Wednesday, October 01, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Honorable Mention - Psycho

I feel lucky to have the opportunity to share a post by Alex Jackson. Alex's site "I Viddied it On the Screen" helped motivate me to start my own blog, and his reviews of the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series, in particular, are must reads for horror fans (you can check out the Friday the 13th reviews at Film Freak Central). Here, Alex makes a case for Psycho (1998), a movie without many fans; I agree with Alex that it's underestimated and worth revisiting.

I thought about Gus Van Sant’s infamous shot-by-shot remake of PSYCHO all over again upon seeing the official music video for Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys”. Michaelson’s video is, itself, a seemingly shot-by-shot remake of Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” video and does for that piece what Van Sant has done with PSYCHO albeit much more overtly- through simply gender reversal, it “gays” up an intrinsically hetero-normative property, forcing our cognizance of not only its construction as a film but of the underlying cultural assumptions in the work.

            Considering how hated this film is, it’s perhaps no surprise that few seem to have listened to Van Sant, Anne Heche, and Vince Vaughn’s audio commentary on the DVD release. Heche points out that Julianne Moore’s performance as Lila Crane subtly transforms the character into a lesbian (using coded clues that only other lesbians would be able to pick up) while Vaughn emphasizes how Sam Loomis (in the hands of Viggo Mortenson) has gone from cowboy to dreamy lover-boy. (Indeed, an ass-shot early on redirects the male gaze toward a male object). The remake seems to have reversed the gender construct of virtually all the major characters, suggesting that the delirious miscasting of Marion Crane and Norman Bates with Heche and Vaughn was completely by design.

            I’m particularly fascinated by Heche as Marion. In 1998, Heche was America’s most visible lesbian and there was talk upon the release of the forgettable SIX DAYS AND SEVEN NIGHTS that America may not be able to accept her as a romantic lead. The gap between Heche’s on-screen persona and off-screen personal life is widened here by giving the character a short pixie-like cut that renders her decidedly androgynous. Plus, with her wide eyes and long nose, she looks like a bird. Her name is Crane and Norman stuffs birds as a hobby, as constructed originally PSYCHO intends us to objectify Marion as a “bird”. With the casting of Heche in the role, this objectification is pushed to its absurdist limit.

            So is PSYCHO ’98 intended as a critique rather than homage to the original? Was the Hitchcock film sexist or homophobic and is this remake designed to bring out these attitudes? Well, yes and no. It’s complicated. There were apparently few if any other films that killed off their lead before the half-way mark before PSYCHO and after PSYCHO any attempt to repeat the shock seem to strain with self-consciousness. (Kathyrn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER has perhaps come to the closest to pulling it off). This shock relies on our close identification with Marion Crane and for this reason; I don’t feel that PSYCHO could truthfully be called sexist or misogynistic. And yet her murder, nude in the shower, can’t help but have some erotic component to it particularly as this sequence is the most famous, most exciting, and most cinematic in the entire film.

            Additionally, once we accept that Marion is dead and gone our tight identification with a female character goes along with her. Right after the shower murder, there’s a great shot (duplicated in the Dilophosaurus/Dennis Nedry scene of JURASSIC PARK (or so I had belatedly convinced IMDB)) where the camera trucks over to the bag of money- the “MacGuffin”- as if to say “Now that the bitch is dead, let’s get back to what’s really important." The shot is unbelievably callous, not the least because the money barely re-enters the story again. (Similarly, the money surrogate in JURASSIC PARK—a shaving cream can full of dinosaur embryos-- is entirely forgotten about for the remainder of the film). If the death of Marion Crane has any more meaning in PSYCHO beyond salacious sadism, it is as a mere plot device.

            As for the homophobia, well I’m not really part of the community but I do feel in my gut that any representation is better than no representation. Not only was the film somewhat groundbreaking in its use of gore and nudity, this was one of the first major films to show a toilet and similarly there is a sense that a lot of the buried aspects of human life are being exposed for the first time. The debriefing by the psychiatrist at the end of the film, where he explicitly explains that Norman is not a homosexual or a transvestite, is interesting to me in that in 1960 it was probably intended to somewhat neutralize the deviancy of his actions by assuring us that they aren’t (homo)sexual in nature. Today, it registers as politically correct as though the filmmakers wanted to assure us that homosexuals and transvestites are not “psycho” like Norman. But regardless, these defenses are to a very real extent, mere excuses. Nebbish Norman Bates dresses up as his mother and murders women and this is intrinsically heteronormative rendering the homosexual (or rather those who do not fit the Ozzie and Harriet sexual mold) as “other” or deviant.

            Interestingly, Van Sant makes two small but significant deviations that alter our empathic identification with Marion and Norman. In reaction to Norman’s “a boy’s best friend is his mother” Marion now rolls her eyes. Much has been written about how Marion sees herself as similar to Norman in that they are both caught in “traps”, but she has the capacity to escape. This eye roll renders the point moot. She doesn’t identify with Norman because she knows that she is superior to him and his situation has nothing to do with her own. And then there’s the “peeping Tom” scene where Master Bates, well, now does his signature move. This doesn’t really confirm his heterosexuality as much as confirm his overall sexual deviance.  I say these deviations alter our identification with Marion and Norman, but they don’t exactly destroy them. In hating Marion, we are identifying with Norman and in hating Norman we are identifying with Marion. That empathy for both characters is still there, but indirectly, in the form of misanthropy. In the process, Van Sant’s remake emboldens as well as satirizes the ambivalently sexist and homophobic undertones of the original film.

            I left the most obvious albeit, perhaps, most significant irony of PSYCHO '98 for last. The story goes that Hitchcock made the original film so he could experience the joy of filmmaking again. He wanted to do something really quick, really simple, and really cheap and dirty. Just to blow the cobwebs away. There was also the sense that he felt he had to compete with Henri-Georges Clouzot who may have stolen his title as The Master of Suspense following DIABOLIQUE. Or that there were a lot of truly terrible exploitation movies coming out and he wanted to show everyone how to do this thing right. Any one or all three of these motivations seem perfectly plausible, but they all suggest that PSYCHO by design redeems or trumps its subject matter with pure style. That it was meant to illustrate Hitchcock’s dictum that worrying about content would be like a painter worrying about whether or not the apples he is painting are sour. PSYCHO would be an exercise in pure cinema.

            So then what does it say that a shot-by-shot remake of PSYCHO doesn’t really resemble the original? You could argue that the slight deviations that Van Sant made in the transcription created a monstrosity drastically different from the host. It seems to me though that the existence of PSYCHO 98 strongly challenges the legitimacy of formalist approaches toward film. Not only do broad highly political sociocultural influences (such as our understanding and attitude about gender) greatly influence our understanding of PSYCHO, but so does something as seemingly trivial as fashion. The original was shot in black-and-white to make it seem mundane. If it were shot in black-and-white in 1998, it would be affected and arty. PSYCHO was at trash by design and Hitchcock elevated it to level of art. And now under the hand of Van Sant, who takes it as seriously as the fucking Dead Sea scrolls, we can no longer comfortably classify it as either. 

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