The Culture of Reincarnation

Comebacks, Sequels, Remakes...the movie business thrives on deja vu.

I've just watched the Bugle Boy ad for the 113th time, the one in the desert, with the English girl and the black, smoked-glass car. I can't get enough of it; I'm really into deja vu. Not that I'm buying the jeans; not that I could afford the car or the girl. But I watch TV for that ad: it's like a song I can't get out of my head, or like a taste for salt; it's every film noir in 30 seconds; and I'm sure it says something about me. I'm in its cycle and the mystery hasn't eased yet. I just want it to keep coming back.

Everything comes back now: we're torn between addiction and eternal youth, conflicting versions of "play it again." Gone With the Wind is come again; Lawrence of Arabia is back, still formed by the flex of flashback. Young flesh comes back year after year. It has different names--Molly, Ally, Demi, Kristie, lone. And the names are so odd and quick they seem to know their time is short. The faces will change, but the medium needs its new skin.

Isn't Brando making films again? What will Al Pacino look like in his new offering? Can Noriega hang on? Will George Foreman be champion once more? Is it really true that Ronald Reagan is coming back to the silver screen, and that Garbo is going to play his mother? That's what I heard--they said Roman Polanski was coming back to direct it, and that Cary Grant was going to play a ghost who--Yes, Cary Grant. I know, I know, he wasn't going to come back while he was alive. But now that he's dead its so much easier. All they do, you see, is feed every existing moving image of Mr. Grant into this new computer--that's the database--and then they just program in new plots and new lines. It's amazingly life-like. You'll never know the difference. And apparently the copyright situation isn't as tricky as you might expect. Death is so close to public domain, and if we have the technology...They could put Cary in the Bugle Boy ad, out there in the desert, waiting to be astonished.

Where would we be without the comeback? One might as well ask if the Christian religion could have gone into business without the bonus prize of the resurrection of souls. Talk about your big finish--it's so big it's a new beginning! Look at it this way: that old, unforgiving line of destiny has now been whipped into a cute circle where everything keeps coming around again; and when Mrs. Bates's corpse grins in the swinging lamplight, O say can you see the coming smile of some earlier Shirley MacLaine?

There's something very much of the century in this--forgive me, I still want to call it the twentieth. You see, I was brought up on a very different adage. My father told it to me every year. He's still here; he's still saying it--"They never come back," he said, and I believed him, I wasn't smart enough to wonder at the truth of it when wiseacres were ready to hammer it home again, year after year, just as regular as the new Lassie picture or the next Roy Rogers, that "they" didn't come back.

My father was talking boxing, in an age when it was still just possible to regard that as a sport, instead of show business. He wanted to believe that boxing depended on once-and-only strength and readiness; that, just like great drama, when Hamlet was dead, he was gone. I remember the moment when the myth broke: it was 1951, and Randolph Turpin had just beaten Sugar Ray Robinson. That was it, my father told me. Sugar Ray had had to yield to soft living, a pink Cadillac and the implacable requirements of progress. Goodbye, Sugar. A few months later, Robinson beat Turpin and regained the middleweight championship of the world. Comebacks were in, and there would be Archie Moore, Ali, Nixon, Duran, Reagan and Sugar Ray Leonard to prove it.

It's not just a cheap shot at humor, relating the comeback to our religious yearnings. No, it's a way of indicating that the movies--that sea upon which the comeback is forever sailing--have always had profound kinship with spiritual renewal, and some innate aversion to the conventions of drama.

Let me spell that out. The movie business has thrived on repetition; after all, that is the rhythm of successful industrial manufacture. If the public likes something, show it to them again. The story goes that in Paris, in December 1895, when the Lumiere brothers put on the first moving picture performance, audiences came out of one screening and lined up to see the program again. Those pioneer suckers wanted to know if they could believe what they had seen. But they also needed further witness.

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