What is a Remake?
In her analysis of film remakes, Constantine Verevis asserts that the question of just what defines and characterises film remaking needs to engage with the peculiarity of the cinematic genre1.
Therefore remakes can be studied as:
i) industrial category
ii) textual category
iii) critical category
The act of reproducing by creating a new version has been recurrently used by filmmakers and artists, strengthening the idea of the remake as a critical practice. The decision to remake the adaptation of a given text oscillates between the desire to revise, update or faithfully reproduce the former filmic version in content or form, or even both. Under this perspective remakes can be seen as a cinematic homaging of its former version and/or author.
Alfred Hitchcock is probably the director whose films have been remade the most. He himself remade his own remake of a previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956), under the desire to improve it. As he himself has referred, the former was the work of an amateur and the latter the work of a professional2. Production conditions do of course play a significant role insofar that the original was still produced in the UK, while the remake was already made in Hollywood.
Visual artist Douglas Gordon remade Hitchcock’s Psycho in the form of an installation in which he slows down the original to the point its new duration lasts 24 hours. 24-Hour Psycho (1993) is an exercise of pure repetition. The installation however introduces a difference, which will make each viewing experience a partial one, since no-one is likely to sit through the new Psycho version lasting 24 hours. The point Gordon seems to be making, by infinitely dispersing the film, is that films are indeed transformed each time they are re-seen by a different audience or in a different context.
The most controversial case of Hitchcockean remakes might constitute Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998). Of course it would have been difficult to beat the master at his game. However, Van Sant decided to remake the film very closely, almost a 90 percent shot by shot remake. What is confusing is that while he felt it necessary to update the 1960 version to the technological film canon of the 1990’s by shooting his version in colour, he replicates the use of backdrop screening in the car scenes, a decision that was not due to any technological constraints of the time the film was remade.
Van Sant’s remake was received under the critique that the new one added nothing to the original and that it would be a pointless exercise. Still, as one critic suggested, with this exercise it becomes more evident that there is a difference no matter how close or similar the two versions are and that «genius apparently resides beneath the shots»3. And I would like to suggest that the genius might reside in between the shots, becoming thus a matter of montage.
Remakes are also used as a tool for critical explanation or to point to the value of a previous film. This seems to be the case of Jill Godmilow’s remake of Harun Farocki’s 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire. The remake goes under the title What Farocki Taught and was made in 1998. In the opening of Godmilow’s film she calls it an exact replica. And in fact it is an extremely close shot by shot remake of the original, just like Van Sant’s remake. It is worth mentioning here that the strategy of referring to the film as a replica rather than a remake emphasises the intention of pointing at something without replacing it, rather quoting it and creating an interest in the original which may have been forgotten or censured.
Farocki’s original, definable as a manifesto, agit-prop film or a form of visual activism, directs viewers to the uses and application of napalm and how they come into being. It is, as Georges Didi-Huberman puts it, a problem of knowledge, mis-knowledge and acknowledgement4 which Farocki exposes through a dialectic reasoning by comparing cigarette burns to napalm burns while at the same time implicating the viewer’s knowledge of its violence. Therefore, a critique of violence. As Didi-Huberman reminds by evoking Walter Benjamin, to criticise violence one must be able to characterise it and to that one must be able to look. One must open one’s eyes. And in order to describe violence, one must be able to dismantle its devices and establish the relations — disassembling and re-assembling such devices. Just as Farocki exemplifies with the vacuum cleaner and the automatic rifle.
Critical activity consists in going to the sources of affirmations and objections, and the foundations on which they rest (Kant). The aim of criticisms is to relate the singular work to a historical whole where criticism gains its speculative legitimacy when it shows itself capable of grasping the structure of the work (Schlegel). In Farocki this is translated in the elaboration of «a critical field in the form of a visual toolkit that is capable of revealing the ideological traits at work in each historical phenomenon […] a construction that is not doctrinal but operational, autonomous and which allows reflection to have a direct and concrete link with collective history.»5
Indeed, in the final epilogue of the film, Godmilow confesses that her film is a tribute to Farocki’s clarity of thought. The purpose of Godmilow’s remake, as the title suggests, is not to explain but rather mimic the original film as a way to learn from it, by taking it apart, to study it and to make her, as well as its viewers, think about and with it.
And what does she want to learn from it? What does it enable us, the viewers from today to learn from it? What does it do that the original doesn’t? The answer here seems to be a matter of the interval.
According to Tom Gunning, «history is the gap between the two films which the second film renders visible»6. In the thirty-year gap, the problem so fittingly put by Farocki, is as important today, as it was in 1998 or 1968. And that problem is the historical transformation of labour and its uses that make the workplace a system of inhumanity and also the violence inscribed in images from which we rather shun away.
«Denouncing: lifting one’s thought to the level of anger. Protesting. Separating. Overturning things that seem to go without saying. But also establishing a connection on one level between things which on another level, seem totally antagonistic. This then is an act of montage.»7
1 Verevis, Constantine. 2006. Film Remakes, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
2 Truffaut, François. 1984. Hitchcock/Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster.
3 Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert, quoted by Verevis, Constantine.
4 Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2010. «How to Open your Eyes?», in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds.) Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom?, London: Koening.
5 Brenez, Nicole. 2010. «Harun Farocki and the Romantic Genesis of the Principle of Visual Critique», in Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (eds.) Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom?, London: Koening.
7 Didi-Huberman, Georges. op. cit.