Taking Another Stab


Just to liquidate all remaining suspense: For all intents and purposes, Gus Van Sant really does “recreate” Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—from the Saul Bass credits that open the movie to the glib psychological “explanation” that closes it—almost shot by shot with the original music.

Van Sant shoots in color, adds a few jokes, makes the autoerotic quality of Norman Bates’s sex life a bit more apparent, suggests that one (or more) of the major characters may be queer, and discreetly jazzes up the celebrated montage sequences. The performances are competent if knowing. Elfin and expressive where Janet Leigh was voluptuously self-contained, Anne Heche imports an aura of transgression from her offscreen love life; Vince Vaughn’s gestures are often exact copies of Anthony Perkins’s, but, assured and physically imposing, he comes across as snide (and too well-dressed) rather than bashful. As the effect is less hyperreal than perversely fastidious, the response for anyone familiar with the original Psycho is likely to be restricted to a narrow range between briefly enjoyable déjà vu and mild disappointment. The movie lacks the chutzpah to even be a travesty.

Based on a novel inspired by the case of the Wisconsin cannibal-necrophiliac Ed Gein, the original Psycho represented a new attitude and a new permissiveness. The print ads showing Leigh in her slip and brassiere were a first for an American star. The opening scene was excitingly tawdry, the attitude daringly now. The monster was not Count Dracula from Transylvania but the sick product of an American family. Rather than a beautiful virgin, the victim was a beautiful, sexually active woman. The crimes were horribly graphic and yet the movie was some sort of comedy. Once seen, Psycho was even more unsettling for being an elaborate joke from first to last.

Indeed, arguably the most outrageously manipulative movie ever made, Psycho used P.T. Barnum hype to insist upon its aesthetic integrity. The ads famously promised that “No one…but no one…will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance.” Patrons were enjoined against revealing the plot to the uninitiated. That, of course, is impossible now. If Van Sant’s Psycho demonstrates anything, it’s the degree to which movies are an individual experience largely determined (as used to be said of LSD) by “set and setting.” I’ve seen Psycho at least 20 times, but I can still remember the shock of my initial viewing—even though the movie was by then nearly a decade old.

Those who first saw Psycho during the last weeks of June 1960 describe a unique atmosphere of excited dread. Nor did the movie disappoint them. Psycho featured not only an impressively sordid opening and a boffo shock climax, but a highly graphic (not to mention visceral) sex crime, the early exit of a star, and the first flush toilet in a Hollywood production. The plot was almost unsynopsizable. Not since Fritz Lang’s M had a movie employed so lurid a “case history.” Nothing in American movies had remotely suggested a situation in which a nice young man (Perkins was then a teenage idol) lived in incestuous rapport with the preserved cadaver of his murdered mother. The movie inspired irate walkouts and even faintings. The audience response was an unexpectedly violent mixture of shrieks and laughter, while the repeat viewings by teenagers gave the screenings a ritual flavor.

The essence of Psycho is not the overrated shower sequence—except insofar as it was faithful to the lessons of Soviet montage theory in suggesting far more than it showed. (The murder of the detective is actually a more artful piece of editing.) The essence of Psycho is the way it systematically undermined movie conventions to disorient the viewer and thwart expectations. In this sense, Psycho is a descendant of another montage-based shocker, the venerable Buñuel-Dalí joke, Un Chien andalou. In other words, while Psycho is a movie that can be taught, I’m not sure it can still be lived.

Van Sant’s Psycho has been spun as a sort of Borges conundrum or an art-school Warhol appropriation. But the project’s most Warholian aspect is its appreciation of a commercial gimmick. Psycho was not only Hitchcock’s greatest hit; by some standards, it was the most profitable black-and-white movie since The Birth of a Nation. Universal had no need for press screenings when the title alone was worth a quick $10.5 million. Van Sant, however, would have had to cast Psycho grossly against type (Jerry Seinfeld as Norman Bates; Roseanne as Marion Crain) or transpose the action to Pleasantville or use some other sort of conceptual grid (cross-dressing, slow-motion) to illuminate the text in any compelling way.

Everything about the personal relations in the original Psycho suggests a present dominated by the dead hand of the past. So, too, Van Sant’s movie. How well-made it seems. How powerful the music, economical the staging, creepy the premise, clever the mise-en-scène, crisp and confident the editing. How unfashionably leisurely the pace. Who needs actors?

The most paradoxical aspect of this recreation is its timid fidelity to a movie that smashed the commercial conventions of its day. Thus, Van Sant’s Psycho is often surprisingly OK. It is, after all, still Psycho—just a superfluous and inferior version.

Not quite Norman Bates, the eponymous hero of The Ogre, Michel Tournier’s celebrated 1970 novel, is a gentle, if gigantic, pederast, captured by the Germans during World War II, who falls in love with the magic kingdom of East Prussia and, as in a fairy tale, comes to serve the Nazis as a sort of spellbound huntsman.

Perhaps Volker Schlondorff imagined Tournier’s ambitious allegory would be a companion piece to his 1979 adaptation of The Tin Drum. The result, with John Malkovich in the title role, is a high-Euro pudding mix of accents and intentions (literary, prurient, moral). Slack and stilted, the movie’s first third is a typically enigmatic, smirky Malkovich show; the second, wherein his character gets a menial job at Hermann Goering’s rustic-deco hunting lodge, is eccentric enough to make even the star seem normal, at least as compared to the Nazi leader, played with pop-eyed avidity by Volker Spengler.

When a local count (the inevitable Armin Mueller-Stahl) kills a great stag, Goering sends everyone to the eastern front. The ogre, however, lands at a nearby military school. Dressed like death and accompanied by a pack of hounds, he is given the job of combing the countryside for new recruits to this Riefenstahlian realm of torch-lit singing and near-nude wrestling. Schlondorff, who seems to be ignoring the situation’s homoerotic kitsch, would need the medieval conviction of mid-’50s Ingmar Bergman to carry this off. The only evil the movie projects is the purity of its own liberal confusion.

One of the pleasures of the last NYFF, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, opens for its award-qualifying (and blurb-garnering) limited run before going into release next year. Nerd go-getter Max Fisher stumbles and schemes through his high school senior year, smitten with the loveliest of teachers. This friendly comedy of loss, obsession, and social class is imbued with the wacky charm of a kid’s picture book and enhanced by Bill Murray’s shambling walk-through as Max’s sometime patron. I can’t remember a teenage romance this engagingly offbeat since Lord Love a Duck.