Reading about Steven Soderbergh’s shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s and Gus van Sant’s Psychos (1960 and 1998) on At the Matinée made me think of Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space.
Taking actual footage from Sidney J. Furie’s 1981 film The Entity, Tscherkassky re-produces one of the most horrific scenes in the film and dismantles its conventional structure, pointing to different features of character, narrative and style and that are overlooked in the original version. As Rhys Graham rightly observes here,
It is as if Tscherkassky is suggesting that there is a potential violence restrained by every film frame. An explosion of off-screen energy that can shatter the veneer of the film form. The expression of this shattering is a deeply sensual experience which implicates and surrounds the viewer. The constant layering of images also creates a space in which the viewer is able to insert themselves, no longer withheld by the pretense that this is a separate world presented on screen. Rather, it is something immediate and tangible which can be destroyed in the act of viewing, and then created again in an abstract rhythm of torn sound and image fragments.
I remember once suggesting such close frame-by-frame viewing and actual re-editing of films to students as a method to study films. As the visual material gets more tangible, I feel like you can produce more interpretations. It is as if the spell is broken, you can see the unseen and hear the untold. And the film becomes something else – not something else, but it exposes to you its multiple surfaces of meaning.
Watching Soderbergh’s re-editing of the shower scene made me think of Psycho in relation to Persona. Because I agree with James Luxford in Guardian that ‘while [Soderbergh’s Psychos doesn’t make either film better or worse, [it] offers a different perspective, underlining just what makes the story and the original film so enduring’. This scene is a junction where the film’s two stories clash – where the second protagonist kills the first one and where the cuts in the film slices the shots to bits and fragments.
The shower scene splits Psycho’s narrative into two, producing two different protagonists, themes, stories and moods and it also ‘brings formal questions about the structure of narrative into the very surface of its plot’*. Discontinuity and self-reflexivity are characteristics of modernist works and in fact many critics compare Psycho with modernist examples from film and literature: Raymond Durgnat argues that [it] ‘approximates the Marxist-modernist shape of Antonioni’s L’Avventura’; George Toles compares it to works of Edgar Allan Poe and George Bataille; Robin Wood places it among modernist literary works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.**
In this sense, the shower scene can be compared to the famous crack halfway through Bergman’s Persona, except the narrative of Psycho never dismantles; it develops and ends in a linear fashion.
The interruptions in the two films are quite similar; they differ only because their relationship with the narratives differs. The two sections in Psycho are causally united and the shower scene is integrated into this unity, whereas the crack in Persona destroys any further possibility of forming a story. After the split, Persona conspicuously acknowledges the future presence of an audience without providing them complete access to its narrative whereas Psycho envisages a bond with audiences in a discreet manner though offering hints to them***.
*Mulvey, Laura (2006) Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion, 86-87.
**Durgnat, Raymond (2002) A Long Hard Look at Psycho. London: BFI, 222. Toles, George (1999) ‘If Thine Eye Offend Thee …’: Psycho and the Art of Infection’ in Allen, Richard and Gonzalès, S. Ishii (eds) Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays. London: BFI, 159. Wood, Robin (1989) ‘Psycho’ in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 150.
***Mulvey thinks that Hitchcock ‘assumes an audience that is able to follow his moves’ (2006: 86) and Wood argues that the film is his ‘ultimate achievement to date in the technique of audience participation’ (1989: 146-7).