What Value is there in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho

Reappropriating Psycho

by James MacDowell Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 26 minutes (6372 words)

As a schoolboy, a cousin of mine was once awarded a book entitled Ernie Elton: The Lazy Boy. Although the ten tales contained therein are undoubtedly worthy, each constituting a moral fable about the dangers of various vices, as literature it is of the most crass kind. Yet a work by Dante may, ex hypothesi, have exactly the same message and, by the virtue of its poetic workings, be of the highest value as art. Hence a good artwork is not replaceable by a work merely replicating its content.

Matthew Kieran (in Gaut/McIver, 2001, 218)

This quotation is taken from an essay found in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics entitled ‘Value of Art.’ The essay attempts to briefly summarize, in the manner of most essays in similar ‘beginner’s guide’ volumes, some key arguments of the fundamental aesthetic problem of how one may – if not objectively, then most comprehensively – establish the value of a work of art. Kieran’s, somewhat simplified, example goes some way towards illustrating a distinction between what Malcom Budd [1] has termed instrumental value (that of a work’s effect) and intrinsic value (that of a work’s aesthetic qualities) – two helpful concepts of the value debate – in an approachable way. Its simplification and approachability, however, is perhaps its flaw: however similar the “message[s]” or “content[s]” of the hypothetical Dante work and Ernie Elton: The Lazy Boy may be, they are unlikely to ever be identical, making the intended illustration of the problem of a judgement based solely on instrumental value somewhat superficial. This is not necessarily the fault of Kieran: works of art that replicate another artwork’s content more-or-less exactly are, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely rare.

When I first heard about Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, I thought I had found a more penetrating and complex example of this fascinating value problem. This remake is, of course, famous for not simply replicating Hitchcock’s Psycho??’s content —i.e.: its script, and – with this – also its corresponding themes, moral framework and “message”— and so, in theory, perhaps its instrumental value – but also its form (it is, supposedly, a ‘shot-for-shot’ remake) – again, in theory, perhaps its intrinsic value. The first ??Psycho is a (generally) highly critically respected “work of art” that is even, according to some, “by all standards perfect” (Santas, 2005, 1), whereas the second was (once again, generally) reviled upon its release, some even calling it “worthless” (Rosenbaum, 2005, 1). If Psycho (1998) does indeed replicate the original ‘shot-for-shot’, line-for-line, music-cue-for-music-cue, should it not, by the standards of ‘objective’ aesthetic judgement, have largely (the inevitable effect that changes in actors and colour may have notwithstanding) the same value? This therefore potentially calls into question not only the objective nature of instrumental (which is notoriously difficult to establish due to its innately subjective nature), but also of intrinsic, value. Having said this, the “_may_”s, “_if_”s, “_in theory_”s and “_potentially_”s within this suggestion shall come to form an integral, and ultimately negative, role in my own final evaluation of the film.

Artistic worth is, of course, unstable by its nature, constantly shifting, and dependent on historical and cultural factors; as Terry Eagleton says: “‘Value’ is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in light of given purposes.” (Eagleton, 1983, 11). The original Psycho can be used as a case study to illustrate this phenomenon. Though it is now widely considered to be one of the best films in one of the most highly respected Western auteur’s oeuvre [2], on its release it was not (certainly not universally, at least [3]) valued in the same way.

A review by Rene MacColl in The Daily Express, July 2 1960, seems to claim the film’s instrumental value to be negligible, when it describes it as “one of the most vile and disgusting films ever made” (MacColl, 1960, 12). Tellingly, within a review that is otherwise purely concerned with the film’s “repulsive contents” (ibid, 12), there is a one-sentence space made for the purpose of admitting that, “Oh, yes – of course – Psycho is brilliantly directed.” (ibid, 12), showing clearly that this intrinsic aesthetic value is not enough to outweigh the reviewer’s assessment of its lack of instrumental worth (it is “a sad prostitution of a fine talent” [ibid, 12]). This focus on content and instrumental (particularly emotional) worth is – perhaps unfairly – typical of notions of ‘mass art’ [4], intrinsic aesthetic value, on the other hand, being more commonly associated with ‘high art’ (as Kieran’s Ernie Elton: The Lazy Boy_/ Dante example shows). Within a mere five years of the MacColl review, however, Robin Wood claims in _Hitchcock’s Films that Psycho is “one of the key works of our age” (Wood, 1965, 122), its theme, that of “the irretrievable annihilation of a human being” (ibid, 122) (i.e.: Norman), now linked with ‘high art’ such as Macbeth (1997) and Heart of Darkness [5] (1981). Though the judgement is still primarily established by a consideration of the film’s instrumental worth, based on the film’s moral or philosophical “message” (“We have been made to see the dark potentialities within all of us… We can now be set free, be saved for life.” [ibid, 122]), we may see that this worth has undergone a considerable re-valuation.

This is not, of course, to say that at any one time or place the value of a work of art (say, Psycho in 1960 or in 1965), be it on an instrumental or intrinsic level, is stable. As well as the effect of historical and cultural factors, value will always, to some extent, be based on each spectator’s own personal taste [6]: neither MacColl’s nor Wood’s judgements are free from subjective opinion. The purpose of theories of value is partly, in this sense, to attempt an impossible task: that of evaluation without the interference of individual predilection. [7] Any over-ambitious effort, for example that of Hugo A. Meynell’s The Nature of Aesthetic Value, which tries “to propose an answer to this central problem of aesthetics” (Meynell, 1986, 1), is inevitably questionable. A problem hundreds of years old is unlikely to be solved in a single volume. For instance, when Meynell posits his purely instrumental-value-based theory that “The primary aesthetic question about a work of art, to which all others are subsidiary, is: can satisfaction be derived from it so that it will… add something to the overall happiness of human life?” (ibid, 17) we must immediately ask how appropriate are loose subjective assumptions such as “satisfaction” and “overall happiness” to a supposedly objective proposal of evaluation. We may also question where an artwork’s intrinsic value features in such an understanding of worth; it is, after all, only Meynell’s overriding taste for “satisfaction” in art that has led him to his conclusion.

Although we may not be able to finally separate taste from our assessments of value [8], however, we can attempt to construct, or adhere to, evaluative techniques which offer us as full, and as apposite, a judgement of a work as possible. Among other things, this means being sensitive to its particular medium. In Film as Film, V.F Perkins objects to the focus on form, at the expense of content, which he sees as typifying much critical discussion of film prior to his time of writing (1972). A proliferation of critical focus on the most film-specific qualities of the medium (editing, length of shot, etc.) is perhaps understandable in what is, of course, a relatively new art form, but such a focus cannot provide us with the necessarily broad scope needed for a full and fair judgement of films. He suggests, I believe correctly, that considerations of form and content, and thus of intrinsic and instrumental value, should be inextricably linked and, together, combine to form an assessment of a film’s worth. For him, “a great film” is one in which there is “no distinction between how and what, content and form” (Perkins, 1972, 133); he, in fact, cites Psycho as an example of such a film.9 Perkins is also aware of the need to recognise in which circumstances a particular technique of evaluation is appropriate, and in which it is not:

My criteria will only be useful so far as they can be refined and defined until they relate to the methods and qualities of specific pictures… The values I have claimed for Rope (Hitchcock, Transatlantic, USA, 1953), or for Johnny Guitar (Ray, Republic, USA, 1957), cannot be claimed for a picture like Godard’s Les Carabiniers (Godard, Laetitia & Rome-Paris, France/Italy, 1966), where the fictional action attempts neither credibility nor the absorption of personal meaning into a dynamic pattern of action. [10] The degree to which Les Carabiniers is to be valued will have to be argued in terms other than those proposed here. (ibid, 190)

This acknowledgement of the need to understand the effects that a film “attempts” to achieve before one applies a specific technique of judgement to discern the value of the achievement is, I think, extremely useful: there is surely no gain in assessing a work of art by criteria that it has no desire to fulfil, or chance of fulfilling. I will, therefore, endeavour to come to such an understanding of Van Sant’s Psycho by looking at it in the context of its aims.

“The question in everyone’s mind (and on their lips),” says Stephen Jay Schneider in his essay on Psycho (1998), “of course, was ‘Why?’ Why attempt a remake of this sort, and of such a beloved film in particular?” (Schneider, 2005, 1). It is necessary to attempt to answer, or at least consider, this question before an evaluation can take place.

For some, the answer was made clear simply by the fact that the film was a Hollywood remake, and that answer was: money. The most vehement detractors of the film often use the seemingly cynical economic function of remakes (effectively, that they are previously consumer-tested products likely to repay an investment) in general to dismiss the film’s value outright. It is, no doubt, true that, as Thomas M. Leitch says in his article ‘Twice Told Tales: the Rhetoric of the Remake,’ “most remakes can largely be assumed to have been made in order to emulate the commercial success of the previous version,” and that “this particular reason for making them seems as formulaic and unimaginative as the Hollywood studios themselves” (Leitch, 1990, 12). Looked at in this way, remakes seem to be the literal manifestation of Adorno’s observation that “The machine of mass culture rotates on the spot. While determining consumption it excludes the untried as a risk.” (Adorno, 1994, 134). Thus, Psycho (1998) has sometimes been evaluated in these terms. The website 24 Frames-Per-Second, for example, issued the Psycho Boycott, which called Van Sant a “whore” and asked, “Who Made Universal Hitchcock’s Pimp?”. [11] James Berardinelli states “There’s no secret why this new version of Psycho exists… it will likely make money for Universal Pictures” (Berardinelli, 2005, 1), while Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:

the money gets star billing in Gus Van Sant’s stupid remake: not the $400,000 stolen by Marion Crane… but the money that controls our discourse about the film – the rationalization of moneygrubbing as an aesthetic strategy that freely passes from the promotional material to the critics. (ibid, 1)

I believe, however, that to let the potential economic reasons for Psycho??’s existence “[control] our discourse about the film” is wrong. If we are to do this then we should just as easily dismiss any product of the Hollywood industry (even the Hitchcock original), as Adorno effectively does in any brief discussion of individual products of the “culture industry” (??ibid). Such an approach does not attempt a judgement of intrinsic (or, to an extent, instrumental) value and precludes a fair and full aesthetic judgement of specific works. Of course, considerations of the economic, social and political contexts of art may well have a bearing on our final evaluation (and rightly so); however, I feel that an assessment of artistic worth that is formed solely on such grounds is almost as reductive and simplified as an unsupported statement of opinion. Let us therefore look further than this for the parameters within which to judge Psycho (1998).

In interviews, Van Sant has been inconsistent, and sometimes contradictory, in his answers to why he made the film. One explanation he provides, given on the official website [12] (and the one taken at face value by many contemporaneous reviewers of the film) is:

I felt that, sure, there were film students, cinephiles and people in the business who were familiar with Psycho but that there was also a whole generation of movie-goers who probably hadn’t seen it… I thought this was a way of popularising a classic, a way I’d never seen before. (in Unknown, 2005, 1)

According to this, then, Van Sant was making the film for those who hadn’t already seen the original, presumably in the hope that the film would succeed within the same parameters – i.e: on the level of narrative cinema (as, essentially, a suspense horror/ thriller) – as Hitchcock’s had. [13] As for why he decided to recreate Hitchcock’s film ‘shot-for-shot’, one reason he gives is that, simply, “when people remake a movie that’s really well done and change all the dialogue and change the shots, the mood of the original is completely lost.” (in Ansen, 2005, 1) Seen this way, despite the unconventional means, the aim of the film can largely be deduced to be that of any other remake: make a previously-told story work again. It is possible to judge the film, then, on the level of an attempt to achieve, via retaining form (potentially, its intrinsic value), a successful rendering of the same style and genre of film as the original, presumably in the hope of attaining – through the recreation of “the mood” etc. – the same instrumental value.

I would argue that, seen on this level, the film is a failure. Firstly, even if there is a “whole generation” of the potential audience who has not seen the original, there are likely to be far fewer (almost none?) who have not heard of it and know nothing of the plot – particularly, of course, the ‘shower scene’. The scene of which Robin Wood says, “so engrossed are we in Marion… that we can scarcely believe it is happening; when it is over… we are left shocked, the apparent centre of the film entirely dissolved” (ibid, 118), has, of course, become extremely famous since 1960. Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins, the fast cuts and zoom-into-screaming-mouth have now been referenced and spoofed [14] almost into meaninglessness. Indeed, the poster for the Van Sant film played on its potential audience’s knowledge of the once- shocking moment by showing a woman’s figure behind a shower curtain, with blood creeping up from the floor, and the tagline: “Check in. Relax. Take a shower.” Thus, this central event of the film cannot possibly have the necessary – or, at least, most desirable – effect for the plot construction: i.e., the decentring of the narrative. [15]

Secondly, the “mood” is hindered for two main reasons: the actors’ performances and the use of colour. As many reviewers noted, Anne Heche’s playing of Marion Crane is simply “too light-hearted” (Santas, 2005, 1) to make us become truly involved with her plight. Since she never conveys the emotional weight or likeability necessary for us to believe in her as the human centre of the film [16] (though, as I have argued, most will probably know she is not the central character), the narrative is almost entirely unaffecting, her murder seeming arbitrary (but not shockingly so), and the subsequent search for her by Arbogast, Lila and Sam uninvolving. As for Vince Vaughn, his Norman seems neither innocent enough, nor threatening enough, to convince either as sad and put-upon son, or as a psychopathic murderer: the two things he must seem to be. This is partly due to some rather un-naturalistic acting (his repeated titter-laugh, for example, sounding highly affected), but is mainly due to his large physical appearance. Vaughn’s height and broad shoulders mean he lacks any child-like qualities (which would help to increase the perversity of the whole tale), and looks simply comical (like “a fullback wearing a fright wig” [Naremore, 2005, 1]) when dressed as Mrs. Bates at the film’s shocking finale. These elements mean believability is strained and thus emotional involvement (necessary for the creation of suspense and audience-identification needed for the horror/ thriller genre) is low.

In terms of its colour scheme, the film is saturated in bright pastel (“candy-box” [Rosenbaum, 2005, 1]) colours: greens (the opening credits, Marion’s slip, the bed in the motel room), pinks (Marion’s dress in the opening scenes, her – very prominently displayed – fingernails) and oranges (Marion’s bra, the dress she wears while fleeing Phoenix). Though I would not agree with the reviewers who feel that such colours “alter the tone of the grim tale into what seems a carefree holiday adventure” (Santas, 2005, 1) or that, in general, “colour just makes Psycho seem ordinary” (Berardinelli), I would suggest that the choice of colours detracts from the narrative because of their seeming self-consciousness. Their brightness and boldness appear intentionally artificial and unnatural, creating a sense of intellectually contrived camp that, again, creates a barrier for emotional engagement by feeling somehow “off” (to quote Susan Sontag) [17]. Whatever camp’s many potential uses and meanings, the sensibility does not easily lend itself to the effective telling of a horror story. For these reasons I would suggest that the film has little value as convincing narrative cinema. [18]

I have attempted in my brief judgement above to refrain from doing what almost every single review of the film has done, which is to judge the movie purely in relation to the original —“X in Van Sant’s Psycho does not convey the power of Y in Hitchcock’s”— [19], trying rather to analyse it as one who is not familiar with the 1960 version could see it (of course, a rather difficult task). Yet such a technique of comparison immediately seems an inevitable and obvious, if not necessary, evaluative method for any remake – and particularly one which takes such pains to tie itself inextricably with its predecessor. My observations, though not directly comparing particular elements of the films, are, however, focussing on things that are different and commenting negatively on them, perhaps somewhat in the manner of a critic like James Naremore who says, “wherever Van Sant diverges from the original, he makes bad choices.” (ibid, 1). The film is, of course, damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t: when it makes changes to Hitchcock it is ‘wrong’, and when it accurately replicates it is “slavish imitation” (Naremore, 2005, 1) and therefore ‘pointless’.

Thomas M. Leitch, in his essay ‘Hitchcock without Hitchcock’, suggests that:

The critical response to Van Sant’s film reveals a fundamental contradiction in contemporary film studies, high and low, left by the residue of unacknowledged auteurism: outrage that one director could so blatantly steal from another, coupled with outrage that he got so many details wrong. (Leitch, 2003, 253)

Indeed, many negative evaluations of the film seem based around notions of authorship: the consensus apparently being either that “Van Sant is no Hitchcock” (Rotondi, 2005, 1), and so should not attempt to imitate ‘The Master’, [20] or that the changes he makes do not constitute a profound-enough reinterpretation, illustrating Van Sant’s “lack of artistic vision” (Santas, 2005, 1). Examples of the latter opinion are provided by David Walsh, who says, “the director must find something of his own to say or he will end up saying nothing at all,” (Walsh, 2005, 1) and Chris A. Bolton:

Van Sant ought to have taken that $30 million budget (sic) [21] and crafted another quirky, unique film, like Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant, Avenue, USA, 1989) and My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, Universal, USA, 1991). These were idiosyncratic works that invited a filmmaker to leave his creative fingerprints all over them. (Bolton, 2005, 1)

Of course, authorship – the concept of a director having consistent, “idiosyncratic” styles and themes that are “of his own” – has long been one way for the critic to attribute value to films because it elevates the director to the status of an artist, and therefore his/her films, potentially, to the status of ‘high’ art. Typified by auteurists such as Andrew Sarris who claims, in American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929 to 1968, that “a lesser film by an auteur may be more interesting than one of the best of a non-auteur” (Sarris, 1996, 13), the auteur theory provides an evaluative framework that judges films primarily by the extent to which they may be seen as a continuation of a director’s vision. Hitchcock was a key figure in the establishment of the theory, and, though now waning in popularity in established film studies, the theory’s seductive and romantic qualities perhaps guarantee that it will never disappear entirely, and that auteurs will always be highly valued. Van Sant, at least, is certainly still often discussed as in such terms. Positive evaluations of Psycho have generally been formed around, and because of, his status as an auteur, and tend to illustrate ways in which the film (particularly his changes from the original) may be seen as an example of his continuing authorship. [22] This is, then, another way we may attempt to evaluate the movie: as a Gus Van Sant film.

Van Sant first came to prominence as one of the key figures of the ‘New Queer Cinema’, [23] and three of his films (Mala Noche [Van Sant, The Other Cinema/Northern Film/Respectable, USA, 1988], My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues [Van Sant, Rank/New Line/First Vision, USA, 1995) feature gay protagonists. Though he does not always deal with openly queer subject matter, there are queer elements even in some of his otherwise ‘straight’ films (for example, the character of Lydia in To Die For [Van Sant, TDF/London Lighthouse/British Screen, USA, 1996] and the classroom discussion about homosexuality, and the [perhaps] gay kiss, in Elephant [Van Sant, Optimum/Meno/Blue Relief, USA, 2004]). It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that much critical discussions of Van Sant’s work, and also the auteurist approaches to Psycho, often focus on his status as an openly gay filmmaker.

There is, in fact, some cogency to the argument that Van Sant has managed, to some extent, to make a queer version of Psycho (1960). Stephen Jay Schneider and Janet Staiger both draw attention to the inverted casting of the openly-lesbian Anne Heche as Marion, and the butch, ‘man’s-man’, Vince Vaughn [24] as the transvestite Norman (who was previously played by Anthony Perkins [who was gay]). Staiger argues that, by casting a decidedly straight actor as Norman, Van Sant is rejecting the potentially homophobic jest inherent in Hitchcock’s casting, [25] “putting the heterosexuality back in Norman where it belongs” (Staiger, 2003, 17), while Heche’s status as a lesbian deflects the heterosexual male gaze away from the most objectified (sexually and violently) female character in Hitchcock’s cinema. Add to this the new coding of Lila (Julianne Moore) as a “movie butch lesbian”, [26] the reversal of the nudity in the opening bedroom scene (we now see Sam’s bare behind rather than – as Hitchcock wished – Marion’s bare breasts) and the sickening display of heterosexual voyeurism as Norman spies on Marion before killing her (he is now masturbating), and we have a fair case for the value of Psycho as a queer appropriation of a previously ‘straight’ film. [27]

Despite the potential value of these changes, however, one cannot help but feel that these queer themes could have been far more fully and profoundly explored, were it not for the restrictions imposed by the ‘shot-for-shot’ concept. A radical appropriation of a text for a different purpose (an example from literature could be J. M. Coetzee’s rewriting of Robinson Crusoe {1965} from a postcolonial perspective in Foe {1986}]) is unavoidably compromised if one must retain most of the elements that constitute the original model (as I shall return to momentarily).

There are also other directorial touches, not found in the original, which potentially signal the film to be the work of Van Sant, the auteur. For example: insert shots of fast ‘time-lapse’ clouds (Van Sant’s ‘calling card’, see: Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gerry [Van Sant, Pathé/My Cactus, USA, 2003] and Elephant) in the ‘shower scene’, the sudden flash-up of the bright green screen for the opening credits (virtually the same green screen that flashes up, along with other bright block-colours, for various title cards throughout My Own Private Idaho) and the camp-tinged palette of the costumes (recalling those of To Die For).

Yet – and this is the crux of my argument – even if we are to value the film for these auteurist changes to Hitchcock’s Psycho, we must then simultaneously acknowledge its failure as an exact recreation of the original: the area in which – for me – its potentially greatest value lies.

As previously mentioned, Van Sant has been inconsistent in his given reasons for making the film, though one word he has repeatedly comes back to is “experiment”. [28] He has been unclear, however, as to what exactly the “experiment” was designed to achieve or find out. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, on the other hand, has been unswerving in his view that:

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 made his PhD in fine arts. (in Fuch, 2002, 79)

I suggested at the start of the essay that the film has the potential to be an intriguing and complex challenge to questions of intrinsic and instrumental value; Doyle’s description seems perhaps to support this view. A number of critics have noted there to be “something of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans in this Psycho??” (Walsh, 2005, 1), Leitch, for example, writing: “??Psycho??… is a groundbreaking example of Pop Art, with a psychopathic killer standing in for a soup can.” (Leitch, 2003, 253). The Andy Warhol comparison is an interesting one [29]: the famous Campbell’s piece changed the context of a consumer product by placing it in a gallery, thus changing its value and making it into Warhol’s “masterpiece.” Van Sant, on the other hand, can – potentially – be seen to have taken something which was originally a consumer product, yet has ‘become’ art, and placed it back in its original context (i.e.: on the Hollywood cinema screen), [30] thus posing the question of whether or not it retains the same value and remains a “masterpiece.” Whereas the context of the art gallery provided by the conceptual artwork ??24-Hour Psycho [31] (1996), by Douglas Gordon, “celebrates the most successful of the films in which, across the whole of his career, Hitchcock tried to combine industry and experiment” (Mulvey, 2000, 5), the context provided by Van Sant’s Psycho – again, potentially – returns the film to its original place: within the industry, and asks us what has changed.

In this way, the “experiment” could be seen to be engaging with concepts similar to those Walter Benjamin proposes in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (in Benjamin, 1970, 220-235), questioning the “aura” that has been created for Psycho (1960) (by its status as art) via “the emancipation art from ritual” [32] (ibid, 227). Of course, being a film, the original is already mechanically reproducible in itself, and, according to Benjamin, has therefore already lost its “aura” and ritual value. However, in the same way that Benjamin notes the desire of some early film theoreticians “to class film among the ‘arts’ forces [them] to read ritual elements into it” (ibid, 229) (in their case, via using religious descriptive language), we have seen that Robin Wood also feels the need to value Psycho (1960) as art by likening it to Shakespeare and Conrad. [33] It could be argued that, by giving Psycho back to its original audience (i.e.: the mainstream Hollywood audience rather than the “cinephiles” and “film students” Van Sant mentions), the remake follows through on Benjamin’s desire for “the exhibition value [to show] its superiority to the ritual value.” (ibid, 228), and, in this way, achieves the value of – as Doyle suggests – an intellectually consistent conceptual artwork of sorts.

This, at least, is the value I feel the film could have attained. A sense of what Psycho (1998) could have been can be felt in transitory moments: those that emulate Hitchcock’s most closely. These are the moments at which I feel a particular frisson, when I feel the film’s form and content, and instrumental and intrinsic value, combine in the complimentary way necessary for great art. Scenes such as Marion’s boss catching sight of her as he crosses in front of her car, which is filmed using the same unnatural look that back-projecting an exterior street shot provides, the unnaturalness this time intentional. The encounter between Marion and the highway policeman, which stays very close to the original’s distinctive close-up shot construction (and in which James Remar does as close an impression of Mort Mills as possible) is effective in this way, as are the distinctive opening credits, identical in every way other than in names and colour (rather than black and white it is now black and green). By attempting to recreate the original’s intrinsic value, these scenes force me into a complex relationship with both films, making me watch both at once, compelling me to begin to ask the difficult questions about art, entertainment, originality, authenticity and authorship that I hoped the film, as a whole, would provide me with. This is, needless to say, a very different instrumental value (almost as different as that of a real Campbell’s Soup can is to that of Warhol’s depiction of one) than Hitchcock’s Psycho. I would argue, however, that these moments are, nonetheless, valuable, and illustrate that – if this technique had been employed throughout – this value could be applied to the film overall.

Finally, however, the ways in which the film might ‘ordinarily’ gain value (two of which I have examined) – whether it fails or succeeds in them – finally count against it. Firstly, if – as I have suggested – it has little value as narrative cinema, then it is not achieving a recreation of the same instrumental value as the original. This, however, could be forgiven – and, indeed, praised as an interesting (perhaps therefore valuable) outcome – if the film did its best to achieve the original’s intrinsic value through as precise a recreation of the original’s form as possible. [34] Yet – although one of the ways Van Sant has summed up his “concept” is “Redo Psycho and don’t change anything” (in Crotty, 2005, 1) – my previous discussion of the signs left by his authorship make it clear that he has changed a great deal. These changes, though interesting in-and-of-themselves, contribute to the film’s failure as narrative cinema and mean that its value as an “experiment” of the type I have outlined, is negated.

The insert shots of clouds in the ‘shower scene’ are a good example of this. As already mentioned, simply due to the scene’s fame, it was unlikely that Van Sant’s ‘shower scene’ could ever reproduce the instrumental worth of Hitchcock’s (the effect of which was previously described well by Wood). There was still the chance, however, for a formal copy to be made that would attempt the intrinsic value. Yet, by inserting his trademark of the ‘time-lapse’ clouds, Van Sant denies himself this possibility. [35] At the same time as they break with the concept of the film being a copy, these shots also lessen the impact of the scene as a narrative set-piece. Quite apart from the fact that there may be those who (knowing of the directorial trademark) will be distracted by the almost comical boldness with which Van Sant has placed his stamp of ownership on this most famous of scenes, the clouds also simply break the intensity and terrifying claustrophobia of a moment that so relies on close-ups for its violent effect. As V. F. Perkins says of the original scene: “The images are of things which have a necessary existence in the scene as things and not only as projections of ideas and feelings… they do not become detached from the confined events which it is their first function to depict.” (ibid, 109). Thus, the shots sabotage the film’s overall value in two respects. This means their only remaining value lies in their status as an expression of authorship (and one could even accuse them of being a rather superficial example of this).

Thus, my opening suggestion that Psycho (1998) is potentially a more complex and fascinating case study of the issues surrounding the intrinsic/instrumental value debate than that hypothesised by Kieran, though not untrue, is certainly lessened by thorough examination. That the potentially fascinating specific ramifications of the ‘shot-for-shot’ copy concept seem largely to have been ignored in reviewers’ and critics’ discussions of the film may be firstly because Psycho (1998) does fail in this aim, but secondly perhaps because the questions about artistic value that its success might raise are so far-reaching as to require an entire book to be dealt with in appropriate depth. I, at least, would relish the chance to analyse the film that could have been. Such a hypothetical analysis would involve the issues of value surrounding the many aesthetic concepts (for example, originality/forgery, importance of social/historical/economic context, colour, definitions of ‘mass’ and ‘high’ art) to which a ‘shot-by-shot’ remake would be relevant. Some of these issues I have necessarily had to limit myself to brief mentions of here, partly for reasons of time, but primarily because – as I have said – the final film unfortunately does not warrant the analysis.

Ultimately, Van Sant seems to have attempted at least two irreconcilable “experiment[s]” simultaneously. Many detractors have ignored the existence of any experiment at all and have (in a sense, rightly) attacked the film’s lack of value as an effective horror/thriller. Defenders have tended to focus on the experiment that is the easier to define: that of the auteurist experiment in “the expressive and thematic possibilities of nuance” (Smith, 2005, 1), and valued the film accordingly. The changes that this experiment affords, which show the beginnings of an effective queer re-imagining, are finally unable to achieve their full radical revisionist potential due to the other experiment: that of the ‘shot-for-shot’ copy. These minor changes, however, are enough to make Psycho (1998) forfeit the possibility of achieving value in this way too: the way that might have allowed me, personally (as always, the critic being unable to help, finally, speaking from a standpoint of taste), to describe it as a good – or perhaps even great – film.

For two other Offscreen essays on Psycho (1998): A Rip in the Curtain: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and Psycho Redux


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James MacDowell is the founder of the film review and criticism website Alternatetakes.co.uk, a site that attempts to bridge the gap between ‘high’ academic and ‘low’ journalistic film writing. He is a graduate of the University of Warwick, currently researching for his masters thesis on the Hollywood romance happy ending. His favourite filmmakers include Paul Thomas Anderson, Atom Egoyan, Lars Von Trier, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee. He lives and works in Dublin.

Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 Essays   alfred hitchcock   film style   genre_horror   gus van sant   hitchcock   horror   psycho   remakes