Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Come Again?

By Chris Herrington

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  You wouldn’t know it by all the recent press treating Gus Van Sant’s Psycho as foolish meddling with a sacred text, but it’s actually the third Alfred Hitchcock film to be remade in 1998. Earlier this year Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow took Dial M for Murder through the motions in A Perfect Murder, and more recently Rear Window (a better and certainly more enduring film than Psycho, frankly) was rather obscenely appropriated for the ongoing Christopher Reeve cheap-sentiment fest in a TV movie. But if those remakes were non-event and travesty, respectively, then Gus Van Sant’s attempt at a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s highest-grossing film is a much more curious endeavor.

Van Sant has attempted to explain Psycho as “high concept.” But such a claim demands a great deal of intellectual and artistic consistency, and his version doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be. Does he owe allegiance to Hitchcock as auteur or Psycho as artifact? Is Van Sant’s Psycho an attempt to literally remake the film frame by frame or an attempt to make the film as Hitchcock would today? Answer: A little of both. What’s the concept again?

Van Sant’s decision to shoot in color is true to Hitchcock’s vision of the film rather than to the film itself. Hitchcock made it clear that he would have shot in color if the film’s then-groundbreaking degree of violence and bloodshed hadn’t demanded black-and-white. In 1960 Psycho clearly carried the shock of the new: its subliminally graphic violence (the Soviet-style montage shower scene never actually shows a knife entering a body), its overt sexuality, the audacity of killing off the film’s star a third of the way through, the transgressive content and overall air of decadence and despair were heady stuff at the time. As Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in their book-length interview, Psycho was directed toward a new generation of filmgoers. Speaking of the clearly post-coital opening scene, Hitchcock said that he wanted to make younger audiences identify by showing them “the way they themselves behave most of the time.” He clearly believed in changing with the times and responding directly to his audience.

By setting the film in the present day and being a bit more explicit about Norman Bates’ prurient nature, Van Sant is attempting to fashion Psycho for a Nineties audience, to remake the film as Hitchcock might have. But he’s maddeningly inconsistent. The time-period adjustment doesn’t quite take. Perhaps 1960 is far too embedded into the script for the film to be updated without more substantive changes, but Van Sant’s Psycho doesn’t feel like 1998. It seems to take place out of time. Also, his staging of the opening love scene shows a desire to be true to Psycho the artifact rather than Hitchcock’s vision. When Janet Leigh was shown in her bra in the original Psycho it was relatively scandalous, but she was wearing even that only because of production codes and social standards. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “In truth, Janet Leigh should not have been wearing a brassiere. I can see nothing immoral about that scene and I get no special kick out of it. But the scene would have been more interesting if the girl’s bare breasts had been rubbing against the man’s chest.”

Perhaps Van Sant’s Warholian talk of his Psycho as cinematic pop art and high concept is merely an attempt to hide his lack of purpose beyond the directorial thrill of walking a mile in the shoes of the master. It may not mean much to audiences in the theatre or the suits at Universal, but a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho had to be a fascinating project to work on: Van Sant’s Psycho was certainly more interesting to direct than it is to watch. Hitchcock called Psycho “a film that belongs to filmmakers,” but I don’t think that was quite what he had in mind.

At least Van Sant’s project shows a true understanding and respect for his source material. The other remake of a Hollywood classic currently finding a home on the not-so-silver screen offers a perhaps unknowing rebuke of the very qualities that make its source material great, and what can be learned about Hollywood today through comparison is telling. You’ve Got Mail, from the same crowd-pleasing director/acting team that made the insufferable Sleepless in Seattle, is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, which may well be the most sublime romantic comedy Hollywood has ever created.

The Shop Around the Corner takes place in a small leather-goods store in pre-War Budapest, where Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play clerks who bicker at work but have unknowingly fallen in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. You’ve Got Mail updates this premise to modern Manhattan, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are rival bookstore owners who’ve fallen for each other through anonymous e-mail correspondence.

In The Shop Around the Corner, Stewart and Sullavan are workers scraping by in a country devoid of creature comforts. This constant class-oriented subtext lends tremendous poignancy to their romantic daydreams. In You’ve Got Mail, Ryan and Hanks are wealthy Manhattanites with great apartments and more leisure time than they know what to do with.

Just as important as the romantic entanglements between Stewart and Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner is the film’s vision of workplace as community. Virtually all action in the film takes place in that little shop. It is an intimate, tense, magical place. You’ve Got Mail actually transposes this theme to modern America in a compelling way, finding this community of work imperiled by the rise of corporate-owned chain stores, but the film lacks the guts to follow through on its initial ideas. In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan owns a small children’s bookstore called “The Shop Around the Corner.” The community her shop represents is threatened by the erection of a large, impersonal chain store across the street run by Hanks. This thread is followed through most of the film, as The Shop Around the Corner is driven out of business. But, when Hanks and Ryan hook up in the end, all politics are forgotten. Who needs community when you’ve got a rich husband?

And, just like in Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail uses cultural touchstones to assure its middle-brow audience that men and women are essentially different. Ryan reads Pride and Prejudice constantly and Hanks’ character reluctantly reads the book in order to relate to her. But even then he makes it clear that he can’t remember the details and doesn’t really take it seriously. In case the guys in the audience being dragged to this “date movie” are concerned: Don’t worry, he knows it’s girl stuff. Similarly, Hanks quotes The Godfather constantly, much to Ryan’s consternation. “What is it with men and The Godfather?” she asks.

If, in The Shop Around the Corner, love is about commonality, about the sharing of treasured ideas, then You’ve Got Mail keeps things safely separated. This is all undoubtedly very reassuring to You’ve Got Mail’s target audience, many of whom probably believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and who would prefer it to stay that way.

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