story tell, what can a film convey?


The important work that Constantine Verevis has achieved and laid out so lucidly in Film Remakes stands to become only more crucial if it manages to help propel us into such truly intertextual frameworks of cinematic meaning and sensation.



© Adrian Martin July 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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