Non-interchangeable Parts: the Trouble with Remakes

My film students first told me about it. Miramax will be coming out in October with a remake of the great Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996). Worse yet, it will star Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, and Stanley Tucci in the role of the beloved character, Mr. Aoki. When the students told me, I was tempted to check the urban legends website, until I had the story confirmed.

No doubt, this was some twisted idea of a Miramax production committee teased by the success of The Ring, adapted shot for shot from the Japanese cult classic Ringu. The difference, of course, is that Ringu is driven byits story and eerie effects – matters that can be imitated. Shall We Dance is driven by its characters and its cultural moment – matters that cannot be imitated.

The history of the movie business offers far more examples of failed re-makes or sequels than successful ones, a head-spinning number in fact. Yet, studios keep trying it as they have little to lose – remakes usually draw enough curious viewers to turn a profit, and perhaps especially in a case like this when the subtitles may have kept some potential viewers aw

Miramax thinks Shall We Dance is a sure bet. To turn a profit – perhaps. To be a great film – think again. Paramount thought that about Falling in Love, the 1984 remake of the David Lean masterpiece Brief Encounter (1945). After all, Brief Encounter only had Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. Falling in Love would have Bobbie DeNiro and Meryl Streep. Bomb. Universal thought that way about remaking Hitchcock’s Psycho. After all, Vince Vaughan is better looking than Anthony Perkins, and Gus Van Sant would do color for the shower sequence. Bomb.

Shall We Dance may recover the costs of its production (using Gere and Lopez inflated the budget), but its chances of artistic success are very slim. Like most remakes, it overlooks the performance factor. What is this? Consider an analogy – take some classic song that made a particular singer famous and consider the chances of another singer making it even better. Take “Material Girl” and have Brittany Spears sing it. For every one time such a venture succeeds, fifty other singers humiliate themselves trying it. Now that is one performance by one singer. Consider the case in a film like Shall We Dance. There you have completely realized comic performances by an ensemble of veteran Japanese performers who are completely familiar with the cultural milieu behind the film, and its thematics. And who, during one magic moment in time, capture an artistic vision bigger than themselves – perfectly. How do you replicate something like that?

Film is not live theater, so a cross-reference to stage productions doesn’t really work. Performers take into film much more baggage. Into this quaint foreign film, Shall We Dance, Richard Gere drags American Gigolo and Pretty Woman and Cindy Crawford and unrepeatable urban legends. Jennifer Lopez drags Ben Affleck and The National Enquirer and thimble-like dresses. Informed audiences will inevitably approach their performances with sly skepticism, since their “star” presences operate as a subtext contradicting the message of the original film. That is, the original Shall We Dance concludes by suggesting that Japanese culture needs to assimilate the best of Western culture (ballroom dance, open communication between the genders) while retaining its honor and integrity. Without a line of dialogue spoken, the remake dismisses Japanese culture, and in place celebrates “stars” whose iconography tells of some of the very worst aspects of Western culture (self-indulgence, sex-ploitation, conspicuous consumption).

We shouldn’t fault Gere and Lopez for looking for projects that will draw a crowd (although Stanley Tucci, as an advocate of independent film, should really know better). Gere and Lopez are both very competent performers and will be very… competent. But they are “stars,” and that with a capital “S.” And, this is one of those matters that producers and directors, who want to consider themselves part of an artistic community, ought to understand better than this undertaking suggests. In film, who is performing can mean as much as how they are performing.