Originality belongs to yesterday

May 18, 2006 psipsina

In all the furor about The Da Vinci Code movie (note to religious wackos:  I didn’t picket and shout epithets at you when you were going gaga over Mel Gibson’s brutal movie The Passion of the Christ; please return the favor by not harrassing me if I bother to go see The Da Vinci Code.  And by the way, in case it’s not clear, The Da Vinci Code is fiction, so I’m not sure what you’re getting so upset about anyway) in all the furor about The Da Vinci Code, no one seems to be commenting on the true travesty of American filmmaking:

Poseidon.

OK, OK, I haven’t seen it, and I am not particularly interested in doing so.  So why am I picking on it?  It’s just that Poseidon stands for two truly disappointing trends in Hollywood:

  1. The inability to come up with an original idea.
  2. The inability, when recycling old films, to at least recognize the difference between a great film and a piss-poor one.

The first trend is often decried, what with Hollywood’s reliance on book adaptations, sequels, and remakes.  I hasten to admit that some truly fine movies have been adapted from books.  (The English Patient, though it was a fine book, was a far better movie, if only because Juliette Binoche is such a delight and Willem Dafoe is so creepy.)   A handful of sequels, too, have been as good as or better than the original:  The Empire Strikes Back has better pacing than Star Wars; watching Star Wars recently I marvelled that anybody had sat through past the first 20 minutes, which are surprisingly stupid.  The Godfather, Part II is probably one of the best 20 movies ever made.  I can even grant that a remake might improve on the original, or present the material in a creative new way, although at the moment I can’t think of an example.  Martin Scorcese’s very good 1991 remake of the 1962 Cape Fear comes close, but I think he – pardon the pun – missed the boat.  That is the subject, I think, of a different essay than the one I am writing today.  Maybe some other day.

At their best, adaptations, sequels, and remakes are the homage a director pays to an author or another director, or a continuation of a director’s vision, or an interesting and original re-examination of a very compelling idea.  But most often, they betray either a lack of imagination on the part of writer and producer, or even worse, a cynical attempt to part fools (that is, us) from their (that is, our) money by giving us something we already know we’ll like.  And anyone who saw, and swooned over, The Matrix, as I did, and then wanted to sue the Wachowskis for false advertising after seeing the godawful The Matrix Reloaded, as I did, knows that the joke is on us when we ask for, and pay for, more of the same.

Cinema, as a medium, is only a little over a hundred years old.  I refuse to believe it is already tapped out.  So why are so many movies last night’s warmed over leftovers?

Which brings me to the second point, and what’s really wrong with Poseidon:  if you’re going to steal an idea, for Pete’s sake can’t you at least steal a good one?

Maybe it’s just that my mother, who was a huge Shelley Winters fan, made us watch The Poseidon Adventure on TV one too many times.  Maybe it’s because even when I was a small child, I felt vaguely embarrassed by that weird prurient interest people take when a siren goes by or the 11 o’clock news has tidings of a fire downtown or a car crash on a local highway, an embarrassment that’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.  (Why do people take such an interest in other people’s misery?  And not the useful, let-me-see-if-I-can-help-you interest, either; it’s more like, oh-my-god-would-you-look-at-that!)

Or maybe it’s because The Poseidon Adventure was a bad movie.  I don’t mean it was a slightly broken movie that deserves a remake so a new director can fix its small handful of flaws.  It was irredeemably bad.  There’s nothing a new director could do to fix this movie.  That’s a little bit like trying to fix a calf born without a head.  Can’t do it, don’t even try.

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