Psycho 2.0

Authors note: Why, instead of writing a new review of Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho," did I simply copy, word-for-word, Andrew Sarris' Village Voice review of "Psycho" from 38 years ago? Why are so many people asking why? In a recent Newsweek interview, Van Sant explained that he comes from "an art-school background where [they] had the mentality of appropriation and ready-made art." Similarly, I come from a hack journalist background where we have the mentality of appropriation and ready-made articles.

Philistines might call it plagiarism, perhaps, but to me, it's an interesting experiment, a chance to inhabit the mind of a great reviewer at the very start of his career (Sarris' review of "Psycho" was his first contribution to the Voice.) And, of course, while I call it a word-for-word remake, it's not completely identical. There were a number of references to movies and moviemakers that would no doubt puzzle modern readers; I've updated these with more familiar names. In addition, the original Sarris review contained a misspelled word: "medern" instead of "modern." New technologies have allowed me to correct this disconcerting mistake.

Also, I should confess that I've added the occasional note or aside to give the piece a more contemporary flavor. Like Van Sant's cinematic revisionism, these are all incidental, gratuitous changes, however, and in no way do they compromise the original meaning of Sarris' work. Finally, of course, my review appears in color.


For many years print and TV critics have been mourning the "old" Gus Van Sant who used to make sloppy, pretentious indie thrillers before he was corrupted by Hollywood's garish technical facility. Oh, for the days of "Mala Noche," "Drugstore Cowboy," and "My Own Private Idaho." Meanwhile, the wild young men on the Internet, particularly Harry Knowles, were proclaiming the gospel that Van Sant's later Hollywood movies stamped him as one of the screen's major artists.

A close inspection of "PSYCHO" indicates not only that Knowles has been right all along, but that Van Sant is the most daring avant-garde film-maker in America today. Besides making previous horror films look like variations of "Babe: Pig In the City," "Psycho" is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain, and as a place where successful movie paradigms are recycled endlessly. What once seemed like impurities in his patented cut-and-chase technique now give "Psycho" and the rest of Hollywood Van Sant a personal flavor and intellectual penetration which his indie classics lack. (Of course, for actual physical penetration, you can't beat that Keanu Reeves-Chiara Caselli still-life fuckfest in "My Own Private Idaho.")

No Longer Cheats
For one thing, Van Sant no longer cheats his endings. Where the mystery of Jeremiah Chechik's 1996 remake of "Diabolique," for example, is explained in the most popular after-all-this-is-just-a-movie-and-we've-been-taken manner, the solution of "Psycho" is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed. Although Van Sant continually teases his conglomerate audience, he never fails to deliver on his most ominous portents. Such divergent American institutions as motherhood and motels will never seem quite the same again, and only Van Sant could give a soft-spoken State Trooper the visually sinister overtones of a dehumanized machine patrolling a conformist society.

Despite its potential for huge grosses, "Psycho" makes fewer concessions to popular taste than an allegedly daring film like "Pulp Fiction." "Psycho" takes its audience wherever its director wants to go, while "Pulp Fiction" stays a little ahead of the audience until a catching-up finale worthy of Kevin Williamson.

Forced to Respond
In its treatment of outrageous perversion as a parody of an orderly social existence, "Psycho" has a certain affinity to a modern theatre piece like "The Jerry Springer Show" in which the audience is forced to respond to its own hypocrisy in making the conventional moral distinctions.

"Psycho" should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience, and on this occasion I fully agree with Van Sant that only a genital (hint, hint) spoilsport would reveal the plot; the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface of the first American movie since the re-release of "Touch of Evil" to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films.

And, of course, if you are a plush toys aficionado, then see this movie a fourth time so you can redeem all four ticket stubs for the complete set of "McDonald's Goes Psycho!" Special Edition Commemorative Beanie Babies, which are now available for a limited time only at a McDonald's near you.

Beato's intention in his review of "Psycho" is no less than astonishing. He has undertaken not to write another version of the 1960 Sarris review, but the Sarris review itself. His aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His ambition was to produce a review which would coincide - word for word and line for line - with that of Andrew Sarris.

A lesser critic might have devoted his energies to comparing Hitchcock's stark black and white with Van Sant's lush color, with contrasting the emaciated earnestness of Anthony Perkins with the ironic robustness of Vince Vaughan. St. Beato avoids these pitfalls with complete naturalness. For the genius of this New, New, New Criticism is in its fusion of opposing methods: Sarris is best known as the leading American proponent of the auteur theory of film criticism - a heroic, individualist vestige of High Modernism. Beato, an unapologetic Consumerist, subsumes the auteur method into a thinking style that is anti-heroic, corporate and post-Modern. Thus a line from Sarris' review:

... the solution of "Psycho" is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed.

seems hopelessly grounded in Eisenhower-era propriety. But Beato's observation about the Van Sant "Psycho":

the solution of "Psycho" is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed.

presents hard critical judgments only to subvert them, in a paradoxical style of almost infinite subtlety. I am certainly not the only critic to detect the voice of Beato in a line from Andrew Sarris' recent review of Peter Berg's shocker "Very Bad Things":

I must note that it is more ghoulish than gross, as it forgoes fashionably infantile humor in favor of the shock gags of massive blood spills and carefully wrapped body parts.

Just as we can demonstrate the greater originality of Beato's review, we can now see the brilliance of Hitchcock's "Psycho" as the result not of any crude technical innovations, but of his mastery of the cinematic language of Gus Van Sant.

Beato's new review is, in short, an invaluable addition to the interpretation of criticism. We can now see Walter Pater's 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance as a book profoundly influenced by the 1999 Leonard Maltin Movie/Video Guide, read the criticism of John Ruskin as it would have been written by Michael Medved, and appreciate this review of the review as a work by Borges. Three decades from now, when some yet-unborn filmmaker sets out to remake Van Sant's (rather than Hitchcock's) version of "Psycho," it will be Beato's review, not Sarris', that critics of that age will seek to reproduce.

-- Tim Cavanaugh

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