27 April 2010

On Remakes


Whether we like it or not, the classics are fair game for new artists to repeat.  In some cases, a reimagining of an iconic scene or work is an inspired act. Consider a good cover song - when you hear it, you feel a rush of nostalgia and affection for the original, combined with an immense appreciation of and amazement at the reinvention of the song (Nirvana's cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World").  And of course in other cases, things can go disasterously wrong - at its least harmful, we laugh off the poor imitation, at its worst, the final product ends up being viscerally offensive to the original and anyone who loved it (Britney Spears' cover of  Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N Roll"). 

Photographs and films are harder to recreate than songs - or at least few have figured out how to do it effectively. After all, what's the point?  Someone must either think that they can do it better, or that they are somehow paying homage to the original.  In most cases, the audience just wishes they were seeing the original.  Need I bring up Gus Van Sant's Psycho, or the 2006 version of The Pink Panther?  Aside from film, magazines have gotten a lot of flak for borrowing from classic shoots, with New York Magazine being the main offender - from recreating classic George Lois covers "accidentally," to purposefully giving Lindsay Lohan more significance than she deserves by allowing her to reenact Marilyn Monroe's last photo shoot.

So in the lastest cultural installment of "nice try, but not quite" Mario Testino attempts to recreate a classic photo shoot with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin from 1974, shot by Francis Giacobetti.  Here's Testino's version with Francesco Vezzoli and Daria Werbowy, featured in this month's Vogue Paris


And here's the original.

 

So what went wrong?  Why is the 1974 version worlds better?  Very simply, Testino made his shoot too pristine. The models look far more perfect than Gainsbourg and Birkin.  Jane Birkin, a waifish beauty herself, looks more real than Werbowy.  Consider the look of the thigh above the garter - Birkin's leg looks like flesh, Werbowy's looks like plastic.  The surroundings are also dramatically altered, with Birkin sitting in a dingy room on a rickety metal table, and Werbowy lounging in a posh apartment of black lucite and studio lighting.  Even the poses of the women are dramatically different when you begin to analyze their expressions, the "believability" factor, and the way that Birkin clearly isn't concerned about the fact that her arm is squished up next to her side, making it appear larger than it actually is.  

The two men, of course, are strikingly different as well.  Gainsbourg is older, clothed in wrinkled khakis, and gripping Birkin's leg aggressively.  Vezzoli, however, boasts lovely, styled hair, a pressed and tailored suit, and appears to be holding Werbowy's leg ever so gently - as if only to help remove a heel.

Now, it is sometimes too easy to want to just claim that the grittier choice is the more effective piece of art.  And although that's my conclusion, I like to think that I came to it in a more justified manner. When looking at the photos,  I tried to concentrate on my emotional response to both.  The Birkin/Gainsbourg/Giacobetti photo left me feeling uncomfotable.  The Werbowy/Vezzoli/Testino version left me feeling nothing.  Winner: Birkin/Gainsbourg/Giacobetti.

3 comments:

zhhooper said...

You nailed--all about the thigh.

ldbahr said...

Thanks ZHH!

Dean Treadway said...

Ahh, yes. All so true. The way Gainsbourg is clutching the ankle, the offhand quality of the the shot, the action happening as we look, Birkin breathing through her teeth. The sex is there in the original. There's no sex happening in the remake. A textbook example, in miniature, of why remakes usually fail, in all manners.

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