Practice Makes Imperfect
Michael Koresky on Psycho

At the close of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, the car housing the rotting, slashed corpse of Marion Crane is pulled out of the deep, filthy lake in which it had been submerged. The film’s end credits begin to scroll, and the camera pulls back as the car emerges and spills out onto the muddy grass. Cops, swamping the crime scene, begin to investigate the suspicious vehicle and continue to amble about the area, a spot which, it is inferred, is tucked away somewhere behind the Bates Motel. The camera continues to rise, pulling up and away until it reveals the morning sky and the rising mountains surrounding the small pool of water. The sounds of the policemen grow distant, and suddenly, seemingly for the first time, we’re focused not on sensational death but on hills, sunlight, the aural and visual pleasures of the southwest. The credits end, followed by a single-line memoriam to Alfred Hitchcock, yet the image remains. Five long seconds pass, and we’re forced to contemplate—not simply the beauteous setting, or even that the preceding tale of gory murder seems to have been swallowed up by the forgiving hums of nature, but that we’re seeing something, anything, that wasn’t shown in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Most of the Friday-night audience I saw Gus Van Sant’s Psycho with, in late 1998, stayed riveted to their seats throughout this final shot. The reason for this was that we all remembered that Hitchcock’s Psycho ends with a rather abrupt fade-out prompted by the ominous images of the car’s recovery: as it’s yanked by chain-winch from the depths of the water, the camera doesn’t pull back, and Hitchcock definitively tells us that, although the investigation into Marion’s murder (the catalyst for the entire narrative) may just be starting, this story is over. Van Sant’s version, widely publicized as a “shot-for-shot remake” though it’s something less and more than this, ends on the same note as called for by the script, with the same literal event, yet now the camera surmises the scene differently. And this simple act of camera movement and shot attenuation is so antithetical to the clipped, almost newsreel-like dramatization of the original film’s ending (and entire aesthetic, in fact), that we the audience couldn’t help but wait and see what, if anything, it would reveal. Waiting for that something, that deviation from the original, had been a game we played throughout the film, and now this was the exit, no way back, and Van Sant had us on the edges of our seats as we looked at nothing more than an empty landscape.

Heady auteur provocation and studio blockbuster hopeful, Van Sant’s Psycho managed to engage, and often enrage, almost anyone even passingly interested in the art of film. The idea for the project—to recreate one of the great works by one the world’s most acclaimed and beloved directors with the same script, camera set-ups, and editing cues—was audacious to the point of ludicrous, and of course, in the minds of cinephiles, blasphemous. That the film originated as a Universal Studios hot property chosen by Van Sant from a list offered to him after the success of best picture nominee Good Will Hunting didn’t fill anyone with reassurance; with remakes in vogue, and Universal trying to recover from a string of flops, this Psycho seemed more like a work of opportunism than artistic daring, less postmodern appropriation than something plundered by a studio that thought it had a financial sure-thing on its hands. Of course, the iconicity of Psycho is what allowed it to fit both molds. Yet never had so much money been put toward such a conceit, and certainly that played into its critical and popular rejection: in contrast, the recent Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a labor of love, shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s classic, filmed over the course of seven years by Mississippi teenagers, played this year at the heavily avant-garde screening house Anthology Film Archives, sanctioned by critics as a work of impoverished found art. Unburdened by the weight of money, Raiders: The Adaptation is considered a charming remnant of DIY ingenuity; Van Sant’s redo, given a sizeable budget by hopeful execs, couldn’t crawl out of the shadow of its own origins.

The critical reasoning behind evaluating the 1998 Psycho was whether it was “worth watching” or not, the implication being that if Van Sant had nothing new to show us, then why resurrect Hitchcock’s proto-slasher masterpiece. Of course Van Sant shows us something new—in every single shot. And our experiences of each of those elements, of color, sound design, performance, are exponentially heightened. Certainly the easiest line of thought was that this is a “failed” experiment—yet wasn’t it designed to fail from the start? Watching Psycho is a remarkably rigorous activity for the spectator: Van Sant actively engages your attention and film-history knowledge from first image (post credits, a smooth helicopter-shot single take through a Phoenix city skyline and into a hotel room window impossible to achieve in 1960) to last (that mountain-rimmed lake expanse, gloriously pregnant with nothing). In this sense, by design Van Sant’s experiment couldn’t have truly failed for any of its critics, all understandably aghast at its existence—scanning the boundaries of every one of its frames for minute alterations in composition, construction, and performance, each viewer of Psycho found either something or nothing, but they were looking.

Yet to simply regard Van Sant’s film as something akin to a multiplex incarnation of Douglas Gordon’s recent, acclaimed installation piece “24 Hour Psycho,” in which Hitchcock’s original film was so greatly slowed down that a single, continuous viewing would take twenty-four hours to unspool, would be to deny the important differences in reception and industry. Undoubtedly, Universal simply needed to keep alive the Psycho franchise—there had been two Anthony Perkins-starring sequels already made in the 1980s—and Van Sant, reeling from his first megahit, wanted to keep his own momentum going. Van Sant even stated at the time, though certainly his words had to be adjusted for industry speak, that he wanted new generations to experience Psycho. Of course, Van Sant must have known this was patently ridiculous, as it would be literally impossible to recreate the experience—not simply because of the juicy oranges and blood reds, or the radically different interpretations from an entirely new cast, but because with Psycho Hitchcock had, nearly 40 years earlier, both instigated an entirely new genre (one whose rhythms and expectations were so ingrained that just two years earlier, Wes Craven had parodied it with his regenerative Scream) and had shocked audiences unprepared for its narrative turnarounds.

So, then, as an experiment, naturally Psycho is designed to be a failure, an object lesson in the ebbs and flows of film history, as well as constant reminder of the endless fascination, terror, and ramshackle beauty of the original. Where there was once innovation, there is now rote homage, a lifeless bundle of signs that point to the hollowness of its own conception. As in his own later Elephant (his only other “horror” film), Van Sant emphasizes moments that signify nothing, his own versions of Hitchcock’s narrative red herrings: those stuffed birds of prey crouched in every corner of Norman Bates’s motel parlor now are paralleled by a climactic basement aviary, shadows of flapping wings surrounding Mrs. Bates’s mummified corpse; the vinyl record of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony left on Norman’s childhood bedroom’s turntable now becomes George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s country ditty “The World Needs a Melody.” Perhaps most conspicuously added is a rather old-fashioned nudie magazine, which Marion’s sister, Lila (Julianne Moore), discovers on a bookshelf near the record player—as much a Freudian dead-end as those violent video games and pubescent shower kisses enjoyed by Elephant’s mass murderers pre killing spree.

Yet by demonstrating all the things that Psycho isn’t (a relevant text, a plausible clinical dissection of a killer), Van Sant also happens upon all those things that once made it vital. Pared down and bone-dry, Hitchcock’s film was ruthless, black-and-white, and no nonsense, a psychological case study that, once it cruelly dispatched its ostensible heroine, felt more like a procedural. Van Sant, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and a wildly erratic cast dabble in Hitchcock’s template as though it were a color-by-numbers worksheet waiting to be painted in and made gaudy and null. Janet Leigh’s complex, drab guilt becomes Anne Heche’s oddly vibrant matter-of-factness, coated in an orange-sherbet sundress; Anthony Perkins’s introverted self-loathing becomes Vince Vaughn’s calculated performativity, stork-like shapelessness now absurdly buff and brawny. The Bates Motel neon sign no longer just a beckoning, glowing light in the dark but now a bright, lime-green danger sign; chocolate syrup swirling down the gray bathtub’s drain makes way for strawberry sauce, emblazoned against austere white. If color is encouraged to make Psycho “palatable” to mainstream audiences in 1998, then Van Sant uses it to only further prove that there are no secrets left lurking in its shadows; made bright, even sunny, Psycho in color is a popsicle slowly melting into a puddle.

Even amidst such self-sabotage, Van Sant manages, albeit clumsily, to make Hitchcock’s film his own, both by rearranging the psychosexuality and by asserting his own predilection for intuitive cutting. While other gay filmmakers such as Todd Haynes similarly reappropriated Hollywood films by forcing their gay subtexts to bubble to the surface, Gus Van Sant, aware that Psycho already has enough Freudian babble and outdated homosexual undercurrents, queers his film by shifting the focus away from Norman, the mother-devoted transvestite. The much-criticized addition of the sound of Norman Bates’s offscreen masturbation upon spying on Marion through the peephole in his office goes a long way to re-establishing a more virile masculinity to the character, as well as localizing his sexual urges on the derobing of a woman (it’s difficult to imagine Perkins’s formless eunuch having the ability to manipulate that part of his anatomy at all). Also, now Van Sant has Bates awkwardly responsive to a bit of flirtation when Lila winks at him upon checking in to investigate Marion’s disappearance. Disinterested in Norman the weary androgyne, Van Sant makes him very distinctly a frustrated man; all this while seemingly every other major character is given some form of gay baggage, whether it’s the surreptitious use of Anne Heche’s persona (she was one of the very few out actors at the time), the intimations of Lila’s lesbianism (Moore reportedly played her with this in mind), or, most importantly, Van Sant’s gaze itself. Whereas bra-clad Janet Leigh was the publicity still and dirty draw for Hitchcock’s original, Van Sant has little visual affection for the boyish Heche, even cutting out Hitch’s shower “money shot”: when Leigh makes one final, agonized reach for the curtain before toppling over to her death, the distinct outline of a blurred breast registers out of focus in center frame. With Heche’s death grip, all we get is a hand. At the same time, the camera often seems to be ogling both Vaughn, whose ass appears center frame, wiggling back and forth as he climbs the stairs in a shot mimicked from the original, and especially Viggo Mortensen, who in the opening hotel room scene, appears sweaty, bronzed, and bare-assed, outfitted with nothing but a sensual southwestern drawl. The perceived redundancy of queering Psycho is thus neatly inverted.

Van Sant’s self-identification as a filmmaker also extends to the most dubious deviations from the original film’s flow, the most famous being the random cutaways to incongruous images during the film’s two murder scenes. In the first, punctuated to Marion’s brutal stabbings, Gus flashes to shots of thunderous, silvery clouds overhead; in the second, during Detective Arbogast’s (William H. Macy) vile face-slashing on the staircase, Van Sant pulls his trump card of egregiousness, intercutting Arbogast’s backwards staircase fall with a shots of, respectively, a supine, blindfolded girl in a string bikini slowly turning her head to the camera, and a cow on a rural back road as seen from the windshield of a slowly approaching vehicle. Neither subliminal nor shock cuts, these moments wholly lift the viewer out of the film’s tension and forward motion, calling attention to the (second) filmmaker both in their recollection of his very un-Hitchcock-like penchant for dreamlike cutaways (Drugstore Cowboy) and his propensity for images of clouds and open roads (My Own Private Idaho). If Van Sant set about to defamiliarize the viewer from an overly rehearsed, studied, and borrowed-from work of art, then these moments reveal his agenda most drastically. In a film of practiced movements, spontaneity seems impossible, and terror irretrievable. By purposely decimating the Eisensteinian flow of images that comprised Psycho’s first and oft-quoted and analyzed murder, Van Sant reasserts his film’s impossibility. It made its mark on the culture; all the rest is fallout.

Even this film’s newly prismatic shower curtain recombines the visual space in a way that seems unfamiliar. Why retain the original dialogue and recreate camera moves, yet replace the film’s essential props? Van Sant has proven himself, likewise, to be nothing if not an arbitrary filmmaker, and here the question of why certain things were chosen and others not hangs over the entire movie. There was no natural progression for Van Sant following his schizo black comedy To Die For and his platitudinous guy weepie Good Will Hunting, so Psycho’s subject matter and existence as large-scale postmodern experiment don’t defy expectations so much as reiterate the difficulty of insisting on an auteurist reading.

Yet that last lingering shot, of that naturally teeming yet humanly bereft landscape, points toward a changing aesthetic in Van Sant’s controversial oeuvre. With his upcoming “Death Trilogy” of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, many of which are taken up with long, static stretches of empty space, Van Sant would continue to force viewers to contemplate how settings drained of definitive action related, even contributed, to the deaths contained therein. So in these final moments does Van Sant finally find a way to own Psycho? Or is it simply just another dead end?