by Connie Willis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Bantam: New York, 1995
172 pages

collected in —

Futures Imperfect January 2011

Film technique overlays dance technique

Connie Willis' Remake is a taut meld of artistic interests:

  • classical films of the 1930s and 1940s
  • ballroom dance as seen in those films
  • actors and actresses still famous for their on-screen dancing
  • remixing of finished art for business or censorship
  • digital image technology
  • the sense that the peak of an art form has passed by, gone forever before we could join in ourselves.

So Connie Willis has set herself a difficult task in this science fiction novel. We find ourselves in a near-future era where film remakes have become the norm, creativity means reshuffling and remixing old standards. With high-tech movie-editing software, films can be cut or stitched or combined. So we have a lot of technical powers of which the old movie-makers scarcely could dream — but the creative flood that allowed the great film performances has been pinched out. Remake furnishes a leading-edge vision, but it is a vision that Willis quite reasonably does not care for, and this book resides largely in the bitter and unhappy end of her spectrum. There are plenty of good insights, however, and this is an important theme — with repercussions well beyond film and beyond even artistic creativity, which I won't go into here.

The filmmakers increasingly see their creative possibilities disappearing into the past: the spectacular movies of yore cannot be matched again, they have found "no second Troy to burn", as Yeats says. The striding giants of film have dwindled to pygmies, the great forebears leaving no unconquered realms of celluloid. The epigones' digital fingers twitch and tweak at the old films. The cinematic vision has collapsed inward.

This is, clearly, rather bleak. Of course there are exceptions; but Willis is not pulling punches here. She does not like what she sees in the future of film — in fact, it is well underway — and she says so.

Of a more pleasant turn is something that is rare in novels and especially in science fiction: the love of ballroom dance, the love of the grand dance movies, the appreciation for their fine performers — Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Ann Miller. Remake engages thoughtfully and entertainingly with these movies, and we find ourselves pondering how they were made and how well they were made.

We may hope that cinematic creativity will find ways to thrive despite the remake inertia. In Remake, Connie Willis applauds the past of film, strikes at its present and near-future state. As for film's creative future, to whom do we look for that?


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson


Which brings us inescapably to the most important point about this film [Beau Geste remake, 1966]

... The practice — often lamented in these pages — of remaking films that were made as classics originally. Stagecoach, She, Room for One More, Mutiny on the Bounty. Rashomon, and now Beau Geste: each of these was made the first time out as well as it could ever be made. Each has had a new edition released in the last few years and each one, without exception, has been an artistic disaster. The strangling stench of venality behind these remakes is so gagging that only the horse-blindered producers who have fostered them could hope to accept the hypocrisy of their being brought into being. ...

If the film industry does not stop this ceaseless, senseless cannibalization of its own body, it will disenchant the filmgoing audience beyond hope of recall. ... How much longer can people be expected to invest their trust, their ticket money, their time and their sense of wonder in shabby redone warhorses butchered by second-rate visionaries? What dreadful ghouls imagine they can match the marvels wrought for us first time out ...? What front-office callousness can be deemed even remotely acceptable for the production of inferior versions of treasured classics held dear in memory by movie lovers; films whose discovery by younger generations has been irrevocably lost or mutilated by the release of witness surrogates, merely from the money to be gained from a shameful resort to the reputation of the former version?

Harlan Ellison
Beau Geste [remake]  (1966)
Harlan Ellison's Watching  (1989)

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