Universal studios loses its Silver lining
Vancouver Courier
December 13, 1998

Have you ever left a theatre asking yourself: “Why did I waste $8.50 and two hours on this dreck? Who thinks that lame Saturday Night Live skits deserve to be made into movies? What studio exec is responsible for this abomination?

If some or all of these questions apply, you likely won’t shed a tear for Casey Silver. The head of Universal Pictures was forced to resign after his Seagram’s boss, Edgar Bronfman Jr., had had enough of watching his pictures come in over budget and then lose money.

Silver is responsible for, among other things, Meet Joe Black, which cost US$85 million but has made only $35 million to date. I haven’t seen the film, a remake of the 1934 classic Death Takes A Holiday, so I can’t comment on its merits, except to say that casting an actor as cute and insubstantial as Brad Pitt to play “Death” could be a reason why the film was death at the box office.

However, one of Silver’s projects that I can comment on unseen is director Gus Van Sant’s colour remake (there’s that word again) of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. Oops, did I say remake? I should have said “reproduction.” Van Sant, a high-concept film-school ah-tist didn’t want to demean the perfection of Hitchcock’s black-and-white classic, which I’ve seen several times, so he copied the original shot-for-shot, even using the same script.

Why would Van Sant bother? What possible reason could he have for redoing a masterpiece? Well, here’s what he told Movieline magazine: “It’s never been done before. Isn’t that a good reason to try it?”

No, you conceited, self-indulgent little prat—it isn’t! Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should.

A great movie, like any great work of art, has an aesthetic and cultural value beyond its genre. Imitation is understandable, even inevitable. When Leonard Bernstein adapted Romeo and Juliet to make West Side Story, he didn’t debase Shakespeare’s original play. Even Hitchcock, who remade The Man Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, made a different movie. Similarly, the versions of Hamlet all have different nuances.

Van Sant is simply a parasite capitalizing on someone else’s talent. He says his movie pays homage to Hitchcock’s, but the claim is untenable. He told Movieline that a colour version of Psycho was needed because nobody watches black-and-white movies. He offered no evidence for this claim. Perhaps Van Sant should speak to Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen to understand why black-and-white often works better than colour. But then, for him to consider this suggestion assumes that he has an aesthetic sense.

I can’t imagine anyone giving a sculptor money to “reproduce” Michelangelo’s David just so he could paint it for a contemporary audience that he assumes is bored of white marble. In academia, if a researcher admitted to copying a colleague’s work, he or she would be publicly disgraced. Moviemaking appears to adhere to a different ethic, and by different I mean non-existent.

There is no movie so good, so innovative, so powerful that its fame and reputation cannot be debased by a latter-day hack trying to make a cheap buck. Recycling the past is cheap, because it takes no imagination, which costs money. There’s also presumably little risk, since a good movie has proven its worth. To mimic Psycho is to imply that it could be made better. If Van Sant thinks he compares to Hitchcock, then he’s the one who’s psycho.

Ultimately, Silver is to blame for Van Sant’s hubris, which will no doubt be coming to a second-run theatre near you, maybe by the end of next week. Seagram’s is probably better off without Silver, but I fear that Universal’s films will not become appreciably better. First, Silver has projects in the pipeline for three years including a sequel (The Nutty Professor 2) and another remake (The Mummy).

Second, even though Bronfman is rightly determined to arrest the string of failures and make Universal profitable, an exaggerated emphasis on profitability could make matters worse. The straw that broke Bronfman’s back was Silver’s Babe: Pig in the City, which at US$90 million came in $35 million over budget. Over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend it took in only US$8.5 million, third behind The Rugrats and A Bug’s Life.

The irony is that Babe: Pig in the City is a worthy sequel to the original. Though not quite as good as Babe, it is well acted, believable and has great stunts—the humans aren’t bad either. Even though it went over-budget, and was up against other kiddie films, this film should not have cost Silver his job, especially based on one-weekend’s performance. Had Babe: Pig in the City come out three or four weeks earlier and done better, he might still be working.

If Bronfman wants to turn Universal around, before obsessing over losses, he might examine why so few people pay to see his films. Instead of recycling old movies, he might consider making a few good, innovative ones.

The best indictment of our shallow movie “industry” is that cartoons and animals behave like real people, and real people resemble animals and cartoons.