"Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Five years ago, an announcement was made. Michael Bay, a Hollywood filmmaker known for sheer spectacle and little substance was producing a new horror movie. Naomi Watts had officially signed on to star while director Martin Campbell, who had just revived the Bond franchise with Casino Royale, was set to direct. The horror movie in question would be a remake of The Birds.  One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, the 1963 release terrified movie-goers and introduced the world to the newest of the director’s blonde ingenues, Tippi Hedren.

To say that the announcement was met with a certain level of derision would be more than an understatement. The usual arguments were thrown out by critics, by angry netizens spewing vitriol in the blue glow of computer screens, even by Tippi Hedren herself. When asked (during an interview with MTV) what she thought of Watts taking on her iconic role, Hedren said: “They tried to make Psycho over and it didn’t work. Must you be so insecure [that] you have to take a film that’s become a classic and a great success and then try to do it over? I mean, can’t we find new stories, new things to do?” An unsurprising though interesting stance, considering the fact that in 1994 Hedren played a role in the sequel/remake The Birds II: Lands End, a movie considered so awful that its director, Rick Rosenthal, removed his name from the project (it is now credited to the official pseudonym-of-shame, Alan Smithee).

Of course, this is not the first Hitchcock remake or reboot. Hedren and many others against The Birds remake have often pointed out Gus Van Sant’s unsuccessful attempt to remake Psyhco in 1998. Van Sant’s effort, shot in color, was an ambitious but redundant shot-for-shot retelling (it even had the same famous Bernard Hermann score) which starred Anne Heche and a pre-puff Vince Vaughn in roles synonymous with Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Psycho, too, spawned three sequels, all starring a gradually aging Perkins. But Van Sant’s Psycho is only one of the recent dips back into Hitchcock’s work. Over the years, there have been two remakes of Dial M for Murder, three of The 39 Steps, three of The Lady Vanishes, one of Notorious, two of Rear Window (if you count 2007’s Disturbia), a remake of Shadow of a Doubt, a comedy remake of Easy Virtue, and countless TV movies and straight-to-DVD releases.  

It is an easy, tempting thing to dismiss a Hollywood remake, especially of a film as “classic” as The Birds, where Hitchcock masterfully took creatures we never think of and turned them into Furies, beating down on the heads of the innocent and the wicked without discrimination. But to say that a remake is not significant due to its very nature of being a remake is to make the mistaking of failing to examine what the remake, especially today, actually is. Hedren’s words come back to mind. Has Hollywood really ran out of stories? Or does this era of the remake and the sequel speak to a deeper impetus in our collective imaginations, willing us or connecting us to a different time in an effort to make sense of our own? Of the top ten highest earning films of last year, seven of them were either remakes or sequels. This year, there are around 95 remakes in various stages of development, including Barbarella, Poltergeist, Scarface, and Rebecca - Hitchcock’s only film to win an Academy Award for ‘Best Picture.’

What is it about Hitchcock’s films specifically that makes Hollywood so keen to return to him again and again, despite his well-earned title as the definitive “Master of Suspense?” What can any director add that Hitchcock has not already said? When you look at a film like The Birds, you see a certain feature in Hitchcock’s directing that can be found in all of his movies, but is certainly at its most prominent here. He’s toying with us. This is a man keenly aware of what buttons to press, when to needle us, when to let us go. His work with Bernard Hermann to create the absence of a score - so often a tool in manipulating the viewer’s emotions - leaves us with a mechanical silence just as terrifying as the screech of violins in the shower scene from Psycho. Hitchcock terrifies by withholding - the violence or gore in the film comes in quick bursts rather than in rapid succession: the siege of the schoolchildren, the explosion at the restaurant, the gouged eyes of Lydia’s dead neighbor, the terrifying final assault of Hedren’s Melanie in the upstairs attic. He makes it so that it isn’t really the fluttering of wings, the birds flying in and out of frame that is truly chilling - it’s the possibility of them.  The last shot of a landscape full of birds, silent, and waiting, suggests a future where it is the humans who shall be caged. 

There are parallels to man’s relationship with nature in The Birds which are probably even more relevant today than they were in 1963, but the film was never really about a message - it was about something more primal, more visceral - horror. The modern movie-goer, especially those connoisseurs of the latest torture porn or supernatural found-footage flick, have grown cynical. With each new release, there seems to be a collective, sardonic smirk at the screen, a collective question of “Is that the best you can do?” So it’s significant that Bay has opted to remake The Birds, because in an age when nothing is shocking, one wonders how filmmakers can, well, make birds scary without following the exact same formula that Hitchcock used. 

Comments from the filmmakers that have trickled out over the years are telling. Announced in 2007, the remake has been in development hell after Martin Campbell stepped out (to direct The Green Lantern) and Dennis Iliades (who directed the horror remake The Last House on the Left) stepped in. Several script rewrites stalled the project even more, though it is now confirmed to go into pre-production in early 2013, with a $60 million budget. Co-producer Brad Fuller said in an interview that Illiades was keen for a hard R rating, ensuring lots of gore to contrast with the original (the studio, meanwhile, were gunning for PG-13). He also talked of possible CGI birds, and whisperings about a 3D feature. “I’m not sure if we could make the movie all with live birds…I don’t think there’s a movie getting made today that people aren’t having discussions about 3D. It comes down to economics.”

And that could very well be at least one answer to Tippi Hedren’s question. In a box office climate that’s slumping, sequels and remakes for successful movies always seem like the safest bet. Indeed, Hitchcock himself adapted many of his most popular movies from successful authors. The Birds, after all, was based on a 1952 short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier (Maurier’s story, meanwhile, was allegedly based on one by the author Frank Baker, who accused the writer of plagiarizing his 1936 novel The Birds). Hitchcock told Truffaut that often times his process in appropriating these stories was to change them drastically, explaining, “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds.  I read it only once and very quickly at that.”

There is a special sort of terror in the idea of a Michael Bay produced Birds with big (to the point of absurdity) explosions, computer animated birds, a bombastic score and perhaps flagrant, graphic eye-gouging. But, even so, that does not, cannot negate the potentialities of the remake. Once Hitchcock took the du Maurier’s story and expanded upon it, presenting the striking product to the world through the prism of his own mind, he created a sort of discourse with film, with culture in general that both broke and created new conventions in storytelling. Though doubtful, this next incarnation of The Birds may add to that discourse, and present a sort of mirror image to society as it is today that Hitchcock’s initial audience would never be able to appreciate or even understand. Perhaps with every new “announcement,” Hollywood will be that much closer to actually remaking the remake.

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