Since the time D.W. Griffith invented a new language of cinema, it came into existence as a unique art form deservingly cementing its place in the popular culture. From the advent of making movies, the practice of remaking films (good & bad) has been a common one and over time directors of varying degree of competence have directed their own versions of a previously-made film. This essay aims to shed some light on the art of remake keeping in context that films are simultaneously both; an art form and an entertainment in its very inception. Through an honest exploration of a remake (Cape Fear, 1991), it also tries to summarize the ideas expressed in a briefly conclusive manner.
Cape Fear (1962)
Cape Fear (1991) is a thriller film directed by Martin Scorsese and an official remake of a film of the same name directed by J lee Thomson.
The story of Cape Fear revolves around a dysfunctional family and a psychopath killer who is out there on a mission to kill this family. This can be considered to be the primary plot of the film with layers attached to the story in its own consequential manner.
CONTEXT/SIGNIFICANCE OF REMAKE:
This is primarily the point from where the significance of this article starts in the context of ‘remake’. Martin Scorsese saw the original film Cape Fear (1961) and felt that the original version was a moralistic tale essentially between good versus evil where the family is a normal family and a psychopath as the evil killer. His immediate reaction to the original film was ‘family is so normal’. He took the original script and with his screenwriter Wesley Strick, incorporated some fundamental changes in the story which made the resultant script altogether a tale of conflicting moralities. They textured the traditional conception of good and evil with acute characterization and created a world where no one is pure good or totally evil in absolute sense. So essentially, here the morality collides inextricably and ultimately the film becomes a tale of humanity where some people manage to retain their human sanity while others allow their view of life to get distorted and torn apart as a result of the experiences they go through in their life. Now here, the word ‘remake’ takes a wholly new dimension. It introduces a very personal perception of the artist (in this case ‘director’), where he infuses his personality in his work while directing his film based on the previous film.
This approach which has already been expressed in the ‘Auteur Theory’ of Cinema which essentially stated that the director is the author of the film. This theory basically originated in France in the 1960s where a group of critics (who later became filmmakers led by their Chief Critic, legendary Andre Bazin) argued that it is the director who writes (Author/Auteur) the film chiefly as cinema is a visual medium hence a medium of the director. They propagated the theory that indeed the director is the sole author (Auteur in French) of the film stamping his personality over every aspect of his film/work.
Validity of ‘Auteur Theory’:
Whether this theory totally holds true or not is an ongoing debate which has continued for decades. But the significance of this theory is that it at least makes clear that if not fully, then in a very partly significant fashion that the director certainly is the author of the film. Hence, Martin Scorsese is certainly an Auteur/Author in his own way writing (directing when it comes to cinema) his film with a very personal world view and individual aesthetics which is the characteristic trademark of every artist, independent of the medium he works in. Hence ‘remake’ here takes a new yet derived meaning where it essentially becomes a ‘rewrite’ based on the existing material. Nevertheless, it is still considered a ‘remake’ because the rewrite is operating in a certain boundary (in this case the previous film) and simultaneously retaining a quality which makes it a distinct and independent work of art while still managing to refer the previous one in an extensive fashion.
a) In the film there is a remarkable sequence where the psychopath killer (Max played by Robert de Niro) seduces the teenage daughter of the lawyer where as a consequence of seduction the girl is shown suckling the thumb of the psychopath. This is indeed a strong cinematic reference to the Freudian psychology which essentially comments over the fact that a romantic relationship of a man with a woman is nevertheless rooted in the relationship of a father and a daughter in its psychological and emotional stimulus. Hence, a girl’s search for love in its true essence, is a search for a father figure. Although widely debated, this Freudian view still holds a major significance in contemporary psychology and Scorsese has effectively made a reference to this in his film.
b) This film also raises questions about the moral responsibility of an individual in special cases and tries to enquire the moral responsibility of a profession in general. It seeks to find out whether the lawyer is guilty or not when he did not defend the convicted psychopath honestly (Max, played by Robert de Niro) in the course of the trial as he was hired as his defending lawyer after knowing that Max has already committed heinous crimes before. Does the conscious knowledge of the convict’s sins reduce the lawyer’s responsibility of defending him or his responsibility is absolutely intact? Is it independent of the external factors in the context of a broader human scope? In a way one feels that the argument of the convict/psychopath/Max (if it had only been an argument), innately linked to his imprisonment, loss of 14 years and the suffering he went through can’t be labelled as completely invalid. This complex moral issue raised in this movie indeed makes this remake a personal version of Scorsese (as he has dealt with the theme of conflicting moralities in a few more films he made).
Cape Fear (1991)
c) Furthermore, it is also an example of cinematic art as the film deals with a story which has been told numerous times on screen before (a psychopath on a killing spree) but for an artist of noble credibility it becomes a challenge to recognize that in a familiar environment and plot where the ‘convention stops and cliché begins’. The end shows that the conscience of a lawyer is burdened by the moral guilt of killing the psychopath as shown visually by the distorted perception the lawyer experiences of his hand fully soaked in blood. This indeed references a universal fact of life that after going through a turbulent experience, things are never the same ahead as one is constantly haunted by the baggage of his/her past experience, but simultaneously indeed, the courage of an individual is to move on in life despite the sufferings and pain.
Hence, it can be said comfortably that Cape Fear (1991) is a remarkable example of a remake where a ‘remake’ attains a level where it is worthy of being called as an original piece of art. Also remarkable is the fact that this film successfully places the spotlight on the ‘remake’ as a practice in filmmaking which is indeed artistically derived from the previous version. Moreover, it communicates that the experience of the latter work (remake) produces a stimulus which inspires the viewer to exclusively appreciate the reformed version while simultaneously nurturing the urge to see the previous work/version which is indeed a laudatory virtue of the remake and successful implementation of cinematic rewrite as an art form. We as an audience are perfectly satisfied with the experience of watching a ‘remake’ and yet this experience instills in our heart the feeling to see the previous film with sheer curiosity, which essentially in a broader scope profoundly expresses about the inherent and quintessential spirit of cinema.