Why Glenn Dunks adores… Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO

24 Jun

Welcome back to WHY I ADORE…! This week, in addition to the usual lush surrounds and plentiful beverages of WIA HQ, we’ve built an extension on to the place… A hotel/motel, if you will. 13 rooms, 13 vacancies…

This week’s Adorer — or, should I say,  concierge — is Glenn Dunks, a Melbourne film writer who is better known to film lovers for his excellent blog STALE POPCORN, which both challenges and amuses with discussion and analysis of any and all cinematic topics, both serious and frivolous, prevalent and obscure. Glenn’s blogs are always wonderfully written and incredibly well-researched, whether he’s breaking down a scene, analysing a movie poster, or crushing on a hot actor from the 1980s. But today, allow Glenn to show you your room, as you settle in, relax…

…and take a shower…

The last mainstream experimental film.

That’s the way I see Gus Van Sant’s controversial remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal masterwork Psycho. The 1960 original recently turned 50 years old so it’s only fitting that it has been on my brain a bit lately. However, unlike a lot of people, my brain also tends to flitter towards Van Sant’s version. I don’t consider it perfect cinema like I do Hitchcock’s version, but I think the remake presents an entirely different viewing experience. A successful one, too. Something akin to watching David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, actually, wherein I sit there with shocked curiosity. Just what is Gus Van Sant doing and why is he doing it? To take a theory from Nick Davis of Nick’s Flick Picks, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is like his own personal take on Andy Warhol’s soup can series of artworks.

I consider the 1998 Psycho to be one of the most fascinating films of the last 20 years. I know many people throw scorn upon it, ask “how dare it,” and call the idea of a Psycho remake “blasphemous,” yet I doubt even those people could say it failed to achieve Van Sant’s mission to provoke discussion, thought and – in some cases – madness. If nothing else, Van Sant probably made his version of the tale of Norman Bates so that nobody else could. To prove how utterly fruitless it is to do it, even as a “shot for shot” (it largely is, but there are some discrepancies), and to prove that just because a movie is in colour, and lit in bright neon lights as “NEW,” doesn’t make it better, which is a belief many young audiences seem to have.

I look at Psycho circa ’98 as an experimental film. It is rare to find an experimental film emerge from Hollywood, but here it is. Directed by a recent Oscar nominee with a cast of recognisable and acclaimed actors, it certainly reads as a mainstream project – and it debuted at #2 at the box office behind Pixar’s A Bug’s Life before rapidly descending down the chart – but anybody who considers this a mainstream offering is sorely mistaken. It is, however, hilarious in retrospect (I was too young at the time to fully appreciate it) to think that audiences were lining up to purchase tickets to this movie (I did; I saw it with my mother, who somewhat enjoyed the experience) that amounted to nothing more than a director playing with his filmmaking tools and trying to mess with them as much as possible.

Speaking of “recent Oscar nominee” Gus Van Sant, am I the only one who sees this as the ultimate “fuck you” to audiences and the Academy? Having spent years making fringe movies about queer or decidedly off-colour topics, such as My Own Private Idaho, To Die For and Drugstore Cowboy, many must’ve thought, “Isn’t it lovely that Gus Van Sant guy is making movies I can actually watch?” That Psycho came immediately after Van Sant’s mainstream breakthrough with Good Will Hunting is not to be taken lightly. Much like he followed up Finding Forrester with the two-guys-get-lost-in-the-desert-and-then-one-of-them-dies-and-that’s-about-it Gerry, Psycho, I feel, was a palate cleanser for Van Sant. He had broken through with a movie starring a pretty Matt Damon and a dramatic Robin Williams (of all people) and retaliated by producing and directing a remake of one of the most beloved films of all time.

One of the things that Van Sant clearly did to truly infuriate people was the casting. Who he cast is just as fascinating as anything else about this project. Anne Heche as “Marion Crane” is an interesting one. Much like Van Sant, Heche was openly out in Hollywood and her casting came at a time of much breakout success for her. Perhaps Van Sant just cast her because her at-the-time famous cropped hair was similar to Leigh’s original ‘do, or maybe he found particular irony in the casting of an out actress in a role that involves running away from a city that she finds herself particularly difficult to be herself in (Marion suggests she and her lover, Sam, go out of town so they can be public with their love affair, you see?). Why did they cast Vince Vaughn in the role made famous by Anthony Perkins? Certainly against type, and one aspect of the remake that I admit doesn’t work, although I think there’s a strangely compelling similarity between the personas of Vaughn and Heche. They fit together like two odd peas in an odd pod; it’s just that Vaughn isn’t particularly good. I am not sure how anybody can not admit that actors with the stature of Julianne Moore, William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Robert Forster wanting to take roles in this movie is intriguing. And what of Viggo Mortensen who, some way somehow, made two Alfred Hitchcock remakes in one year (the other being A Perfect Murder, remake of Hitch’s Dial M for Murder).

And then there are the technical aspects. It’s actually quite impressive to watch Psycho and see John L Russell’s black and white cinematography replicated so well by the brilliant and gifted Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, or to hear Bernard Hermann’s famed score replicated by Danny Elfman. The film certainly looks lush and is filled with bright, immaculate colours and, in fact, the movie is as much an experimentation of colour than anything else. How about the green of the opening credits, Marion’s orange bra (no longer simply white for good and black for evil), or her hot pink suit and, pardon the perv, the fleshy pink of Viggo Mortensen’s bare arse are just some that leap out within the first five minutes alone. And then what about Marion’s bright orange dress and parasol? The green dressing gown, the bright red of the blood or of Julianne Moore’s hair and the neon blue of Viggo’s car? All add to the vibrancy of the movie.

I also cannot deny that I think Anne Heche is fantastic in her role. Heche has a harsher on screen persona than Leigh did in the original, which tends to actually make her more believable as Marion Crane. Where the original set her up as clearly good at the beginning and bad by the 30 minute mark (again, note the colour of the bra Janet Leigh wears), Heche’s Marion comes off as being far more seduced by the idea of the money and the romance before realising her idiocy. Heche’s Marion knows she’s in deep shit. Perhaps that comes from knowing from the outset what Marion does, and that there isn’t such a need to present to the audience a faux nice girl whose misfortune is the big shock we never saw coming.

There’s just something about Anne Heche, even the tone of her voice, that makes me wish her career hadn’t flatlined after the glorious run of movies such as Donnie Brasco, Wag the Dog, Six Days and Seven Nights and this here Psycho. In fact, if one pays careful attention, you can see a poster for that Harrison Ford co-starrer in the scene where Heche’s Marion visits the car dealership, which adds an altogether different layer of texture onto the film. What world does this movie live in and why can’t I visit it?

I think there’s something to be said about the passing of time with this film, too. A good 38 years had gone by between Hitchcock’s original and Van Sant’s take, and I think this remake acts as the most glowing and praiseworthy critical assessment of Hitchcock’s film that has, can and will ever be. People have spent decades studying this film and yet no piece of film criticism can come quite to the level of outright lust for Psycho that this remake presents. Gus Van Sant loves Psycho. There is a reason he remade it “shot for shot” and it’s because he thought it couldn’t be improved upon. Van Sant even set the movie in the modern times to prove how timeless Hitchcock’s Psycho is. There is truly nothing that can be done to improve upon it, so Van Sant didn’t bother. He merely took Hitchcock’s blueprint and reproduced it. Now nobody in their right mind will ever consider doing it ever again and in another 50 years when Psycho turns 100 we will still be able to discuss it without the taint of some silly young upstart music video director thinking he had the balls to take “a new spin” on it. I enjoy the more modest sequels to Psycho that were produced 23 and 26 years after the original, but even they tarnish the legacy of the original more so than the remake. The remake is love.

For me, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is a beguiling art project and, like the best art, I could stare at it all day. I can tell it is a forgery – if you want to use art lingo – but that doesn’t stop it from being an equally impressive display of filmmaking in its own right. It is fluid and impeccably designed and no other director before or since (to my knowledge) has been so upfront about their obvious case of Copycat Syndrome. Considering a good 70-80% of the films today labelled as “original” by their authors are arguably inspired by others, isn’t Van Sant just being open. Open like he wishes the characters here could be to one another, but who are ultimately let down by their own inadequacies. And that’s why I adore Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Lastly, as anybody who reads my blog Stale Popcorn will be able to tell you, I adore (there’s that word again) movie posters. The one aspect that Gus Van Sant’s Psycho truly surpasses Hitchcock’s original is in that department. The 1960 original has a plain poster, whereas the 1998 remake has carte blanche to revel in the film’s big scene – Hitchcock, not wanting to spoil anything simply has his cast assembled on the 1960 poster – and turns this blood red bloodbath (bloodshower?) into the central focus of the poster. With Anne Heche’s body perhaps exemplifying the “sexier” version of the film that was being sold (it is not sexier, just flesh-toned) with her fingers that look like claws and that cheeky tagline, I adore that almost as much as the movie itself. Psycho ’98 is one of my own personal treasures that I will adore for completely different and alternate reasons that I adore Hitchcock’s version for. And I think Gus Van Sant would be happy to know that.

– Glenn Dunks


3 Responses to “Why Glenn Dunks adores… Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO”

  1. Matt Riviera June 24, 2010 at 2:43 pm #


    I’m a 100% behind you on this one.

    (with a knife).

  2. Simon/Ripley June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    Excellent, sir. I’m rather mixed on the remake–Anne Heche struck me more as ditsy than disillusioned–but I’ll probably rewatch it some.

  3. film is nothing June 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    I enjoyed reading Glenn Dunks’ Psycho love-letter so much; I dug up, from boxes in the garage, my own copy of the film, which hadn’t seen the light of day in nine years. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. So much so, that I created two two-frame gifs from it:

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