Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Psycho.

criterion logoFew films have been as maligned and misunderstood as Gus Van Sant’s near shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, however Van Sant’s retelling is a bold effort to restore Psycho to its filmic roots and a brash statement on authorship, Hollywood entertainment, and the changing nature of cinema.  It is an unlikeliest of movies – a $60-million dollar, studio-funded, nationally-released, avant-garde film.  Gathering around him an impressive cast and crew including Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Robert Forster, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, title designer Pablo Ferro, original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, and composers Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek, and Wayne Horvitz, Van Sant takes on one of cinema’s great masterpieces and offers an unsettling opportunity to see Psycho for the first time once again.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration approved by director Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary with Van Sant and actors Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn
  • New interviews with Van Sant, and actors Heche, Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortenson, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, and Robert Forster
  • Psycho Paths, a 30-minute documentary on the making of Van Sant’s Psycho
  • Psycho Shampoo, Van Sant’s 1979 parody commercial appropriating Psycho‘s famous shower scene
  • Punk Rock Psycho, a new interview with Van Sant and Mortenson on their considered follow-up remake of Psycho relocated to a punk rock setting
  • Psychos, Steven Soderbergh’s feature-length mash-up of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho and Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho, with introduction by Soderbergh
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by film scholars Stephen Jay Schneider, Donato Totaro, and Mark Carpenter

… and with this post, the last of MMC!’s credibility was lost forever.

Well, that’s the concern at least, particularly given that this post is not a joke, a troll, or a stunt.  Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is a truly beloved film in these parts, a fascinating, confrontational, and quixotic piece of filmmaking for which we are perpetually thankful, even though its critics call it an abject failure and its defenders are left cautioning that it’s not as bad as you think.  It’s a tough nut to crack considering our forthcoming assertion that descriptions of Psycho ’98 as good or bad have little utility in unpacking its value.  The primary cause of the film’s disfavour seems to be a failure in judging it by a standard appropriate to the film’s true nature.  Psycho ’98 is a near shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s original 1960 film.  (We won’t summarize the film’s plot here – if you haven’t seen Psycho or don’t know what it’s about, you’re probably on the wrong blog.  Go watch the Hitchcock version right now.)  While most critics were quick to call Van Sant’s version “an experiment,” few considered it an “experimental film,” with most suggesting that its existence served to answer the facile question of whether a shot-for-shot remake of a classic film would result in a similarly classic remake.  Does anyone really think that Gus Van Sant (and his impressive cast and crew) undertook this crazy project merely to confirm that the art of film works so mechanically?  Shouldn’t the same critics who demanded more of these acclaimed artists have granted them in first instance better questions to interrogate and better ambitions to achieve?  If, as Tina Hassannia asserts, the “simplistic knee-jerk reaction from most critics proved a disappointing intellectual ceiling in film criticism,” it perhaps deserves acknowledging that Psycho ’98 is not exactly garbed in the dress of an avant-garde work of cinema, being a $60-million dollar, major studio-funded, December release shown in malls and multiplexes across the country, with a cast of bankable Hollywood stars and an ad campaign promoting low-cultural thrills for the music video generation.  (Van Sant laments the film’s ad campaign in his DVD commentary, but the film promised in the trailer would have been an interesting exercise as well.)  In truth, Psycho ’98 has far more in common with films like 24 Hour Psycho (Douglas Gordon, 1993), Phoenix Tapes (Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 1999), and Double Take (Johan Grimonprez, 2009).  In fact, had Van Sant’s Psycho retained the original’s premise and approach but cost only $60-thousand dollars, been independently funded, performed by nonprofessionals, and screened in museums and art galleries, expectations and reception of the work would surely have been different.  Psycho ’98 is slowly unburdening itself from the prejudice of its initial reception and shaking off the arbitrary standards foisted upon it.  As far as ostensibly faithful remakes of canonical Hollywood classics made with the full compliment of studio resources go, Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) is a much more likely choice for a Criterion Collection edition (and it deserves it as well), but the Collection has a role in shaping tastes as well as representing them and some controversy can be a good thing.  We won’t say that Psycho ’98 is right or wrong, good or bad; but rather suggest it is thought-provoking, ambitious, and theoretically dense.  Below, we won’t so much defend Van Sant’s film as we will suggests ways of accessing it and approaches to find alternative, more suitable, methods for receiving it.

The question repeatedly asked of Psycho ’98 is “Why?” and perhaps Van Sant’s biggest fault is his inability to answer this question in a satisfactory, popularly-appealing manner.  His responses are coyly incomplete, often poorly articulated, and sometimes blatantly contradictory.  Reading his interviews and listening to him on the DVD’s commentary and in the making-of featurette, it should be realized that Van Sant’s answers ought not be taken literally, that one is required to read between the lines of his responses, and that his motivations are manifold, preventing any single, resolving answer to Psycho ’98’s existence.  The response Van Sant is most frequently taken to task over is his asserted desire to introduce Hitchcock and Psycho to a generation of film fans unfamiliar with the Master of Suspense and openly opposed to watching older, black and white cinema.  In doing so, Van Sant opened himself up to the majority of film critics who decried the film’s conspicuous aesthetic and textural deviations and alleged failures in achieving the thrills and chills of the original.  What most critics fail to recognize is that they are in no position to judge Van Sant’s efforts because they are familiar with Hitchcock and his version of Psycho and outside the audience purportedly targeted by the film.  Van Sant maintains that his experience watching the film with a typical audience of young people seemed remarkably similar to how first time viewers in 1960 likely reacted (although Vaughn noted more laughs than he initially expected).  Still, we might interpret Van Sant’s intentions somewhat differently.  By largely retaining the basic structure of the original (the script, the set-ups, the shots, their edited arrangement), he preserves some kind of fundamental core or substructure of the 1960 version, but then makes it contemporary with colour (neon-bright pastels), cast (major Hollywood actors), music (a new arrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s score recorded in stereo under the direction of Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek), and more graphic violence (blood! BLOOD!).  By these radical changes, Van Sant launches Psycho into the present day and into a style of film far closer to contemporary horror/thrillers that the original now signifies.  Psycho ’98 therefore restores Hitchcock’s classic from of the hallowed ground of cinema masterpieces back to its rough, lurid, uneasy roots that it originated from, all while maintaining its essential framework.  As James MacDowell suggests, it can be argued that “by giving Psycho back to its original audience” of mainstream Hollywood moviegoers, Van Sant questions the “aura” of Psycho as a work of art and attempts to promote Walter Benjamin’s desire for the exhibition value of art to surpass the mystical, ritualized power usually ascribed to single artworks.  (We should note that MacDowell supports this view only where Van Sant’s Psycho most closely resembles Hitchcock’s original, but these are questions of degree and, for us, Psycho ’98 still inspires such complex relationships with the spectator, the original, and the remake even where it more radically departs from Hitchcock’s approach.)

Psycho ’98 can also be considered as Van Sant’s statement on the perceived trend of Hollywood increasingly relying on remakes of earlier cinematic works.  Van Sant states in Psycho Paths that the idea for remaking Psycho arose from being pitched various remake projects by studios.  The volume of these proposals caused Van Sant to imagine what a remake with an enhanced degree of formal fidelity would look like and Van Sant annually pitched this shot-for-shot concept for remaking Psycho back to the studio, only to be roundly shot down until Good Will Hunting (1997) made so much money that it finally relented.  Psycho ’98 can therefore be considered as something of a monstrous vision of Hollywood’s desire to leverage past successes into future profits.  (Van Sant actually comments in Psycho Paths that the film increasingly operated by the logic of a nightmare as shooting proceeded.)  Van Sant creates something truly uncanny from Hitchcock’s film – something familiar, yet unsettling and dissonant; something alive in the present, yet dead and outdated.  In fact, Psycho ’98 is an assault on nostalgia in various different forms, from the retro-costuming of Beatrix Aruna Pasztor to Christopher Doyle’s neon-pastel lighting (remarkably Lynchian in its appearance) to Van Sant’s disregard for cinema’s sacred cows.  Altogether, Psycho ’98 mocks both high and low culture, thumbs its nose at artistic idealism, and rejects crass commercialism.  The film refuses to serve any of these masters, denying the notion of any film positioning itself as some kind of platonic ideal for others to emulate and embracing the model of theatre, where differing productions act in convivial relation to one another.  Psycho ’98 anticipates the mediascape that followed, where cheap editing software and YouTube circulation democratized filmmaking, where remix and mash-ups became legitimate art forms, and where Bates Motel became a popular and critically embraced television prequel able to coexist without desecrating the good name of Alfred Hitchcock or Psycho.

Psycho ’98 can also be considered as a continuation of Van Sant’s work in New Queer Cinema, queering a straight film (with some non-heteronormative subtext).  Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker who has dealt with queer subject matter openly, is noted by film scholars like Janet Staiger and Stephen Jay Schneider as inverting many of Psycho‘s pairings by casting then-lesbian Anne Heche as Marion Crane and ladies’ man Vince Vaughn as the gender-confused Norman Bates (previously played by homosexual actor Anthony Perkins), by allowing Julianne Moore to play Lila Crane as a “butch lesbian,” and by reversing the quotient of onscreen skin by having it supplied by Viggo Mortensen instead of Janet Leigh.  Schneider suggests that Van Sant discloses through these reversals an objective to reveal “what was (and could only have been) hinted at in the original film,” one that is particularly masculine in attention yet resistant to the typically Hitchcockian, female-objectifying gaze.

Yet, despite Van Sant’s complicating many of Psycho‘s sexual and gender binaries, his overall premise is one that is joyously Hitchcock-like.  Despite how revered cinephiles and film scholars are about his work, Hitchcock was far from precious about the medium.  Before casting off Van Sant’s version as a useless exercise, consideration should be given to the frequency by which Hitchcock regularly took on arbitrary challenges to explore the parameters of cinematic creation.  He approached 3-dimensional cinematography with Dial M for Murder (1954), long takes in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), limited-settings with Lifeboat (1944) and Rear Window (1954), and even remade himself with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Even Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter and a player in the original film, endorsed Van Sant’s project as one Hitchcock would have admired and taken on himself.  Much in the same way that Psycho ’98 returns the original film back to its low cultural roots, Van Sant, through this wild and risky enterprise, also alludes to Hitchcock’s role as a provocative, experimental film artist, rather than the exulted old master of a bygone era of filmmaking.  In fact, Van Sant’s Psycho ’98 contains deviations from the original that execute shots that follow through on original intentions for the film that were unachievable by Hitchcock at the time, including the opening shot above Phoenix that moves into Marion’s hotel room interlude and the uninterrupted transition from Marion’s dead body to the newspaper-wrapped money on the nightstand to the motel-room view of the Bates house.  We should keep in mind that Psycho ’98 is conceptually far closer to the spirit of Hitchcock’s work than most critics would care to acknowledge.

Finally, Psycho ’98 fascinates for what Alex Clayton calls “the texture of performance.”  Within the framework of Psycho‘s script, its shot compositions, and its edited arrangement, Van Sant is able to achieve startlingly different results through significant changes in casting, performance, costume, music, and a complete shift to colour from black and white.  It’s like paint by numbers, where the artist has thrown away the colour key and then filled the selected areas at their own discretion.  As Clayton notes, Psycho ’98 demonstrates the significances of these components (normally considered secondary to choices in angle, perspective, and editing) in the context of a director typically associated with meticulous control over formal construction and notable disregard for the needs and contributions of actors.  The textural differences between the two versions of Psycho also demonstrates two significantly different approaches in filmmaking.  While Hitchcock was not entirely unconcerned with the contributions of his cast (he developed the film with Anthony Perkins in mind and worked closely with Janet Leigh in developing her character), Van Sant encouraged his cast to develop for themselves the motivations and back-stories necessary for them to comfortably perform their roles and make choices about their characterizations that were not beholden to the actors in the original.  Listening to Van Sant, Heche, and Vaughn in their DVD commentary, one is struck at how they discuss the film in terms of choices and ones that are neither better or worse than the original, but merely different and able to stand alongside the original film without judgement.  For them, these are different films, able to be read in relation to one another, but products of different times, places, contexts and aims thereby allowing Psycho ’98 to hold its own validity.  With this in mind, we must disagree with scholars like Clayton and William Rothman who engage in close readings of the two films and find Van Sant’s version wanting for the depth of detail and meaning achieved by Hitchcock.  The problem with these analyses is that they presume the authority of the original film, noting deviations or omissions in the subsequent version without taking the time to consider Psycho ’98 as a whole and with its own patterns, symbols, and behaviours organized within it.  Only in Van Sant’s most obvious authorial touches do most critics afford him any credit, as in the surreal images Van Sant’s inserts into the two murder scene which Mark Carpenter calls “rips in the fabric of the original film” registering “as assertions of authorship.”  Psycho ’98 needs its own close-reading unshackled by the terms of its predecessor and able to find its own organizations and arrangements.  It is only by mapping the textural terrain of Van Sant’s film on its own terms that it can develop its own value and, in turn, be properly read in comparison with Hitchcock’s 1960 original.

Psycho ’98 may not be a perfect movie, but that hasn’t stopped quite a few other titles from achieving a Criterion spine number.  For us, Van Sant’s version has its merits.  We like Anne Heche’s daffy mischievousness for motivating Marion’s crime in a way Leigh was never able to convey to us.  Vaughn has a decidedly different energy than Perkins and his overly earnest eagerness to please in the first half of the film works for us.  Robert Forster’s Dr. Richman is a massive improvement on the original’s self-satisfied lecturing.  Yet, above all else, we enjoy, as Philip Baker Hall says, “watching two films at once.”  Psycho ’98 lets us see Psycho for the first time, all over again, through precisely the same dissonances and distanciations that so many critics can’t abide by.  There will probably never be another Psycho ’98.  No studio is likely to ever commit such resources to so hare-brained, so madly brilliant, so avant-garde a film as Psycho ’98.  Cinematographer Christopher Doyle stated:

Psycho is a conceptual artwork.  It asks: “What is a masterpiece?”  “Should we take the idea of a masterpiece so seriously?” … All this stuff about the purity of the masterpiece going down the drain: that’s what Gus is addressing … He took $20 million from these Hollywood assholes and make his PhD in fine arts.

Psycho 98 PosterThat’s all true, but Van Sant has yet to be granted a passing mark for his thesis.  It’s time for Psycho ’98 to appeal its grade to a department capable of appreciating it.  A Criterion edition of the film would go a long way to redefining the film and the standard to which it is held.  Besides, a little controversy has never been a bad thing when trying to drum up sales.

We really like this poster for Psycho ’98, as it merges the iconic shower image with contemporary levels of gore and violence.  If any amendment were made to it for a Criterion cover treatment, we would suggest taking it into full pop art mode by dramatically shifting it’s colour scheme into the film’s neon-pastel palette.  How about replacing the black with a bright, mint green; the red blood and lettering with silver; and the white background and Heche’s body with varying shades of pastel pink?  That would certainly turn some heads and recalibrate viewer expectations toward something more appropriate.

Credits:  We’ve approached this edition of Psycho ’98 by separating the production and the analysis between the disc and booklet respectively.  The commentary and the Psycho Paths featurette are holdovers from the Universal DVD.  The Psycho Shampoo commercial is featured in Psycho Paths, but we thought it could stand on its own as well.  New interviews would be invaluable given the distance of the participants to the project.  Reconsiderations by cast and crew on the intentions of the project, its execution, and the popular criticism against both them and the project would offer real insight on the film and would probably go a long way to a reassessment of Psycho ’98.  Van Sant has said he would not take on such a project again, although he did state he would reconsider remaking Psycho once again with Viggo Mortenson, this time set in a punk rock context.  The pair apparently even had some casting in mind.  Seeing the pair discuss this uncompleted project would be a treat and shed some light on the experience of Psycho ’98 itself.

With regard to the booklet, it was extremely difficult finding critics who would provide an unqualified endorsement of Van Sant’s Psycho.  We chose Stephen Jay Schneider for his “A Tale of Two Psychos (Prelude to a Future Reassessment)” which provides an excellent queer approach to the film, Donato Totaro for his Psycho Redux: Appropriating Hitch” which offers an intriguing comparison that values Van Sant’s version for elaborating on Hitchcock’s theme of horror in the everyday, and Mark Carpenter for his “Rip in the Curtain: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho which considers the distancing effects of many of Van Sant’s textural changes.  We also need to acknowledge the valuable work in Alex Clayton’s “The Texture of Performance in Psycho and its Remake,” Vern’s “Gus Van Sant’s Psycho Just Turned 15 — and is More Fascinating than You Remember,” Alex Maidy’s “The UnPopular Opinion: Psycho,” Tina Hassannia’s “Re-make/Re-model: Psycho (1960) vs. Psycho (1998),” and James MacDowell’s “What Value is there in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho: Reappropriating Psycho.

Perhaps the real gem in the package is the inclusion of Steven Soderbergh’s Psychos, a feature-length mash-up of Hitchcock and Van Sant’s versions uploaded to Soderbergh’s Extension 765 website earlier this year.  Soderbergh uses the two films to literalize the dualities that root Psycho and alternates between them to show the veneer of normalcy (Hitchcock’s version) and the madness and compulsions that hide beneath (Van Sant’s version).  Many of Van Sant’s strongest dissonances are muted by Soderbergh’s conversion of Psycho ’98 to black and white, except in the most fascinating sections of Psychos.  Where normal life and secret desires conflict in violent murder, Soderbergh superimposes the two films and allows Psycho ’98’s colour to comb through with chilling effect.  Soderbergh picks up the pace during the long, slow third-quarter of Psycho and rounds out the film with the original’s psychiatrist (unfortunately).  Some suggest that Soderbergh’s mash-up accomplishes what Van Sant’s version could not, but we feel both have different merits.  Even if Van Sant’s version isn’t you’re cup of tea, its existence is essential for Soderbergh’s mash-up and that’s something at least.  Soderbergh has been silent on his project and so his comments on the films and his reimagining would cover entirely new ground and add another perspective and layer to a Criterion edition of Psycho ’98, one from a frequent friend of the Collection and a strong proponent of artistic risk-taking and cinematic invention.

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