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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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror