My Year Of Flops Case File #103 Psycho (1998)
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The triumph and tragedy of Anthony Perkins' career is that he could never stop being Norman Bates. When you're famous for playing a crazy baseball player (1957's Fear Strikes Out), a crazy motel proprietor (1960's Psycho), and a crazy crazy person (1968's Pretty Poison), romantic leading man roles in light comedies are probably out of the question. The Tiger Beat demographic was never within his reach.
The unexpected triumph of Vince Vaughn, meanwhile, is that he couldn't even convincingly be Norman Bates for 105 minutes. Vaughn should have sent Gus Van Sant a fruit basket after Psycho's disastrous first weekend for fucking up the remake so badly that no one would ever associate Vaughn with Norman Bates, let alone try to typecast him as a sexually tormented lunatic.
For Perkins, Bates was a cross to bear, an identity he couldn't shed, a blessing and a curse. For Vaughn, the role was simply a bump in the road, a part he played and discarded on his way to big-ass paychecks for doing variations on his finely honed persona as the charmingly obnoxious overgrown frat boy who fucked your girlfriend.
Bates haunts Perkins even in death. Watching Gus Van Sant's sorta-interesting-in-theory, really-painful-in-practice 1998 remake of Psycho, I was struck by a strange notion: Why didn't they have Perkins play Mama Bates' skeleton? It certainly would have been a big improvement over the skeleton they ended up using, which looks like it was stolen from a haunted house in a low-rent carnival.
All Van Sant would have to do is get a production assistant drunk, then offer to read their screenplay, and possibly even show it to his close personal friend Ben Affleck on the condition that they dig up Anthony Perkins' corpse, slip an old-timey dress on his skeleton, and deliver it to the prop department. Some folks have no fucking commitment whatsoever.
Van Sant's perversely faithful remake of Psycho engages in a much less elegant, playful form of cinematic grave robbery. Van Sant famously vowed to make a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho that would be exactly like the original, except, of course, for the parts that would of course be different. It would be entirely the same, only not the same.
Though the scripts and shots they chose are essentially identical, Hitchcock and Van Sant approached the material from antithetical places. When he made Psycho, Hitchcock was a revered filmmaker deliberately making a movie that would be nasty, viscerally shocking, and shot on the cheap in black and white using the low-budget crew of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The brown paper bag of a title says it all: this was pure pulp, a cinematic punch to the gut from a filmmaker who generally opted for a more sophisticated, continental brand of suspense.
It was also a master class in misdirection. The predatory anti-heroine who steals a small fortune becomes the prey while the meek victim of an innkeeper is revealed to be a deranged murderer. A white-knuckle down and dirty hard-boiled noir about a sick woman who makes off with serious scratch morphs unexpectedly into a psychological horror film. The protagonist never even makes it to the halfway point and a seemingly major supporting character–the innkeeper's demented, hectoring mother–is revealed to have died a decade earlier.
Van Sant, in sharp contrast, was making the film more or less as an art school lark, a self-indulgent post-modern experiment made possible by the unexpected success of Good Will Hunting. Within the timeline of Van Sant's career, the film fell somewhere between making Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, and Matt Damon Oscar-winners with Good Will Hunting and Sean Connery telling Rob Brown that he's the man now, dawg, in Finding Forrester.
Van Sant's artsy debacle asks some intriguing, yet easily answerable questions about the nature of art and genius. Can genius be replicated? Can it be cloned using the creative DNA of an earlier masterpiece as its source material? Or is true genius ineffable, tricky and elusive, as difficult to pin down or recreate as a massive hurricane or freak storm? The answers, respectively, are no, no, and yes.
Van Sant's miscalculations begin with casting Anne Heche (remember her?) as a woman with a dark secret at a time when Heche was notorious for not being able to keep anything about herself or her personal life secret. I could be misremembering things but I vaguely recall Heche and Ellen Degeneres showing up at my apartment unexpectedly in Madison sometime in the late '90s to deliver an hour-long presentation on their sex life. It was all part of Heche's noble campaign to educate–no edutain–America about what was going on with her vagina. In that respect, she was clearly following in the footsteps of Marilyn Manson (http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28771).
Heche's one-woman campaign of unnecessary self-disclosure achieved its desired aims, however. Eventually our nation simply threw up its hands and said "Yes, yes, yes, marry, adopt children heck, join fraternities and professional football teams for all we care. Just stop telling us about your fucking sex life." If only politicians had listened.
Heche here plays a bored career gal who impulsively decides to make off with $400,000 from her employer. While hotfooting it out of town, Heche stops for the night at creepy old Bates Motel, where she and fidgety proprietor Vince Vaughn share a drink they call loneliness cause it's better than drinking alone. Vast universes divide these two lost characters yet they're united by isolation. Heche's loneliness however is temporary; it's the alienation of having done something criminal and wrong that she can't possibly share with the world. For Vaughn, however, that loneliness is permanent and terminal, something he'll take to the grave.
This scene marks the pinnacle of Vaughn's otherwise misfiring performance. Part of the problem is physical. Much of what made Perkins such an effective and surprising killer is that he's unassuming physically and mentally. He looks like someone who wouldn't harm a fly. He's slight and creepily androgynous where Vaughan looks like a college wrestler. There's an underlying vulnerability and sadness to Perkins' performance that Vaughn recaptures only during his scenes with Heche and then only fitfully. Vaughn simply can't get inside the character's tormented psyche; his laugh, a sort of trilling high-pitched nervous giggle that gets stuck in the throat, feels theatrical and forced. It's an inveterate jock's feeble attempt to channel what it must be like to be the weird, foul-smelling kid at the long table whose mom writes bible verses in longhand on his lunch bag. Once Heche exits the film, Vaughn's Bates seems less tragic and tormented than pissy and unpleasant.
Also, there is masturbation. And bare asses. Lots and lots of bare asses–male and female alike. In perhaps the film's biggest detour from the original–other than, you know, being in color and sucking–Vaughn gazes at Heche through a peephole and engages in feral, vaguely simian masturbation. Does this really add anything? In what universe does artlessly spelling everything out qualify as an improvement over inference and subtext? It'd be like remaking Citizen Kane, but changing the protagonist's last words to "Rosebud which incidentally was the name of my childhood sled and represents a lost childhood Eden of innocence and purity that throws the materialist emptiness of my adulthood into even sharper relief. Alas, I've said too much and now I must die, mysteriously. Or not."
Then comes a riotously anti-climactic shower sequence. Arguably the most famous bloody scene of all time is rendered paradoxically bloodless and lifeless. In Van Sant's retelling, it feels like a bad cover song; the notes are the same but the soul is sorely lacking. The shower scene highlights another of the film's fatal flaws. The novelty and surprise of the original are long gone. Audiences were understandably shocked to see an ostensible heroine get brutally murdered halfway through a film back in 1960. Audiences in 1998, however, were waiting patiently to see how Van Sant would handle one of film's most iconic sequences. And oh dear blessed Lord did he ever disappoint.
After Heche's disappearance, sharp-witted shamus William H. Macy goes looking for her, as does Heche's sister (Julianne Moore) and Heche's lover (Viggo Mortenson, augmented by a distracting 'Suthin accent). In his interview with the A.V Club, Macy argued that his primary job as an actor involves bending other actors to his will. In his first/only scene with Vaughn, he bulldozes gloriously over the innkeepers' evasions and nervous stonewalling. Yet even here, Macy's perspicacity almost works against him; he's such a smart cookie you half expect him to haul Vaughn off to the police station mere minutes into grilling him for the first time.
When Vaughn murders Macy, Van Sant indulges in a pair of shock cuts from Macy plunging backwards as Vaughan stabs him to jarring, brief images of a masked, nearly naked woman in a sordid erotic tableau and a cow in the middle of the road, footage apparently left over from Van Sant's first student film or an early Marilyn Manson video. It's an addition that adds exactly nothing. The part where Moore says, "let me get my Walkman," however, came close to single-handedly redeeming the film; I can't for the life of me figure out why there weren't more references to Walkmen in the original. It makes me so angry I want to dig up Hitchcock's corpse, put a dress on it, and slap it around a little. See, you can never have too many gratuitous grave-robbing references.
From there, it's simply a matter of biding time until the big reveal about the true nature of Momma Bates and her loving son and shrinkologist Robert Forster explaining to the audience that poor old Norman Bates went a little nuts after killing his mom and her lover.
The problem with Gus Van Sant's Psycho is that it's a dry academic exercise that never feels like anything other than, well, a dry academic exercise. Van Sant's much-maligned folly ultimately belongs not in a movie theater or a drive-in, but in a fancy pants conceptual art museum in a wing devoted to pretentious experiments in pointlessness.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco