Gilbey on Film: don't stop screaming

Why we just can't get enough of Psycho.

Psycho is on the loose again in cinemas this week, accompanied by a BFI Southbank season, Psycho in Context, which positions the film in a ghoulish family portrait alongside its thematic cousins (Les Diaboliques, L'avventura) and upstart offspring (Halloween, Dressed to Kill).

It's a shame it wasn't possible to have Douglas Gordon's installation 24-Hour Psycho screening somewhere in the vicinity. I saw (a small slice of) this eerie interrogation of Hitchcock when it formed part of the "Spellbound" exhibition at the Hayward in 1996. With the film slowed down to the stated length, any moments of hysterical horror are rendered abstract, even peaceful; already a patient, measured work, it becomes in Gordon's hands a pure reverie. "24-Hour Psycho, as I see it, is not simply a work of appropriation," the artist said in 1993. "It is more like an act of affiliation . . . It wasn't a straightforward case of abduction. The original work is a masterpiece in its own right, and I've always loved to watch it . . . I wanted to maintain the authorship of Hitchcock so that when an audience would see my 24-Hour Psycho, they would think much more about Hitchcock and much less, or not at all, about me."

There's a corresponding effect at play in Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho. Despite being in colour, with a different cast, the occasional split-second visual detour and the odd cosmetic tweak (such as the amount of money stolen by Marion Crane) to bring it up to date, this is pretty much the shot-for-shot remake that it is rumoured to be. The film got a rough ride from most critics, primarily on grounds of impertinence, when it was released. What's surprising is how often it is still invoked as a cinematic punchbag for the anti-remake worrywarts. Writing in the Guardian last October, Sam Leith expressed the typical objection to Van Sant's Psycho: "Why would you take one of the greatest films ever and do it again, not just line by line, but frame by frame? It's the cinematic equivalent of waiting for Alfred Hitchcock to leave his bicycle chained up outside a shop and running over to sniff the saddle when he goes inside."

To my mind, Psycho Mk II ranks as one of the most unsettling films ever made. It has about it the whiff of a shindig in a mortuary, or a game of dressing-up conducted entirely by reanimated corpses. It's sick -- but it's a gas. You could imagine Norman and Mother getting a hell of a kick out of it. And, like 24-Hour Psycho, it is an experiment that invites us to confront what Psycho means to us: rather than distancing the viewer from the original, or attempting to over-write it, it's an act of profound cinephilia that depends upon and enhances our familiarity with Hitchcock.

It also ranks as one of the baldest attempts at subversion ever visited upon a Hollywood studio. "[The studios] were turning every TV show into a movie around that time," Van Sant told me in 2008. "They were obsessed with this brand identity. And they still are. They love sequels and remakes. But I could never figure out why they took the script when they did a remake, and threw out the original director's input -- the camera angles and so on. I was at Universal and I said, 'If you're going to do a remake, why not literally follow every frame?' And they laughed. At the time.[Pause for comic effect.] In fact, they're still laughing."

After the success of Good Will Hunting, Universal finally let him loose on his big idea. "I thought: if this makes money, the studios will be encouraged to keep doing it. It was like creating a virus, wherein the studios could get busy remaking their own material." I asked why this would have been a good thing. "I thought it was lame of the studios to want to do remakes in the first place. So to try to create a cycle like this was a kind of passive-aggressive way of . . . you know . . ." Turning their weapons on themselves? Giving them a taste, an overdose even, of their own medicine? "Yeah! I was trying to create a subversive act for them to do. Unfortunately, Psycho didn't make any money."

It's still a great movie, though -- right? "Good. That's good." Didn't he agree? "I can't tell," he said, enigmatically. So ended my second experience of attempting to convince a film-maker of the effectiveness of his own work. (The first was trying to sell Panic Room to David Fincher.)

But before we get too entrenched about our views on either Psycho, let's remember that there were many doubters in 1960 too, such as the Observer's C A Lejeune, who "grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business" that she fled before the end. Perfidy!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad