Friday, August 5, 2011

Psycho (1998)

Psycho (Gus Van Sant — after Alfred Hitchcock, 1998) What is good about Gus Van Sant's color version of the original can be laid at the feet of that film's creator, Alfred Hitchcock: the relentless pace, the choreography of the camera (matched by Van Sant and his cinematographer—the great Christopher Doyle), the various set-pieces that alternately tease and deepen the mystery manipulating the audience's needs and tensions "like an orchestra," and that the film maker breaks the director-audience "trust" by the film's mid-point.  Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann's No. 1 fan, lovingly recreates his score in stereo. And modern film techniques allow Van Sant to make that opening pan across Phoenix, Arizona (2:48 pm), seamlessly locate the apartment where Marion Crane (Anne Heche) and Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) play out their melancholy nooner and then crawl (with no cuts) through the window.


Van Sant's semi-scrupulous recreation (right) of Hitchcock's original shot-plan (left).

Everything that's wrong with Psycho '98 can be blamed on Van Sant: the kitschy color schemes, the bizarre inserts (see below) and the casting. Vince Vaughn had his hands full having to follow in Anthony Perkins' sashaying foot-steps as Norman Bates, so kudos to him for even showing up on-set, although he's lousy. What's surprising is how poorly Anne Heche and Julianne Moore step in for Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, even though both seem to be working harder. And it's that way down the line, including—startlingly, Viggo Mortenson's poor standing next to John Gavin (??!) and Robert Forster's shrink monologue next to...Simon Oakland? Where there is parity (or is it parody, it's hard to say how much Van Sant is taking this seriously...did Hitchcock?) is William H. Macy's Detective Arbogast compared to Martin Balsam's original, and Philip Baker Hall for John McIntire.

So, why even do it? Van Sant, in his commentary, cites several reasons: today's generation of movie-goers don't know from Psycho...or Hitchcock, making this a sort of a remedial version—Hitchcock for Dummies; some movie-goers don't like black and white films, hence the move to color; changes in movie technology allow the sorts of things that Hitchcock wanted to achieve technically with Psycho but could not (and the ratings system allows for a post-censor version—lines cut by Hitchcock are re-inserted, and there is a bit more blood-and-gore); and, the most compelling reason for Van Sant—nobody'd ever done it before—at least as scrupulously.  He basically follows Hitchcock's story-boards (and carried a portable DVD player with the film for reference while shooting on-set), so it is mostly a matter of interpretation, which is not that radical a concept.  After all, how many different interpretations of "Hamlet" have there been?  And as Hollywood seems to be running out of ideas (or continues its policy of playing it safe) we've seen remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings of Planet of the Apes, True Grit, Solaris, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, any book by Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, and we've seen movie versions of teleplays, such as Traffic, State of Play, Edge of Darkness, and we'll see one of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy in December.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  NoThe Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before when John Huston made his classic version in 1941.  It is interesting that Van Sant not only remade Psycho, but also made it in Hitchcock's style using his shooting plan, acknowledging that the movie and the man who made it are inseparable.

What's different?  Van Sant follows Hitchcock's ideas pretty well...but does a sort of skewed version of them in terms of color, angle and performance. Some scenes have a more modern spin on then—for example, Lila and Sam wait for word from Arbogast (Martin Balsam in Hitchcock's version, William Macy in Van Sant's) at Sam's business, a hardware store in the 1960 version, but a flea-market in 1998, notice Sam reading the liner notes on a Judy Garland record.

In 1960, while investigating the Bates house, Lila finds children's books in Norman's room, but in 1998, it's porn.

And Mrs. Bates is found sitting in the dull basement, but in 1998, she's seen sitting in front of a diorama with live birds.

The biggest difference has a more feminist slant: rather than sitting back and watching the final fight, 1998's Lila takes part kicking her assailant.

But, Van Sant's entirely new additions are, frankly, unnecessary.  Sure, the first shot of the fly might have suggestions of bringing things full-circle, but the other shots—quick cut-aways (no pun intended—??) during the murders are merely distractions taking us out of "the moment" of the victims' deaths, and seem pretty frivolous.  Hitchcock does establish a "mind's eye" kind of cinema with his "voices in my head" sound overlays, and his "see that I look"/"see what I look at"/"see my reaction to it" style of silent story-telling might allow it, but it seems superfluous, and more than that, confusing, especially when we're having a shocking thing happening on-screen.

During the opening scene in the hotel room, an image of a fly on a half-eaten sandwich is inserted, paralleling the lucky fly who won't be killed in the prison cell at the end of the film.
During the first murder, a shot of a dilating pupil (presumably in the victim's eye) and a quickly moving storm-scape which presumably was witnessed previously.  
The second murder victim's flash-frames are (given that person's profession) a sleazy vice scene...
...As well as a stray cow in the middle of a road (A memory?  A potential victim?)

As well as a quick, obfuscating shot of the murderer approaching.

So...the Van Sant version of Psycho is an interesting experiment, Hitchock through the sensibilities of Van Sant, respectful but different.  Does it do harm to the original? 

Well, no.  Interesting story: the pulp novelist James M. Cain was told once by a person "too bad what Hollywood has done to your books," and Cain took them into his library and pointed to his own novels. "Hollywood hasn't done anything to my books. They're right there on the shelf." 

The original—Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho—will always be there.

Cameo's: Hitchcock on the left (1960) and a portly Hitchcock stand-in points at Gus Van Sant (1998).

The final card of Van Sant's Psycho—taking us beyond Hitchcock's raising of a car from the bog for a bit of perspective: all that horror has gone on just off the highway.  The distant traffic sails by, indifferent and unsuspecting of what lies out of their attention.  There's an element of that in all of Van Sant's movies—horror and secret lives occur just out of sight of normalcy.

*  In-joke (there are lots) here: The sign on The Bates Motel says "newly renovated" (a cutting remark)


Walaka said...

One of your best, I think.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Wow. High praise, indeed. Thanks.

This one has been in the "fruit cellar" for a few months, actually.