by ira nayman
Two films will be released in the coming months, star vehicles for two of Hollywood's better actors. Tom Cruise (yes, I believe he can act) stars in Vanilla Sky, a film about a good looking guy who is rebuffed when he makes a pass at his best friend's girl, and ends up in a car accident which leaves his face a mess. Then, really strange things start happening...
There is also K-Pax a Kevin Spacey film about an inmate in an insane asylum who claims he is an alien who receives signals from his home planet. The doctors in the asylum assume he's delusional, but the other inmates find him inspiring.
Although neither of these films had opened before I sat down to write this article, I had the distinct impression that I had seen them both before. That's probably because I had. Vanilla Sky is based on a Spanish-language film called Open Your Eyes (both of which star Penelope Cruz go figure). K-Pax has the same storyline as another Spanish film, Man Facing Southeast, which suggests to me that they are based on the same source material.
It's hard to look forward to these films with much anticipation; generally, Hollywood remakes of foreign film are not as good as the originals. There are many reasons for this.
For one thing, Hollywood films are star-driven; scripts are often shaped to fit the talents of the actors who play in (and who generate audiences for) them. When such talents reahemlimited, this necessarily limits the quality of the film. Even when the stars themselves are talented, however, their presence in the films tends to overshadow... well, the films. People who go to Vanilla Sky, for example, wondering what role Penelope Cruz played in the destruction of Tom Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman aren't likely to appreciate the film on its (potentially considerable) merits.
Another consideration is that American science fiction is dominated by special effects, an approach which invariably leaves little room for character development. However, both Open Your Eyes and Man Facing Southeast are character-driven stories; the science fiction elements in these films are very low key. In Open Your Eyes, the science fiction doesn't kick in until halfway through the movie. With Man Facing Southeast, there can be some question of whether it is sci-fi at all. One can only hope the makers of Vanilla Sky and K-Pax resist the urge to add visual effects to the films, since they can only detract from the development of the characters which was the heart of the originals.
This may not be seen as a problem for the American filmmakers since, generally, Hollywood remakes tend to soften the characters in remakes of foreign films. Consider how bland the characters in Three Men and a Baby are compared to the originals in Trois Hommes et un Couffin, or the shallowness of The Bird Cage compared with the much sharper understanding of sexual politics in La Cage aux Folles.
Where mainstream American films tend to hollow out inner emotional complexity, they also tend to broaden outer emotional displays. The trailer for K-Pax suggests that the inmates of the asylum are euphoric at Spacey's presence. While there is certainly an element of that in Man Facing Southeast, the emotion isn't so broad, so...obvious.
There is also the problem of endings. Robert McKee, in Story, claims that there are two types of narrative structure which lead to different endings: open and closed. Open narratives leave some questions open at the end of the film; in the most extreme cases (think: Last Year at Marienbad or Goddard's Weekend), these films open up a variety of possibilities which are never brought to any kind of closure. Closed structures, on the other hand, answer every question they raise, tie up all loose ends, explain everything.
McKee argues that, while both forms have their uses, closed narratives are more satisfying than open ones. This was certainly Aristotle's position (although he was speaking specifically about tragedy, not the profusion of genres we have today). Such narratives seem more popular with audiences, judging by box office.
I don't entirely agree. The problem with closed narratives is that they leave the audience little room to create its own experience. Most American mainstream films are quickly forgotten the moment you leave the theatre; to be sure, this is partially because they just aren't very good, but I would argue that at least part of the reason is that they leave us with nothing to think about when they are finished. Just as we like to walk out of the museum thinking, "What was the Mona Lisa smiling about?", if some aspects of the narrative are left unresolved, audiences will leave the theatre trying to puzzle them out. Not satisfying the audience's need to have every question answered may paradoxically lead to a more involvedand satisfyingcinematic experience.
This was certainly true of Man Facing Southeast and Open Your Eyes both of which ended with questions rather than answers. One can only hope that the American versions will maintain this (but you will forgive me if I have doubts).
I wish Vanilla Sky and K-Pax big opening weekends and long
runs. However, if I were you, I would go to the large foreign section
of your regular video store (and shame on you if your regular video store
doesn't have a large foreign section) and rent Open Your Eyes and
Man Facing Southeast. When it comes to cinematic creativity, accept
Copyright © 2001 Ira Nayman. All Rights Reserved.
Ira Nayman has a PhD in Communications from McGill University.
He has written on film for over 10 years, writing which has appeared in
Creative Screenwriting and Reel Independence, among other publications.