There’s a scene in last year’s Traffic in which Michael Douglas’ drug czar asks his staff to come up with suggestions on how to attack the drug problem in America. He asks that they “think outside the box” and come up with suggestions that go against the preconceived assumptions surrounding their task. The answer he receives is resounding, dumbfounded silence. That’s what I imagine it must be like if you were to ask Hollywood studio executives about the poor ticket sales thus far this year. With the lackluster returns we’re seeing on the increasingly cookie-cutter product they’ve been peddling, it would seem as though now more than ever, Hollywood needs to think outside the box.
Yet the future doesn’t show any signs of change in conventional Tinseltown wisdom. Or at least not in ways that make any logical sense. When Harrison Ford made it clear a couple of years ago that he would no longer be portraying author Tom Clancy’s protagonist Jack Ryan on the big screen (as he had in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), it was back to the drawing board for the studio if they wanted to keep the franchise alive. My suggestion would have been to first see if you could pull Alec Baldwinwho portrayed Ryan first in The Hunt for Red Octoberback into the role for the current project, The Sum of All Fears. His career has been desperately in need of a jump-start for years, and personally I always thought he was better as Ryan than Ford. But these days, the top priority for studios is to get a young crowd into the theater, because they’re looking for repeat business and besides, everybody likes their stars young, beautiful, and vacuous these days. Nevermind the fact that Clancy’s source material is geared toward people in their 30s and 40s who have a clear memory of ’80s Cold War-era intrigue. So naturally, they cast Ben Affleck.
Now, the first thing that leaps to mind is the fact that Affleck is 30 years younger than the character in the books and the previous actors that have played the role. Not only that, but Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin come off as, you know, men. Affleck has the aura of, uh, what’s the right word herea candyass. Remember him as O’Bannion, the lamebrained kid who’s all talk and gets held back a year in Dazed and Confused? I think in truth, Affleck is O’Bannion. So how do we reconcile these gaps in character plausibility? Reports on the Internet about the Sum of All Fears screenplay indicate that the version tailored to suit Affleck splits the Jack Ryan character in two, giving the seasoned CIA veteran traits to a new character named Cabot that’ll be played by Morgan Freeman. This individual will serve as the older partner mentoring Affleck’s young version of Ryan. Brilliant! That was what the Jack Ryan movies had been missing all along: a worn out cop-movie cliché.
I’d like to applaud the filmmakers for taking a chance on making major changes to an established franchise. After all, there’s nothing fans love more than when you completely change a well-liked product. I do think they’re on the right track by involving Freeman, though. Here’s a fantastic actor with the proper age and presence to play the part. If they wanted to really reinvigorate the franchise, though, why not cast Freeman as Ryan and leave it at that? Well, because he’s black, of course. But why in the world should that matter? There’s nothing about the Jack Ryan character that necessitates his being white. And if you want to really think outside the box, it’s time we had a black actor given a role of potential mass appeal such as this. Actors like Freeman and Denzel Washington are too often relegated to lesser roles, or forced to make do with lead roles in more mediocre product. The only time Hollywood allows a black actor to take on a leading hero role is when he must play up the fact that he’s black, as in last year’s Shaft. (Coincidentally, Sam Jackson would also make a good Jack Ryan.) It’s time black actors are given the chance to play roles that have no connection to the color of their skin.
Roger Moore implied the same thing during the recent debate about who will be taking over the James Bond role once Pierce Brosnan abdicates the throne. Moore said that he thought it was high time for a black Bond. This will never happen; Sean Connery is still too easily associated with the role for them to ever consider looking for anything more than an imitation. One debated-about name that is interesting, though, is the openly gay Rupert Everett. I doubt that this could happen either, which is a shame since Everett has the kind of suave coolness to pull off the part. However, the contention would be that the audience can’t reconcile the actor’s sexual preference with that of the character. I think that’s a crock. Hollywood doesn’t give its audience enough credit.
There’s an old story that someone asked Howard Hawks how he managed to depict women so realistically in his films. Hawks’ response was that the female characters were written as if they were men, then their names were changed. The point is that for all their differences, men and women are still at their core human beings, and therefore very much the same. I think it’s time Hollywood realized the same thing about other minorities that are still very neglected.
Running for cover
Tori Amos seems to be taking the aforementioned Hawks adage to heart on her new album Strange Little Girls, to be released in September. On it, Amos performs 12 songs written by male songwriters from male points of view, including Eminem’s brutal “97’ Bonnie and Clyde.” She argues that the exercise is meant to examine sexual politics by changing the songs’ meanings through the process of giving them a female voice. Some of these choices are typically eccentric Amos, including The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and especially Slayer’s pummeling thrash-metal classic “Raining Blood.” I can’t wait to hear the operatically trained Amos croon such blood-curdling Jeff Hanneman musings as “Trapped in purgatory / A lifeless object, alive / Awaiting reprisal / Death will be their acquisition.”
Covers aren’t alien territory for Amos. It was really her haunting, meditative cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a ’92 EP that made her famous. What I think is interesting, though, is that this record, containing what are sure to be profoundly radical versions of other artists’ work, is coming out at a time when cover songs are a particularly abused pop trend. Increasingly over the past couple of years, artists have broken big with covers of other acts’ old hits. Limp Bizkit were known for their cover of George Michael’s “Faith” before they had a hit of their own. Last year, Dynamite Hack made a minor sensation of themselves with a Jimmy Buffet version of “Boyz-N-The Hood.” This year, Alien Ant Farm make their mark with their crunch-rock version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” These renderings contribute little to the originals other than recontextualizing them into a different genre with an ironic wink for shits and giggles. Nothing about these later versions seems to show any understanding of the source material beyond the fact that the song has a pop hook better than anything the covering artists could come up with on their own. So here’s my advice to those slack-witted buffoons: Buy Amos’ forthcoming release, or perhaps Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades from last year, which featured smart reinventions of material ranging from Afrika Bambaataa to Bob Dylan. Covers are meant to be reinterpretations that convey some inspiration of your ownnot just lazy theft of someone else’s ingenuity.
“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly.”
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