This naked exploitation of nostalgia

Our culture has become so timid that the best way to sell a new film is take a title from the archives
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The Independent Online

No prizes for guessing the opening and the final words of the re-make of Alfie which will be appearing shortly - and, I suspect, briefly - in cinemas across the country. There are a few superficial changes in the new version of the story compared to the 1966 original. The scuzzy, on-the-turn decadence of mid-Sixties England has been replaced by the buzz of contemporary Manhattan, the smoothly dangerous seducer that was Michael Caine is now Jude Law in cheeky-chappie mode, and some of the old sexual politics - referring to a woman as "it", for example - has given way to an uneasy egalitarianism.

No prizes for guessing the opening and the final words of the re-make of Alfie which will be appearing shortly - and, I suspect, briefly - in cinemas across the country. There are a few superficial changes in the new version of the story compared to the 1966 original. The scuzzy, on-the-turn decadence of mid-Sixties England has been replaced by the buzz of contemporary Manhattan, the smoothly dangerous seducer that was Michael Caine is now Jude Law in cheeky-chappie mode, and some of the old sexual politics - referring to a woman as "it", for example - has given way to an uneasy egalitarianism.

But the moral message, that shagging around does not necessarily make you a happier person, is still intact and so, climactically in the final frames of the film, is the great universal question once asked in the plaintive tones of Cilla Black: "So what, in the end, is it all about, Alfie?"

Long after I had left the press preview, the question niggled away at me, but not perhaps in the way that the film's writer and director, Charles Shyer, may have intended. When it comes to the ever-changing, unresolved business between men and women, the tension between desire and contentment, nothing particularly new is added by the long 98 minutes of Alfie. On the other hand, it does raise an intriguing smaller question: how on earth was it that a remake of this kind, a doomed project if ever there was one, could appeal to a major Hollywood studio, a director with an impressive commercial record and one of the hottest young actors around? What's that all about?

In 2004, digging up profitable film and TV hits of the past, giving them a vaguely contemporary makeover and promoting the hell out of them is big business. Our culture has become so timid and backward-looking that it often seems that the best way to sell a new film is to emphasise its lack of originality by taking a title here, an idea there, from the archives. Find the right old project - The Italian Job, Psycho, Starsky and Hutch, The Ladykillers, The Manchurian Candidate, Get Carter, The Stepford Wives etc - and soon one of the Hollywood studios will be throwing money at it.

What these films have in common, of course, is that they are successful - in many cases, so successful that it would be inconceivable that a modern version could add anything to the original. But then such creative concerns are by the way. The impulse behind digging up ancient box-office successes and giving them new life is as cynical as it is lazy. By hitching a promotional ride on someone else's success, remakes disguise the thinness of today's talent by invoking that of the past.

Probably, it all makes marketing sense. Just as the motto "the same but different" could hang over the front door of many book publishers, so determined are they to churn out more or less identical variations of the latest bestseller, so film producers seem to find it easier to get financial backing for a knackered old retread than something sharp, original and contemporary.

Alfie is a particularly naked attempt to exploit nostalgia without becoming drearily retro. There are musical and visual references to the 1966 version. Jude Law plays the lead like an old-fashioned cockney, talking to camera in the confiding manner of the first Alfie. He even - was this some kind of a postmodern joke? - drives around Manhattan on a Vespa. There is a reference to Aids, the music is louder, the colours more vivid, but nothing too dangerously of the moment is allowed to penetrate into the odd no-man's-land in which the film exists. Of the sharp and brutal wit of the original, inviting us to become complicit in Alfie's misbehaviour, there is no sign.

If the financial rationale for putting out re-makes of this kind is clear where does that leave us, the punters? Why do we go and see these things? A slick, emasculated version of some triumph of the past can only remind us of the strangely unadventurous times through which we are now living.

A culture and a film industry with confidence would take a classic story - for example, that of a tragic philanderer who lives in a cold world of sexual heat - and set it among the conflicts and confusions of the contemporary world. Alfie's creator, Bill Naughton, first situated his 1962 Radio 3 play Alfie Elkins and His Little Life in an atmosphere of chilly 1950's repression and then developed it, in a play and a film, to reflect the edgy youth culture of the Sixties, but there the progress has halted.

The medium that ignores the many fascinating changes that have occurred in sex and the politics of seduction over the past 40 years, preferring to gaze longingly back to the 1960s, is suffering from a bad case of cultural inferiority complex. A question more urgent than the general, hand-wringing one which closes the story of Alfie Elkins, is whether a new Bill Naughton, writing today, would find work and a future in an industry so hooked on a glossy, morally empty form of nostalgia.

terblacker@aol.com

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