730 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 I'm sitting in a movie theater
with my wife, waiting for Gus Van Sant's highly anticipated remake of
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Van Sant has shocked pundits and
cinephiles worldwide with the announcement that his Psycho will be a
virtual shot-for-shot and line-for-line copy of the classic. So, to get
into the spirit of things, this will be a moment-by-moment review.
738 p.m. There are some noticeable differences right
off the bat. In the opening scene between Marion Crane and her boyfriend in
the seedy hotel, Van Sant has added sex noises. The update from
black-and-white to color is distracting, especially since Van Sant has
dressed the room and the actors in vivid pastels. Most odd are the
performances of Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen, whose naturalistic acting
styles are way too flat for Joseph Stefano's punchy dialogue.
7:57 p.m. Bernard Herr-mann's score over the rainy highway shots
are still tense as hell. When the Bates Motel appears, and Heche pulls in,
my wife leans over and whispers, "Apparently, she's never seen
7:59 p.m. Vince Vaughn appears as Norman Bates and is instantly
likable. He's aping Anthony Perkins, but with flashes of rage and confusion
that are more modern. It's a good interpretation of the role--smooth, but
not as slickly charming as Perkins.
8:05 p.m. They eat. Was it always this creepy for a strange man
to be alone with a frail-looking woman, or is that just the times? Heche
has improved her acting to match Vaughn, who has the anxious manner of a
teenager waiting for his parents to go out so he can masturbate.
8:15 p.m. Mister Bates masturbates.
8:18 p.m. Shower time--aaaaah! This is where shot-by-shot is
really noticeable, since we all know this sequence by heart. Van Sant adds
shots of storm clouds gathering. He also shows Heche's bare ass, at an
angle that is downright crude. The blood is very red and almost
overwhelms the intensity of the scene.
8:32 p.m. Enter Julianne Moore! And William H. Macy! And
8:35 p.m. Macy investigates. He has the perfect acting style for
old-timey dialogue. The color is faded, like stock footage. Shouldn't Macy
be in black-and-white?
8:47 p.m. The second on-screen murder. Van Sant inserts shots of
a cow in the road and what looks to be a naked woman. To be honest, the
scene is grisly, and I'm watching through laced fingers.
8:50 p.m. Moore, as Lila Crane, says, "Let me get my Walkman."
This is one of the few self-conscious updates to the dialogue. One thing
about the shot-by-shot discipline--it precludes the smirkiness of
contemporary remakes, which always try to be above their material.
9:02 p.m. Maybe it's because I know what's going to happen at the
end, or the absence of the original's stark B&W cinematography, but these
closing scenes strike me as dry and perfunctory.
9:04 p.m. Lila investigating the Bates house is still creepy,
though, maybe more than ever. It's a house frozen in time--'50s dresses,
the toys and fetishes of adolescence. And the motel seems even more
dilapidated in this era of affordable luxury hotels.
9:06 p.m. Don't go in the cellar!
9:17 p.m. The final credit--"In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock."
9:40 p.m. Home and thinking. Hitchcock once said, "Actors are
like cattle," which may be the theory that Van Sant is trying to prove by
sticking new cows in an established mise-en-scène. There are times when
this new Psycho seems curiously lifeless, like a snapshot of a
Georges Seurat painting. You can't interact with it much; the movie has
already been boxed into one line-of-sight. But mostly Van Sant's film works
because the original worked, and even if his attempts to make his title
character crazier don't quite pan out, Vaughn at least proves as
fascinating as Perkins.
Bottom line? Won't supplant Hitchcock, but should be viewed side-by-side
by film students for years. Not a travesty, as some had suspected. Quote
The best way to criticize a movie, Jean-Luc Godard once said, is
to make a movie. Bankrolled by major-studio suckers to the tune of $20
million, Gus Van Sant's Psycho must be the most expensive movie
review ever made. Watching the director of Drugstore Cowboy and
My Own Private Idaho wrestle with Hitchcock's technically precise
blueprint is like watching someone try to build a working computer out of
twigs. And yet it's the imperfections that illuminate Van Sant's methods as
clearly as they define Hitchcock's.
The big question is, why? There's already a very effective
scene-for-scene Psycho parody/homage Brian De Palma's Dressed
to Kill. (It kills off its biggest star in the first half, includes not
one but two shower scenes, and lampoons that terrible closing
gabfest with the psychiatrist.) Plus Van Sant's own style is nothing like
Hitchcock's He's at once a more humane and less technically proficient
filmmaker than the Master of Suspense.
So the motivations come down either to tribute, criticism, or cold, hard
cash. Since a stunt like this represents at best a lateral career move, my
guess is some combination of the first two. Psycho is revered as the
pinnacle of movie craft at its most blatantly commercial. A cold,
disreputable, brilliantly manipulative box-office smash, it was gradually
embraced by highbrow critics as a macabre personal vision. Van Sant, an
indie auteur who has carved a career of late as a mainstream journeyman,
may have taken the assignment to draw a distinction between the kind of
movies he wants to make--idiosyncratic films with broad appeal--and the
formula genre pieces and, yes, remakes that Hollywood cranks out by the
The result isn't Psycho, exactly: It's more like a dissertation
on Psycho. One big difference, of course, is that Hitchcock's film
took place in a world without Psycho. But from the minute Anne
Heche's Marion Crane pulls into the creepy, deserted Bates Motel parking
lot, we're incredulous. That's even before Vince Vaughn turns up as
Norman, looking like Junior Brown on steroids and mumbling about taxidermy
and his deranged mother.
Van Sant has to contend not only with the original, he also has to deal
with the body of criticism spawned by the original--the decades of
theoretical writing that have picked apart Hitchcock's mise-en-scène for
clues to the director's method. Take the bird angle. Critics have labored
over the movie's bird symbology, which goes something like this: Norman
stuffs and mounts birds--British slang for babes, let's not forget--and
adds one Marion Crane to his collection, with all the nasty sexual
undertones words like "stuff" and "mount" connote.
Good student of film that he is, Van Sant's as aware of this as anybody.
So he goes bird-crazy, filling the sets with avian prints and the
soundtrack with caws and chirps. Thus you get the goofy spectacle of a
director using impersonal skill to recreate Hitchcock's oddest personal
quirks. Elsewhere, Van Sant renders explicit what was implicit in
Hitchcock--say, that Marion and her boyfriend Sam are conducting a tawdry
affair, or that Norman's spying on Marion in the shower is sexually
At the same time, Van Sant's few obtrusive choices call attention to
what's most questionable, or least admirable, in the source material. In
the shower scene, Van Sant dutifully reshoots the grisly building blocks
that make up the montage: knife, body, thrust, stab. In the midst of the
frenzy, though, he cuts away to storm clouds overhead. Are these Norman's
thoughts? A weather update? Either way, it breaks up the rhythm and
intimacy of the sequence. But we'd do well to wonder: What's so great about
a technically ingenious way to show a naked woman being butchered with a
kitchen knife? When Van Sant makes similar near-subliminal cuts (no pun
intended) with Arbogast on the staircase, he again disrupts--what?
Hitchcock's mastery of film technique, or his single-minded fascination
You're saying: Forget that crap--just tell me if it's worth seeing.
Well, uh, yes and no. William H. Macy's rakish Arbogast is great fun; the
Saul Bass titles rock; Bernard Herrmann's peerless score is even more
unnerving in Dolby Digital. But the plot twists and shocks that were the
original's hallmark have been copied so thoroughly over the years that
there'd be little surprise left anyway--one reason Psycho hasn't
aged as well as some of Hitchcock's less showy films (Marnie, for
For movie nuts who love the endless algorithms and recombinations of
cinematic possibility, though, this Psycho is pretty damn
fascinating. After he has recreated Hitchcock's last image, of Marion's car
being dragged from a lake, Van Sant rewards himself with a shot of the lake
and the countryside at rest, and he holds it for a good long breath after
the final credit: "In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock." It's Gus Van Sant's
acknowledgment that he couldn't beat the Master at his game, and he's
already moved on to bigger stakes. Too bad we'll never see what Hitchcock
could've made of Good Will Hunting.