The Cinematic Return
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Almost twenty years ago, my article—“Re-Viewing Remakes”—appeared in the pages of Film Criticism. The title of that essay signaled at least two things. The first was an interest in “re-viewing” the place of remakes in film theory and history in order to describe the remake as an industrial, textual and critical category, and mark out some new directions for future inquiry. The second was to describe the remake as a “genre of (re)viewing,” one held in place by historically specific technologies and institutional practices such as copyright law and authorship, canon formation and film literacy. An especially significant point was that the identification of a film remake could not be limited to legal definitions or textual patterns, but was achieved, too, through the classifying statements of film criticism and reviewing.
The following year, the release of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 “replica” of Psycho (1960) not only antagonized critics, but also initiated a broad discursive shift away from the term “remake” toward a host of remake euphemisms—reworking, refitting, retooling, retread, replay, redo, and others—that have come to dominate review articles and criticism in the new millennium. Associated industry discourses—in particular, official film websites—began to frame publicity positively around a new film’s “remake” status, ascribing value to an earlier version and then identifying various filters—technological, cultural, authorial—through which that property had been transformed. This trend, which has increasingly led to (authorized) remakes that bear only a generic resemblance to their precursors, seems to have found its apotheosis in the “reboot:” a (legally sanctioned) version that attempts to disassociate itself textually from previous iterations while at the same time having to concede that it does not replace—but adds new associations to—an existing (serial) property. As much a critical or discursive formation as an industrial or textual one, the category of the reboot thus re-imagines not simply a specific film (or films) but the concept of the remake for the new millennium. For instance, asked what appealed to him about “rebooting a series that had already been interpreted,” Christopher Nolan replied that when he undertook Batman Begins (2005), the first installment in Warner Bros.’ Dark Knight trilogy, “there was no such thing conceptually as a ‘reboot.’ That idea didn’t exist.”
All of this demonstrates that the film remake has never been a static thing, but a concept that is constantly evolving—expanding and renewing itself—in/through a discursive field. While it may be too early in the new millennium to draw conclusions as to the nature of a distinct media-historic period, new millennial remakes—often, digital adaptations of earlier analogue films—can be understood by way of a number of interrelated (and necessarily provisional) hypotheses:
- New millennial remakes are intermedial: in the new millennium, one can no longer make claim to a distinction between film remakes and other media forms.
- New millennial remakes are transnational: new millennial remakes challenge unidirectional accounts of global media traffic, and focus on the interrelationship between cultural and geographical centers and margins.
- New millennial remakes are post-authorial: new millennial remakes demonstrate a shift in emphasis from a regime of rights based around signature and originality toward one centered on trademark and reproducibility.
- New millennial remakes are characterized by proliferation and simultaneity: new millennial remakes do not erase or overwrite but co-exist as new versions or variations that actualize a potentially implicit at the source.
These propositions—in particular the final one—describe the ways in which recent criticism begins to move beyond objections around the commercial debasement of film, to understand the remake in ways akin to Derrida’s untranslatable text: namely, as evidence of that “residue [that] can never be interrogated as the same, but must be constantly sought out anew, and must continue to be written.” In a contemporary media landscape—one characterized by self-referencing and interconnection—film criticism recognizes that the present and future of cinema is a re-vision of its past, and that aesthetic and economic evaluations of film remakes (good or bad, success or failure) are less interesting than the cultural and historical significance of new millennial remake practice.
Constantine Verevis is Associate Professor in Film and Screen Studies, Monash University, Melbourne.
Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion,” e-flux (2009), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/an-interview-with-jacques-derrida-on-the-limits-of-digestion/.