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Manchurian Failure
I'm teaching my two classes the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, along with Greil Marcus's BFI mini-book about it. I picked the film because I imagined that the press surrounding Jonathan Demme's 2004 version would prove helpful. Once I had seen the remake and read the reviews, I wondered whether I should regret my decision. But I earnestly pressed on, telling my students to go see the Demme film before it left theaters. Last night I forced myself to go see the 10:30pm screening of the new one in preparation for the discussion of the 1962 version we'll be having this week.

It was a major disappointment. While the first viewing left me unsatisfied, I hadn't followed my feelings to their logical conclusion. Now I have and, let me tell you, the 2004 incarnation of The Manchurian Candidate is a pretty dismal failure.

I like Jonathan Demme. I like the principals. And I love the idea of revising a Cold War conspiracy narrative for our current troubling times. So why doesn't the 2004 version work for me? In a word, it's "plodding." What makes the original film so compelling is that it's resolutely over-the-top. From the implausible plot to the mannered acting to the often bizarre dialogue, John Frankenheimer's 1962 The Manchurian Candidate is a testament to cinematic excess. And that's what makes it worth watching. By contrast, Demme's version manages to mute the insanity without gaining more than a few microns of plausibility in the process. The undertow from the 1962 film pulls you to the edge of your seat, making you wait deliriously for the next improbable scene. By contrast, the remake unfolds like a tedious sequence of Hollywood moments, from the appropriately swelling minor-key mood music to the close-ups of Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep that convey publicity still first and foremost.

Although I hate getting up during a film and rarely eat alone when I'm in the theater, I actually got up to go look for popcorn in the hope that measured crunching would make the time pass faster. Then, 2/3 of the way through the picture, I fell asleep. Aside from a couple black-and-white films I saw after staying up all night, no movie has ever bored me to the point of losing consciousness. Worse still, when I came to some ten minutes later it was like nothing had happened. I hadn't missed a thing, apparently.

Tonight I rewatch the 1962 version at home, confident that, though I don't like watching films on the television a great deal, I will stay awake and enjoy myself. If nothing else, I can revel in the sheer oddness of Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Janet Leigh's performances. There's something to be said for strange.

Mode: stiff
Muse: We'll Make A Lover Of You - Les Savy Fav - Inches

4 comments or Leave a comment
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: September 20th, 2004 06:09 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I agree. Although I haven't seen it a second time (and won't), when I think back on Manchurian Candidate, especially in relation to the really excellent films I've seen this year, it's mediocre disappointing hollywood dribble. I, Robot was infinitely more interesting to think about and had more political teeth. It's like Demme's MC has been declawed or something.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 21st, 2004 01:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

and then. . .

. . . there's the fact that politically, Denzel turns out to be a bible-thumping Republican moron. the intertextuality of it is too much.


PS -- New blog at http://sterneworks.org/blog.html , though it'll take me ages to catch up to you two!
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 21st, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: and then. . .

Not that Frank Sinatra wasn't, of course. But when you couple that with the fact that, to avoid charges of extreme bias, the 2004 version has Meryl Streep playing someone like Hillary Clinton as imagined by FOX News and Liev Schreiber following a trajectory a lot like John Kerry's, you start to wonder what the point of the remake was. I'm sure Jonathan Demme didn't want to play into Karl Rove's hands, but intention won't get you to paradise.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: September 21st, 2004 05:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: and then. . .

Cool. I'll read your blog. I just bookmarked it.


4 comments or Leave a comment