Columns / Discourse / January 25, 2012

Check the Reel: Laying off on the re-releases

Cut it out.

Am I going to qualify that statement? Only to wring from those three words as much spite and bile as possible, because this has bugged me for some time and now it’s reached boiling point. This is not a column where I say, “Don’t you hate it when…?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if…?” It really comes down to that cold, firm command: cut it out. Just stop already.

I like to think I’m not a naïve film lover. It occurs to me that corporate and commercial interests run the movie industry as much as talent and creativity. That means dealing with the sad truth that Hollywood is remaking “Total Recall” and “American Psycho.”

It means watching Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. waste their careers playing the same role sequel after sequel. It means taking the junk in stride because the masterpieces are hiding amongst them, waiting to be unearthed by the keen-eyed.

But on no ground can I justify the 3-D re-release of popular movies we’ve already seen countless times. It’s the cinematic elephant in the room that everyone’s talking about — just in the wrong way.

These are not nostalgic gifts from charitable film studios that want us to rediscover the joys of “The Lion King” or “Star Wars.” These are parasites. They reinforce Hollywood’s greed, take up space at theaters that could be used for original features and fail to challenge moviegoers with new, or even undiscovered, experiences.

Before VHS came along, movies were re-released in theaters pretty regularly. Unless you had a projector at home and storage space for film reels, you either hoped a film-hit syndication on TV or came to a nearby theater. Once audiences could control when they saw a film in the convenience of their own home, the practice fell out of favor outside special cuts (“Director’s Cut,” “Original Cut,” etc.) and anniversary showings. No way to make money off what you can see at home, right?

Then 3-D appeared — or rather, resurfaced in a more marketable, (slightly) less gimmicky form. The extra five dollars per ticket perked plenty of ears. Here was an excuse to re-release classic movies!

I’ve written about the 3-D format already, and remain ambivalent about its potential. I also remain opposed to 3-D films that were made in 2-D, then converted to the extra dimension in post-production. That covers every re-release that’s come out or will ever come out. In every case, you are watching an example of 3-D inferior to even the worst movie filmed using a 3-D camera.

But people do it anyway, because that fickle, destructive force called “nostalgia” lights up when they see “Beauty and the Beast” on a matinee listing.

“I can revisit my childhood,” they think, “in theaters!” You can also revisit it at home, with a group of friends and a cheap DVD. Nothing about “Beauty and the Beast” screams, “I need to see this in 3-D!” Yet the film’s familiarity becomes the subtext needed to justify the ticket purchase. It’s an appeal to our most primal prejudice and a dangerous standard to set.

Some might argue these re-releases allow a new generation to appreciate films from our childhood. Nevermind that most of us experienced movies from our parents’ childhood at home on VHS or DVD, and these re-releases focus exclusively on movies that even your 6-year-old sibling ought to know.

This is not an act of discovery but regurgitation. Who honestly believes “Titanic” needs the extra press? Does the second highest grossing film of all time demand a second life on the big screen?

If you just can’t live without seeing your favorite films return to theaters — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — look for individual theaters that specialize in “event showings.” The Music Box Theater in Chicago is known for screening classic films throughout the year, often around the holidays. They’ve shown “The Sound of Music,” “Carrie,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” all alongside newer foreign films, documentaries and independent features.

These theaters can satiate nostalgia at the same time they challenge viewers. That balance cannot be found at the multiplex, where so long as “The Phantom Menace 3-D” runs, that’s one more theater unavailable to the low-budget filmmaker.

So, Hollywood? Yeah, you. Cut it out. I’m sick of seeing previews for the pre-viewed. I want to enjoy my movies as I do literature: revisiting the classics on my own time, discovering new talents at the appropriate venue.

Can you imagine “A Tale of Two Cities,” reissued with giant rainbow text and a sparkling cover? Would you fork over $20 for that “definitive release?”

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