Caffeine, Sequels, and Remakes…

When I realized that caffeine could be attributed to at least a few of the several headaches I get on a monthly basis, I gave it up. I’ve been off caffeine for over 15 years now. In addition to it helping with the headaches, I learned early on in the process how good it felt to just deny something to yourself. To echo one of the legends of self-reliance, denial helps one live deliberately.

It’s been so long since I had a caffeinated beverage that I take it for granted now, but I was thinking about it today when reading Matthew Jeppsen’s post at FresHDV in which he quotes a recent interview with Ridley Scott.

Scott says:

I think movies are getting dumber, actually. Where it used to be 50/50, now it’s 3% good, 97% stupid. [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford] is one of those rarities that does get made, thank God, and has serious characterisation and serious things to say. Altogether it’s a wonderful, dramatic and historic piece. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to get films like this made.

I’ve sometimes found Ridley Scott’s work to be an example of (admittedly great) style over substance, but am I ever in agreement here.

In an effort to quantify the dumbness, what follows is a list of the top 20 grossing movies of 2007 to-date, in order. Films in bold are not sequels or based on previously existing franchises (i.e., a comic book or television series).

Spider-Man 3 – sequel (#3) / comic book franchise
Shrek the Third – sequel (#3)
Transformers – based on TV show
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – sequel (#3)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – sequel / book franchise
The Bourne Ultimatum – sequel (#3) / based on book franchise
300
Ratatouille
The Simpsons Movie – based on 17 year-old TV series
Wild Hogs
Knocked Up
Live Free or Die Hard – sequel (#4)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer – sequel (#2) / based on comic book franchise
Rush Hour 3 – sequel (#3)
Blades of Glory
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Ocean’s Thirteen – second sequel to a remake
Ghost Rider – debatable: based on comic book franchise….
Hairspray – based on broadway show, which was based on movie
Superbad

Out of 20 films, seven or eight are “original”, if you can call Wild Hogs and Blades of Glory “original.” [Addendum: Adaptations of non-franchise literature, etc. count as original works. See discussion in comments below.]

If that doesn’t get you down, look at the all-time top grossing movies in the USA, where you’ll see that 13 of the 20 were released in the last seven years. Of those 13, two (The Passion of the Christ and Finding Nemo) aren’t sequels, remakes, or based on pre-existing franchises.

Shutting myself in a dark room isn’t going to make the headache that is this list of movies go away, but I am going to give up watching any new sequels and remakes. Even if some of these movies are ok, I’m sick of the practice in general principle. Why encourage Hollywood to do it any longer? Like caffeine, I’m going cold turkey, giving this stuff up in toto.

Sure, I might miss something like Cronenberg’s The Fly or Sirk’s Imitation of Life (two of my favorite remakes), but something tells me the withdrawal period will last shorter than when I gave up caffeine.

UPDATE 9/23/07: Alert reader AJ Broadbent has sent word of even more dissenting opinions. Click here for the full story!!

14 Responses to “Caffeine, Sequels, and Remakes…”

  1. Chris Says:

    You know, a couple months back, the Wisconsinites took up various contrarian defenses of the sequel at Bordwell’s blog. I’d be curious to know what you think of them.

    For brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that any principle that a priori keeps me from seeing Bourne and even Oceans 1x films in favor of Chuck and Larry or Blades of Glory would not contribute to my moviegoing happiness.

  2. Paul Says:

    Don’t worry, I’m not, as a matter of this principle, feeling any obligation to see Chuck and Larry, Blades of Glory, etc.

    But Chris — Are you saying you’re content to watch stylists like Sam Raimi, Paul Greengrass, and Steven Soderbergh make “threequels”?

  3. Erik Harrison Says:

    The top grossing films of 1979.

    1. Kramer vs. Kramer – A novel
    2. Rocky II, starring Sylvester Stallone – Sequel
    3. Alien – Original
    4. tie, The Amityville Horror and – Original
    5. tie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Television show
    6. Moonraker starring Roger Moore – Bond franchise
    7. The Muppet Movie – Television show (several, at that point)
    8. California Suite – Neil Simon Play
    9. The Deer Hunter – Original

    Film, even more than theatre, is a medium of adaptation, and a little less than novels, is a medium of franchises. You do what makes you happy, but I try to make the decision to watch a movie based on whether or not I can see that a majority of the talent was personally invested in the making of a film, rather than invested in the cynical manipulation of marketable elements.

    (This ratio of remakes/sequels/adaptations to original films in ’79 exactly matches the top grossing films of 2006)

  4. Ridley Scott on Hollywood: ‘3% good, 97% stupid’ at FreshDV Says:

    […] UPDATE: Paul Harrill (one of my favorite bloggers in the film/video niche) agrees with Ridley Scott on this issue, and has decided to quit cold turkey. He has a few insightful words on the topic and backs them up with this year’s top grossing films… […]

  5. Paul Says:

    Hi Erik –

    Thanks for your post. First, I should have made a distinction between adaptation and sequels/remakes. I have no issue with cinematic adaptation from literary/theatrical (or, for that matter, graphic novel) sources.

    As such, should probably add 300 and Ghost Rider to the list of “original” films. They’re adaptations, but they’re first adaptations. My bad.

    Now, having now made that distinction about adaptation, if we look at 1979 as a list of remakes and sequels, the numbers are nowhere near the same as this year.

    – The 1979 list features one sequel (Rocky), one franchise (Bond) and two tv shows. 1979 total: four. 2007 total: seven.

    – A list of the top twenty 1979 films (http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1979.shtml) shows no other sequels and only one (Razzie nominated) remake: The Jazz Singer, starring Neil Diamond. Final total of sequels and remakes from the 1979 Top 20: five. Correction: I mistakenly read All That Jazz (not a sequel or remake) as The Jazz Singer. So the total is actually: Final total of sequels and remakes from the 1979 Top 20: four.

    Current total of sequels and remakes from the 2007 Top 20: twelve.

    – Also, the 1979 list features no “threequels” (or, um, “fourquels”??).

    1979 seemed like an arbitrary year to pick, and not an especially great year cinematically. So I started looking at a few other years. 1969 (http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1969.shtml) and 1972 (http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1972.shtml). are exciting lists of American movies. How many remakes and sequels are on that list? A handful, if that.

    How about 1959 (http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1959.shtml)? How many remakes are in the top 10? As a matter of fact, at least two: Wyler’s Ben-Hur and Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Can I dismiss those movies? Of course not.

    My point in all of this is that

    a) while sequels and remakes can make very good movies (cf. Cronenberg’s The Fly)
    b) the financial success of sequels and remakes in our current age appears — to me — to foster the VERY worst tendencies of lazy movie producing (the “cynical manipulation of marketable elements”, as you put it).

    c) Since I don’t want to support this GENERAL trend, even if it sometimes produces occasionally interesting SPECIFIC films,
    d) I’m cutting these films out of my diet, wholesale, so that my money does not contribute or encourage this trend.

    Do I think my withholding $8 is going to make a difference? Not likely. Do I think anyone else is going to start doing this because I have? Um, no. It’s just meant to be a quiet, personal protest.

    Maybe I should have kept it to myself?

  6. Martha Says:

    To not go see something just because it fits the parameter of being a “remake” is as foolish as not going to see a great directors or actors rendition “Just because” it is a remake of a classic play.

    Why not be selective and open to new renditions if there’s a possibility of the new interpretation being eye opening and expanding on a worthy theme?

    A case in point. James Mangold has remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic 50’s western film. I’ve seen both twice, loving the genre, and have to say that in my opinion, Mangold’s film is far superior. Crowe and Bale’s acting in particular is more layered and complex than either the rather stiff Ford or one note Heflin. They bring new psychological possibilities to enrich the story, while keeping the film true in spirit to the classic western.

  7. Paul Says:

    “Foolish”? Wow. I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my moviegoing habits, especially considering the fact that I never asked anyone else join in.

    As I said (multiple times by now in this post), I’m not arguing that remakes or sequels movies can’t be good, so there’s no need to convince me that “3:10 to Yuma” is worth seeing or even superior to the original. Let me be explicit: There is a component of denial to this for me. I’m actually interested in seeing Mangold “do” 3:10 to Yuma. But I won’t pay for it and encourage the studios in this general direction because it’s the general trend towards “franchising” all lite entertainment that troubles me.

    The relationship between box office and movie cycles is a pretty “classic” notion in film history/theory (cf. Hollywood Genres by Thomas Schatz). Studios make future plans on current box office. If you want studios to make more westerns, you should go see the westerns they release. If you want them to stop making sci-fi movies, you shouldn’t pay to see the ones that are out. When you spend your money you essentially vote on the movie line-up for next year, or the year after next.

    Well, I want studios to cut back on sequels and remakes (especially the sequels), so I am not going to see them, even if I want to. I’ve already stopped seeing a lot of the other crummy movies, so I can’t cut those out of my diet. The only other way to make my dollars not count as a virtual vote at the box office would be to see absolutely everything. I don’t have the stomach for that.

    Still, I seem to not have answered for some of you the question of why I want to cut out sequels/remakes wholesale if I can acknowledge that each should be considered on its own merits.

    Imagine if, for five or six months a year, every year, the only plays staged are revivals, and the only music released were “covers only” tribute albums. These plays might be great re-interpretations, and these albums might feature superb renditions… but I would still crave new stories, new characters, and new songs. Wouldn’t you?

    Or, to put it another way, are you looking forward to Spider-Man 4, Shrek the Fourth, Pirates of the Caribbean #4, Die Hard #5, Fantastic Four #3, Rush Hour 4, Oceans Fourteen and the just-announced-in-development Wild Hogs 2?

  8. Chris Says:

    Paul, to answer your question, I’m absolutely fine with the stylist directors doing these threequils. I find them enjoyable, well-made, and in the case of Bourne, smart. In part, since blockbuster movies aren’t as a rule made for me (or I’m not made for them), I’m happy when I find a handful that do engage my cinephilia in part.

    Of course, I have a different take on these things, if for no other reason than as a scholar it’s not my business to be withholding my viewing from anything (that impoverishes me more than the studios). If anything, I should be watching a whole lot more of the summer films. In any case, I see this issue as an overwhelming structural problem: we’ve gotten to this problem because Hollywood makes films for the kids… in part because corporate structure encourages that logic, in part because older demographic groups have foresaken the cinema. For that reason, I prefer to see “voting at the boxoffice” as more an affirmative process than a punishing one. Money and markets are needed to encourage original, new material, so maybe each additional dollar spent is a stronger signal to studio decisions than each dollar withheld (they are already inclined to read withholding of viewing as caused by other factors).

  9. Paul Says:

    Chris –

    I agree, blame it on the kids!

    In all seriousness, I found your comment typically illuminating, and the distinction you make between moviegoing prerogatives of the scholar of popular/media culture and a filmmaker/cineaste help mark the distinction in our approach.

    A few questions:

    Your way of seeing my withdrawal from these films is as “punishment.” But I actually view it more as a way to deepen the affirmation of instances when I do go to the movies (as I will for, say, Eastern Promises). Are we saying the same thing, or do you think there’s a distinction?

    When you say that Bourne is “smart” what, exactly, does that mean? Does that mean “smartly crafted”, or “smart” in some other way? And if you do mean “smartly crafted”, how is that different than, say, a commercial that is smartly crafted? (I’m reminded of Dudley Andrews’ distinction in The Major Film Theories where he points out that if we simply talk about craft/style then how do we make distinctions of value between, say, a Pepsi Commercial and a Bresson film.) And, for the record, let me state the obvious: I do care very much about style and craft. But style and/or craft are not enough to sustain my interest.

  10. Aaron Says:

    Paul,
    I’m a supporter of anyone who decides not to see the junk that Hollywood throws at us, but how many of those films listed above have you seen? Have you been on strike already and not even realized it? If not, what took you so long?

    As a coffee addict, I see your analogy concerning the headaches, but I prefer: If you go to the zoo and all the animals fling their feces at you, it might be right time to stop going back.

    Like the sign says, don’t feed the animals.

    Good luck, you’re not alone.

  11. Kremer Says:

    A few years ago, Sunrise Tippeconnie and I once got into a friendly but serious argument over my stern and express refusal to see the Soderbergh remake of SOLARIS. He told me that, originally, he felt the same way upon just hearing about it, but there was more to the film than what I was giving it credit for. However, to this day, I have yet to see the SOLARIS remake, simply on principle of the issues to be explored in my post. So here it is: I was and am just not interested because I cherish Tarkovsky’s treatment of the Stanislaw Lem text too well to throw another treatment of it into the mix, particularly after a director has communicated it so very capably. Why do it, then? Me…close-minded? Yes, some would definitely say so. Go ahead. In my book, though, if one director has had a go at material, then another should be denied the right unless changing the title as not to ride on the success and good name of the original. Sorry, that’s just how I feel. Soderbergh’s film is undoubtedly different in content, but riding the success of a new film on the legacy of another (outside of sequels) is tantamount to deceit (i.e. if people are going to remake a film, retitle them please as not to amend or destroy the reputation of the original production). Here is a perfect example: I recall being at a flea-market, and next to me were two women browsing a wide selection of VHS tapes. One said, “Have you seen Psycho?” as she held up a copy of the 1960 film. The other replied, “Oh, that’s the old one. No, but I saw the new one. I didn’t like it. That Anne Heche really bugs me.” The tape was placed back in the bountiful bulk. Thus, you have to define and defend a film by now calling it “Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho”. That material is and was always his, I don’t care about what new young hotshot with a camera and a load of money thinks he has a spin on it. If you want to tackle it, make your own story and explore the same type of conventions or themes. However, a director, in my opinion, may choose to remake his own film (e.g. Hitchcock and the two version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which are very different and compelling films that are also distinct, as is 1934’s and 1959’s respective Imitation of Lifes). Likewise, I heard Hollywood is remaking a favorite of mine, Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing. When I heard, I was quite honestly outraged.

    As to the validity or value of sequels, needless to say, there have been great ones, even ones that come to operate on the level of franchise. However, the ones made now are movies that were often mind-numbingly awful to begin with. It is hard to get diminishing returns when there was no real stuff there to begin with, you know? The stuff (the compellingness, the interest, the originality, the creativity, the “ah-ha yes” moments) are just not there. They are just not part and parsel of the filmmaking process in Hollywood anymore.

    We do still have the self-reliants out there, though…thank goodness.

  12. Erik Harrison Says:

    Paul –

    Well put. I didn’t put the list of 1979 films up to make a point (the year was completely arbitrary), but because I was honestly curious.

    And of course you should have mentioned it! It’s good to stir things up.

  13. Chris Cagle Says:

    Paul, I think we’re saying the same thing re: punishment. It’s just the armchair economist of culture in me (sorry, I’m teaching Tyler Cowen next week) makes me wonder how companies receive and understand incentives.

    By smart, I meant themeatically, artistically smart. Bourne isn’t merely vacuous style, but an attempt to find a visual expression for the diffuse location of power in an age of global capital. Mind you, it seems to borrow heavily from the generic traits of the 70s paranoid thrillers, but applies them in a different historical context, to different ends. Maybe I should try a closer analysis at some point…

  14. Dean Says:

    Why is it that, without a second thought, people will rush to the defense of the movies on that list? No matter what rationale you use, those movies are not good and do NOT NEED the defense of the masses.

    My own .02 cents, based on the type of visitor to your site, is that most people defend this crap because they secretly would kill to have a crappy franchise movie to ruin of their own!

    Because, couldn’t it be my name on that big screen…?