A terrifying lack of ambition
The new `Psycho' is like your old granny given a nightmare facelift and stuffed into a miniskirt
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 11 December 1998
A weird succession of movies is on its way; a way of film-making which, giving up even on the elementary invention of the sequel and the remake, prefers instead to produce an artefact of gruesome archeological perfection.
The American director Gus van Sant has been remaking Psycho. You might have thought that, of all films, Hitchcock's masterpiece was the one least in need of any officious tinkering. It is a terribly well-known movie, fondly remembered in the most intricate detail, and faultlessly executed throughout.
Van Sant's explanation, in an interview I read this week to coincide with the film's American release, was simply that the film is not, in fact, very familiar to American audiences any longer, and younger audiences are frankly disinclined to sit through black and white movies. Psycho is a great film; nobody has ever seen it; so let us remake it.
What van Sant says may well be true of America, though it certainly isn't the case in Europe. But his solution is a deeply peculiar one. He hasn't, like most directors of remakes, taken the basic situation and rescripted and reshaped it, until, like, say, the Hollywood Cage aux Folles remake, it resembles nothing so much as your old granny given a nightmare facelift and stuffed into a miniskirt. No, the van Sant Psycho quite simply takes the Hitchcock film, and reproduces it, shot by shot, scene by scene. He includes some small amounts of material that Hitchcock, due to the moral pressures of his time, was unable to use; and that's it. Anne Heche replaces Janet Leigh, the film is in colour, but otherwise it's the most faithful, indeed abject adaptation.
The odd thing is that, where the original, creaky as it is, bogus as it is, cheaply made as it was, retains an unarguable power to shock and appal, this new film, many times more expensive and sophisticated, is just a curiosity. You sit, half-remembering the film you used to love, and watching it get massacred by this year's crop of clean young people. There's no point in picking holes in it, since, as Dr Johnson said, there is no arguing with unresisting imbecility.
But there must be something in the air right now. If the Gus van Sant Psycho is almost art-movie peculiar in the utter idiocy of its ambition, exhibit B is a much more sinister project. Released in the same week in America, Woody Allen's new movie, Celebrity, is exactly the same sort of archaeological enterprise. It is deeply weird and sinister, one of those films he brings out from time to time which try and do the whole European art movie thing - in this case, La Dolce Vita - with a loose episodic feel and 250 speaking parts.
But though Celebrity is trying like mad to be an exact facsimile of a Fellini movie, what in fact it ends up being is an exact facsimile of a Woody Allen movie. In the cinema in Texas where I saw it last week, the audience on the way out seemed embarrassed by the movie, and it's not surprising; you keep having to remind yourself that this is a real movie by the real director, and not rather a brilliant parody of one of his weaker efforts. You look at the black-and-white Manhattan views, and wait with gritted teeth for the Gershwin clarinet glissando.
It's partly that it goes over an incredible amount of old ground, as someone as prolific as Allen inevitably does. But what elevates it from mere self-repetition into the hideous skin-crawling nightmare you can't wait to end is the performance, in the lead, of our own Kenneth Branagh. It is one of the most bizarre things you will see all year; the lipless Irishman, trying, with altogether commendable energy, to do not just a New York accent, but the most perfect impersonation of Woody Allen himself. As a friend said, "Do you know, if you shut your eyes, you would absolutely swear that was Rory Bremner."
What's going wrong with the cinema? I mean, the vogue for sequels is pretty terrible, the craze for adaptations of famous books or comic strips is even worse, and the craze for remaking movies which are perfectly good is an utter scandal.
If these horrible reconstructions set a trend, if directors start revisiting the scenes of their greatest triumphs, then let us admit that we don't like the cinema any more, that this generation doesn't have any talent, and that we'll have to wait for someone to come along who has some ideas, and not just a knack of appropriating someone else's.
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