Sunday 28 October 2012

Psycho Ditto, or Norman, Master Bates.

In the 'fifties, there was a tiny cinematic subgenre of shot-for-shot remakes.  Mostly British, and mostly colour versions of earlier black-and-white films, like The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959) or The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), they were based on the idea that, in cinema, nothing changed except technology, and that all that needed to be updated in a new version was the film stock.  The only shot-for-shot version of a colour film that I know of, Storm Over the Nile (1955), a remake of The Four Feathers (1939), actually reuses some footage from the earlier film, including one entire performance - rather improbably, it's the Scottish actor John Laurie, playing a villainous Arab.

The subgenre (even that seems like too big a word) made an unexpected return in 1998, with Gus van Sant's Psycho.  At the time of its release, the film was viewed as either a sign of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy - William Goldman refers to it as a 'vomitous carbon' - or, more charitably,  as a post-modern artefact, like Douglas Gordon's gallery installation  24 Hour Psycho, which slows the film down to roughly two frames a second.

Last week, I went to Psycho vs. Psycho, a simultaneous screening of the two films at the Leicester Square Theatre; Hitchcock's on the large screen, van Sant's on the four television screens dotted around the auditorium.  Sadly, the nature of human perception meant that the organisers could only play the soundtrack from the Hitchcock film - though you could sometimes lipread van Sant's actors, saying the same lines a moment after their equivalents.

The most obvious thing you notice, watching the films like this, is that (like most of the films mentioned above) it's not quite shot-for-shot - van Sant sometimes reverses the composition, creating a mirror image of Hitchcock's screen, and makes a few small cuts and additions - notably, having Norman Bates (in this case, Vince Vaughn) masturbate to orgasm as he watches Marion undress, a tacky stating of the obvious that, if it didn't seem anatomically inaccurate, I'd describe as on-the-nose.

There are jokes - when Marion first approaches the Bates Motel, we see a sign that describes it as 'Newly refurbished', and Van Sant dutifully reproduces Hitchcock's cameo appearance, standing in the street in conversation with an oddly familiar rotund figure.  At other times, the replication seems downright OCD - cars have the same numberplates, the same signatures are visible in the register of the Bates Motel.  The film's determination not to cut the apron strings even explains some of the odder casting decisions - I wondered why Julianne Moore is wasted in the role of Marion's sister, rather than playing the woman herself, but then considered how much nerve van Sant would have needed, in a Hitchcock remake/homage/copy, to make his leading lady a redhead.

It's worth remembering that van Sant has form in this department - most people who know My Own Private Idaho (1992) can tell you that it's a modern retelling of the Hal/Falstaff story from Shakespeare's Henry IV plays - another story of inappropriate parental influence - but it's less commonly mentioned that several shots are straight lifts from Chimes at Midnight (1965), Orson Welles' film of the same plays.  (Richard Eyre did the same thing in his recent television version of the plays - Orson still walks through modern culture like a ghost.)  Though the method is similar, the effect is completely different - in My Own Private Idaho, the borrowings are an in-joke, only noticed by Welles buffs like me; in Psycho, they're part of the meaning of the film.

So why does Psycho, in particular, inspire this kind of conceptual game?  I think it's to do with the paradox of the film - it's a story based on surprise, that precisely because of its success, hasn't surprised anyone for decades.

More than any other film before Jaws, Psycho bases its appeal on a skilful manipulation of the audience, and of storytelling time.  Famously, it was one of the first films to which audiences weren't admitted after the start, in defiance of the standard practice (which I remember continuing as recently as the late '70s) whereby films were often shown in constant rotation, with audience members coming in when they liked and leaving when then that moment came round again - the phrase 'This is where we came in' is still stuck in the language, even though the practice to which it refers is long gone.

For the last half-century or so, it's been almost impossible to watch the film without feeling that this is exactly where we came in - we know the central twist, and who's going to die when - for most of us, the first viewing is already a return.  Both 24 Hour Psycho and the van Sant film play with this paradox - the former takes a film timed like a stopwatch and slows it down, like a slow-motion replay of a particularly brilliant sporting play, while the latter is a film that Norman Bates might have directed, a film that's obsessed with its ancestry, a child all dressed up in mummy's ill-fitting clothes.

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