Recognizing the past calls for reinvention

A QUICK ADMISSION: I’VE ALWAYS had trouble with “homages.”

It’s wonderful when a young artist is inspired by the work of an elder, whether he be painter, filmmaker or musician — wonderful, that is, unless he decides to replicate it.

This was brought to mind last week by back-to-back homages. First, I sat through the network re-creation of “Fail Safe.” Next, I infiltrated a cast-and-crew screening of Ridley Scott’s hundred million-dollar-plus epic, “Gladiator.” Never has the homage syndrome been reflected in such contrasting ways.

First, some back story: In my previous life as a studio executive, much of my time was spent listening to filmmakers pitch their projects. Though this process could prove numbing, it was often exhilarating to hear young filmmakers spin stories of their dream movies. Until, that is, the word “homage” was dropped.

“Homage,” of course, is a French word (they use two “m’s”) meaning respect and testimony, as in one artist venerating the work of another. Almost every young filmmaker has his role model. Cameron Crowe, who directed “Jerry Maguire,” even wrote a book with his “mentor,” called “Conversations With Wilder” — Billy, of course. It sat on best-seller lists for weeks.

Following his early success with films like “The Last Picture Show,” Peter Bogdanovich fought valiantly with studios to finance a movie to be directed by his role model, Orson Welles, by then a corpulent has-been. No one bit.

While it’s one thing to identify a mentor, it’s quite another to directly replicate his work. This syndrome was most blatantly in evidence in the case of 1998’s misbegotten “Psycho.”

Gus Van Sant, who had done some fine work of his own, decided not simply to make a movie in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he venerated, but to virtually Xerox it shot-by-shot.

The result was downright weird. Audiences didn’t go for it. The film grossed $21.4 million in the U.S.

“Psycho” kept flashing through my mind as I sat through “Fail Safe” the other night.

Here was a classic faux pas in the homage syndrome. In countless interviews, George Clooney, an executive producer on the project, said that “Fail Safe” had had a profound impact on him as a young man, though it was never clear whether he was speaking about the 1962 novel by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick, or the 1964 movie, directed by Sidney Lumet.

In any case, he managed to persuade CBS to replicate the original with almost “Psycho”-like faithfulness. The audience was thus presented with a ’60s style black-and-white TV movie, the first live drama in 39 years.

As a museum piece, “Fail Safe” was fascinating. As drama, it was beyond creaky, with one wooden character after another explaining himself to the camera, lines burdened with anachronistic Cold War rhetoric. Not surprisingly, the cast member who emerged unscathed was Clooney himself, playing a pilot all but concealed beneath helmet and oxygen mask.

Surely there are hidden treasures locked away in the closet of Golden Age Live TV. Clooney’s homage was not one of them.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO “Gladiator.” Many young filmmakers were mesmerized by the swashbuckling costume epics of the “Spartacus”-“Quo Vadis” era but, happily, no one in recent times has made a serious attempt to emulate them. Suddenly along comes that mercurial Brit, Ridley Scott, whose career has ricocheted from the artful (“Thelma and Louise”) to the appalling (“White Squall”).

Backed by gutsy DreamWorks, Scott decided not to replicate the genre but rather — hold your breath — to improve on it. His intent was to mobilize today’s technology to re-invent the costume epic.

His effort was an expensive one: DreamWorks brought in Universal and other financial partners once the budget hurtled toward the $100 million mark. DreamWorks’ ace creative team headed by Walter Parkes also helped the oft-distracted filmmaker craft a surprisingly thoughtful, well-structured screenplay — also unusual for costume epics.

I’m not going to pre-review the movie here, which opens May 5, but suffice it to say that few “homages” will ever top this one. With this exercise in brilliant filmmaking, Scott reminds us all of one over-riding lesson: If you’re going to venture into the homage business, better to create than replicate.

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