When the Remake is Better than the Original
Adorno may be criticised for his abstract methodology or a refusal to examine individual works on their
merits, as a result of a theoretical bias. It follows that industrially produced artefacts, by definition, are
not works of art; rather they can only be regarded as commodities aimed at fulfilling the needs
of the masses.
The audience is meant to amuse itself, which involves the elimination of critical thought. Adorno calls
this ‘infantile mimetism’. Therefore it is a welcome relief when a mainstream film director chooses
Adorno’s preferred category of semblance. A good example is to be found in a recent French film
called The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), made by a relatively new director, Jacques Audiard.
This film is also remarkable , because he was inspired to make The Beat..., as a negative reaction
to its Hollywood cult-violence original, James Tobac’s Fingers, although the latter was made
as long ago as 1978.
To his great credit, Audiard never gave up on his aim. The central character, Tom, is the son of a small-time mobster and
his estranged artistic wife. Although Audiard shows his audience that Tom is capable of extreme violence, he is determined
to eschew violence itself merely to entertain; even if this is a feature film aimed at the mass market. Moreover, unlike Tobac’s
original, The Beat... is a film that makes an idealist point that, sometimes at least, art does have the power to transform,
even a gangster, from a thug into a sensitive human being. In other words, Audiard does not seek to recreate an imitation
of everyday events, for which there can be no reconciliation, which is what we have come to expect in mainstream films
about violence. (Consider Scorsese’s Mean Streets and its offshoots, for example.) Rather he uses a particular form and
content which achieve a distancing effect. The artifice that he constructs in The Beat... enables the film to say ‘No’ to the
present. By the same token, it alludes to the possibility of a better world... It is all the better, because Audiard is daring
enough to pursue his aim via a popular genre, such as the urban thriller, in which violence has a prominent role,
in accordance with the audiences’ expectations.
The point here is that, as Audiard himself says, he wanted to say something about the west’s ‘savage life-style’, not
merely to duplicate it for sensationalist purposes. Rather than set his film in New York once again, he decided to transplant
the story’s context from the world of the New York Mafia to the gangland. of his own city, Paris. Of course, Paris has
no Mafia; so the role of the latter has been transferred to vicious real estate criminals.
In Audiard’s film, Tom is played with great nervous energy by the talented Romain Duris. Like Travis Bickle, he is also a bit schizoid. (There are other resemblance's Taxi Driver too.) When we first meet him, as the son of a ruthless landlord, he will stop at nothing to buy and sell property for profit. By night he terrorises his father’s tenants (usually helpless immigrants) if they get in the way. His weapons of choice are the baseball bat and a bag of rats. On the other hand, his father was once married to a woman, who wanted her son to become a classical musician. Then, quite by chance, he meets his old piano teacher and this sets him back on the road to the rarified world of classical music. By day the young man practices with the help of a sensitive and expert teacher. She also happens to be a beautiful young Chinese woman. She does not speak any French; so they communicate through gestures and touch, as well as the language of classical music. It appears that our anti-hero is falling in love with her. Here the score, composed nd arranged by the outstanding Alexandre Desplat, plays an important role: He uses hard-rock music to accompany Tom’s violent nocturnal existence. But then he provides his own original sounds which function as a sound bridge to Tom’s more gentle and artistic daytime pursuits. Now we hear a Bach toccata for piano on the sound track, as Tom practises for his upcoming audition with his old piano teacher.
A turning point is reached when he tells his brutal sidekick that he doesn’t want to be a thug any more: He wants to take part in a piano competition. ‘This is not about money’, he says to his bemused companion. ‘It’s about art.’ Thus the notion - and the image - of the beautiful conjures up an image of freedom, albeit a fleeting one. Here we have a fine example of art’s refusal or Stendhal’s ‘promesse de bonheur’.
The final and most brutal scene in The Beat... takes place in a concert hall, during a performance by Tom’s Chinese tutor, herself an accomplished pianist, Our unlikely young thug-come-musician has since become her manager/lover. By chance, once again, he meets the Russian gangster who murdered his father A violent fight ensues, in which Tom gains the upper hand. He takes the man’s pistol and puts it in his mouth. But the same hand which now plays Bach on the keyboard, cannot pull the trigger. The scene ends with Tom washing his hands, before returning to the concert hall. Indeed images of Tom’s hands recur throughout the film, as a motif : They are seen carrying a baseball bat, covered in blood after a fight, holding the gun, washing his hands, now damaged from the fight, and, of course, playing the piano. But in the most memorable image of all, we see Tom seated at a bar. We see his hands playing an imaginary keyboard. We hear the sound of beat music on the sound track, but from the expression on Tom’s face, we realise that he is in the world of Bach’s music. He is on the road to redemption.
One could argue that climactic fight is merely the gratuitously violent end to yet another routine action thriller. But in the light of the above, it could also be argued that this serves as a symbolic reminder of the place of art in bourgeois society: Its autonomy comes at a price: If one is to enjoy something which is impractical, beyond the means/end necessity of the everyday, by virtue of the beauty of its form, which springs from the free play of the spirit, then one also has to be an artistically educated person. For, as Marx says, ‘labour produces marvels for the rich but it produces deprivation for the worker....It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker....It produces intelligence, but imbecility and cretinism for the worker.’ Tom is in the unique position to be able to straddle both sides of this dichotomy. The film is finally uplifting, because he ends up on the side of beauty and the idea that a better world is/must be possible.
For all of the above reasons, Tobac’s film, Fingers (1978) is the antithesis of Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Although Tobac intended his film to be a superior entertainment, it is conventional in form: Shot on location in New York, it seeks to provide a faithful reproduction of reality, to which we, the audience, are unable to be reconciled. Harvey Keitel gives an excellent portrayal as Jimmy Fingers, a troubled young man, who feels isolated in the midst of a metropolis. Like Travis Bickel, he feels trapped in New York’s mean streets. This sense of isolation is achieved by means of wide-angle shots of Jimmy alone in his room, where he plays Bach on his grand piano, or in the street. He struggles to overcome his problems, but eventually succumbs to them and his situation: Firstly, he is a frustrated bisexual in angry denial. Although attracted by women, he can only have a misogynistic relationship with them, which is usually brutal and short. It transpires that this condition stems from an oedipal relationship with his mother, now incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. This is unfortunate, because it is she who inspires Jimmy’s love of classical music, especially Bach’s toccatas. Secondly, Jimmy cannot break away from his loan-shark father. On the one hand, his father supports Jimmy financially; on the other, he needs Jimmy as an enforcer against racalcitrant clients, including a dangerous mobster.
The key differences between the Tobac film and Audiard’s are as follows: Most importantly, it is a femme fatale who is the pivot for Jimmy’s big chance to change his life, not Bach’s music. Indeed, Jimmy infuriates everyone around him (including this reviewer) by playing vintage pop tunes very loudly in public on his portable tape recorder! When the woman sexually humiliates Jimmy, he begins his downward spiral into the abyss of violence and murder. He is unable to perform for his old music teacher at the audition. Now more vulnerable than ever, he is taunted by his father - if Jimmy wants to prove that he is a man, then he must take out the mobster, who is harassing his father. Finally Jimmy does so, but only after the mobster has murdered his father. This is the abyss. Instead of being inspired by Bach, Jimmy regresses back into the commercialised world of pop music. We see his irritable fingers beat out the latest hit tunes, not a Bach toccata. It follows that when he wins the vicious fight with the mobster, he puts the gun in the latter’s mouth and pulls the trigger. Here there is no promesse de bonheur!
Clearly Audiard has lifted more than one idea or scene straight from Tobac’s original. But, as we have seen, he transforms them. Despite his pretensions to have made a superior entertainment, Tobac’s film will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, i.e. as a product of the ‘culture industry’. Hence we read in the DVD notes: ‘Fascinating. Superbly acted. Exillerating moviemaking’. ‘As in Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Keitel inhabits a seamy underbelly of existence in Fingers. James Tobac writes and directs, infusing this cult classic with vivid New York locations and volatile sexual dislocation. This ‘Entertainment Weekly’ choice [is] one of the 25 Greatest Movies Ever...’