Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Psycho Squared

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the 1960 version

Anne Heche in the remake

Psycho squared

(Plot of both films discussed in close detail)

I was involved in a kind of performance piece titled Psycho Squared, where my identical twin brother Joel and I sat down and dissected the original and Van Sant's remake as they played on a pair of video screens. I thought the results were rather illuminating, even if maybe the gimmick with us twins were a bit much.

Some of our observations:

-- The remake may be a mostly shot-by-shot copy, but the length of the scenes varied, sometimes considerably. There were times we had to pause the original to let the remake catch up, times we had to pause the remake. You notice Van Sant unconsciously (or consciously) trying to vary the pacing of different scenes, as if to avoid a studiously faithful copy of the original.

--Mort Mills' patrol officer was a far more anonymous, insectlike, ultimately frightening authority figure than James Remar's (who, after all, is a known character actor doing a cameo).

-- Chris Doyle perfectly captures the grimy airlessness of American motel rooms, using what looks to be dim available light. It's an admirable achievement, but it only points up Hitchcock's tendency to brightly light his sets, particularly the motel bathroom where every tiled and porcelained surface was spotlessly clean. I thought Hitchcock's look worked better because it looked so artificial--he presents a sanitized world against which the least droplet of blood stands out all the clearer. You expect bloodstains in Van Sant's motel rooms; in Hitchcock's they're a shocking affront.

-- The crucial talk between Norman and Marion goes by far more swiftly in Van Sant's than Hitchcock's--as if Van Sant, though aware how important the scene is, knows we've already run through it again and again, and wants to get it over with. A mistake, we both thought.

Anne Heche holds her own against memories of Janet Leigh in the scene; Vaughn is already creepy, which we thought was a mistake. In the original, Norman was a seemingly nice shy guy Marion could talk to; when she suggests he puts his mother in a mental home, the sudden vehemence of his answer is startling, and not a little frightening.

--Joel thought Vince Vaughn's Norman's masturbating to Marion Crane undressing was a big mistake--sexual release suggests a release of tension, a partial satisfaction of desire; it's one less motivation to do what he eventually does. Of course in a sense he didn't do it...

--Overall Perkins captures Norman's vulnerability far more successfully, while Vaughn emphasizes his infantile freakishness. After all is said and done, we preferred Perkins' approach--he holds our sympathy, even when things go from bad to worse, which is the true source of Psycho's horror, I thought.

--On the other hand, we thought Vaughn's vamping William Macy's Arbogast was a hilarious success: tall sweatered young man (the sweater bulks Vaughn up, but also makes him teddy-bear fuzzy) pressing close to dilapidated milquetoast, who doesn't like it one bit but has to smile (Macy giving us his trademark beleaguered grin), nevertheless.

--Simon Oakland as the psychiatrist delivers what has been famously called Hitchcock's worse-ever scene, the explanation for Norman's psychosis. What's interesting is that Hitchcock and Oakland handle the scene better than Van Sant and Robert Forster do, despite the fact that Van Sant should have known better (in other words, it's possible to make a 'bad' scene worse). Oakland treats it like a pitch, delivering dry facts that we already know with all the energy and gusto of a used car salesman, in a pace calculated to keep us from falling asleep. Forster mulls over every word and syllable as if it was his only chance to make an impression in the picture (which in fact it was, and he does--a poor one). Forster makes the scene an acting moment, and we're bored and annoyed accordingly.

Worst scene or no, we did think that the scene had an important function: it gave us the conventional wisdom, the pat answers, the supposedly final solution; it comforted us with the impression that everything has been resolved and explicated and accounted for. Then we meet Bates one more time.

--Van Sant's ending credit image is, frankly, brilliant. He pulls up, and we see everyone busy around the car, getting into their automobiles. It has the finality of the end of a performance where the cast and crow packs up and prepares to leave; the camera, lingering, suggests an observer insisting on staying on, hoping for that final final explanation that would account for Norman's haunting smile. He doesn't get it.

That final shot also looks forward to the searching, gliding shots that characterize Van Sant's succeeding pictures: Gerry, and Elephant. Van Sant has said goodbye to Hitchcock (even if, after doing an entire remake of Hitch's most famous picture and all, he still doesn't have all the answers) and is moving on to something else, to some other style...

Joel mentions the Oulipo Society and their bizarrely handicapped literary exercises (writing an entire novel without using the letter 'e' for example, or writing an entire novel using only the letter 'e'), and he wonders if perhaps Van Sant was after something similar, an interpretation of the same 'text,' as if we were watching a performance of Henry V by Olivier and another by Gielgud. He doesn't think Van Sant pulls it off, though; the remake, a decent effort on its own, begs comparison with the original, and comes off looking worse.

I thought what Van Sant accomplishes is even more interesting: like Borges' fictional writer in his short story "Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote" (Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote)" Van Sant attempts a shot-by-shot recreation that, by virtue of our having simply seen the original, becomes a richer work. How serious Van Sant is about this one can only speculate; for all we know, the whole affair is a warning against such post-modernist exercises, in which case Van Sant is wittier than detractors at the time could ever imagine and his statement, that this Psycho was made for those who refuse to see black-and-white films, is maybe the funniest cinematic joke ever cracked this side of Dogme 95's "Vow of Chastity."

Whatever. Seems to me the people behind the remake missed out most by not doing what my evil twin brother and I did: play their film on a screen side-by-side with the original, accompanied by ironic commentary.

Yours truly...

And his evil twin brother.
This post was part of the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon which includes the following blogs:

Lucas over at 100 Films includes Psycho as one of them.
Emma at All About My Movies confirms Hitch is THE master.
Sean's Bitter Cinema unveils Hitchcock the Huckster!
Dan comments on Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, AND Hitch's use of music at Cinemathematics!
At Critic After Dark you'l find a side by side comparission in Psycho Squared, as commented on by Noel and his Evil Twin Brother.
I was hoping someone would cover Gus Van Sant's Psycho! Thanks Culture Snob!
Edward Copeland on film asks What If George Bailey Had Vertigo?
The Film Exprience Blog hosted by Nathaniel R. includes his commentary on Rope.
Jeff at Filmscreed covers Blackmail and Rear Window, plus a couple of marquee pieces too!
Over at Filmyear, Thom has some choice tidbit quotes from the master Of Suspense himself
Flickhead graces us with wonderful images from France.
Forward To Yesterday features Bob's piece on Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage.
Greenbriar Picture Show has John's commentary on the great To Catch a Thief.
If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger has Richard's his piece on Saboteur and Shadow Of A Doubt.
Vincent visite The Trouble with Harry chez son site, Inisfree.
JA over at My New Plaid Pants discusses his favorite character from his favorite Hitchcock.
The Sheila Variations explores one of her all time favorites - Notorious.
Over at Stale Popcorn, Kamikaze Camel takes an in-depth look at The 39 Steps.
That Little Round-Headed Boy talks about Grace Kelly, Hitch's favorite leading lady.
Truly, We Numble, And Then has Adam discussing why Alfred Hitchcock is his favorite director.
Windmills Of My Mind has Damian gracing us with his own unique Hitchcock story.

Now scroll past the slate for late entries and new submissions

Chris over at Category D discusses Hitchcock as he relates to Film Studies.
Nigredo explores Psycho over at What's He Filming In There? And an interesting take it is.


Anonymous said...

I think this might be my favorite blogathon post yet. I wish I could have caught that show....

Actually, I've never seen the Van Sant "Psycho", I think because I was so dissapointed with the concept. At first, all I'd heard was that he was using Joseph Stefano's original screenplay and I thought it was great idea. Just once, I'd like to a director take on a classic film screenplay and not rewrite it, but interpret it on his own as if he had been handed a new script. I was sort of crushed when I learned it was going to be a shot-by-shot remake.

Noel Vera said...

Yeah, but anyone can do a completely different film based on the same script. How many people have the balls to do a shot-by-shot remake, and of a film whose shots almost everyone has memorized?

I think it's a lousy remake, but an excellent experiment, just as Gerry, or Elephant were experiments. Failure or success doesn't quite get into it; or rather, if people don't perceive it as either a failure or a success, then you've failed...

Actually, there IS a way to do a remake; do the novel. There are some differences between Bloch's book and Stefano's script--Norman, for one, was overweight and a transvestite.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the kind words, by the way...

Toto said...

Hey Noel.
That was an awesome comparison!
I have always admired Hitchcock's films. My first completed script which I wrote for my Screenwriting class was a film noir which my professors and classmates called "very Hitchcockian."
My September 26 post was my modest tribute to him.

Brian Darr said...

Noel, I think I'm with you, in that I suspect Van Sant is consciously choosing to remake a film that occupies a position of near-ubiquity in public consciousness, and expects his audience to watch this film less as a "new experience" than as a re-interpretive one. He's encouraging a way of watching a film very different from either a) seeing a new film for the first time or b) revisiting an old favorite, and in a way was inviting the kind of uncomfortable viewer response that provoked all the harsh reviews.

I very much like your analysis of the end credits shot, which after all these years still remains fixed in my mind.

I wonder if you or your brother came up with anything about the split-second inserts that Van Sant added?

Noel Vera said...

Is this Brian Dauth? If it's you I figure you'd enjoy my--Borges--ideas about interpreting original texts.

No, we pretty much left the quick cuts out. They give the scenes a nice note of ominousness, particularly the shot of the grey skies in the shower scene (if I remember correctly).

That particular insert I liked; felt like, I don't know, Van Sant giving us a quick gilmpse into his view of what the world is really like. Dark clouds, running across a grey sky.

Brian Darr said...

No, not Brian Dauth, but Brian Darr. We've had occassional exchanges at girish's pad, but I'm glad to be able to finally comment on your own site.

Noel Vera said...

I wanted to take my words back when I clicked on your blog: San Francisco, not New York. Green with envy: that's a lovelier town, I think.

Drop by anytime!

Noel Vera said...

Toto, sorry for the late reply (I could have sworn I answered): I especially liked the screenshots of all of Hitch's cameos on your website.

That screenplay sounds interesting.

Brian: I just remembered Macy's murder had an insert of an animal. Well, in his case you did see one of the knife slashes--I'm guessing Van Sant, after going brooding and mysterious, went the other direction with this one, more immediate and material so to speak.

what did you think of those insert shots?

Anonymous said...

Noel --

I get your point about doing it shot-by-shot. I think I might have even gotten it when I first read that that was what Van Sant was doing -- but it struck me as a very expensive stunt that only we film geeks would have a chance of getting. I don't like to prejudge, but I thought it sounded kind of wasteful -- though now you've made me actually want to see it.

Now, allow me to remount my hobby horse! It's true that "anyone can do a completely different film based on the same script" -- but hardly anyone has. In fact, I can't think of one remake of a non-play based film that hasn't been significantly rewritten.

The closest thing to an exception are films based on Shakespeare and other extremely revered authors -- which is my hobby-horse point. One reason screenwriters don't get the same kind of respect playwrights do is that, since the work almost never gets performed more than once, whoever directs it the first and only time seals the deal for time immemorial.

(Can you tell I'm a frustrated screenwriter yet?)

Noel Vera said...

"it struck me as a very expensive stunt that only we film geeks would have a chance of getting."

And that's exactly what got me fascinated, actually.

On a screenplay done twice, I suppose you're right--play adaptations would include The Front Page, with wildly differing adaptations; the endless productions of Shakespeare; The Caine Mutiny; and, oh, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But an original screenplays, done twice? No, can't think of any offhand.

Actually, Psycho's not exactly an original screenplay--but then Van Sant doesn't take off from the novel, he takes off from Stefano's screenplay.

I've written one screenplay, myself--Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, Tikoy Aguiluz, 1997) of which only ten percent or so survives, so I know what you mean.

Brian Darr said...

I do feel lucky to have been born here, and more importanly to continue to have a home here.

Re: the insert shots. I found them extremely striking and memorable. Having been exposed mainly to Hollywood and indiewood films at that point in my moviegoing career, I don't think I'd seen anything like them.

There was a part of me that was a bit disappointed that Van Sant hadn't actually made a literal shot-for-shot remake as I'd been expecting though. It had been one of my most-anticipated films of 1998.

As for non-significantly rewritten remakes, I think the closest examples I can think of right now are actually certain silent films later remade as talkies. They add dialogue, which I guess is significant enough, but they often hew almost completely to the original plot and scene schematic.

Anyone seen the Spanish-language Draclua? How does that "remake" compare to the Tod Browning-directed version?

Noel Vera said...

A home. Jeez, that practically costs an arm and a leg, from what I hear.

Flash inserts that have nothing to do with the other shots? I can't think of where I've seen em before, but I'm sure I have. Well, there's a lot of insert shots in Mario O'Hara's Demons, made in 2000, but that's different, I think. Experimental films? Bunuel? Godard, maybe?

The Spanish Dracula is a good example, I didn't thin of that; I think the Vampire blogathon has an article on that one (no I haven't seen it). Another example might be the European Gaslight, which I hear is better.

Of course, there's the question of language (does it count if the script is in another language, or in subtitles?). Which brings to mind something a Pythoner once said, of The Holy Grail if I remember right--it had been tranlsated to a different language, then that translation subtitled in English. I remember seeing a clip, and finding it hilarious. But does that constitute a remake of some kind, and if it does, what kind of remake is it?

Brian Darr said...

Oh, when I say "a home" I do not mean it so literally. Just that I feel "at home" and welcome in this city and, for at least a little while longer, secure in the place where I live.

I had not seen any Godard or much Bunuel (probably only Un Chien Endalou) in 1998. I still haven't seen any O'Hara films; Demons has been on my wish list for several years.

On second thought, isn't Browning's Dracula based on a play anyway?

Noel Vera said...

Come to think of it, yeah, Dracula was a play. So that's another strike against it, original screenplaywise.

Demons is available on VCD, and should be playable on DVD. Unfortunately, it has no subtitles; strictly for Fil Am use only. I don't know if you can get a Filipino friend to benshi for you...

Other O'Haras are available on DVD, even Netflix; check out the link on my blog page.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Noel --

Hey, at least you actually had a screenplay produced -- even if you went through the usual screenwriter-hell with the "additional dialogue" credit and all. You got a lot futher than most (and way, way further than me!)

Now, if you only could get a fun/trashy sex/violence film with a cult director made somehow, you could quickly lay claim to the title of "Ebert of the Phillipines" status....

Noel Vera said...

To claim to be an Ebert, I need to disclose in great detail the plot of every film I review, give some cutesy label (three stars, four pitchforks, a thumb up or down) and be utterly clueless about the background of some of the films i review.

No thanks. I'll go for the trashy screenplay, but I'd rather be called something else. "You bastard!" sounds better, actually.

Anonymous said...

Ooof! You bastard!

Well, okay. That's us critic types for you -- critical of each other. Ebert's my favorite newspaper type reviewer by far (I'd see your point if all we had was the TV version; even when I think he's completely missing the point, he's a wonderful writer)..but just don't grow a mustache so I can leave the Gene Shalit comparisons alone. That would be help none of us.

Noel Vera said...

I'm sorry, I just don't see it; all I see Ebert do is give good plot summaries, with that silly little star system tagged at the end of it. Maybe I'm missing something, but not from lack of reading--I've read his newspaper articles, his Answer Man column, and his Great Movies.

Farber, Warshow, Agee, Bazin, Rosenbaum, now those are writers.

To be fair, Ebert's a competent editor; I liked this book of writings he collected once--don't remember the title, except it had something by Tolstoy in it.

Noel Vera said...

Actually, when I think about it, I much prefer Ebert's TV time with Siskel than anything he wrote on paper (have not seen him with Roeper). They were snoozeville when they both liked or disliked something, but when they disagreed it was the funniest sitcom ever this side of The Odd Couple. Or did I mean Golden Girls?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the arguments were kind of funny (and good for ratings).

And this is the part where I admit you have me in the movie critic erudition department. Of the writers you mentioned, the only I'm sure I read was Bazin, and that was right after college and probably just because I noticed we shared the same birthday.

(Slinks off to write critic blogathon post and get Agee and Farber books from the library.)

Noel Vera said...

Bazin's rep seems pretty high, but Farber inspires mixed reactions--you hate him or love him. Agee's rep seems to be getting lukewarm, but screw that--I love the way he expresses himself.

I might as well throw in Graham Greene; David Ehrenstein considers his review of the pedophilic quality of Shirley Temple's appeal to be the greatest piece of film criticism ever (I wouldn't go that far, but I do love reading him). And I remember Salman Rushdie's wonderful piece on The Wizard of Oz, or Lucien Shepard's wonderful piece on The Time Machine remake.

Anonymous said...

Fairly big Graham Greene fan, but that was the first of his film crirticism I ever read. Wow.

Noel Vera said...

Greene seems so underrated now; all everyone talks about is Evelyn Waugh and Amis father and son. Catholic converts like Greene and Anthony Burgess have fallen by the wayside. But I liked their uneasy Catholicism; I like their stance as outsiders looking in through the cathedral windows.