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Psycho vs. Psycho
Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all.
"Mother's not herself today," Norman Bates famously tells Marion Crane in Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho. He says the same thing again in Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot 1998 remake—though the quote is, in the new context, not quite itself. In the original, the double meaning is that Bates' mother is not Bates' mother; Bates killed her ten years before and has been speaking for her ever since. In the remake, though, the insinuation also refers to the remake itself. Mother is not Mother because it's the wrong film; the corpse that's being propped up is the old woman, but it's also the film in which the old woman doesn't appear...and then doesn't appear.
Van Sant's remake was pilloried on release, and is still considered for the most part an egregious exercise in self-aggrandizing bad taste—a kind of camp faux pas. But it shouldn't be that hard to understand that a film about cross-dressing and the closet calls for a camp revisiting, or redressing, as the case may be. Van Sant's obsessively loyal, ersatz reenactment mirrors Norman's obsessively loyal ersatz reenactment. That makes Hitchcock here less a forefather than a foremother, which (given Hitchcock's misogyny and homophobia) turns the film's sincere tribute into a kind of parody, and a reclamation.
Van Sant's remake is, again, extremely faithful, reproducing shots, soundtrack, and plot virtually beat for beat. Part of the pleasure of the film is waiting to see how exactly the 1998 version will reproduce each detail—the virtuoso opening shot which swoops in from the skyline to the lovers' hotel tryst; Marion's smile when she remembers how she flirted her way into a pile of stolen cash; of course the shower scene. It's like watching the original with a dedicated fan, eagerly pointing out favorite moments—those moments being the entire film.
There are, inevitably, differences. The movie is in (bright, saturated) color rather than black-and-white. The actors are (obviously) different people, with slightly different takes on the characters—Anne Heche's Marion has a less nuanced moral conflict than Janet Leigh's; Vince Vaughan's Norman is physically more imposing. Some of the sexual subtext is more explicit; Norman masturbates watching Marion naked through the hole in the wall. The death scenes are intercut with quick dream images (a rolling cloudburst for Marion, a cow in a field for the detective). And the movie is set in 1998, rather than in 1960, so clothing styles, the amount of money stolen and some technology has been updated. Julianne Moore as Marion's sister Lila wears a walkman most of the time she's on screen.
The chronological updating isn't perfect, though; the private detective, Milton Arbogast (William H. Macy), wears a hat and cheap suit that are basically the same as his Hitchcockian prototype. It's hard to imagine Marion's office wouldn't have air conditioning in Arizona in the 90s.
It also strains credulity that Marion and her divorced boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen) would see their relationship as semi-shameful or logistically impossible in 1998. He’s broke and is paying alimony, but surely they’d be able to save more money together in one city rather than keeping two residences and having him travel in. There’s not the same expectation that the guy will make all the money in 1998, and not the same shame associated with dating before marriage. Four hundred thousand is always a temptation, but the gendered expectations which made Marion’s situation seem impossible are largely lifted, which undercuts the entire plot.
Some critics have found these inconsistencies off-putting. But (as those dream images signal) Van Sant isn't going for the realistic verisimilitude of the original. Instead, he's subtly emphasizing that the film is not real and that its presuppositions are not natural. Hitchcock's Marion Crane was a deviant woman, whose relationship to feminity was disordered ; that's the core of her criminality and of her punishment at the hands of equally queer and disordered Norman.
But in Van Sant, the normative expectations are themselves out of sync and out of order; Marion is not herself because, in 1998, her discomfort with her own gendered role no longer exactly makes sense. She isn't a criminal because she's an overly sexual woman. She's a criminal because Hitchcock writes her as a criminal. Which is a critique—as is the fact that in Van Sant's version, it's Lili who subdues Norman with a kick to the head, rather than just standing there and watching Sam save her.
Hitchcock's Psycho is a film which is masterfully, perfectly orchestrated as a denunciation and sadistic punishment of deviance and violation of the patriarchal, masterful order. Van Sant's imitation is a performance of mastery, which also in this context makes it a performance of patriarchy—a gay man dressed up as a straight man, hyperbolically (and parodically?) revealing the evils of cross-dressing (literal and metaphorical.) Van Sant is taking one of cinema's most influential, most viciously homophobic texts and claiming it for himself by reproducing it (just about) exactly, save for adding more color, more sex, and an awareness that the repressive sexual mores of 1960 are timebound, rather than universal truths.
Philip Core says that camp is "the lie that tells the truth." The truthful lie in Van Sant's Psycho is that this is the original Pyscho—and that it is not. The director is not himself; the deviant is not himself. They are each other. The crimes of Hitchcock's Psycho are theft and imitation. Van Sant turns those into an aesthetic and, I think, into a triumph of queer cinema.
Update: After this went live, as I was thinking about it more, I realized that this film was released while Anne Heche was dating Ellen; she was one of the most visible queer actors in Hollywood at the time. The choice both highlights Marion’s failure to conform to gender norms, and makes it clear that Hitchcock’s cross-dressing killer is specifically assaulting queer people and queer identity. It’s a brilliant choice, and a flamboyantly obvious one—though I don’t think I’ve seen a single critic comment on it.
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