Gus van Sant's Psycho (1998) is showing October 5 – November 4, 2019 on MUBI in several countries as part of the double feature Original Vs. Remake.
It’s a recognizable scene, almost comforting in its familiarity, like a recrudescent dream: A woman, pale and lissome, hair cropped short, stands beneath the stream of a motel shower. There is nothing to indicate trouble, no portents of doom, but we know what’s going to happen, it is ineluctable, and this knowledge lends the scene an air of menace. We await the inevitable. Through the corrugated plastic curtain we now see the bathroom door open, slowly, silently. A figure emerges, galvanized from shadow, arm raised and face obfuscated; the figure pulls back the curtain—it’s a woman, with long blond hair, an anachronistic dress from the 1950s, a kitchen knife clutched in her fingers—and, after a brief dramatic pause, long enough for a scream to escape from the bathing woman’s mouth, the intruder begins to slash, long downward strokes, into the back, the torso, a vermillion stream spiraling around the drain as Bernard Herrmann's score, all stabbing strings, shrieks. The killer leaves and the bathing woman, as phlegmatic as a somnambulist, reaches out, clutches the plastic curtains, collapses and lies slumped over, her face against the floor, eyes open and vacant.
It’s one of cinema’s indelible moments, a scene carved into the cranium of popular consciousness, but it’s not quite how you remember it: there is, of course, the colors, the once-black blood now a bright, crisp red, but, more jarringly, there are brief shots of a maelstrom in the sky, of dark swirling clouds conspiring. It’s a seemingly arbitrary addition to an otherwise accurate imitation, but this surreal interjection is part of the unsung genius of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The original shower scene, which has been vivisected and analyzed as much as any other in the history of American cinema, takes up just 45 seconds of Hitchcock’s film, and comprises 78 camera setups and 52 cuts. It took a week to film (one third of the film’s total shooting schedule), and 26 takes just to get the spinning shot of Janet Leigh’s eye right. The scene was an obsession for Hitch, who worked assiduously and feverishly to get everything perfect—and to not run afoul of censors. The scene’s greatness is pretty much uncontested. Why remake it? Why alter it? It can’t be improved upon. Van Sant undoubtedly knows that he can’t make the scene better, and that any alteration will feel unnecessary. By splicing in surreal shots of a tumultuous sky, by adding superfluous footage to an already excited succession of short images, lacerating in their precision and brevity, Van Sant shows us through contrast what makes Hitchcock’s scene, and his film, so effective. The extra shots are distracting, taking away from the corporeality of the murder, and the added gore doesn’t make the scene any scarier; the restraint of the original imbues the act with a kind of civility that belies the savagery, its meticulous construction antipodal to the crime of passion it depicts. “It is not merely in its incomparable physical impact that makes the shower bath murder probably the most horrific incident in any fiction film,” Robin Wood writes in his book Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. “The meaninglessness of it (from Marion’s point of view) completely undermines our recently restored sense of security. The murder is as irrational and as useless as the theft of the money.” In a sense, Van Sant’s remake is also irrational and useless, and each arbitrary deviation undermines the viewer’s sense of security because it alters a film that has become so deeply embedded in the pop-culture consciousness.
Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is often called a “shot-for-shot” remake, though this isn’t really accurate. There are deviations. Hitchcock’s seminal slasher is, in a sense, a film about fetishizing the past—about being beholden to it. Norman Bates is a man haunted by his childhood, and by his desperate, disturbing actions which he tries to forget, tries to undo, by impersonating his mother, bringing her back from the dead. He’s rewriting history. Van Sant’s remake is also about being beholden to the past, and about trying to change. Van Sant’s film brings to mind what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “aura of the work of art.” Reproduction, Benjamin espoused, diminishes this aura, bastardizes it, turns a unique work into a meager plurality. By reproducing a film, Van Sant is emphasizing the original film’s aura, playing with its “cult of remembrance.” Most of Van Sant’s changes are extraneous, implications becoming explications: the gaping wounds on Anne Heche’s back trickling blood; the slick, wet sound of Norman jerking off behind the peep hole; the three gashes on William H. Macy’s face as he stumbles backwards down the stairs. Some of these additions feel desperate, an attempt to make the film feel edgier, modern. But some are not so negligible. Van Sant’s film is slightly quicker (the remake reaches the infamous psychologist explanation thirteen minutes faster than Hitchcock’s), though the shower scene actually takes longer, using almost twice as many cuts, with far more shots of the knife. Hitchcock’s Psycho ends with a shot of a car being exhumed from a murky lake; Van Sant’s Psycho also ends with a car being towed from a lake, but the camera continues to pull back and ascend, like a soul heavenward, so that the murmur of the assemblage of police fades and gives way to a serene quietude and the focus of the shot becomes the mountains and the trees and the sky, across which wisps of clouds are strewn. It is the one beauteous moment in an ugly film. Van Sant’s film and its relationship to Hitchcock’s brings to mind Derrida’s idea of différance. The meaning of each shot, each emulation, is defined by its synchrony with Hitchcock’s original shots and its diachrony with the history and evolution of cinematic language. If one were to watch the remake of Psycho with no context, no notion of the film it’s aping, would Gus Van Sant’s film seem better? Would it seem worse? It’s impossible to watch it and not compare it to the original—it’s meant to be compared to the original—and this sense of familiarity and inevitability are why each alteration feels distracting.
In one episode of Friends, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is trying to get over Ross (David Schwimmer), but ends up briefly dating a guy named Russ (also Schwimmer), who’s an ersatz Ross, just as monotone and drolly woebegone, a dour doppelgänger. Eventually, Rachel dumps Russ when she realizes that she’s just seeking solace in someone who resembles the man she really wants. I couldn't help but think of this when watching Van Sant’s Psycho.
On Marc Maron’s podcast, Van Sant expounded on why he made Psycho:
“When I did Drugstore Cowboy, I was all of a sudden meeting with the heads of studios because they knew that actors would work with me, therefore if they got me on their movie they could get the actor that they wanted. So it was less about me than it was about the actors. During one of the meetings, Casey Silver at Universal brought in all of his vice presidents, and one guy was head of the library, and he said, ‘In the library we have old films that you could remake, we have scripts that haven’t been made yet that you could make,’ and it just reminded me of that thing that they wanted to do, which is remake something. And I said, ‘What you guys haven’t done is try to take a hit and remake it exactly. Rather than remake it and put a new spin on it, just remake it for real,’ because I’d never seen that done yet as an experiment. The whole thing seemed experimental to me anyway, so I thought why not, and they laughed, they thought it was silly, ridiculous, absurd, and they left—they said, ‘We won’t be doing that.’”
Gus Van Sant is a good filmmaker, sometimes a great one, yet his films are inconsistent, his style always in flux, as if the filmmaker is a lifelong student still learning and trying new things. Consider the difference between his intimate early films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho and his Belá Tarr-inspired films of the early 2000s, Elephant, Last Days and Gerry, with their long, prowling SteadiCam shots. Consider the Oscar-winning hits Good Will Hunting (still his most successful film) and Milk, and how little they resemble the bizarre The Sea of Trees. Van Sant was an ideal candidate to remake Hitchcock’s film because—and this is not a criticism—he has no unique aesthetic of his own. He’s constantly learning, experimenting, changing.
The hamartia of Van Sant’s film, and also its most fascinating quality, is its Norman Bates, played with ersatz eeriness by Vince Vaughn. In Hitchcock’s film, Bates is pathetic, pitiable. He is the product of a tortuous, toxic maternal relationship, a mom-made monster. Here Bates is more irksome than unnerving, a vexatious creep instead of a tragedy, and his every utterance feels calculated rather than sincere, his tics and twitches measured. There is an innocence and an awkwardness to Perkins, an unfeigned sense that he is not comfortable in his own skin. (The actor was in the closet at the time, though his sexual orientation was not a well-kept secret in Hollywood; Orson Welles would also use Perkins’s trepidatious stutter and maundering to excellent effect in The Trial.) Vaughn is all theatrics, whereas Perkins seems to be simply existing. “For the film,” Benjamin says, “what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else.” Vaughn is playing Perkins, representing a performance, and a performer, from 38 years earlier.
“We all go a little mad sometimes,” Norman says. “Haven't you?”
“Yes,” Marion responds. “Sometimes just one time can be enough.”