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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why Van Sant Failed Where Hitchcock Succeeded: editing in Psycho

Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho fails to frighten for a reason you probably would never notice. But here are the shortcomings anyone would pick up on:

-Vince Vaughn is too giddy as Norman Bates
-"Mother" is too tall and manly
-"Mother's" wig looks like a wig in every scene
-1960s moral norms don't make sense in 1998 (why are Sam and Marion meeting in secret?)
-Arbogast's attire is totally anachronistic in 1998
-There is a well-lit aviary in the fruit celler, which shatters the climax's mood
-The cover gives away the shower scene to a young audience that missed the original

Those complaints aside, there are three horror scenes in the story: The Shower, where Marion is stabbed by "Mother," The Stairs, where Arbogast, the private detective, is attacked on the landing of the stairs and falls down, and The Cellar, where Lila discovers Mother's preserved body and Norman runs in, dressed as "Mother," only to be subdued by Sam.

In analyzing each scene, I provide the actual film time of each significant event, and zero out the first event (to 00:00) to provide a point of reference and demonstrate how much time elapses during each scene. Of utmost importance are the disparities between the two in regard to when and how the trademark shrieking musical score, written by Bernard Herrmann, is incorporated into the scene.

00:00 (00:47:21): Shot begins in which the bathroom door will open; inside shower
00:04 (00:47:25): Bathroom door opens
00:12 (00:47:37): "Mother" pulls back the shower curtain
Music begins, after sound of curtain opening
00:35 (00:48:00): "Mother" leaves the bathroom

00:00 (00:45:03): Shot begins in which the bathroom door will open; inside shower
00:05 (00:45:08): Bathroom door opens
00:17 (00:45:20): "Mother" pulls back the shower curtain
00:23 (00:45:26): Music beings
00:54 (00:45:57): "Mother" leaves the bathroom

Van Sant's scene fails in terms of brevity. In 1960, "Mother" was only in the bathroom for 31 seconds. In 1998, she stuck around for 49. This time is wasted on a few pointless additions, including footage of the thundering sky, a closeup of Marion's dilating eye mid-murder, and an extended curtain-reveal, where "Mother" pulls back the curtain, Marion gasps, Marion screams, "Mother" stabs once, and then the music begins to play.
In the original, the music is integral to the murder. It is the sound of the murder. A few incidental sound effects make it through the score. Contrast this with the remake, where the music is not introduced until the murder is well in progress, and it takes a backseat to the screaming, the sound of the shower, the loud squeaks of Marion's feet in the tub, and the sound of thunder from outside. These are all detractors from the impact of the music.

00:00 (1:17:02): Arbogast takes to the stairs
00:08 (1:17:10): The door to Mother's room opens at the top of the stairs
00:18 (1:17:20): Shot begins in which "Mother" will appear; overhead shot, landing
00:19 (1:17:21): Music begins, much faster tempo than The Shower
Mother appears, only slightly after the music starts

00:00 (1:13:27): Arbogast takes to the stairs
00:09 (1:13:36): The door to Mother's room opens at the top of the stairs
00:16 (1:13:43): Shot begins in which "Mother" will appear; overhead shot, landing
00:17 (1:13:44): Mother appears
00:18 (1:13:45): Music begins, same score as The Shower

First, the music in the 1960 version is nearly twice the tempo of that used in the first murder scene, while the 1998 version employs the same score throughout the film.
More importantly, in the original, the music precedes "Mother's" appearance in the doorway, if only by a hiccup. In the remake, she is already a full stride out onto the landing, a full second later, when the music cues.

00:00 (1:41:10): The chair holding Mother's corpse begins to turn and reveal her.
00:07 (1:41:17): Lila screams
00:10 (1:41:20): Music begins
00:12 (1:41:22): Norman runs into the room, dressed as "Mother"

00:00 (1:33:35): The chair holding Mother's corpse begins to turn and reveal her.
00:05 (1:33:40): Lila screams the first of several times
00:11 (1:33:46): Norman is shown already in the room, dressed as "Mother"
00:12 (1:33:47): Music begins

A serious misstep in the cellar scene is the conversion from a fruit cellar to a fairly well-lit aviary, where Norman keeps (or raises?) the live birds he taxidermizes. This seems like an obvious swipe from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), mirroring the entymologist's hell that Buffalo Bill makes of his basement. There is simply not enough time in this scene to process the implicaitons of the aviary. The additional lighting competes with the creepy atmosphere generated in the original by the single hanging lightbulb, and the bird noises are distracting, a sad departure from the breath-holding silence of the original.
Vaughn misplays his scene as Norman here, not even attempting Anthony Perkins's wild-eyed, openmouthed countenance, taking instead a dull stare as he advances on Lila.
Lila's multiple screams seem out of place, especially because she seems to lose her wits with terror, rather than surprise, before composing herself enough to give Norman a heroic kick as Sam is subduing him.
In terms of music again, the music in the original foretells "Mother's" appearance by two seconds, while in the remake, the music starts one second after Norman is revealed as "Mother," coinciding with his raising of the knife.

There is an important relationship between "Mother" and the music that accompanies her appearances throughout the 1960 film. They are introduced less than a second apart in the shower scene, so that the first note follows the sound of the shower curtain sliding back to reveal the killer. The murderer and the music, an infamously jarring piece entitled "The Knife," are synonymous, as suggested by the film.
For "Mother's" second appearance on the stairs, the music precedes her this time, by less than a second. In that fraction of a second, the music is heard, and the danger is already ascertained by the audience once she appears.
In the cellar, it has been firmly established that the music signals impending terror. When the cue happens in the cellar, two full seconds elapse showing the darkened doorway through which Norman will enter, dressed as the old woman and clutching the knife. But the audience has not seen "her" face. We know that this is the climax, we have been shown that no character, no matter how major a player, is safe from the knife, and we have two seconds to note that Lila is alone with a corpse in the fruit cellar as someone hurries down the steps to kill her.

Contrast this with the remake, in which the music is never given the respect it deserves. It is only the background to the violence, and is overpowered by other sounds and noises. In a very legitimate sense, the music in the original is the real villain, for it is able to race the hearts of the audience, independent of any character on the screen. In the remake, the music plays after Mother's appearance in every scene.

I still enjoyed the remake, because I love the story, independent of its execution, including the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch. I wonder how much better it could be with a few little tweaks to its editing.
My parents showed me the original in 1999, when I was 10 years old, and it scared me terribly. It's now my second favorite film, but these scenes are still potent enough to make my heart pound just taking notes for this post. This film always has the effect on me, unlike any of the other 385 horror films I've seen since.

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/26: Notes from forthcoming essay

In this space, I will be making available some notes on my forthcoming essay on Lars von Trier's Antichrist, for the possibility of peer review on concepts and typographical issues, plus the fact that I'm really stoked about this project.

9/26: Explication of the birth of representational thinking, through Georges Battaile's The Tears of Eros and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for use in analysis of the grinding wheel in Antichrist.

In considering what evolutionary change accounts for the first modern man, Georges Bataille suggests that it is the concept of 'work' that separates modern humanity from his pre-modern ancestors.

"[…] it is work that separated man from his initial animality. It is through work that the animal became human. Work was, above all else, the foundation for knowledge and reason. The making of tools and weapons was the point of departure for that early faculty of reason which humanized the animal we once were. Man, manipulating matter, figured out how to adapt it to whatever end he assigned to it. But this operation changed not only the stone, which was given the desired form by the splinters he chipped from it, but man himself changed."
(Bataille, pp.41)

Bataille's The Tears of Eros (Les Larmes d'Eros) was published in 1961. The transitional phenomenon he describes as the advent of 'work' would be more comprehensively considered today as part of the birth of representational thinking.

Representational thinking is the process by which humans use the "mind's eye" to picture, understand, and interact with the world around them. Accordingly, humans interact with concepts, rather than purely physical objects. When a man encounters a stone, his mind's eye conjures up the symbolic meaning of the stone as it relates to the man, and all that it represents to him. Where a lesser animal might encounter the stone as simply a hard mass, to the man, the experience of the stone encompasses it's representation to him as a hazard, a weapon, a currency, a piece of a mountain, a model of the moon, a sculpture waiting to be created, ad infinitum.

The birth of representational thinking is now estimated to be nearly 100,000 years ago, the age of the oldest discovered beads, which are tiny shells with carefully made holes drilled through them. These beads are the current oldest evidence of man imbuing a physical object with a symbolic value, or seeing it as something more than its physical properties. The creator of these beads, presumably working with a small piece of stone to pierce the shells, was able to project beyond the reality of the shells, envision the finished product and the labor required to realize that end, and foresee some kind of symbolic use for the resultant jewelry as representative of power or beauty.

This transition of mental capacity was imaginatively filmed (according to my reading of the scene, at least), in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first portion of the film features ape-like proto humans living as wild animals. One group of these creatures comes into conflict with a larger group over rights to a watering hole, and is rebuffed completely by a show of aggression from their enemies.

The apes awaken in the next scene to the apparition of a dark monolith in their midst, a towering rectangular block with regular, even surfaces. This apparition is inexplicable, as likely a moment of divine clarity as a freak-occurrence of evolutionary providence. But the monolith is the birth of representational thinking. Before that transition, the world of the apes was purely physical. The monolith symbolizes the advent symbolism, whereby the apes become mentally modern. There is no thing in the physical world with perfection and regularity of form, but it exists in the minds of men. Concepts like geometry are a shortcut to the physical world, which enables man to interact with ideas instead of the world itself. In the world of ideas and concepts, the surface of a lake is a plane, the relationship between a tree and the earth is angular, a stone is spherical, and a cliff face can be monolithic.

The man-apes (for the line is now blurred) are immediately altered by this revelatory phenomenon. In the next scene, one creature, in the midst of a pile of bones, takes hold of a femur and begins to break the other bones with it, like a club. Having created the first tool, he takes his club and strikes a sun-bleached skull of a tapir, the favored prey of the apes. As he does so, images of living tapirs falling down dead play, indicating that the skeletal remains are representing the living beast for the club-wielding ape. He has projected an intended useful end for this tool.

In the next scene, the tool-using band of apes fights with the larger, non-representing group, and when one of their number is killed by a clubbing, the adversaries surrender the watering hole. An ape throws his club into the air, and that tool becomes a spaceship, bridging the birth of representational thought to the pinnacle of modernity in a single edit.

In furtherance of his project to explicate the apparent relationship between death and eroticism, Bataille suggests that the advent of work (an exponent of representational thought) is at odds with our animality.

"But if it is true that work is our origin, if it is true that work is the key to humanity, human beings, through work, ended up distancing themselves completely from animality. And they distanced themselves in particular on the level of their sexual life […] The sexual activity of animals is instinctive; the male who seeks out the female and covers her is responding only to an instinctual excitation. But human beings, having achieved through work the consciousness of a sought-after end, came in general to be distanced from the purely instinctual response."
(Bataille, pp.43)

Bataille goes on to describe a difference between animal, voluptuous, erotic desire and the "violence of pleasure;" and the desire for increment, as is the goal of all work, which transposes here into the incremental goal of childrearing.