Sunday, 26 October 2008

Psycho Remake And What Happens To Directors As They Age Or Die

The Psycho remake by Gus Van Sant, one of the most original directors working today, from a distance seems like a very important film in his development (kind of like Dead Ringers with Cronenberg, who went towards quieter subject matter) Here is the film, that while flawed, moved away from the mainstream narrative and was interested in people that as unknowable. Before this Van Sant seemed prone to having people talk too much about theme. After it, save a minor film, he went to the amazing films like Gerry and Elephant. It's ironic that he made the move within a film that's script is the mother of over-explanation (joke is intentional, couldn't resist).

The film is made from a real division. The Hitchcock original is visually brilliant (though very contained, only working within nightmare logic.) Norman Bates is a great, original character is a hodge-podge of every over-wrought theory on sex and violence (from mother-love to skinning to voyeurism to jealousy). They don't miss one and it doesn't make sense as a character when you think about it. But the dream logic on Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, trapped in their own polite private hells, more genuine and oddly British than any Merchant Ivory film has ever managed, has real resonance and manages to focus the stupid aspects of the story. Many of the talk scenes work beautifully even if they are only directed to surface readings, the cast doing deeper work than Hitchcock likely cared about. The end reveal is great as visual nightmare imagery, gives a lot of the undercurrent of fear that runs from the beginning but doesn't make a lick of sense as character. The last five minutes of the original is really bad. So I'm saying essentially that as visual entertainment its a stunner but as a script its got some woeful qualities.

The remake is interesting in that it insists on being shot by shot, is fascinating in many ways yet is hamstrung by the script flaws Hitchcock created. The remake doesn't go in for literal dream logic. Its a film about emotional distance. The people in it are confused, fidgety. The visual style is of rooms with far too much information, from the offices, to Norman's front office, to the stores. The film is very European in that it expresses this through colours that explode through clothes, lighting that is perfect and rich, full of life. Yet the framing, while studying Hitchcock, is not focusing on what Hitchcock loved, which was showing information, then more information, showing the logic of suspense and then making it loopy and neurotic, so the plot becomes nightmarish. This film obscures plot points through diluting focus by so much colour, so you follow but from more objective quality. And you see the people not sure how to interact with one another except through cliches, suspicion or over-expressed emotion that pops through and causes awkwardness. Eyes are always watching others. The Marion Crane voice-overs, while in the original showed plot information and signs of nervousness, now dominate with nervous energy and lack of focus from the main character. Norman Bates is seen in the remake as not a likable fresh-faced young man but instead is a lonely neurotic who isn't quite right. For me, all of this is fascinating. All of the polite notes of the original are betrayed in subtle ways, showing a different world. The talk in the back room in the original was terrific but here is very desperate, as Vince Vaughn, in one of his best performances, is a fidgeting, hollowed out scared freak. When Marion Crane is killed, Norman is not a character you care about following here, is distanced. As a character work its far more intriguing on some level than in the original, as it places the tortured killer in his proper place, is not damning, is viewing him as one of many confused souls. Unlike Hitchcock, Van Sant isn't abusing your natural sympathies by making you identify with a killer for what are actually weak reasons on a rational level (he seems so sweet and victimised) even though they have interesting aspects. This levelling out on the characters, as well as distance, means that the second half loses a little in momentum (But the Macy- Vaughn verbal duel is great). The killings also lose immediacy as you are both disturbed by and aliented from the characters more, and by the killings themselves not being Van Sant's strength. The nightmare logic of the final ten minutes, when Norman's demons are revealed don't have any punch. They do look weak and grabby towards psycho-analysis. It's a shame in that while Van Sant's visualising does a lot of great stuff on character and mood, the plot does hobble him. What's good about Vaughn's performance, that he is hollowed out, nervous tics that cover vacant, nervous emotions, also suggest darkness, that hints at what's coming. But they also suggest something more mysterious and open to interpretation that was written in the original script. Some of the plot suspense that Hitchcock liked, that in his closed-off world added threat when Norman bates seems nice, seems to waste time when you feel there's something wrong, due to performance.

So it's an unique film, far more fascinating than has been suggested on the remake's initial release. Hopefully people will begin to look at it more objectively. It may have a chance now as I don't think Hitchcock has the same cultural currency that he had when it was made. Hitchcock, it seems to me, is sort of like John Ford. He was of an era, was an entertainer who had great craft, who made a few great films that went beyond the limits of entertainments, had lots of interesting instincts. But to be a real lasting artist never really made enough great films, was not focused enough on what his work was about. I think in the last ten years Hitchcock has fallen away a little. Everything you can write about him, from Catholicism, Freud, use of suspense, misogyny, has been written. There's nothing really left. He's not as interesting as a person or as a director as Welles, Murnau or Kubrick, not to mention European masters like Bression, Antonioni, Bergman or Bunuel (if you want pervert as artist, he's the real deal), nor the Japanese genius of Ozu. He's not even as interesting as a British director as Powell-Pressenger, who made more great films, were consistent, hugely under-explored. All of these difficult directors have had far less writing done on them, probably because they are more difficult as subject matters. Hitchcock at the moment is in a slump. It'll be interesting to see what his real legacy is, as it is forming.

Directors are odd as they age. After death they become geniuses for five years then a lapse. When they come back into interest, they always seem different, as if now complete and following a period of what could have been. Someone like Hitchcock is defined already, wouldn't have gotten better as there was little curiosity. Someone like Wells you can't help but wonder. As the movie brats approach the age when some will soon likely start dying, it'll be interesting to see what occurs. Will Speilberg and Scorsese last much beyond their deaths? My bet is Coppola will get the long-term praise, as his seventies work still towers above all else. His failings will mean he's less praised than people such as Bresson but he seems the most interesting still.

Of the younger generation, still in the potential, its a little bleak. Cronenberg, Malick and Van Sant seem to have gotten a second wind, Schrader remain interesting but of the younger generation from them there's a slight dullness and collapse that seems reminiscent of the movie brats in the early eighties. Fincher made Zodiac, a toweringly dull film with no character or point, following Panic Room, an over-produced tech exercise with no ambition. He seems so focused on technical aspects that he ignores content now. Paul Thomas Anderson is doing good work now but not great. He always seems poised but seems better at craft than having an over-view of what he wants to do with his film. The Coens seem to be faltering uninterestingly between too broad comedies and humourless dramas but seem to have lost a spark, especially with dialogue, their great strength. Wes Anderson is faltering badly. His first two films were wonderful, the next two good but a tad ill-defined but still great mood. Now The Darjeeling Limited is such a bad film, so under-written and terminably stupid that it's hard to work out what the hell is happening with him. Essentially, is he aiming to be like Preston Sturges, once great, now a has-been after a brief flush. Alexander Payne seems focused on being horrendously smug and pretentious, Tarantino gone la-la on his movie geek fixation (but he doesn't, to me, seem terminal as of yet), Sofia Coppola interesting but too vague as of yet. You wait for some passion from her. Other people of interest are the Wachowski brothers, who like Fincher seem to be a bit too technophile but have more ambition (when they go wrong at least its wrong in ways that you think, that's interesting) So they seem to have promise, although they could avoid stating the subtext so much. As could Christopher Nolan, another director interested in visualising ideas, even though he can be a bit tin-eared. But his fascination with self-destructive duality obsessed loners is pleasing. Let's hope he starts watching Melville movies. Aaronofsky I never really liked and The Fountain makes me not want to bother any more. One of the more interesting directors came a few years ago, is from this generation. Adam McKay does Will Ferrell comedies but is such an inventive entertainer with Anchorman and such-like, that he's just as original as the others mentioned. And more consistent. Of course the king of inconsistency is Steven Soderberg, who is all over the place, but does make interesting films generally (save a few Ocean's films) and recent films like Solaris and Bubble and the promise of the forthcoming Che make you wish more directors were as nuts as he obviously is. He still seems the brightest hope of this bunch. Hopefully the above is just a sign of looking at a weak moment of this generation and not the sign of something going horrendously wrong.

Anyway, over-long rant over, go see Psycho remake. It's really interesting.

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