Origin Stories

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

What ol’ George was really saying was: a) you should watch old movies and b) give remakes a chance.

I. The Fly (1958)

I have, of course, see The Fly before, just not the one with the white head and white arm and the high-pitched Dr. Delambre voice…

The Fly that I’d watched in high school was the Cronenberg one, where Jeff Goldblum feels great until he doesn’t and Geena Davis freaks out like she’s been cast in Cutthroat Island or something. Then Brundle-Fly spits up on his muffins and things go downhill fast.

It’s pretty awesome, if you can trust me in high school.

I just watched the 1958 version of The Fly—the original. The Supreme Being put it on our list of films that everyone’s supposed to see and I hadn’t seen it. There are about a dozen he’s added that I haven’t seen, if you include the ones that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen but can’t remember in the slightest.

What can I say? They make a lot of movies. My brain hurts.

So I watched the original version of The Fly. This is a story with which you’re probably familiar:  a scientist plays Freaky Friday with a housefly and that doesn’t go quite as well as you’d expect, at least dermatologically.

It is, honestly, seriously corny.

But that’s not so important. It’s important to see it, and it’s important that I watched it because, as the Supreme Being says:

It’s The Fly, for set’s sake! it’s teleportation and he’s got a fly head and there’s the fly at the end and Vincent Price and shit!

What he’s really saying is, “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.”

We need to watch films like The Fly because they’ve got (granted) originality and heart and because their existence allows us to move forward, out of savagery. Or at least into all new, improved savagery.

I didn’t love The Fly, but concede that it had some great moments, like this scene from the end:

Even though that spider looks like they bought it at Walgreens, it’s truly horrific and, in the context of the film, pushing creep-factor-10. (The spider is also one of the better actors in the picture.)

Like it or not, The Fly is where we come from. It is Shakespeare and the Bible and Philip K. Dick. Without The Fly, we wouldn’t have Cronenberg. Even Cronenberg’s original ideas needed a foundation to build on, so that we can consider them original. The Fly provides part of that foundation.

II. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Then I watched the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I had thought that I’d seen it before, but it turns out I hadn’t. I know I hadn’t, because there’s no way I could have forgotten it.

Where The Fly was melodramatic, Invasion is intense and fraught and tight. Where The Fly was woodenly acted and slapdash, Invasion feels horribly real and developed with effective, visceral style. (Don Siegel made many great films.) The Fly is of historical significance. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is significant.

So, in this instance, how do we feel about Invasion being remade, as it was in 1978 by Philip Kaufman? Again, we’ve got Jeff Goldblum learning from the past, but is he part of an improvement? Donald Sutherland… well, we love Donald Sutherland and his comically creepy demeanor, but is it wrong to step on Don Siegel’s toes?

While the original Body Snatchers was about the fear that your neighbor might be a secret Communist, the (first) remake bases its subtext on fear of Nixon-era conspiracy. This is important. It means that—regardless of whether you prefer Don Siegel’s version or Kaufman’s—the remake has something new to say. It isn’t just capitalizing on a familiar property (* cough*).

And when so many people are stomping their feet and railing against remakes, it’s important to remember that there’s nothing inherently bad about returning to a captivating idea and adding something to it.

III. Play it once, Sam, for old time’s sake

Now, you may be reading this and gritting your teeth and saying, “but what about the Abel Ferrara Body Snatchers from 1993 or The Invasion made even more recently in 2007? What about the Return of the Fly, Curse of the Fly, or Fly II?

To these questions, I reply: you tell me. If you’ve got the stomach to watch Nicole Kidman try to wear Kevin McCarthy’s shoes (which, I’ll point out, were in both the Don Siegel and the Philip Kaufman versions) or to sit through an Eric Stoltz film, you’re better than me. Or maybe your Netflix queue isn’t quite as filled as mine with films you have higher expectations of. Either way.

What I would rather leave you with is the start of a discussion about constructive remakes. Maybe, like that kid who tried to convince me that the Cowboy Junkies wrote Sweet Jane, you’re unfamiliar that your favorite story had been told before—better, shoddily, or in a manner almost completely different than the one you know.

We’re talking about films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, recently remade in prequel form (and unseen by me), but which is itself a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World.

We’re talking about Miller’s Crossing—perhaps my favorite film of all time—which is a version of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett, filmed in 1942 with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (swoon) and previously in 1935 with George Raft.

We’re talking about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which may or may not be a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Kietel. (Mr. Ferrara, by the way, was not as pleased to have his film remade as he was to remake Siegel’s.)

What we’re most specifically not talking about is the shot-for-shot Americanized remake of Luc Besson’s one true great film, La Femme Nikita, all tarted up and sold to unfortunate souls as Point of No Return with a dreadful Bridget Fonda.

Except for that last example, these are all films that take something an earlier generation has gifted us and pushed it in a new direction—sometimes dramatically, sometimes not. It isn’t important to declare one version better than another, it’s just worthwhile to acknowledge that different versions can offer us different things.

Instead of the same thing devoid of originality. Made solely to sell tickets.

2 responses on “Origin Stories

  1. Regarding Invasion of The Body Snatchers, get this: they showed it to some test audiences before releasing it (yep, even back in them days), and people found it TOO SCARY. So they added the bookend scenes and all of the voice-over. Originally it just opened with the town, and the doctor going about his business. No voice-over warning you of something strange going on. And finally it ended with him on the freeway screaming “You’re next!” So, yeah. Too scary. Whoever heard of such a thing?

  2. Yeah. The only part of it I didn’t like was the final bookend where it all looks like it’s going to be okay. Nothing is going to be okay. You’re next.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.