Cut to 1997. I saw Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting for the first and second times on my family’s living room TV, with hunter green venetian blinds closed secretively tight against a sunny day. I hadn’t been allowed to see it in the theater when it was released the year before, so I rented the VHS tape from our local video store after school one day, watched it twice in a row, and returned it before my unsuspecting parents came home from work. I’d never seen anything like it. Choose life, choose a job, choose a career. Though Boyle’s Leith junkies couldn’t be further from my life as a rule-following suburban freshman, Trainspotting tapped a hairline crack in the foundations of my upbringing.
I flashed back to those first viewings as I bought tickets for the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and T2 Trainspotting. Fortuitously or not, both were released on March 17, and I couldn’t resist the dubious pleasure of this doubleheader, seemingly designed for me and a whole niche audience of thirtysomethings who’d previously self-identified as “misunderstood,” or, in the parlance of Disney’s provincial townspeople, “strange but special.” As I walked down to the noon screening of Beauty and the Beast, I was anxious but preemptively exhilarated, with a familiarly disquieting knot of expectations stitched in my gut — the same queasy thrill that had accompanied me to screenings of The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters and dozens of other movies of the last decade, pangs of which strike at the mere thought of the new Twin Peaks. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? What is it that fills me with excitement?
It is the reboot. For here — seemingly everywhere — it is.
The reboot is nothing new in film or literature, and the complicated pleasures and anxieties it arouses bear a resemblance to those brought on by other forms such as allusion, rewriting, pastiche, the cover, adaptation, or even the self-critical exercise of rewatching that Mark Caro reflects on in a recent piece for The New York Times. These various referential calisthenics can be by turns exciting, exhausting, challenging, and annoying, and while they are related, they all have their own idiosyncrasies. Similarly, shrewd observers will note that not all of the projects I’ve referenced thus far are technically “reboots.” They are instead classifiable as reboots, remakes, and the many different iterations of the franchise renewal/revival/expansion model (belated sequels, prequels, secondary plots). Seen together, though, I’d like to suggest that these formal cousins are variations on the same theme: revisitation.
So how do we approach the marked preponderance of revisitations in film and television in the last decade? An informal survey of box office hits since 2000 reveals a steady uptick in the percentage of reboots, remakes, and revivals in the top 10 grossing films since roughly 2005; their continuing proliferation is cataloged left and right on pop culture sites, perhaps most rigorously on Den of Geek. While it might be tempting to glibly and cynically diagnose this formal impulse as a kind of repetition compulsion, I would argue that filmic revisitation is not exactly an exercise in reenactment, even in a shot-for-shot remake. Rather, viewers demand the pleasures of both replication and revision in equal measure — repetition with a difference. To revisit, in all of these cases, is to court several different aspects of production: the commercial (replication of a former blockbuster, or capitalizing on a cult success), the social (renegotiation of both new and old audiences), and the formal (reengagement with the individualized micro-genres of the original). Hence the delicate, nearly impossible balancing trick of the filmic revisitation: it can’t repeat too precisely, nor can it differ too much. It’s like getting back together with an old flame. You want to recapture that same, exhilarating, newly-in-love feeling, yet you also demand that it be totally different the second time around. Revisiting a previous encounter, whether romantic or filmic, seems to be an exercise in self-reflective disavowal.
This logic of disavowal frames the filmic revisitation in different Freudian terms. Rather than repetition compulsion, we might see it as fetishism. For Freud, of course, the fetish is always about castration anxiety, but the concept can be applied more broadly. It is a process of substitution that is at once knowing and unconscious: “Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute […] and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor.” The “substitute” here is the revisitation, the new-old film, which strives to “inherit the interest” (financial and affective) of its predecessor. Freud’s framework also offers a possible explanation for the curious fact that we, the commercial audience, keep going back for more reboots, despite the periodic critical exclamations that this is why we can’t have nice (new) things. As he writes, “though no doubt a fetish is recognized by its adherents as an abnormality, it is seldom felt by them as the symptom of an ailment accompanied by suffering. Usually they are quite satisfied with it, or even praise the way in which it eases their erotic life.” One wonders, however, how much longer we can simply be “satisfied” by how our fetishistic desire to revisit past cultural landmarks “eases” our present cultural anxieties without considering what else this logic of substitution indicates about our contemporary moment, in political as well as aesthetic terms.
A certain potential for failure and betrayal is fundamental to both the fetish and the filmic revisitation. The revisiting text can never separate itself from the shadow of its predecessor, which is, after all, both its point of origin and the impossible standard to which it is held. In turn, we, the knowing spectators, can never disarticulate ourselves from prior viewings — nor do we completely want to. In the clarifying terms of Octave Mannoni’s 1969 essay on the fetish, “Je sais bien, mais quand même,” when I go to see a reboot, remake, or revival, I know very well that it can’t and won’t feel like the original, but all the same, I hope it will. There are many ways for a filmic revisitation not to satisfy this perverse desire, either by hewing too closely to the original or departing too far from it. Consider, for example, the bewilderment and irritation of critics at Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998), or the fanboy outrage at the all-female cast of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters (2016). These valuations of “success” or “failure” are often petty and unproductive, and resonate with the common critique that the reboot industry is tied up with a simplified popular understanding of nostalgia as a wistful, fond longing for the past. However, even if the revisitation banks on this seemingly basic sentimental attachment for box office dollars, there’s no avoiding the fact that the nostalgia implicit in the very project of revisiting a familiar site (or in this case, sight) is far more complex and uncanny. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes, “A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images — of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it onto a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.” The palpable “burnt surface” of this experience of superimposition is, more often not, deeply unsettling. A more interesting question than “Success or failure?” might be, does the filmic revisitation acknowledge its role in this uneasy logic of doubling — and if so, how does it express its own status as a fetish object?
So, back to March 17.
Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast presents an odd and dilated experience of this particular kind of uncanny nostalgia, without any acknowledgment of its own weirdness. It is at once discomfitingly familiar and unfamiliar. By consistently hitting certain marks hard (precise musical cues, familiar costumes, lines of dialogue, and a multitude of shot-for-shot reenactments that feel like torpid tableaux vivants), it relies upon the viewer’s assumed willingness to completely integrate the new fetish object and the lost original. In so doing, it suggests that the pleasures of mere recognition offered by this uncharismatic filmic doppelgänger should be enough to regain or even surpass the enchantment of its original for the return viewer. This is a remake that refuses to acknowledge the inevitable uncanniness of its status as such. In its dogged familiarity, however, the specter of the original only becomes more and more insistent. In the lackluster and slightly down-tempo musical numbers, it becomes harder and harder to be present in the movie theater while another (better) version is being simulcast on the screen of memory.
This cantankerous position has gotten me into innumerable fights over the last few weeks. As one friend lamented, “Don’t you like anything anymore?” While I totally admit that it’s both perversely academic and downright cranky to demand this kind of critical reflection from Beauty and the Beast, its participation in a larger world of filmic revisitation continues to puzzle me. Condon’s film follows in the plodding footsteps of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) and Jon Favreau’s livelier Jungle Book (2016), at the vanguard of an onslaught of forthcoming live-action Disney remakes. To be fair, there are a few changes and additions that attempt to incorporate a human element (comprised of slim backstories and feeble gestures toward vaguely historical inequalities of class and gender) along with the human bodies that now occupy the film space. On the whole, though, the glib and unreflective translation of Condon’s film from animation to live action demands that we somehow watch the new version as though it is at once the original and a supplement to it: just like the first time, made even better with the accrued interest of time and technology. The attitude demanded here is ardent belief in the possibility of recuperative repetition, not the fetishistic pleasure of its impossibility. As Cinderella’s mother exclaims early in Branagh’s film, “I believe in everything!” Young Cinderella immediately agrees (“I believe in everything, too!”), articulating the film’s ultimate demand. A total willful, even effortful suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy its pleasures. This demand is rendered even more taxing in Beauty and the Beast, in which the denouement is a literal transfiguration from animation to embodiment, as the Beast sloughs off his digitally generated, hirsute bulk to reveal an all-too-human Dan Stevens. (To be fair, this moment does yield the film’s greatest affective payoff: the hilarious fanfic crossover of Hermione Granger and Cousin Matthew gazing at each other with befuddled astonishment.) In its incessant efforts to directly streamline the commercial and cinematic magic of the animated Beauty and the Beast with that of its uncanny live-action doppelgänger, and render Boym’s troubled, doubled image a continuous, single one, Condon’s remake unintentionally renders the experience of the film, to quote Belle (twice over), markedly not “new” but certainly “a bit alarming.”
I arrived at T2 Trainspotting with a furrowed brow and a major case of Disney hangover. The greatest challenge of Beauty and the Beast is its pressing demand that you mustn’t be uncomfortable with its uncanny reenactments, nor should you overthink them. Discomfort and overthinking being my particular specialties, I was not feeling so great. The preview to T2, a long minute and 55 seconds of direct sentimental appeal to fans of the original film, did nothing to quell my anxiety that Boyle’s film might make the same demand. However, T2 offers a take on the filmic revisitation that fully acknowledges both the peculiarly fetishistic quality of the returning viewer’s desire, as well as the inevitable impossibility of its fulfillment. Not only does T2 recognize the disavowal latent in any attempted return (to the past, to old friendships, to a film you loved), it plays out the latter, toeing the line between maudlin longing and grim recognition of nostalgia in its most visceral form. This movie is all about the impossibility of regaining lost time, but in the end, it’s actually strangely optimistic, if not recuperative — which is also perhaps unsurprising, given the first movie’s exuberantly tragicomic attitude.
While technically a sequel, the entire story line of T2 is basically contained in its premise, the return of the prodigal ex-junkie. Though its title gestures incongruously toward the plot-heavy action movie franchise (via Terminator), it would perhaps be better off with a very different, ironic point of reference: heritage cinema. I imagine it instead as Trainspotting Revisited. After all, if the original Trainspotting was a kind of postcolonial anti-heritage film, this follow-up continues to play cynically on the question of Scottish identity, revealing an uneasily globalized Edinburgh in the last days before Brexit. The revisitation is both thematic and formal: Mark Renton returns after 20 years in hiding from his friends in Amsterdam, as Danny Boyle returns to the original Trainspotting itself with a series of brief clips scattered through the film, as well as sections from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel (framed here as Spud’s writing, a self-reflexive riddle of self-authoring). These fleeting visual moments of return are jarring, and are interspersed with other flickering images of a distant past: ’70s-style Super 8 footage of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie as small children. These images of an unreclaimable past flirt with poignancy but ultimately are so ephemeral that they refuse the balm of cathartic indulgence. So too do the string of tempting self-references that Boyle and returning screenwriter John Hodge dangle before the viewer for mere seconds: a record needle drops on the opening note of “Lust for Life.” We catch an unsatisfactory glimpse of Diane. Renton begins a familiar manic laugh over the hood of a car that we don’t actually see. We hold our breath as we hear the familiar, haunting intro of Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but never get to the vocals.
These moments gesture toward the desired pleasure of replication that is Beauty and the Beast’s stock and trade, but Boyle never allows viewers to indulge in it (or at least, not until the very last shot of the film). The one moment of prolonged reference is a revision of Trainspotting’s famous opening monologue. However, this clumsily updated reiteration — a stream of supposedly improvised invective about these terrible millennial times that feels like a rehearsed speech — only reminds us of how hackneyed the formulation has become. Renton himself is aware of this, as his diatribe draws to a bathetic, rather than bombastic conclusion. Where the 1996 monologue ends with a confrontational challenge to convention (“Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that?”) this one ends with a lamely self-deprecating letdown: “We found it amusing then.”
What Boyle’s film recognizes is that all filmic revisitation is fraught with ghostly visitations, flickers of the past that recall Nicholas Royle’s definition of the uncanny as “different (yet strangely the same) every time: its happening is always a kind of un-happening. Its ‘un-’ unsettles time and space, order and sense.” In Boyle’s self-reflexive citations, we feel the jarring out-of-jointness of time that we might more simply call aging. Every ghostly flicker of a familiar, younger face, or a song that used to thrill your younger ears, is a compressed reminder of the unbridgeable gap between now and then. And perhaps it’s this ghostliness — this uncanny experience of disjointed time — that is the true pleasure of the filmic revisitation. It’s undeniable: when you go see a new version of a film you already know, this spectral doubling is inevitable. You’re always sitting next to the ghost of your past self in the theater. So too is the new film always crossing paths with its past self. As I left the theater slowly, to Boyle’s fitting pre-credits footage of a tower block falling and rising up over and over again, I felt, in a tiny, personal way, the disarticulation of time: past from present, now-self from then-self, 1990s from 2010s.
This experience of uncanny re-viewing seems critical by nature. Unlike the falsely recuperative gesture of simplified nostalgia (the illusory belief that we’d be happier if we simply had the same things over again), this recognition of the irreconcilability of different moments is, like true nostalgia, fraught perversely with both pleasure and pain. As we learn from Condon’s conciliatory remake, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to these unsettled, haunting presences. Like Boyle, the only thing to we can do is to engage with these ghosts of viewings past. Instead of pretending they’re not there, acknowledge their presence; recognize that the double exposure of the past and present unsettles, rather than soothes; let the surface burn a little.
Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, where she teaches contemporary fiction and film. She is the editor of Contemporaries at Post45.