Psyched Out

A few weeks ago, Universal announced it would not screen for the press Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), claiming that it wished to follow the release pattern of the original–which had been sprung on a public that didn’t expect the movie’s biggest star (Janet Leigh) to step into the shower in the first half of the picture and not step out. What’s the surprise in Van Sant’s remake? Does Anne Heche, in Leigh’s role, wheel around and stab Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) before he can stab her? Is Mother something more than a miracle of taxidermy? The surprise, as you might have read, is that there’s no surprise. Van Sant really does duplicate the original virtually shot for shot, frame for frame, line for line. He has argued that this act amounts to a radical experiment–a “literal” remake, but one for which the context has been violently altered.

That line wouldn’t work for anyone but Van Sant, whose avant-garde credentials (at least until last year’s Good Will Hunting) are sterling and who might actually believe that this “new” Psycho is akin to a piece of postmodern performance art. I took him at his word, and headed to the theater this afternoon in a state of high excitement, prepared for some Borgesian revelation that would make what was old seem new and wondrously strange.

Like many of my generation, I had watched Hitchcock’s original both for pleasure and as a student of the burgeoning film studies movement in high school and college. I wrote papers about sources of light in Psycho, about its bird imagery, about the treatment of food in Hitchcock’s movies with a special emphasis on Norman Bates’ snacking habits. I wrote about point-of-view–the way it shifts from victim to voyeur, they way Hitchcock forces us to collude with the killer without our even realizing it. I’ve seen the damn thing more than 20 times all the way through and pieces of it scores more times–all of this in spite of the fact that I’ve never much liked it. A masterpiece Psycho might be, but it’s not a masterpiece of psychology or character development. In narrative terms, it’s not even much of a thriller, since Norman Bates mostly sits around his motel office waiting for people to show up and get sliced into ribbons. Psycho is a masterpiece of audience manipulation and of cinema technique – and the fact that those two things have become synonymous is the picture’s true, least savory legacy.

I doubt I’ll be the only writer in the next few days to use the word “taxidermy” to describe what Van Sant has wrought, but sometimes the truest metaphors are also the most obvious. Psycho is colorful feathers over sawdust; it doesn’t reek, but it’s dead all the same. At first, it’s fun to watch Heche say the same lines that Leigh said, although with strikingly blue eyes and short skirts – and with our knowledge that after the day’s shooting she’ll be going home to Ellen DeGeneres instead of Tony Curtis (and likely be better off for it). The period is bewildering, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The men wear hats and strike 50s attitudes – and then in comes Julianne Moore, as Heche’s sister, with an ostentatious Walkman and a feminist chip on her shoulder. Vince Vaughn doesn’t just watch Heche undress through a hole in the wall; below the bottom of the screen, his hand is moving vigorously, and we hear a zipper being tugged up when he has finished.

Sure, Heche is a better actress than Leigh, Viggo Mortenson is less blockish than John Gavin, and Julianne Moore is stunningly vivid where Vera Miles was a cipher. As the detective, Arbogast, William H. Macy brings years of work with Mamet to his character’s unremarkable tug-of-war with Bates, and what was groggy in the original now teems with subterranean wit. But the novelty of watching old and new collide wears off, and there’s nothing much else to replace it. During one scene – Heche’s dinner conversation with Vaughn – I found myself longing to hit the fast-forward button.

What’s missing? The director’s gaze. The interviews with Van Sant that I’ve read haven’t posed the central question: Did Van Sant feel, in reproducing Hitchcock’s compositions, shots, and editing rhythms, that he was getting into the master’s head? My guess is that the answer would be no. They aren’t, after all, much alike. Hitchcock regarded women with desire and guilt for that desire and a compulsion to punish; after Psycho, most of his leading ladies would end up garishly tortured both onscreen and off. Van Sant, a gay man who cultivates a Zen discipline and whose work seems most alive when he’s devising shots on the spot and letting his actors improvise, connects with Hitchcock on only the most superficial levels. We don’t collude with him the way we colluded with Hitchcock – he’s more of a closed book. I leave it to Video Watchdog to devote 15,000 words to the ways in which Van Sant departs from Hitchcock (I noticed some surreal, bizarro inserts in the famous murder montages, a couple of innovations in production design, and more tactile gore in the shower scene); the overall impression is of the director and actors in straitjackets, and of an experiment quietly fizzling.

How’s Vaughn? Absolutely terrible. Where Perkins brought to Norman Bates a Method actor’s authentic sexual confusion, Vaughn brings knowingness–a lot of arch, parodistic mannerisms and the general air of having seen the original Psycho. He’s the only one here who has, though. Maybe the greatest contextual change between Hitchcock’s and Van Sant’s films is that nowadays, Norman Bates and the Bates Motel have entered the language. The only person I’ve seen recently step into a motel shower without even a frisson is Anne Heche.  (Click here to read David Edelstein’s review of Home Fries, A Simple Plan, and Central Sation .)

David Edelstein