Christopher Tookey says that remakes reveal the cultural divide between Europe and the USby Christopher Tookey / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Diabolique, it certainly is. In the latest botched remake by Hollywood of a European classic, smirky Sharon Stone stands in for sultry Simone Signoret. Only the actresses’ initials have anything in common. The sexual undercurrents of the original were deemed too subtle for the American market, and have become lipstick lesbianism; while the ferociously dark ending has been lightened, so that the film emerges as a stirring tale of female empowerment.
Diabolique is not the first European film to suffer such a fate. The most cautionary example of a European movie “going Hollywood” is still The Vanishing (Dutch version 1988, US version 1993), George Sluizer’s chilling tale of a young man’s obsessive quest to find out how and why his girlfriend vanished from a petrol station.
Quite apart from the fact that the Hollywood producers made Sluizer tack on an inappropriate happy ending (another tale of female empowerment), they obviously reckoned that a teenage audience would be too impatient to wait until the end to find out what happened to the girlfriend-so they gave it away in the pre-titles sequence, and turned the disturbingly normal villain of the original into a psychopath (with a European accent).
None of this is new. Almost every European who goes to work in Hollywood returns with stories of crass executives and greedy stars. Some-like Alfred Hitchcock-stay. Most-like Jean Renoir-stick it out for a time, then come home.
The big difference between European and Hollywood film culture was first brought home to me when (in my days as a director) I attended a seminar of rock video directors in New York. The Americans wanted to cash in on any success by repeating the winning formula; the British instinct was to move on from every hit, and try something different.
It has often been said that Americans view cinema as a business, the Europeans as an art; but the difference goes beyond that. Even those Europeans who recognise that the movies are an industry are more interested in creating prototypes, than in mass production.
As with all such generalisations, there are exceptions. Some Europeans directors-like Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop and Showgirls), or Tony Scott (Crimson Tide and The Last Boy Scout)-have devoted themselves to manufacturing Hollywood product. Others, such as John Schlesinger, veer between more personal projects and mainstream studio fare.
Of the leading American directors, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Altman and John Sayles are all clearly more interested in prototypes than mass production. However, some of their recent offerings have shown signs of manufacture, albeit for a niche audience, and their independence of spirit means they have never commanded the budgets of mainstream directors.
It would be easy to dismiss the Hollywood factory system as being driven by stupidity or greed; but really it’s driven by an anxiety to schematise something that won’t be schematised-public taste.
In this regard, the guru of American scriptwriting, Robert McKee-who lectures the world over on “classical story structure”-has a lot to answer for. His disciples are recognisable from the mechanical screenplays they write, while McKee himself has the arrogance to denounce as “bad” those films which do not conform to his rules (even though these include Citizen Kane and GoodFellas).
McKee’s emphasis on drama based on a single protagonist runs counter to observable reality by implying that individuals control their own destiny. And many of the best scripts of the past few years-including such award winners as Pulp Fiction and Four Weddings and a Funeral-have rejected this formula, with multiple protagonists being driven on towards doom, success or marriage by an ironic and arbitrary fate.
Hollywood’s allegiance to linear narrative is at odds with the European approach, so eloquently expressed by Jean-Luc Godard, that every story should have a beginning, middle and end-but not necessarily in that order. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction-both initially more popular in Europe than the US-run counter to the laws of Hollywood script-writing, which deplore flashbacks as “unprogressive.”
The US insistence on characters being revealed through action rather than words is also starting to be challenged. Screenplays by Mike Leigh and David Mamet have shown that characters do reveal themselves through the way they speak. Long speeches can be made to work dramatically, even in action films like Crimson Tide. Wordy films like Kind Hearts and Coronets are being rediscovered as cinematic masterpieces.
European filmmakers are freer than Hollywood ones to escape the tyrannies of conventional story structure. And, because European films are more director-led than script-led, they are more likely to have subtle symbolic structures.
But if they are sensible, European directors, too, will learn from the best commercial directors in Hollywood, the Spielbergs and Camerons, who are trying to merge the US and European traditions, very obviously in the case of Schindler’s List, less so in the case of Jurassic Park.
If Jurassic Park looks like a conventional Hollywood monster movie, it is also an “art” film, in terms of design and symbolism. Spielberg’s lack of interest in his story is shown by the careless way he allows loose ends in the plot to dangle (what happens to the sick triceratops?).
It is through the skilful accumulation of imagery that Spielberg makes his subtext clear-that the real monster of his movie is not ancient dinosaurs, but a modern technology that is out of control, and being used for purposes of entertainment and commercial gain. Not a bad symbol of the corruption that lies deep at the heart of Hollywood.