Hollywood hasn't done a bad job of remaking Peter Collinson's 1969 classic The Italian Job. But the implications for British cinema - and culture - are appalling. By John Patterson
Friday September 12, 2003
The Italian Job
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Friday September 19 2003
The claim in the article below that Britain, "alone in Europe" shares the English language with the US, ignores the fact that English has been an official language in Ireland for several centuries.
They keep springing up like old friends from the distant past: Get Carter, Traffic, The Ladykillers and, this weekend, The Italian Job. Except they're not our friends. They're like those pods in the basement in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers: evil, soulless versions of people we think we know and love.
They are all (or in The Ladykillers' case, will be) American remakes of well-known British originals, of films or TV dramas that earned sterling reputations or heavy receipts or rave reviews in their country of origin. Thereafter, they're left to languish in culty obscurity, often for decades, until some 23-year-old in a Hollywood studio spots their retread potential and alerts Legal Affairs to snag the remake rights. The process that then ensues, involving the usual squadrons of hacks and shaky-handed script-surgeons, is analogous to removing the spine from a kipper, throwing the meat away, then building a whole new fish around the bones. A stupid and pointless procedure indeed, especially when one examines the mutant results for firmness of flesh, freshness, odour and edibility.
Certain questions inevitably arise. Firstly, what is so wrong with American movie-making that its practitioners feel compelled to plunder the cinematic heritages of other countries for new - or, pardon me, old - plots and stories? Is it because they have so thoroughly strip-mined their own cinematic and televisual culture that they must now start on ours? Certainly, if you've sunk to the level of remaking TV shows like Scooby-Doo and McHale's Navy you are millimetres from the bottom of the barrel, and it's time to seek fresh fields to defoliate.
But given the generally dismal quality of most new British films, what will there be for the Americans to remake in 20 years' time? Maybe Baby? Greenfingers? What deformities of deformities will they be shooting back at us by then? Trapped between the immovable, sclerotic Hollywood behemoths and the levelling anarchy of European co-production financing arrangements, which way can British cinema jump if it wants to remain viable instead of functioning as Hollywood's Airstrip One?
Peter Collinson's original Italian Job, released in 1969, managed to be so unreconstructedly English - or so unreconstructibly London - that it sank its own chances at the American box office. American viewers of my acquaintance need moment-by-moment explanations to comprehend it. And that doesn't make them stupid or insular; quite the contrary, it's a pretty stupid and insular movie in the first place. And Job One was simultaneously so fiercely Eurosceptic, albeit avant la lettre, that today it feels like a blueprint for 20 subsequent years of football hooliganism, pissing in foreign fountains and all those things that prompt the French to call us les fuckoffs.
The Italian Job is not American. It's not European. It's English, for good or ill, and Little English at that. If it voted, it would vote for Enoch Powell (you can't help noticing that it's the black driver's fault that the bullion-loaded bus ends up hanging over that cliff). If it sang, it would sing, in lusty tones, Bruce Forsyth's annoying 1968 export-drive anthem, I'm Backing Britain. It was made as Britain, or non-hippy Britain, was convulsed by the orgy of nostalgia and national self-examination, with occasional stabs at revisionism like Angus Calder's The People's War, caused by the 30th anniversary of the second world war - an orgy that also included Michael Caine's other duff movie of that year, The Battle of Britain.
For me, these are the things - the cultural environment, the social surroundings - that make Collinson's movie so fascinating to watch, and that partly redeem it. Certainly it's not the lame, dated jokes, the lazy writing, the slack narrative pacing, the boring matiness of the male ensemble or the overall emptiness of the film. I can't cut it any breaks today just because it knocked me out as a 10-year-old watching it on BBC2. But its many faults make it an ideal candidate for the remake treatment, the rule being, of course: only remake crap, because remaking Citizen Kane is just asking for trouble.
So we get the remake, 33 years later and, oooh, about 33% better than the original. F Gary Gray and his rewrite goons have shifted heaven and earth to maintain an appositely Italian connection - a 20-minute opening heist set in Venice - before relocating their completely new story to Los Angeles, proud home of the 10-mile traffic-snarl. Caine's Charlie Croker becomes Mark Wahlberg's Charlie Croker II, while Noël Coward's coercive and inflexible Mr Bridger becomes Donald Sutherland's benign and fatherly John Bridger. The Mini Coopers they hold on to; everything else they flush down the pan.
Like I said, the kipper and the bones. Except this time it almost succeeds, possibly because slick, meretricious stories work better if they're gussied up by pros, instead of being dreamed up by erratic guys like Caine and Collinson over brandies.
Precisely the reverse was true of Get Carter 2001. Hollywood took a great British film and, with consummate alchemical skill, transformed solid gold into mushy dogshit. The only good thing it did for world cinema was to kill off Sylvester Stallone's career. Steven Soderbergh's remake of the Channel 4 series Traffik was an altogether more substantial and intelligent achievement (at least, on first viewing), perhaps because Soderbergh plays clever little games with his source material, much as he did with The Limey. That latter movie, which was not a remake but a compendium of types and scenarios from 1960s British gangster classics, Soderbergh described as "Point Blank and Get Carter remade in the style of Alain Resnais". This conveniently neglects the fact that John Boorman and Mike Hodges were at least the equals of Resnais when they made these particular films, but denotes a level of respect for the originals not evident elsewhere. Indeed, it's difficult to think of a British film-maker of the same age whose grasp and understanding of British cinema history exceeds Soderbergh's. We ought to worry about that.
Soon enough we will be faced with Joel and Ethan Coen's remake of Alexander Mackendrick's Ealing classic The Ladykillers, which will make for quite the conflict of loyalties when I nervously take my place in the cinema. Although the Coens will undoubtedly make something highly original, I can't help but feel a certain lowering of the spirit as they enter this particular game, no matter how brilliant they are.
What will an American version of an Ealing comedy look like? And will we dare to gaze upon it? Of course we will. We all trooped off to see Sleepy Hollow and From Hell, which were basically inflated remakes of Hammer Studios pictures. Can we be far from the American remake of Carry On Up the Khyber or Confessions of a Driving Instructor?
The alleged special relationship between British cinema and Hollywood is a lot like the alleged special relationship between Downing Street and the White House. It doesn't exist. At least not in any way that favours us, the junior partner.
From Beverly Hills and Bel Air, we look like just another jumped-up little market in the north of Europe, bigger than Denmark, smaller than Germany. Yet the language that we, alone in Europe, share with America induces us to believe that we have some mysterious umbilical connection with Hollywood, that we can make hay in their movie markets with our inward-looking, class-obsessed little films and our no-mark knock-offs of their better-funded genre pieces. This delusion has deformed British cinema for decades, and largely blinded us to our other identity as Europeans. We can seek to please both markets, but in the main we opt to genuflect in the direction of the Hollywood sign.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has changed enormously since the glory days of the 1960s, when British films (made often, as we tend to forget, with US money) were able to storm the US box office regularly. Back then, studios were reeling from incompetent, geriatric management, bitter takeover battles that dropped them into the hands of rapacious multinationals interested only in the bottom line, and creative near-impotence. They were glad of the chance to distribute and profit from the Alfies, Darlings and Ipcress Files we sent their way.
These days, in a culture of opening weekend receipts, production schedules offering 10 or 12 effects-heavy blockbusters per year instead of 30 variously budgeted productions, and an overly youthful, intellectually dormant mass audience, we have to work to get their attention. Also absent is the old sense of continuous cultural exchange between Hollywood and other national cinemas. This process benefited and enriched both parties. New movements or schools of film-making in other countries tended to see Hollywood as a monolith against which one could productively bang one's head. Soon enough, Hollywood would absorb, or co-opt new aesthetic styles and approaches, usually discarding much of their political content.
Thus Italian neo-realism, favouring non-actors and location shooting, was absorbed by American film-makers like Jules Dassin to create films like The Naked City, in which location shooting and documentary styles became merely aesthetic innovations, like Technicolor. Later, the French would build their new wave on their pronounced love for American studio pictures, tempered with political dissent of varying degrees. Hollywood returned the favour with nouvelle vague-ish movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Five Easy Pieces. The Italian cinema of the 1960s, from Antonioni to Visconti to Sergio Leone, saw its stylistic innovations poured into films from The Godfather to High Plains Drifter to Heaven's Gate. With the Beatles raising the British profile in the 1960s, there was suddenly a willing American audience for the hugely influential Bond and Beatles movies, and, no less importantly, the Hollywood studios set up well-financed offices in London and other European capitals to fund promising local productions.
In the 1970s, the Germans would revitalise their own cinema by confronting the coca-colonialist legacy of a movie market saturated for 20 years with US product, and making films that, especially in the case of Wenders and Fassbinder, displayed a profound ambivalence towards America and American cinema, often as their main theme. (Until Paris, Texas, Wenders' entire career was built around this cinematic attraction-repulsion.) Many directors from these movements would spend time in Hollywood. Other centres of production and innovation - Lodz, which gave us Polanski and Skolimowski; Budapest, which spawned Miklos Jansco; and the Soviet film industry - ensured that new and influential voices continued to emerge and enrich world cinema.
Well, you can kiss all that goodbye. The give-and-take, the cultural exchange, that's all over. What gets given is not worth having half the time, and what gets taken is no longer innovation or formal advances, just the plots of our old movies, good or bad. With the now thoroughly corporatised studios churning out heavily test-marketed, lookalike movies every weekend, American cinema for the most part is as insipid as fast food and as depressing as mass tourism. Homogenisation has proceeded apace ever since Jaws and Star Wars and the monochrome platitudes of Ronald Reagan. Test-screening audiences are treated like corporate shareholders who must be appeased first, last and always, meaning movies are altered to suit the whims of housewives, students and truants. The rating system dictates that most movies must fit within the confines of the PG or PG-13 rating (lose a third of your take if you snag an R-rating).
All these things, along with the perennial problems of creative bankruptcy, executive timorousness, and plain old rotten film making, have led us to the summer of 2003, which offered US audiences a dumbass action movie and a laugh-lite comedy each weekend, and precious little else to leaven a starchy diet. All energy is expended on that first weekend, after which the audience either finds out how bad the movie is and stays away in droves, or misses a great movie that can't be adapted to a throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to marketing.
Globalisation and the primacy of American exports mean that, whether or not these movies succeed domestically, they are then force-fed to the world market, clogging two or more screens per Ukrainian, British or Greek multiplex, cancelling out space and appetite for domestic products.
And the films that we make, if we wish them to succeed in the American market or to net a US TV sale, must adhere as closely to all these narrow parameters as possible, thus feeding the decay, internationalising it, making it the standard. You send us your crap; we'll slavishly imitate it and sling our homemade or subtitled crap back at you. If we can't compete at the blockbuster level, as we seem to be attempting to do with, say, Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, we'll settle for a niche in the independent market, and bring home nickels instead of dollars.
The need to appease the American market is a Europe-wide problem, but in Britain, because of those delusions of equality with America, it seems more acute, less a new trend than the same one that has bedeviled British cinema since the days of the quota-quickie and the Eady Levy.
Myopic, movie-phobic financiers seem always to have been the bane of British directors and their aspirations, forever imposing imported American stars on resolutely British films and demanding mindless alterations. Audiences don't exactly beat the drums for more domestic movies. Our collective cinematic folk memory extends no further back than Star Wars or Bonnie and Clyde. And we leave our greatest directors, and particularly the ones who want to make specifically British movies, out in the cold, scratching for pennies, starved of funding, scorned and traduced for having ideas in their heads.
If Britain subsidised the kinds of movie that otherwise couldn't get made - as the German government did very cheaply in the 1970s as a matter of national prestige - then Terence Davies might have made 15 films instead of five, John Boorman wouldn't be scraping together his budgets from 18 different sources and blowing it on as many lawyers, and Mike Hodges wouldn't have had to endure the insults attendant upon the miserable reception afforded his stunning Croupier, which had to be filmed largely in Germany. We may bitch and moan about American audiences and distributors, but it took American audiences to see the value in Croupier, and to shame its backers into releasing it properly in Britain. You'd think Hodges might have had less of a struggle making his superb new thriller I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, but not really. It's worth mentioning that the American success of Croupier, and the very existence of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the best British movies of their respective years, were both largely due to the untiring efforts of producer/marketing whiz Mike Kaplan, an American. There's a last trace of that give-and-take.
So it's their fault, but it's also ours. If British cinema is reduced to
a library of old movies - from which the invaders wish to steal only the premise,
the best jokes or just the title - then we are as much to blame as they are.
We have permitted our movie industry to become a supplicant to a gargantuan
and scarcely human corporate movie culture that sees us as carrion to be picked
over. We could have an entirely different, rich and vivid movie culture in
Britain - there are plenty of isolated examples of it cited here - but we
prefer our craven relationship with the snoring giant over the water. It barely
matters to me that they made a half-decent remake of The Italian Job. What
worries me is that sooner or later they'll be buying Performance, If... ,
or even Croupier. Kippers, one and all.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter