Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Special Book Review: Remake

As a reviewer of Golden Age Hollywood films, I find myself among the countless people who look back longingly at the films of the mid-20th century and lament the loss of the "purity" of those films. Whether or not we're deluding ourselves remains to be seen, but it can certainly be argued that older movies had just as many problems as contemporary ones, albeit in different areas.

Apparently one of my favorite authors is among this group of rabid old movie fans. Connie Willis wrote a novella called Remake in the mid-'90s that was a love song to the Golden Age of film, and particularly the movie musical. I've known about this book for a while, but I found it difficult to procure a copy because it was never very popular. I finally read it recently, though, and since it fit in so well with my recent themes of musicals and Fred Astaire in particular, I thought I should include it.

In the near future, Willis envisions a Hollywood where CG rules the day. New live-action movies are a thing of the past, as it's much easier to place CG renderings of famous actors into new movies or remake old movie with an all-star cast of your choice. And if you don't like the ending to Casablanca you can change it on demand. It's a sort of post-modern dystopia where everything is simulated from sex to movie stars to feelings via designer drugs.

Inside this mess, we meet our main character, a college student named Tom who CG edits remakes in order to get through college and fuel his drug habit. His current project is to edit all the addictive substances out of classic films--a job he hates because virtually all of them contain alcohol, and cutting it out basically ruins great films like The Thin Man, The Philadelphia Story, and Casablanca.

At a party one night, Tom pops the wrong pill and rushes off to find a girl to have sex with because that's basically all the drug is good for. To his dismay, however, the party seemed to be entirely populated by Marilyn Monroe impersonators except for a single girl named Alis (pronounced Alice) who is simply there as herself. Alis is a starry-eyed newcomer who dreams of dancing in the movies, and is impressed by Tom's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films. In an effort to get her into bed, he offers to CG her into a movie with her favorite dancer Fred Astaire, but Alis doesn't want a fake dance. She wants the real thing.

Alis represents a purity of intent and a repudiation of the status quo which Tom has reluctantly accepted, and this bothers him. Although he has already sold his soul to the system, he fights violently to ensure Alis avoids the same fate, even when it means breaking her heart to make her see the truth. And it seems to work: Alis disappears, and Tom sinks into an alcohol-and-drug induced stupor for several months as he ironically tries in vain to edit the addictive substances out of the classics of the silver screen.

Then in one serendipitous moment, he sees Alis again--not CG edited, but actually in a classic musical dancing to her heart's content. This inspires Tom to sober up in order to make sure what he sees is true. Sure enough, she's actually found her way to take part in dance sequences from old musicals in a real, physical sense. Realizing that Alis has found a way to fulfill her dream, Tom searches desperately for her, and when he finds her, he also finds the secret of her seeming "time travel."

What Alis had done in reality is used the movies as her dancing coach and replicated their moves so perfectly that she fooled the computers into thinking hers was the original image. Tom tells the oblivious Alis what she has accomplished, she realizes that her impossible dream of dancing with Fred Astaire can finally come true. In order to to get up to that level, however, she needs to go to China, the only place left where they still do live movies, and thus the only place where she can find a real dance instructor. Before she leaves however, Tom finally has a chance to admit his feelings for her and remind her that "We'll always have Paris." A few years later as Tom is looking through old musicals, he sees Alis dancing "Begin the Beguine" with Fred Astaire, her ultimate goal, and knows he made the right decision in letting her go.

Although he doesn't realize it right away, Tom takes a parallel path the the character Rick from Casablanca. He's someone who's lost his his will to fight and instead is out just for himself--until the love of a women awakens his heart. She reminds him of all the reasons he used to have a passion for classic film while highlighting how much he has lost. Like Rick, Tom initially acts out of frustration and cynicism, but eventually becomes inspired to pick up the fight again. Then finally he must give up the one thing he loves best.

One of the reasons I don't find this book as charming as some of Willis' other entries is because the protagonist is such a reprobate and unashamedly so. Especially in the beginning when all he's trying to do is take drugs and have sex with women, I find him very hard to relate to, kind of like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, whom we watch with a kind of dark fascination as he sinks into nihilism. Of course Tom changes his tune as the narrative progresses, but you have to wait a long time for the payoff. Since the theme of the novel is hope infused into a world of darkness, however, the end might be worth the wait, especially in our postmodern world where everything seems fake and ultimately controlled by the law of entropy. Still, it's just not my style of book.

I have to say, however, that if you're an old movie buff, you will definitely enjoy all the references that get made and the honest reckoning of the comparative talents and merits of old musicals and movie stars. I personally love Alis's comment that the reason Fred Astaire is a better dancer than Gene Kelly is because he makes his work seem fun and effortless whereas Gene Kelly wants everyone to see exactly how difficult his routines are--something I've always felt myself. I did not, however, appreciate her implication that Casablanca has a lousy ending. I love the ending to that movie, and I don't think I'd enjoy it nearly as much if Rick and Ilsa got together because it wouldn't involve the brave sacrifices in order to do the right thing.

Still, if you want to find a book that pays homage to the great films of the past while dealing with modern cynicism in an intelligent hopeful manner, you can't go wrong reading Remake. Just keep in mind that it's not one of Connie Willis' strongest outings.

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