Performing Hitchcock: Authorship, Imitation, and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho
When Gus Van Sant directed a self-styled “shot-for-shot” remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1998, the remake’s marketing evaded the common perception of a remake as expanding or improving upon its predecessor. It was widely reported that a bulk of the original dialogue and Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène were painstakingly replicated in Van Sant’s film, an act of transposition from the 1960s into the late nineties, which provided apparent little room for significant revision (Cziraky 5). Even Van Sant’s claim that “Most of [Hitchcock’s] shots are in the film” (Eby 3) reads as playfully expectant of plagiarism charges. Yet the effects of a 1960 film are notably different when they reoccur in the context of a different decade, and the late nineties — a period notable for the release of many notable metatextual horror films — was an ideal era for such an exercise in adaptation. This framework displaces a straightforward reading of Van Sant’s intents, yet this factor is routinely missed by critics who frequently cite Psycho 98 as both a pointless experiment and a cash-grab unable to capture the effect of Hitchcock’s earlier film. Derek Adams lambasts the remake’s veracity to its source, arguing that “given the schizophrenia theme, you end up watching it in mental split-screen, and of course the b/w version in your head is far superior to the intermittently effective academic exercise playing before your eyes,” and contends, “Hitchcock probably wouldn't tell this story if he was making films today” (Time Out). Such critique may overlook the actual aim of Psycho 98, which is not to recreate the experience of seeing Hitchcock’s film, but to question Psycho 60’s place in popular culture. In 1998, “meta” horror films for savvy audiences saturated the market in the wake of the success of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), a horror film that relies upon the viewer’s awareness of slasher genre conventions to craft an ironic deconstruction of its own clichés. Not only does Van Sant anticipate viewer awareness, but he also relies upon the viewer’s prior knowledge of the source Psycho 98 imitates, going as far as referring to his version as a “schizophrenic twin” of Psycho (Canet 21). A significant aspect of Van Sant’s subversion is the unusual choice of casting Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche as the leads. Vaughn lacks the boyish eccentricity that Anthony Perkins previously brought to the role of the voyeuristic Norman Bates. As a result, Vaughn’s “straighter” presence feels jarring and out-of-place. Heche reprises Janet Leigh’s role as Marion Crane, the subject of Norman’s predatory gaze, and embodies the character in an unglamorous way that feels like a reversal of the conventional Hitchcockian leading lady. By casting actors who play against the types established in the original film, Psycho 98 makes it clear Hitchcock’s surprises have been lost to time. Since many viewers of Van Sant’s film would be aware of Psycho 60’s twists, the element of surprise is markedly absent; it is therefore safe to surmise that while Van Sant’s film exhibits a high degree of superficial similarities to Psycho 60, the films are distinctly separate entities that harbor their own individual aims. As a result, Van Sant’s film leans heavily into postmodernism, superimposing minority authorship upon Hitchcock’s work using metatextuality so common in popular horror cinema of the 1990s. Van Sant’s variation of Psycho is often misunderstood for its metatextual qualities and minority authorship, which are illuminated by the film’s casting. By unpacking the discontents of Psycho 98’s proclaimed shot-for-shot remake status, we are better able to shed light on the sexual politics of Hitchcock’s film and its impact on the conception of gender identity in horror cinema.
Each version of the film follows the same plot trajectory, which inextricably ties the remake to its predecessor — far more than a mere retread, the remake invites the viewer to frequently recall Hitchcock’s film at virtually every set piece. Building layers upon the 1960 film, Psycho 98 complicates its deceptively straightforward plotting and reveals the incoherencies implicit within the plot, particularly regarding Psycho 60’s views on gender and transsexuality. In both films, Marion embezzles $40,000 (amended to $400,000 in 1998) and flees town to start a new life with her boyfriend, Sam (originally John Gavin; Viggo Mortensen in 98). Marion’s trip is cut short when she checks in to a motel and meets the proprietor, Norman Bates, the apparent caretaker of his disabled mother. After Norman’s mother apparently stabs Marion to death in the shower, Norman assumes the status of nominal leading man. In the second half of the film, Norman becomes implicated in his mother’s crimes, warding off a prying detective Arboghast (Martin Balsam/William H. Macy), Sam, and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles/Julianne Moore), who sense something is awry at the Bates Motel during the search for Marion. Finally, it is revealed Norman actually murdered Marion after assuming his mother’s identity by dressing in her clothes to enact his murderous instincts. This revelation is among the most duplicated in Hitchcock’s own filmography, having inspired countless imitators and establishing the common horror trope of the deranged transsexual killer. Fernando Canet credits Psycho 60 as the impetus for the prevalence of transsexual villains, an element that is pervasive throughout Psycho-influenced horror films such as Dressed to Kill (1980) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). David Klein Martins notes this is a trend Psycho largely inspired, arguing that “Norman’s gender crossing was, thus, exploited for shock value, directly linking him to the function of the monster in horror film” (43). By presenting Norman’s transsexualism as a shocking twist, gender variance is thus relegated to the realm of the uncanny. “[N]ot only are these characters hiding their gender identity to pass as heteronormative people but their coming out must be forced upon them. This implies that these characters are hiding something shocking, something that should not be brought to light,” Martin elaborates (43). Norman’s actual gender identity is murky, with the film notoriously featuring a lengthy psychoanalysis after the reveal in which a psychiatrist solidifies the film’s use of societal taboos surrounding transexuality to shock viewers by pathologizing Norman’s identity. In a sense, Psycho 98 represents a continuation of this trope by repeating Hitchcock’s reveal — however, the effect is decidedly different. In the remake, the repeated psychoanalysis scene undercuts the datedness of Psycho 60’s original explanation of the events of the film. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the reveal of Norman’s transsexualism is no longer a surprise. Thomas Leitch contends that while the original film was highly shocking for audiences in 1960, “the remake, no matter how accurate, would necessarily be deprived of that surprise by its original’s very success” (249). It could be argued, however, that while the fact that nineties audiences would be aware of Psycho 60’s twists complicates the remake, this provides Van Sant the ability to incorporate metatextuality to critique Hitchcock’s film on a deeper level than other homages to Hitchcock. In this sense, Psycho 98 uses our familiarity with its plot to communicate its subversive intent. When this act of subversion is considered a deliberate move, rather than a miscalculation, the film invites a much different reading than a mere failed experiment in plagiarism.
Psycho 98’s utilization of viewer awareness is reflected in its theatrical poster, which prominently evokes a recollection of Hitchcock’s film. An agonized woman silhouetted in a bloodstained shower curtain is accompanied by the tagline: “Check in. Relax. Take a shower” (Goldschmitt). This rendering of one of the most recognizable images in horror cinema is presented with a bluntness that it is indicative of the landscape in which it appears, illustrating the ways Van Sant’s iteration of Psycho departs from Hitchcock’s film by communicating to an audience that is familiar with Psycho. A sense of irony perpetuates Psycho 98’s self-aware mimicry; “We tried to keep this campaign on a light note because that's what Hitchcock did when he promoted Psycho…with a glint in his eye,” Van Sant says regarding the film’s marketing (Eby 3). Despite the intended homage, the remake’s style of promotion contrasts with the strategies employed by Hitchcock decades prior by introducing a sense of secrecy surrounding Psycho’s plot. In 1960, signs outside theaters depicted director Hitchcock advising filmgoers, “I have asked that no-one be admitted to this theater after the start of each performance of Psycho — This, of course, is to help you enjoy Psycho even more” (“Advertisement for Psycho”). Despite dismissals by critics and Psycho 98’s own marketing that situates the film as an identical copy of its foremother, the fact remains that recreating another film with such exactness is an impossible feat. Psycho 98’s innumerable superficial similarities to its predecessor make it all too easy to dismiss its differences as shortcomings; a schizophrenic imitation that pales in comparison to its subject. Yet for a work promoted as a line-by-line recreation, there are many key differences between the two works that provide Psycho 98 a unique effect of its own. This effect is captured through a synthesis of revised elements that intermingle with the familiar aspects of Psycho 60, tethered to the present (1998) to emphasize the prevalence of Hitchcock’s ideas, thus destabilizing the view of Psycho 60 as a work existing in a historical vacuum.
Critics who have noted Psycho 98’s use of metatextuality argue that the film’s own authorial voice lies, paradoxically, in this seemingly counterproductive way it approaches this derivation of Psycho 60. Chelsey Crawford notes that “Van Sant’s film gives itself over to creating meaning through the relationship between quoted sequences which, as quotation, purport to have no depth” (109). In a comparative analysis of both films, Canet argues cinema is necessarily self-referential and that “the value of Van Sant’s version lies in the fact that it is not merely a simple shot-by-shot remake but is rather a personal and authorial variation on the original” (18). It seems unlikely that such an act of cinematic replication possesses its own authorial voice, yet this notion disregards the possibility that all films are, by nature, evocative of outside elements. Psycho 98’s appropriation of Hitchcock at first feels straightforward, but it is deceptively so; Van Sant’s pursuit of repetition is ripe for potential for deconstruction, an evocation of Hitchcock’s landmark film that is as much concerned with the popular culture surrounding Psycho 60 as it is with the content of the film itself. Anat Zanger notes this process of cinematic quotation acknowledges the place of films as existing within and influencing a broader cultural context and shaping popular thought. Certain imagery is repeated across various films, whether purposeful or not, functioning by “impressing the ‘fingerprints’ of the cinematic institution on its relationship with other cultural, social and aesthetic systems and reflecting the cinematic institution’s system of preferences, thus habituating the viewer to certain habits of spectatorship” (Zanger 15). Zanger highlights various pastiches that utilize Psycho 60, situating Van Sant’s “homage” in the tradition of other works such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978) and Dressed to Kill (1980), which each exhibit influence by or on the slasher film genre. Van Sant departs from these other homages of Hitchcock’s film, however, by actively relying on the viewers’ awareness of Psycho 60 to emphasize his repetition of the film. Zanger argues, “It would seem that Van Sant’s text needs an ideal spectator — one who is familiar with and recognizes Hitchcock’s text” (18). Psycho 98 anticipates viewer awareness of Hitchcock’s film to be recognized as a “shot-for-shot” remake. After all, it can only be categorized as a remake because the viewer is aware of its derivation. Due to its remake status, Psycho 98 does not outwardly subvert the structure of Psycho 60 in the way slasher films up the ante by doubling or even tripling the on-screen death tolls; nor does it participate in the further dramatization of Hitchcock’s conception of gender identity as in Dressed to Kill or The Silence of the Lambs. Instead, Psycho 98 serves to appropriate Hitchcock’s film, a unique move that has subsequently elicited praise among some critics. The praise is not unanimous, however; Leitch is critical of Psycho 98’s faithful rendition, arguing this aspect is in fact the film’s biggest fault. Psycho 98, Leitch argues, is an homage occurring “in a context whose network of intertextual markers is too claustrophobic, to generate any possibility of original meaning” (254), likening the film to “an Elvis impersonator, or to Beatlemania: an attempt to recreate the effect of its progenitor text rather than using it as the point of departure for a new interpretation” (250). Leitch finds Psycho 98 stale and disingenuous, while simultaneously championing Hitchcock’s artistry, arguing that Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of the director’s own 1934 film, which “draws on and extends the patterns of many earlier Hitchcock films besides its nominal original, is Hitchcock Plus, whereas Van Sant’s Psycho, which strips away Hitchcock’s original meanings and gestures without replacing them with anything else, is Hitchcock Minus” (253-54). Such criticism of Van Sant’s film is perhaps too quick to dismiss its metatextual aspects, which do not necessarily require the film to build upon its predecessor in obvious ways; as a metatextual work, Psycho 98 primarily seeks to deconstruct and decenter Hitchcock’s effects.
In the same way Psycho 60 is a product of its time, Van Sant’s remake is perhaps most comprehensible when situated within the wider context of horror cinema in the nineties, a period in which self-awareness became a crucial ingredient in horror cinema. Psycho 98 fits alongside other meta horror films such as Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), which share Psycho 98’s reliance on the viewer’s awareness of other works to convey a critique of the horror genre. It is useful, then, to look to these other works of meta horror and their unexpected textual relationships to examine the impact of nineties meta horror on Van Sant’s Psycho. As cinema approached the millennium, films that sought to be in touch with younger audiences had to be just as intelligent and knowledgeable as the viewers, a radical departure from formulaic slashers. The touchstone of this movement is widely understood to be Scream, which has been heavily discussed for its postmodern elements. With rampant metatextuality, Scream represented the ideal link between the horror film and the more intelligent, independent-minded cinema audiences had come to expect by the late nineties. As Valerie Wee explains, the landscape of popular horror saw a notable shift as “the new teen audience of the 1990s would motivate the slasher genre's shift from a 1980s postmodern sensibility towards a 1990s-oriented hyperpostmodernism” (45). This wave of metatextual horror films plays against the expectations of a knowing audience all-too familiar with past horror films. Thus, these “hyperpostmodern” films heavily incorporate other texts, transcending typical intertextuality. The meta horror film’s relationship with its text is hardly “slasher plus” or “slasher minus,” to borrow Leitch’s binary — rather, they merely are the text, complicating themselves and rendering expected models of storytelling simultaneously incoherent and playful. Discussing Scream, Wee notes that the film “consistently engages in explicit discussion and critique of other film texts, including itself, so that many of these references emerge as the actual text of the films” (58). This goes a step beyond intertextuality in that the source texts of the films literally are their texts — essentially becoming hyperpostmodern pastiche.
Psycho 98 was marketed as a slavish remake of the original film (Cziraky 5), yet this perception disregards the meta horror tradition from which Psycho 98 is derived. The metatextuality of Psycho 98 allows Van Sant to impart his own authorial imprint upon the structure of Hitchcock’s film, requiring an awareness of Psycho 98’s similarities and differences to Hitchcock’s film to fashion a rounded analysis. As Chelsey Crawford argues, “quotation can also create reflexive distance between quoted and quoter such that the newer film can either generate new meaning(s) or reveal inherent themes present in the original historical moment” (109). Van Sant’s authorial nature is present alongside Hitchcock’s authorship, which runs parallel — but these two contrasting (and even conflicting) voices do not stand separate. Instead, it is in the distance between the quoter and quoted (in this instance, the most pronounced distance being the span of thirty-eight years between the productions of each film) from which knowing audiences can derive meaning. “Essentially, the difference between quotation and a typical utterance is that, in an instance of quotation, the listener and the speaker also share the knowledge of the reference,” Crawford notes (119). A film is only a remake because viewers recognize its repetition of a previous film; it is the viewers’ prior knowledge of Hitchcock’s film that allows Psycho 98 to operate as meta horror. In this sense, the viewer’s prior knowledge of the ins-and-outs of Psycho 60 is in fact a prerequisite to decoding Psycho 98’s statements. As Crawford explains, Psycho 98 does not attempt to overwrite Hitchcock’s authorship, nor does it function as wholly subservient to Hitchcock — rather, Van Sant’s relationship to Hitchcock represents “a unison in which neither one’s voice nor authorship disappears entirely, but also in which neither is permitted to speak exclusively” (Crawford 113). This mirroring of Hitchcock is complicated by the deceptive nature of cinematic quotation, which in Psycho 98’s case, “demonstrates the problematic nature of the ‘I’ who purports to speak—an issue compounded by the lack of a signifier of quotation in cinema” (Crawford 114). It would be useful to note that the issue many audiences have with Psycho 98 can be explained by this lack of quotation signifiers in cinema, as “there is no definitive way to determine when Van Sant is quoting Hitchcock and when he has taken liberties with content or style,” Crawford argues (114). Van Sant’s replication of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène serves a similar function as quoted passages in text: to highlight the argument of a previous author. The fact that cinema is unable to easily indicate when something is a being quoted makes this cinematic quotation deceptively ambiguous. What Van Sant does is intrinsically different than other works of meta horror due to the extent of Psycho 98’s quotation of Hitchcock, which causes Hitchcock’s text to be almost totally appropriated within the context of a film directed by Van Sant. This makes it so that “the two beings sharing the space of the utterance become even more intertwined” (Crawford 114) — making it impossible to separate Psycho 98 from its closeness to Hitchcock, who in turn is now viewed through Van Sant’s lens. Van Sant is classically “Hitchcockian” in this sense, obsessing over minute details of the film — yet this meticulousness is for the purpose of mostly replicating Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène, a departure from conventional notions of an auteur who creates wholly original work. This act of recreating an auteur’s work as one’s own calls into question the value of originality, especially in an era where horror cinema had become intensely derivative. As Crawford contends, “Within cinema, then, we might say quotation unveils the permeability of the self and destabilizes the presumed singularity of the subject” (114). Crucially, Van Sant traffics in authorship (with Hitchcock being the prime choice, representing perhaps the fullest embodiment of auteur theory [Leitch 257]) to question and even undermine our perception of the place of the auteur in an era where the titanesque singular author had grown passé. However, this act of undermining authorship would be an inherently messy exercise, and Psycho 98 muddles this quotation by intertwining Van Sant’s authorial presence with Hitchcock’s. “Regardless of whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, absolute singularity is illusory,” Crawford asserts (119-20). Van Sant brings into question our reliance on the idea of an auteur — although this is not to eliminate any semblance of an authorial voice, but rather, to draw attention to authorship and critique the concept of singularity (both in terms of authorship and ontology). This allows Psycho 98 to transcend a more conventional author-text relationship where the author no longer crafts all meaning. Thus, Psycho 98 demonstrates that these “moments of cinematic quotation force a reconsideration of ontology itself” (Crawford 120). Van Sant draws on doubts regarding the notion of a singular author, yet this does not mean Psycho 98 attempts to rid itself of its own authorial voice. This would be counterintuitive to Van Sant’s aim — not to mention impossible. Instead of fully submerging Van Sant’s authorial presence beneath Hitchcock’s, Psycho 98 instead utilizes the concept of authorship to serve as a self-referential deconstruction of its own form, taking on nineties’ horror’s penchant for self-awareness on a deeper level. As a result, the voices of two authors speak simultaneously in a play that reveals its own discontents. This coupling also serves to highlight the necessary incompleteness of authorship by establishing a sort of symbiotic relationship between Van Sant and Hitchcock.
Psycho 60 is noted for Hitchcock’s deliberate camerawork, which is voyeuristic in nature. The characters, particularly the women who inhabit Norman’s gaze, are perpetually surveilled by Hitchcock’s discerning lens, a ploy to align the viewer with Norman’s perspective, complicating the nature of objectification. This is simultaneously a move that largely reinforces a male spectator/female subject binary. Van Sant’s camerawork in Psycho 98 is notably Hitchcockian, but often to different aims, aligning itself less with predatory men who leer at Marion. Instead, Van Sant’s gaze exhibits a preoccupation with the male form. Martins notes an example of this subversion is the voyeuristic way Van Sant’s camera inspects Sam’s body as he lies in bed with Marion at the beginning of the film. Sam’s nude form is prioritized over Marion, a departure from the dynamic in Hitchcock’s film. “Instead of seeking out the female to exploit her sexuality, the hypermasculine male becomes the actual object of desire,” Martins argues (49). With this, Van Sant subverts the binary of male voyeur/female subject by lingering on a subject that is not implicitly feminized, which “results in a queering of heterosexual male viewers as they are put in a position where they actively gaze at Viggo Mortensen’s male physique” (Martins 49). This queering of the act of voyeurism is effective due to preconceptions regarding the voyeuristic nature of the Hitchcockian horror film, in which audience expectations — to admire, surveil, or leer at the feminine body — are subverted. In Psycho 98, the viewer’s predisposition to objectify the characters on screen is relocated from a heterosexual space of men regarding women to a more homosexual register in which this male perspective instead observes other male forms. It is due to Van Sant’s adjustment of Hitchcock’s gaze that Janet Steiger argues Psycho 98 is “gayest” of Van Sant’s films (14).
Viewer identification with the spectator is also disrupted in Van Sant’s version. This is accomplished largely due to the way Norman and Marion are depicted in the remake. The much-criticized choice to cast Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche to play Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh’s respective roles is a confounding choice at first glance; however, this matter is one of the most significant examples of Van Sant’s authorial touch that inverts Psycho. As Canet argues, the visible differences of Vaughn and Heche “show clearly that the casting was not accidental. If Van Sant had not wanted to introduce an authorial touch, he would have cast actors more similar to the original stars” (23). Both Norman and Marion are notable for functioning as a de facto lead in each half of the film, furthering a laundry list of binaries that Hitchcock and Van Sant approach in markedly different ways: man/woman, spectator/subject, killer/victim. The fault many find with 1998 film is that Vaughn and Heche are perceived as polar opposites of the actors who originally embodied the characters in 1960, causing Psycho 98 to reverse the effects of Hitchcock’s film. Vaughn’s heavier physique gives him a looming, sinister presence that contrasts sharply with Perkins’s boyish charm — even if we are not aware of his intents, he is neither likable nor trustworthy in the remake. Anne Heche, who was notably out as a lesbian in the late nineties, seems to be a similarly unlikely conception of a Hitchcock leading lady, appearing perpetually ambivalent toward the gaze of the male characters in the film. Canet notes, “Heche’s body is also quite different from Janet Leigh’s: less curvy and thus perhaps less attractive to a particular male gaze; or at least, her physical profile bears little resemblance to Hitchcock’s preferences” (23). This may at first appear to be an oversight on Van Sant’s part, as these casting choices seem to run counter to the aims of Hitchcock’s film. Canet argues, however, that complaints regarding the casting “are mostly based on the assumption that both roles are merely repetitions of the original roles, and because Vaughn and Heche do not perfectly resemble the original actors, their performances are thus defined as failures” (23). The criticism that Van Sant’s casting departs too severely from Hitchcock’s choices misses the subtler nuances of Psycho 98’s subversive intent.
While it may seem like a strange choice that a supposed exact remake of a film would drastically alter its lead actors, Van Sant’s reasoning behind this “inverted casting” makes more sense if one considers the remake’s intended departures from its source. Van Sant’s alterations are indicative of his status as an author working within Hitchcock’s text. This concept of authorship is perhaps controversial and has routinely been dismissed by postmodernists through poor readings of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” as Janet Staiger suggests (1). Staiger makes a case for Van Sant’s meaningful adaptation of Hitchcock’s work as coming from a place of minority subversion of dominate narratives. Staiger claims that misreadings of Barthes has caused critics to undervalue the importance of identity as conveyed by minority authors who seek to describe their experiences through the inversion or satirization of other texts. Van Sant exhibits a form of minority authorship with Psycho that is useful for analysis due to the superficial similarities to his film and to that of Hitchcock’s. Psycho 98 subverts Hitchcock’s dominant narrative and conception of Norman’s gender and sexuality altogether, reversing the binaries viewers have come to expect from Psycho. Staiger notes that the “standard procedure in author criticism is to assume that an author has an intent to affect a text as a whole and that the text will display some degree of ‘coherency’” (6) — the way Hitchcock’s auteurism is commonly understood. The qualities of Van Sant’s adaptation, however, mean Psycho 98 is unsuitable for such analysis. Van Sant’s authorial presence is de-emphasized and questioned through his exacting Hitchcock appropriation. Staiger points out that “minority authors may have other aims that supersede unity and coherency — such as expression of minority authorship. Thus, their tactics of authorship need to be considered as local solutions to problems of expression. This is certainly the case for Van Sant” (6). The aim of Psycho 98 appears to be different than that of its predecessor, yet Van Sant retains an authorial presence — albeit one that functions differently. How does Van Sant convey his authorship through a film that is largely identical to Hitchcock’s own? This is one area in which the matter of casting becomes so important. With Vaughn and Heche, the underlying dynamic of Norman and Marion’s conflict in the film is reversed from Psycho 60. As Staiger argues, this “displays a good case of where a dominant text might show up its faultline” and functions as a correction of Hitchcock’s film in Van Sant’s remake:
Nothing in the psychopathology of Norman requires him to be homosexual. Being frustrated by his mother from acting on his normal heterosexual urges does not produce homosexuality. Thus, putting Perkins in the Norman role actually opens up the film to a reading of its homophobia. Hitchcock could not stand to suggest that Norman might be straight; he has to be a pervert; hence, the joke of casting Perkins as Bates. Thus, what Van Sant’s counter casting does is actually to correct that part of the original story. By casting Vaughn in the role, the heterosexuality of Bates is put back into the text, as it should have been there from the start, and Van Sant’s additional inverted casting roles produces a strong critique of heteronormativity (14).
By deliberately “miscasting” the roles, Van Sant has his actors replicate the same dialogue and performances of Psycho 60, but the result is decidedly different, largely due to our perception of the sexualities of the actors. Norman’s ambiguous sexuality has been altered to explicit heterosexuality in a few key moments in the remake, most notably when he spies on Marion while she undresses, as Martin discusses. Van Sant’s scene is an adjustment of Hitchcock’s wherein it is made apparent that Norman is masturbating while watching Marion. “While in Hitchcock’s original the audience witnessed a passive man spying on a half-naked woman,” Martin notes that in the remake, “Norman’s masturbation means that he, himself, becomes a sexualized object for the audience. The spectator’s gaze is not only directed by Norman’s scopophilic look but Norman himself is targeted by the audience’s gaze…It therefore is not solely the female that becomes subjugated by voyeurism” (48-49). By depicting Norman as the heterosexual voyeur the text requires, his lecherousness is made overt, emphasizing the phallocentric nature of the text and problematizing viewer identification with Norman. Van Sant’s adjustment aligns the viewer with Marion, a possibly queer woman, rather than with her pursuer. Objectification is properly monstrous in Van Sant’s version, and Marion, once an archetypical subject of heterosexual voyeurism, is transformed into a more ambiguous presence whose ambivalence towards men makes the predatory nature of Norman’s aims more apparent. This scene, by recapitulating Hitchcock’s scene with an added element (a detail which remains ambiguous in Psycho 60), “reinforce[s] Vaughn/Norman’s heterosexual orientation in contrast to Perkins/Norman’s sexuality,” Canet argues, explaining that “[w]ith the insertion of this scene, it seems that Van Sant sought to leave no doubt about Vaughn/Norman’s sexual orientation, thereby eliminating any trace of the original ambiguity” (24). This notable adjustment demonstrates a sort of author-text relationship that undercuts the conventional notions of authorship and originality in which Van Sant simultaneously copies while also crafting a new statement. As Staiger notes, “Van Sant is a useful case to consider because he is publicly ambivalent as to what his status is as an individual author” (2). The key is that Van Sant is ambivalent toward being an individual auteur in any traditional sense. The argument is that this idea of authorship is not dead despite Barthes’s “Death of the Author;” rather, authorship itself is able to become a fluid tool for self-expression for minority authors within the increased room for subversion. The means by which one authors a text — sometimes through copying other works — as well as more openness for minority authors to receive recognition represents a sharp contrast among works typically considered canonical.
These changes that provide Van Sant room for his own authorial voice are not all superficial differences, although Van Sant’s queering of Psycho does largely depend on these surface differences. Shannon Donaldson-McHugh and Don Moore point out Hitchcock’s Freudian psychoanalysis is largely preserved in the remake, but it is twisted and uncomfortably juxtaposed within a contemporary setting that reveals the discontents of Hitchcock’s sexual politics. An example of this is the way Marion and Sam’s casual relationship serves as the catalyst for Marion’s embezzlement. As Donaldson-McHugh and Moore note, Marion’s departure from heteronormative cultural values “effectively positions Marion not as an innocent ‘victim’ preyed upon by a mass murderer, but rather as somehow justly punished for her own social deviance at the hands of Norman” (229). Marion’s fate is one she partially brings upon herself, and Norman, himself a “victim of deviant, oedipal desires, which have manifested as a schizophrenic transsexual inhabiting (or entering) of the body of his mother, a deviance that has seemingly led him to commit mass murder,” (Donaldson-McHugh and Moor 230) functions as a perverted executor of justice. This phallocentric view seems out of place in Van Sant’s version, in which the remake’s fidelity to the source highlights the contradictions implicit within Hitchcock’s sexual politics. As Donaldson-McHugh and Moore argue, Psycho 98 “transhistorically haunts its source, providing us with a different perspective — literally a ‘reframing’ — of Hitchcock’s film with which to view Norman’s ‘condition’ in a more ‘queer,’ or even transsexual register” (230) than one typically would infer from the gender politics of Psycho 60 alone. By situating Hitchcock’s Freudian psychoanalysis in the nineties, the film forces viewers to reevaluate Psycho’s phallocentric nature, revealing Hitchcock’s views as out of place in both versions of the film. Van Sant’s aim is not duplication, but appropriation — the relocation of Hitchcock’s conception of gender and sexuality from a heteronormative space into a context that attacks this construct by laying bare its contradictions. Van Sant’s “‘schizophrenic’ mirroring, for us, problematizes notions of the direct reflection of an ‘original’ or its ‘spirit’ and rather points to the ways in which the specters of such a supposed original are always multiple and heterogeneous, and without direct access to origins,” Donaldson-McHugh and Moor argue. Van Sant’s mirroring results in a perverted repetition of Hitchcock that functions in a wildly different queer register. In this sense, Van Sant’s version haunts Hitchcock as much as Hitchcock’s master text haunts Van Sant (Donaldson-McHugh and Moore 229-30), and as a result, Psycho 98 is more concerned with historical specificity than with merely updating tropes (a tendency common among other meta horror films). Rather than bowing to the “seeming ‘timelessness’ of Hitchcock’s ‘genius,’” Van Sant deconstructs the pervasiveness of Hitchcock’s Freudian psychoanalysis which “still ‘haunts’ the contemporary North American psyche” (Donaldson-McHugh and Moore 226) through its impact on cinema.
Fittingly, Van Sant is often regarded as the real queer menace of Psycho 98 who digs up and defiles the corpse of his foremother. It is difficult not to read the “In Memory of Alfred Hitchcock” title card at the end of Van Sant’s Psycho 98 as a bit facetious, or perhaps as a paltry apology for Van Sant’s homage; what with the film’s adherence to Hitchcock’s (to the point it is one of the few remakes accused of “ripping off” its source) and perversion of Hitchcock’s auteurism. Yet Psycho 98 reads more as a re-mythologization of Psycho than a straightforward remake. As Leitch notes, Psycho 98 is merely another step in our relationship with the original film (249). Van Sant is aware Hitchcock’s legacy can never be buried — a regrettable fact, in a certain sense, due to the pervading stigmatization of gender and sexual variance in Psycho 60. As a result, Psycho 98 utilizes the enduring nature of these matters to craft new meaning, twisting and undermining the viewer’s understanding of Hitchcock in a highly unusual camp recreation of the auteur’s work. Martin notes, “It is indeed remarkable how changing small details in scene construction and acting can change the perception of a whole film. What the original movie and its remake have in common, however, is the survival of a monstrous killer stuck in a realm between genders” (51). Just as Norman harbors his own double personality, Psycho 98 criticizes the notion that authorship must always be possessed by a single coherent figure. Van Sant’s remake accomplishes many things in its reframing our misguided perception of Hitchcock’s work through minority authorship and a criticism of dominant, heteronormative narratives. Psycho 98 succeeds in coupling Hitchcock and Van Sant’s disparate iterations of Psycho not as one (an erasure of difference) but as a duality to emphasize and relish the fact of their differences. The exactness with which Van Sant often replicates Hitchcock causes us to be extremely perceptive of the often slight but always jarring differences between the two versions, forcing the viewer to constantly reassess Psycho and its status as a cultural touchstone.
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