Now that Gus Van Sant’s voodoo-reenactment of Psycho has had its day in court, little else requires address besides the simple fact that the film’s most distinctive characteristic is that it doesn’t have one— it has only what the 38-year-old original had, except originality and radical impact. Hitchcock’s shots, compositions, cuts, and cadences were followed precisely enough to ensure the new film’s almost masterful inessentiality. As everyone crowed prior to the movie’s unpreviewed premiere: Are they psycho?
Apparently. The doggish fidelity to both Hitchcock’s film and his promotional secrecy did not, as the more idealistic of us had hoped, mean that Van Sant was going to be literally Hitchcockian and surprise us with some significant species of textual tweak. What’s the point, indeed— Van Sant’s team seems to have gotten off on the exercise, not the product. It can hardly be said that Van Sant’s movie made a great case for classic movie “covers,” just as Dylan covers are only worth the tape if they sound substantially un-Dylan-esque. Van Sant himself has gone on record saying that most remakes screw things up by deviating from the original, but his solution has the creative prowess of a Xerox staffer. Watching Psycho‘s overfamiliar tropes reconstituted so unimaginatively, I couldn’t help but think that Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, et al. were actually contestants on Don Adams’ Screen Test, a 1974 prime-time game show in which civilians and guest celebrities acted out scenes from pre-AMC warhorses like Double Indemnity and On the Waterfront, the result scanning like a kind of cinephiliac Mad Libs. For all of Van Sant’s claim to pomo Warholization (of which his film is the unironic inverse), the 1998 Psycho is less the second, superior Quixote by Borges’s Pierre Menard than the recycled vacuum Borges was lampooning.
At any rate, it’s hardly an innocent cine-fetish in the manner of Wade Williams’s obscure, 1991 remake of Detour, which was shown once at Film Forum. Out of pure fanaticism, Williams tried his damnedest to bring the Edgar G. Ulmer noir back to life, convincing look-alike Tom Neal Jr. to play his father (whose career had ended with a jail sentence after he shot and killed Jr.’s mother) playing the lead role. Williams shot along the same stretch of Arizona highway with the same camera model Ulmer used in 1945, built sets with the same constricting dimensions as the original, employed the same lighting and
lenses, and used the same car— not the same model, the same car, a ’41 Lincoln convertible Williams tracked down in Boston. Williams did take liberties, shooting, in Ulmerian style, scenes from the Martin Goldsmith novel Ulmer couldn’t squeeze into his four-day window. But much more vital and honest than Van Sant’s careful emulation of the ’60s’ most scrupulously engineered Hollywood film, Williams’s movie has the desperate charge of a primitive cinematic ritual, performed out of ardor and awe, not opportunity.