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Visions and Versions

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What is it with Hollywood execs and their remakes of foreign thrillers anyway? It’s like they hear “remake” and they think they can create the exact same movie.

Do they not get the differences in culture that can turn a wildly successful film into an Americanized mediocrity?

Exhibits A and B are Ringu, the Japanese original film, and The Ring, its American remake. The plot in the two films are almost identical: People who watch a weird videotape receive a phone call telling them they’ll die in seven days, and then proceed to do so. Intrepid reporter views the tape and has a week to save her own life… and her ex-husband’s… and her son’s.

(Wouldn’t you lock up something that deadly? I would.)

The differences are in the details, the atmosphere. Ringu is presented as an Asian ghost story, with elements of mysticism added to the plot. The Ring, on the other hand, throws in a psychiatric subplot in an effort to make the movie more scientific, more Westernized, more believable. But if you’re going to throw in Western rationality, you better have the explanations to back it up.

I’m thinking in this particular case of where the heck the damn video comes from. In Ringu, you can passport away the video’s beginning, by just sweeping it into the “supernatural” file and suspending your disbelief. As a result, it doesn’t need flashy special effects to tell its story. It can be more stately, more chilling. The Ring asks more of its audience, but doesn’t deliver as much in return beyond some PG-13 gore.

Exhibits C and D are the Spanish movie Abre los Ojos, and its American counterpart, Vanilla Sky, and what the heck kind of title is that anyway? Again, only the barest skimming of the plot can avoid spoilers, but both movies depict a rich, successful man torn between the fuck buddy who’s stalking him and his best friend’s new love (in both movies played by Penelope Cruz). His face gets mangled in an accident and he’s accused of murder, and yet… it may be all a dream!

The difference again is not in the plot or the acting, but in the cultural maps of the two films. Ojos director Alejandro Amenabar and star Eduardo Noriega are clearly working from a more European-influenced, existentialist perspective. On the other hand, Cameron Crowe, Sky‘s director… I’ll be honest, I can’t figure out what the heck he’s doing, and Tom Cruise is too much of an all-surface pretty boy to have any interiority at all. Heck, he looked worse in Born on the Fourth of July than he does here. Where Noriega’s mangled features show the character’s inner torment, Cruise’s merely make him look constipated.

The lesson here is, that the U.S. movie industry really ought to focus on making its own original thrillers. And so it does, mightily, in Donnie Darko, which I only learned about last week and have already seen three times. Part of its allure, I admit, is that it perfectly recreates the experience of going to a private school in late-80s Virginia. But no other teen movie, I bet, has successfully mixed so many genres into one coherent whole: teen comedy, horror, sci-fi. You got your Tears for Fears, your scary six-foot rabbits, your hallucinations, your time travel subplot. Best of all, it does Catcher in the Rye one better, presenting the title character’s teenage alienation as something real and debilitating, but not making him a little snot like Holden Caulfield. He actually comes to realize that there is something bigger than high school and hormones.

I loved that. You don’t know how much my 30-year-old self wants to go back and tell my 16-year-old self that it’s okay to be confused and suspicious of all the crap that adults shove on teenagers, but that it does get better.

So let’s get to the ratings. How many times will you want to watch the DVDs before you finally get it?

Ringu: 1
The Ring: 2
Abre los Ojos: 3
Vanilla Sky: 1, if you don’t give up halfway through.
Donnie Darko: At least 4, plus look for the Easter eggs and visit the website for more clues as to what the hell is going on.

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About Dave Tepper