Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Remakes, sequels, canon, supremacy

It always kind of bores me when people complain, as it is so popular to do, about the abundance of remakes and reboots and sequels in movie theaters and on television. Because, you know, the forces behind the movies and tv shows are very nasty capitalists and make their decisions for anything but artistic reasons, let's take that for granted, but at the same time there is nothing either new or intrinsically capitalist about redoing and reworking and reinterpreting works of art. It's just something we do; one word for it is "dialogue."* Complain all you want about the remakes and reboots and sequels not being any good, and I'll agree with you about most (but not all) of them, but then you can say that about just about any movie or tv show or anything, really, so it's not particularly valuable as a critique if you ask me. Complain about how there's more of them now than there used to be and, well, maybe you're right, I haven't done a statistical survey, but on the other hand, try searching IMDB for "Wizard of Oz" and count up the results that come up from before the Judy Garland version, for example.

*Not that "it's always been that way" is a valid defense of anything (see below), but for one thing I wouldn't want art to stop responding to other art, and for another thing the supposed newness of the phenomenon is usually part of the complaint, as in, "today's creative bankruptcy..." etc.

But there's a different issue about the contemporary crop that I've been thinking about recently, and that's the convenient way that it allows for a continuity of white male supremacy in our popular culture. You know, if you're casting a brand-new show about people in space, or even a bridge crew for a new addition to the Star Trek franchise, the wacky kids these days might expect you to throw in non-white, non-male characters in decent proportions. But if you're rebooting KirkandSpock, there will be little objection to there only being two nonwhite characters and only one woman (or to these three tokens being spread miserly across two relatively minor characters), because that's the way it's always been. Not only that, but people will get upset if you try to change anything, because Spock's white! It's canon! I mean, me, I think Spock has been and always shall be Leonard Nimoy, but if you're going to throw an ill-fitting Halloween costume on Zachary Quinto and call it Spock with a straight face, I see no reason why the race and gender of these characters must be eternally fixed. Or my god, you should see, if you haven't, the outrage any time it's suggested that The Doctor could regenerate into something other than a white man, as if race and gender were discrete, unalterable genetic categories for an alien whose entire physical body changes and comes back to life every time he dies. For an even more instructive experience, try googling Idris Elba Thor.


Picador said...

See also: Mad Men.

But yes, the Idris Elba/Thor thing is a vivid (and revolting) illustration of the racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and general conservatism) embedded in fanboy culture. "That's the way it IS, because it says so in the original BOOK" -- spoken about the patently unjust treatment of race and sex in a fictional universe -- is invoked as much by the comic book fan as by the Christian fundamentalist, and for exactly the same reasons.

I was thinking the other day about "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", and about how laughable it is that the man who directed that Asian actor to chink it up as Short Round and who made a movie about monkey-head-eating Indian kids being saved from cruel slave labour in the mines by (wait for it...) the British Empire is now considered some kind of Serious Artist. Spielberg's hackery aside, though, I had to ask myself where the line is drawn in paying homage to the pulp literary tradition without reproducing its most toxic cultural attitudes.

All of these works (period pieces, reboots, pulp homages) are a manifestation of nostalgia. Like all nostalgia, they are by definition reactionary. I suppose a reasonable test might be that any work of nostalgia should try to be clear with its audience that the good parts are the subject of the nostalgia, while the bad parts are either filtered out by rose-tinted lenses (e.g. inserting Idris Elba into a previously all-white ensemble) or acknowledged and problematized: perhaps ruefully, perhaps ironically, but never winkingly or romantically.

Picador said...

Actually, a second comment, because I've been spending a LOT of time wrestling with this issue.

You're actually making a deeper, perhaps more important and definitely more interesting point than the one I addressed in my last comment. Namely: why is RACE so salient to fanboys, as opposed to any of a number of other personal characteristics that they're happy to let slide? Deviations in skin colour and gender in casting of a literary character seem to set people off, but I can't imagine anyone taking issue with the Asgardian alien-gods in Thor speaking English, or not all being Scandinavian, or having facial hair that didn't match their comic book portrayal, or wearing clothes that didn't match their four-colour costumes in the books, or having different relative heights from those shown in the book, etc etc.

Stage directors casting Shakespeare have dealt with this problem for a long time, and while the problem has recently gotten better (partly because theatre attendance has dropped off to almost zero), they were long confronted over "jarring" casting or staging decisions. At some point, people got it into their heads that, say, a production of Julius Caesar means white people (preferably English, but over time everything from Poles to Italians were permissible), in togas, surrounded by white columns, with the female characters played by women. Anything else is "PC" or otherwise conspicuously avant-garde and somehow disrespectful to the author. But of course, such a staging represents neither the way Shakespeare staged it (Elizabethan dress, boys in dresses playing women) nor the world of the historical Julius Caesar (the columns would have been painted, the men would have all been Mediterranean, and nobody would be speaking English).

Conservatives and reactionaries always think they're defending a timeless, or at least ancient, ideal. But what they are always actually defending is some half-remembered, semi-fictional cultural trope that dates exactly from the childhood of the person defending it, and no earlier or later.

Randal Graves said...

The worst thing about remakes is how the remake always barges in my house, grabs the original & throws it in the gasoline firepit he built on the tree lawn thereby depriving posterity of the original. Bastard.

Word verification: nonation. Heh.

Ethan said...

Randal: Finally, a spam word after my own heart. And yeah, how ridiculous is the whole "ruined the original" nonsense?

Picador: I've never actually watched Mad Men, largely because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to stomach it.

where the line is drawn in paying homage to the pulp literary tradition without reproducing its most toxic cultural attitudes

It's an interesting question, and one I think about a lot because I genuinely think that the pulp tradition has a lot to offer to us now--in some ways more than it did at the time (I might write more about that at some point, but knowing me I probably won't--it boils down to the idea that what 14-year-old boys interpreted as utopian in the 30s-50s can now be seen as the terrifying, frequently remarkably clear-sighted visions of the past, present and future that they always were).

I like your second comment a lot--takes what I was thinking about and expands it further than I had for myself, so thanks for that. I like that you brought in historical "accuracy," because a lot of the time that's the same thing as faithfulness to canon--i.e., a lot of fictional nonsense from which we should be taking the best elements and discarding the worst, but which we don't, conveniently for the privileged and powerful.

I also like that you've equated PC (in the pejorative sense), the "conspicuously avant-garde," and disrespect to the (also largely fictional) figure of The Original Artist--fertile ground for thought there. Thanks.

I would disagree with what you say in your first comment about these remakes etc. being essentially nostalgic--they frequently, indeed almost always are, but take for example the versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that were made in the 50s and 70s--each engages explicitly with its time, and the second version is anything but 50s nostalgia. There's also the idea I wrote about here (sorry to be linking to myself), about revivalism as a radical rejection of the cult of novelty rather than nostalgia. Now, I hardly think that, I don't know, X-Men: First Class is radical anticonsumerism (I'm not a dunce), but I don't think we can say that all new versions of past stories are reactionary.

BDR said...


Ethan said...

Shit, that was the obvious post title, wasn't it? Can't believe I missed that.

Dan said...

I got to thinking about this when (not white) Donald Glover was lobbying to play (in the comic, white) Spiderman.

Thought experiment: bracket everything you know about Spiderman and think of Peter Parker's history - living with his Aunt in Queens after the death of parents, uncle meets a violent death - are you really thinking of a lower middle class white kid?

Not only is there nothing inherently white about Spiderman, the character actually makes more sense (these days) as a young black guy.

ms_xeno said...

I keep hearing that it's churlish and silly for anyone to complain about the race/gender/et al of most pop culture. Why can't we be out there doing something IMPORTANT or PRODUCING OUR OWN POP CULTURE!?

Because you must choose, after all. Will you look skeptically at something as trivial and utterly non-influential in day-to-day life as culture or will you DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND REAL?!

IOW, most people who dominate the culture, particularly on the money/marketing end, are the same people who've always dominated, and really it's best for humanity if the rest of us continue to give them our money (such as it is) in acquiescent silence.

(And yes, I am bitter. :D )

Ethan said...

Dan--huh, interesting.

ms_xeno--I admit I fell into that way of thinking for a little while there, but luckily I managed to fall back out of it. In addition to what you say, I'm not sure how you're supposed to create your own culture--and have it have any significance outside of your own head--if you aren't able to critique the existing one.

Also, it seems, uh, pretty likely that actual real life white male supremacy and the white male supremacy of our cultural objects are related, maybe.

ms_xeno said...

...I'm not sure how you're supposed to create your own culture--and have it have any significance outside of your own head--if you aren't able to critique the existing one...

Yes. Exactly. You'd think that anyone who's ever written an essay, baked a cake, built a bookshelf, would get this. What NOT to do is every bit as important to understand as is its inverse.

As to the relation between culture and politics, I find that in both cases, most dudes whine and whine about how we petty-minded chicks are always obsessing about "small stuff." Oh, why are you mad because I called a hated female politico a c*nt? That's small stuff! Why are you mad because every woman in this comic has her boobs practically hanging out while the men are all covered up? That's small stuff!

They pretend not to notice that these things are tiny little wounds, millions of them, being inflicted over and over. That they make up our world and our environment and that they fucking hurt. Also, I think most dudes know this. If they really thought these things were small, they wouldn't get all outraged and defensive when asked to fucking let them go.


Ethan said...

The Baronette and I have been talking about that a lot recently--the "small stuff" slander. i.e., not only are men assumed to be talking about grand universal things whenever they open their mouths while women are assumed to be talking about small stuff, men have the freedom to spend all of their time thinking about the grand universal things while women have to confront the so-called small stuff on a constant basis before they can even approach any grand things they might want to talk about (obviously this is vastly simplified, and there are more arenas of oppression than gender, but this is one of the biggest patterns). Relatedly, but I recently saw someone (can't remember who) mention the ridiculous assumption that "a privileged perspective is a neutral one."

ms_xeno said...

Yeah, I hear you on the multiple-oppressions thing. I was just focusing on the one that dogs me the most on a daily basis.


Dear Baronette,
You don't know me, but I think you're all right. :)

-- ms_xeno

thebaronette said...

aw thanks! i know i'm active on here so infrequently, but i said to ethan the other day i was glad to see you back again, ms_xeno.

Ethan said...

Heh, I only inserted the "simplified" bit to stave off the potential for overly literal and typically very self-centered people to come along and whine at me, but I really have to stop doing that.

Picador said...


Sorry to have zoned out of this conversation for a week. Like I said, it's something I've been thinking about a lot, and I am eager to hear more of your insights.

I should have qualified my statement about nostalgia. But I do think that nostalgia is almost always present in a remake or period piece, and I think that nostalgia always opens you up to the risk of sugarcoating some of the less savoury aspect of the past. When the nostalgia is purely aesthetic, sometimes you can avoid this trap. X-Men: First Class comes close to this category, insofar as the time period is mostly window dressing and doesn't play into social attitudes on display very much. To the extent the social attitudes of the day are addressed, they're either progressive attitudes being lauded by the heroes (e.g. positive mentions of the civil rights movement) or regressive attitudes being put into the mouths of buffoons (e.g. sexist comments from the clueless CIA officials). There is a certain amount of Bond Girl sexploitation, but the setting doesn't seem to amplify this beyond what we'd expect in a similar movie with a modern setting.

This is a much bigger problem -- indeed, the defining problem -- of a series like Mad Men. To spare you having to watch it, I will tell you that it suffers from what I term "Sopranos syndrome": the first season is well-written, well-cast, and beautifully shot; it sets up a specific romantic figure in American mythology (the Mafioso, the Madison Avenue ad man) and promises to problematize our understanding of this figure by drawing attention to his sordid, pathetic reality; and by the second season, audience response to the un-problematized portrayal has been so overwhelmingly positive that the writers abandon their initial project and instead turn the show into a pornographic serial premised on the old brain-dead stereotypes and juvenile wish fulfillment. This dynamic creates writers who hate themselves, but hate their audience even more. It is not a recipe for good television.

You're right that a remake can use the old work as a structure for commenting on the present, and where it abandons the old setting it can sometimes avoid indulging in even the relatively benign sort of aesthetic nostalgia described above. The 70s Body Snatchers is a perfect example. But those sorts of remakes seem to be the exception to the rule, and almost fall into a different genre altogether. They are remakes that would be happy to have an audience who had never heard of the original, whereas the type of remake you seem to be addressing in your post is the kind whose appeal is premised entirely on audience familiarity with the original. In that kind of remake, nostalgia is always going to be a factor.