(Gus Van Sant, USA, 1998)


Shot By Shot Follies

Jeanne Moreau: I ask why our society needs all these copies of things. Not just paintings. Copies of everything. Even things like clothes, suitcases, bags, watches...

Marcello Mastroianni: I believe that anyone copying the works of a great artist has a chance of repeating the artist's actions and possibly recapturing, even by chance, his precise gesture.

Moreau: A copy of the gesture.

Mastroianni: And why not? Recapturing the gesture of a genius would give me more satisfaction than any brushstrokes of my own.

– dialogue from Beyond the Clouds (Michelangelo Antonioni/Wim Wenders, 1995)

There sometimes arises, in the cinema studies world, a vast disparity between the quality of a certain film and the quantity of earnest discourse that it prompts. Nowhere has this disparity been so striking as in the case of Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Van Sant's film is a dismal experience. No amount of clever justification or hair-splitting – about it being a conceptualist artwork, a cheeky subversion of the studio system, a post-classical recasting of a classic, an ultimate gesture of homage, a postmodern appropriation, a staging of cultural differences, an exercise in hyperreal aesthetics or a work that forces us to rethink the philosophical status of remakes – can tempt me to ever watch it again. Indeed, I can hardly believe that, almost three years after its release, we are still talking about here.

The only noteworthy aspect of Van Sant's folly is what its 'experiment' proves: that you can mechanically copy all the surface moves of a screen classic and still drain it of any meaning, tension, artistry and fun. Van Sant claimed, at the moment of the film's release, that he hoped to introduce Hitchcock's masterpiece to a young generation of filmgoers reared on TV and video; unfortunately, this audience is likely to be now wondering why Psycho is any more worthy of their attention than Scream 2 (1997) or Halloween H2O (1998).

Everything about the project is badly misjudged. Pre-release hype stressed that Van Sant took the same amount of time to shoot as Hitchcock did; that he brought in the original writer, Joseph Stefano, to lightly revise the script; that Bernard Herrmann's magnificent musical score was re-recorded under the supervision of Danny Elfman. But so what? The so-called modernisations instituted by Van Sant – explicit sexual references; a couple of contemporary nods to pop culture and modern technology; several interpolations of hallucinatory imagery; added audio effects – amount to no more than vague doodling in the margins of the original's image and sound tracks, a less than arresting 'remix'.

Despite the attempt to subtly drag Hitchcock's material into the present day, everything still has a weird early '60s aura. This caused the audience I watched it with (in Australia in early 1999) to laugh derisively at both Van Sant's modern touches (like a character wearing a Walkman) and the manifest 'corniness' of Hitchcock's original, with its prurient references to bathrooms and bodily functions, and its ham-fisted speeches about the evil in men's hearts and minds. Van Sant has managed neither homage nor critique; he neither respects Hitchcock's artistic point-of-view (or the cultural, generic and compositional elements with which he necessarily worked in his time), nor advances his own.

This new Psycho feels, more than anything, like a desultory 'walk through' – a listless restaging that demonically turns the original, retroactively, into a stuffed museum exhibit. The cast members are constrained to stand in the same positions as their predecessors and utter (more or less) the same lines; as a result, their performances are hopelessly wooden and superficial. The same applies to the contribution of cinematographer Chris Doyle, whose natural penchant for lyrical movement and vibrant colour (evident in his work for Wong Kar-wai) is cruelly curtailed.

Certain highly intellectual critics like (or are at least intrigued by) this film for one reason alone that I can fathom: it is exactly the kind of movie that critics themselves would make if suddenly allowed to do so. Van Sant put himself precisely in the position of a 'textual analyst', 1970s-style, when he came up with the idea of a so-called 'shot by shot' remake of Psycho.

Let me explain this contention. Only those who do not make films perceive them as existing shot by shot, i.e., in discrete shot units. This is the myopia that academic textual analysis teaches: count the cuts and 'segment' the scene appropriately. In a strange synchronicity with Van Sant's Psycho, another blast from the past hit Anglo-American cinema studies not so far from the time of the film's release: the shortened translation, twenty years late, of Raymond Bellour's The Analysis of Film – a work which, as it happens, is centrally concerned with Hitchcock, and also with the protocols of shot by shot breakdown.

This collection of essays is a masterpiece of '70s-style textual analysis. Bellour divides, computes and cross-references shot-units with a minute systematicity that (as he frankly avows) borders on obsessiveness, even madness. What matters for him is the internal, fine-grain evolution that makes one unit in a tabulated shot list different from those that surround it: a difference in speed, for instance; a difference in movement or stasis, in sound or silence; a difference based on whether the shot is an opening, a prolongation or a closing of the scene; a difference based on the shot's position within a graph of successive alternations that produce pattern and meaning.

All of this – at least in Bellour's hands, if not in those of his dreariest disciples – is fascinating, even thrilling. Bellour, a gifted writer, never lost sight of the fact that he was ultimately composing a kind of analytical roman, a fiction of ideas. In a turn of phrase not uncommon in his work, he prefaces his 1969 treatment of a sequence from The Birds (1963): "Analysis forces me and structure invites me to divide the sequence into registerable segments...". (1)

Yet we can nonetheless find, hidden inside this first major essay in textual analysis by Bellour on Hitchcock, a fleeting qualification that the author sweeps past, and that none of his subsequent followers seem to have ever noted. "A sequence, then – once the word is merely conventional and reveals itself to be as inadequate to designate a fixed unit of narration as the shot is for a fixed unit of photography"; a note then refers us to Jean Mitry on "the ambiguities of the definition of the shot". (2)

What, then, is so (intellectually) conventional, inadequate and ambiguous about shot by shot analysis? The problem is that, quite simply, films are not made shot by shot. Most films – certainly most narrative films – are built upon the unit of the scene (a nominal unity or convergence of time, action and place, however disunified these elements may later become in post-production), and the filming of that scene is arrived at via the process of 'coverage': deciding from which camera 'set ups' the action is to be recorded. It is in the 'blocking out' of the scene, before the cameras roll – the staging of the actor's movements, gestures and lines – that set-ups come to be decided. Some cuts between set-ups might be foreseen well in advance, but mostly those decisions are left to the editing phase, when many possible permutations of all set-ups filmed are entertained. Trying to reconstitute the set-ups in any given scene – and sorting out the difference between master shots, inserts and so on, which is basic film craft – is rarely part of the protocol of textual analysis, even though it is in this particular kind of shot economy that the ingenuity of certain directors (including low-budget wizards including Peter Greenaway, Olivier Assayas and early Brian De Palma) is best revealed. (3)

This is the cinema of mise en scène as practised by everyone from F. W. Murnau and Kenji Mizoguchi to Arthur Penn and André Téchiné. Its analysis (in my view) should aim to reconstitute and interpret a veritable polyphony of pertinent rhythms, flows, intensities, movements, punctuations, modulations and patterns in a scene – built from gesture, action, music, image-sound relations, camera mobility, and so on – in which cuts figure as only one variable among many, and not necessarily the most determining. Beginning from the nominal unity of the scene (which is itself only ever a 'conventional' starting point), we then build our apprehension of this form-and-content polyphony to recreate ever larger segments or ensembles, until we arrive at the shape and logic of the whole film.

Of course, we can find many exceptions to this rather classical aesthetic within experimental fields – clear shot by shot works such as Alain Cavalier's Libera Me (1993), a film solely comprised of stand-alone inserts and portrait shots. In discussing, more recently, such formal inventions, Bellour himself usefully refers to a plurality of practices (mise en pages, mise en phrases, mise en place, mise en plans, mise en images and mise en plis) beyond the conventional unities and possibilities of mise en scène. (4) At a certain point, such speculative games displace us beyond cinema altogether, and we find ourselves in the rarefied realms of digital multimedia or installation art – precisely the kinds of realms in which Van Sant's Psycho has found its most natural echo, and its staunchest defenders. As anyone who has strolled through a gallery of modern art in the past decade knows, this world is full of mutant, deformed, gleefully appropriated 'Hitchcocks'.

But where does the real artist and craftsman Hitchcock stand in all this discussion of 'the shot'? Although the longstanding myth of Hitchcock as the manic storyboard artist might seem to return us, by the back door, to a shot by shot model, Bill Krohn's invaluable research in Hitchcock at Work has established once and for all that the director exploited to the hilt the looseness and variability that came with mise en scène shooting. (5) Likewise, according to a recent documentary, Stanley Kubrick – whose taste for visual and dramatic geometry might suggest another rigidly 'predetermining', shot by shot stylist – never fixed his shots until after much open-ended work with the actors. (6)

By adopting the madness of the 'shot by shot remake', Van Sant has denied himself the flexibility – even the very possibility – of arriving at his own mise en scène. There are no natural or pleasing movements, rhythms or patterns of any sort in his version of Psycho; the actors are constrained to always pose in or arrive at pre-set positions in the frame that are slavishly copied from a monitor or a storyboard reproducing the original. The evident strain of this rigid, conceptual exercise in fragmented staging explains the awesome sluggishness and unpersuasiveness of the final result.

In Jorge Luis Borges' famous story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" – itself long ago adopted as an emblem of zany postmodern creativity – a writer manages to spontaneously produce fragments of text identical to passages in Cervantes. (7) Critics hail the result as in fact superior to the original, since it speaks so much more vibrantly to its contemporary, historical moment. Was Van Sant's dream to stumble upon a similar kind of fool's gold? Sadly for him – and us – the difference between his Psycho and Hitchcock's can be exactly pinpointed in that famous shower scene and its immediate aftermath. Where, in the original, the sudden execution of Marion disorientated audiences and cagily re-routed the narrative, here the passage from a minutely recreated, 'classic' scene of violence to another piece of plot more closely resembles Van Sant lazily flicking channels on his TV remote control – only to find an even less interesting program.

MORE Van Sant: Elephant, Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting, Last Days

© Adrian Martin July 2001


1. Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 30. back

2. Ibid, pp. 29, 284. back

3. One of the few canonical pieces of film criticism to address this is Brian Henderson's 1971 essay "The Long Take", reprinted in A Critique of Film Theory (New York: Dutton, 1980), pp. 48-61, with its (sadly unadopted) terminology of the 'intrasequence cut' and 'mise en scène cutting' in Ophüls, Mizoguchi and Welles. back

4. Raymond Bellour, "Figures aux allures de plans", in Jacques Aumont (ed.), La mise en scène (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 2000), pp. 109-26. back

5. Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon, 2000). back

6. See Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (Jan Harlan, USA, 2001). back

7. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (London: Penguin, 1970), pp. 62-71. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search