Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Remake v. Remade: Psycho

| by Justin Thomas |

In 1985, just after Back to the Future hit the screens, the R.C. Hardware Hank team upon which I found myself finally won a game. Through a blazing summer and fourteen games we struggled, drawing the collar until the last game of the year when we finally broke through and scored more runs than our opponent that finished the year 0-14. It was hardly a battle of the titans. So if I were given an inter-dimensional portal the very last thing I’d do is open it and have that 1985 R.C. Hardware Hank team play a game against the 1927 New York Yankees? Why? The ’27 Yankees were the best team ever assembled and R.C. Hardware Hank wasn’t just bad. We were awful.

There are few directors up to the challenge of doing a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho. That movie stands above all others he made, which is saying something in a filmography that includes The Birds, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Notorious. Maybe Spielberg in 1975 or Shyamalan in 1999, but while they showed the ability to understand Hitchcockian suspense I wonder if they’d be able to match what he did at the top of his game with an entire career leading up to the purest execution of his ideas. Hitchcock’s Psycho is the ’27 Yankees of suspense movies and while I don’t know who could do it, I know Gus Van Sant, director of the 1998 Psycho, wouldn’t be in the conversation.

A shot-for-shot remake of Psycho might have been misguided but evaluating the effort is impossible because it’s not a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. It’s a “nearly” shot-for-shot remake and the changes, regardless of whether they work, destroy the experiment. If the experiment had been done properly it would have been in black and white and it would have been shot as a period piece. It would have been made with the same budgetary constraints and shot with a television crew to replicate the conditions under which Hitchcock worked. It wouldn’t have a cut to stormy skies during the shower sequence or a shot to a woman when Norman attacks Lila. It wouldn’t include masturbation. These changes make it “kind of Psycho through a little bit of the Gus Van Sant lens” and leaves the remake in muddy waters of trying to serve two masters but failing both.

I don’t have a good answer as to why a shot-for-shot remake of any movie would be undertaken; I don’t understand the point. Van Sant’s Psycho gets me no closer to understanding why because, again, it isn’t shot-for-shot. Maybe it’s to see what the actors would do with the material. In the remake we’re given Marion played by Anne Heche who is aware she lives in a post Affirmative Action world, Lila played by Julianne Moore who is aware she lives in a post Spice Girls Girl Power world, Sam played by Viggo Mortensen as though he’s in a high school play, and Norman played by Vince Vaughn who is simply overmatched by the Anthony Perkins performance. Vaughn might be the biggest tragedy in the entire mix because he’s good at what he does, but he just can’t pull off the subtle shifting of gears Norman Bates requires. So if Van Sant had gone black and white, had gone period and done a true shot-for-shot, his actors completely miss the mark straight down the line. The most noticeable changes, the performances, make me wonder whether Van Sant understands the original Psycho at all.

Halfway through the remake I wondered whether it was a joke; whether the entire production was winking at me and I was evaluating it the wrong way. Does the remake of Psycho have more in common with Showgirls than it does the original where you have to get the joke to get the movie? It’s confounding and, for as close as it is to the original, amazing how much of a train wreck it is.

I still don’t understand the need for a shot-for-shot so I would be interested to see what a true shot-for-shot remake of any movie would be because the concept is out there. What would the result be of a true effort behind it? With Psycho, a more-compelling experiment might be to pick five directors, give them the same script, a television crew and a similar budget adjusted for inflation and say, “let’s see what you can do with it.” Here are a few names: M. Night Shyamalan (even now), Bryan Singer (he gets Hitchcock at some level), Edgar Wright (same here), Ridley Scott (Alien is Hitchcockian) and Christopher Nolan (I needed a fifth and Fred Savage is busy filming Daddy Day Trippers). Sure, those are easy names to throw out there, but what would those five films be? That’s a more interesting question to ask than what would a Gus Van Sant kind of, sort of shot-for-shot remake of Psycho look like.

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