Remake by Connie Willis

Most of the rest of Connie Willis’ writing would lead a reader to expect that Remake, her tale of Hollywood endlessly recycling classic movies and classic actors through digital magic, would be a screwball comedy that packed an emotional wallop. But no, this is as close to dystopia as Willis gets. As the back cover says, “moviemaking’s been computerized and live-action films are a thing of the past. It’s a Hollywood where Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe are starring together in A Star is Born, and if you don’t like the ending, you can change it with the stroke of a key.”

People in their legions still want to be in the movies, are still willing to do practically anything to be seen on screen, except that no one is hiring warmbodies anymore. Remake, reuse, recycle have been taken to their logical extremes, and nothing in the new Hollywood is being made that hasn’t been made before, starring and featuring people long dead but still bankable on opening weekend. Studio mergers have been taken nearly to their extreme, with most of the novel’s action concerning people affiliated with ILMGM. It’s not yet one big studio, but constant rumors of further mergers imply that even more recognizable names will soon be mashed together like Viamount. Studio intrigue has everyone simultaneously angling for a promotion and fearful of being left on the cutting room floor. Willis also take copyright litigiousness close to its limit, with suits being filed practically instantly, ruling coming in days or hours, and some films and images being out of litigation for mere moments before disappearing again from view while lawyers wrangle not so much about the merits but about their interests.

The dystopia of Remake is not so much physical destruction as it is personal degradation. Everyone is trying to score something, addictive substances, sex, a non-existent role in a movie, a place higher up the corporate ladder. It’s all very transactional, and at first it seems that no one cares. “I’ve never understood,” says Willis’ first-person narrator Tom, “why the faces, who have nothing to sell but an original personality, an original face, all try to look like somebody else. But I guess it makes sense. Why should they be different from everybody else in Hollywood, which has always been love with sequels and imitations and remakes?” (p. 8)

The women are all trying to be Marilyn Monroe, and indeed Tom refers to most of them as Marilyns. The exceptions are Hedda, a tough-dame reporter who knows everything and who is something of a friend to Tom, and Alis, a fresh face in from the provinces who does not look like a Marilyn and who wants, more than anything else in this world, to dance in the movies. Even though she knows the movie musical died, after a long period of poor artistic and financial health, in the 1960s.

There it is. There’s that screwball comedy trying to get out again. Because against all odds, despite the drugs and the transactional sex and the skullduggery and the soulless productions, people in this story still love the movies. They can quote the great ones; they have watched hundreds, know dozens by heart; they have felt the movie magic, want to see it again, want to make it happen.

The future technology that Willis handwaves about implies that time travel might be possible. Tom, in the throes of either too much of one substance or not enough of another, believes that he has seen Alis in an old movie, dancing her heart out for the camera. And he can’t find her in the present day.

What is going on? That’s the next scene, and it’s an original. Not a remake.

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