Mother Knows Best

Gay puree: Anne Heche in Gus Van Sant's Psycho

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Tempting as it is for me to follow suit with director Gus Van Sant by simply retyping someone else's 800-word review of the original Psycho (perhaps adding a few colorful sex jokes here and there to make it more contemporary), I'll dare instead to break the vicious cycle of appropriation by writing something personal.

The first of my 30-odd encounters with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho came courtesy of a late-night TV airing in the mid-'70s. The local station (Channel 9 in Minneapolis, I think) was running a horribly battered and warped-sounding 16mm print that must have broken in the projector no fewer than four times even before the shower scene. (I realize this quaint experience of technical difficulties with Psycho couldn't compare to the thrill of seeing the film upon its release in 1960; but in the picture-perfect era of DSS and DVD, I do believe my memory of broadcast interruptus will remain a unique one.)

My dear mother--who had seen Psycho with Dad during the first year of their courtship, and barely survived it--naturally had strong reservations about this proto-slasher film's suitability for her 8-year-old. But after enduring an entire Saturday of her son's desperate pleas, Mrs. Nelson threw in the towel, turning a blind eye to my cinephilia while I watched the movie in the dark after bedtime. (This wouldn't be the last time Mom graciously turned her parental guidance into something like film-school tuition.) Anyway, my childhood appreciation of this very adult movie was no doubt enhanced by the illicit nature of the whole affair--akin, perhaps, to the guilty pleasure that fellow mama's boy Norman Bates feels while peeping at his soon-to-be-stabbed motel guest through the secret hole in Cabin 1. Hmmm. Funny how Psycho has a way of bringing us all back to Mother.

Now here's the rub: In the new, full-color Psycho, Norman (Vince Vaughn) masturbates (sorry, Mom) while gazing at half-naked Marion Crane (Anne Heche) through the peephole--you know, to make it more contemporary. Still, for me, the remake's chief offense had occurred much earlier: Indeed, not counting the green-tinted credit sequence, it took all of one minute for this open-minded Hitchcock fan to lose faith in Van Sant's audacious pseudo Psycho.

The replica's opening bird's-eye shot swoops majestically from the Phoenix skyline straight into the cheap hotel room where Marion is enjoying a lunch-hour nibble with her lover (Viggo Mortensen)--too majestically, in fact. The way Hitchcock filmed it, the camera pauses ever so slightly at the window before penetrating Marion's safe space: a condition of early '60s crane-shot limitations, but also the perfect representation of the film's very human regard for the power of its omniscience. Seeming aware of the heroine's violent fate, Hitchcock stops to weigh the ethical question of whether to reveal that fate on-screen is also to seal it. (To avoid Van Santian plagiarism here, some credit for this idea must go to Hitchcock scholar William Rothman.) Conversely, Van Sant plunges into Marion's world without a moment's hesitation (simply because he can, I suppose), proving himself an idiot for not understanding (or heeding) this cinematographic gesture that for any true Psycho buff is central to the film and its meaning.

In other words, Van Sant appears to dress up as the Master of Suspense, although wearing the clothes hardly prevents him from making this Psycho his own. Whereas Hitch often claimed to treat his actors like "cattle" while somehow eliciting deeply humane performances, the maker of To Die For blatantly directs Heche to play Marion as a flighty bimbo who deserves what she gets. Small wonder the only scenes with any drama or empathy or eroticism here are between men (note the distinct swish in the new Norman's step, for one thing), while the added image of dead Marion hanging over the tub with her legs spread and her bare ass sticking high up in the air (gee, Gus, what compassion you have) unwittingly betrays the vulgar emptiness of the whole exercise.

Suffice it to say the '98 Psycho is a true fin de siècle, end-of-art kind of movie. Rarely boring, it gives one the sense of big issues at stake, of questions being raised about art and entertainment, admiration and opportunism, pastiche and homage. Perhaps it'll even pave the way for future "artists" such as Van Sant to spare themselves the effort of actually filming their remakes. Already my mother and I mourn the day when some AVID editor will dare to digitally tweak Vertigo, spinning it into a virtual romantic comedy starring computer-directed replicas of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

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