Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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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.
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