Play It Again, Sam

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As true fans of Casablanca know, no one in the film ever actually uttered these words.   Rick says “Play it,” and Ilsa says “Play it, Sam,” but it was Woody Allen who put “Play it again, Sam” in our heads. No matter, it is the principle of repetition I’m after here, for this is a blog about a song well sung, or rather, too often sung. That song is the ongoing Hollywood tendency to rehash former programs and films, or remix them. This season’s return of Charlie’s Angels is an example of the former, and the premier of Terre Nova, of the latter. Let's begin with Charlie’s Angels. The show that turned a one-time shampoo model into one of America's favorite sex symbols, the original Charlie’s Angels was a signifier of how the sexual revolution of the 1960s had become mainstreamed for middle America by the 1970s. When the television program was reprised in 2000 as a feature film (Charlie’s Angels), and in 2003 as a feature film sequel (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), that significance had long since vanished. By then it was simply a convenient vehicle for a new generation of sex symbols in a film industry that preferred already tested entertainment formulae to the risk of genuine innovation (though the casting of Lucy Liu did at least signify the maturing of Hollywood's depiction of Asian American women). The current televised rehash of Charlie’s Angels entirely repeats what the films signified: a vehicle for a new generation of actresses, a testimony to the risk-aversiveness of the entertainment industry, and a case of yet another insertion of a nonwhite lead while preserving the status quo racial ratio at two-to-one. In Hollywood as in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new (or at least very little) under the sun. Which takes us to Terra Nova. Essentially a remix of Swiss Family Robinson, Lost In Space, Survivor, and Lost, with a hint of Jurassic Park and probably a dash of Avatar thrown in for good measure, Terra Nova cannot simply be explained as another example of the universal appeal of archetypes. The thing about archetypes is that they appear in stories as a reflection of a kind of cultural unconscious (this is explicit in Jung’s version of archetypal theory but is also implicit in Northrop Frye’s more literary archetypalism), not as a calculated remix of audience-tested entertainment formulae. But, of course Lost (to take just one of Terra Nova’s sources) was itself a remix of Swiss Family Robinson, The X-Files, Survivor, and, in an odd example of farce repeating itself as tragedy, Gilligan’s Island. Now, one could reasonably argue that all this repetition is really a sophisticated expression of postmodern aesthetics: the creed that in a media-saturated world the artist can only repeat, with a difference, already existing cultural images and motifs. But I just don’t see that ineffable, but recognizable, air of parody or pastiche in these reruns of preexisting entertainments, that indescribable aura of postmodern chic. When Tim Burton sent Batman up a dark tower in pursuit of the Joker, plenty of other evidence from the movie made it clear that the allusion to the finish of Hitchcock’s Vertigo was not only deliberate but in the full postmodern spirit, but the television premiers of the new Charlie’s Angels and Terra Nova, not to mention Pan Am and The Playboy Club (obvious channelings of the success of the period drama Mad Men), just don’t send that signal. To me the message is that once again Accounting is in charge of Creative, and repetition signifies profit sensitive risk aversion. So, play it again, Sam: In Hollywood as in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new (or at least very little) under the sun.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.