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Reviewed by:
  • Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes
  • Lesley Stern
Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Edited by Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal. Afterword by Leo Braudy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. ix. + 358. $50.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Remakes engender remakes. The cinematic remake today is ubiquitous, an endlessly proliferating phenomenon. The “remade” object or text, however, is not always another film; it might equally be a television series, a comic, a musical, even something as amorphous as a genre or an authorial oeuvre. In its current insistence the phenomenon demands attention, elicits engagement, lays a lure. Play It Again, Sam is a timely response and an often lively engagement with this cinematic phenomenon that nevertheless poses a range of more general [End Page 192] critical and theoretical challenges. But the book also succumbs to the lure: of mimicry. If the remake involves patterns of repetition and practices of allusion, citation, and quotation, then it tends to invite responses that revel in endlessly proliferating identification (of allusions, citations, quotations, and patternings of similarity and difference).

One way to break out of the critical vortex might be to ask what is to be made of the contemporary brouhaha given that the film industry, film as industry, has always been involved in remaking or in a logic of repetition. To inflect the question thus (indeed to ask a question rather than simply to identify repetitive elements) implies a critical exploration of the logic of cinematic repetition at different times and under different cultural and economic constraints—that is to say: of the mutual implication of text and context. As an eclectic collection this book does intermittently, through the intersections between essays, raise such issues, but it tends more often to remain within an assumed and easy distinction between text and context. Leo Braudy, for instance, argues, “The remake is interesting because it intensifies basic critical conflicts between the intertextuality of film meaning and its contextuality” (331).

The book, which has a tripartite structure: “Next of Kin: Remakes and Hollywood”; “Distant Relatives: Cross-Cultural Remakes”; and “Altered States: Transforming Media,” is bounded by the editors’ introduction and an afterword by Leo Braudy. The introduction declares the book’s proclivity for pluralism and multiplicity, “This is quite purely a collection dedicated to the pleasure of the pirated text, where remakes constitute a particular territory existing somewhere between unabashed larceny and subtle originality. Remakes, in fact, problematize the very notion of originality” (4). The afterword reads like a revamped reader’s report, corralled to give the project a bravely self-reflexive dimension. “All these essays,” Braudy writes, “have acute things to say about the particular remakes they consider and often about remakes in general. But I miss a theory of significant meaning that would allow us to say which comparisons are central and which are clever but finally local insights” (330).

Two of the most interesting essays—“The French Remark: Breathless and Cinematic Citationality,” by David Wills, and “The Superhero with a Thousand Faces: Visual Narratives on Film and Paper,” by Luca Somigli—explore the remake as posing a question of translation. “There can never be a faithful remake,” writes Wills, and he elaborates this remark as a complex way of understanding the non-originality of all texts (157). The remake reveals, by virtue of being an institutional form of the structure of repetition, “the necessary structure of iterability that exists for and within every film” (148). As soon as the process of iterability begins, the dilemmas of translation emerge, and these dilemmas—demanding engagement and solution—are particularly pronounced in the instance of cross-cultural remakes. Wills approaches Breathless (1983) as transposing A bout de souffle (1960) in the very moment it translates it, that is to say, it recontextualizes the original. From this perspective it is meaningless to separate text from intertextuality, and intertextuality from contextuality. Somigli focuses on “how cinema and comics have had to solve similar problems,” and he posits the transposition of one medium into another as a translation process (280). He reframes the question of originality (or rather, brackets it out) by introducing a notion of myth reliant upon Umberto Eco’s...

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