A Hitch in time

<em>Psycho</em> is extended to last a whole day and <em>Rear Window</em> entirely reframed. Why does

A man sits in a wheelchair, focusing his camera on the shadowy doings in the apartment opposite. Two women stand behind him, anxiously discussing the things he sees. But the film I'm describing is not Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, the man in the wheelchair isn't James Stewart nor is one of the two women Grace Kelly. The film is a 1995 work by the French artist Pierre Huyghe, in which every shot copies one in Rear Window. Its title is Remake.

Huyghe's film is a less celebrated version of the trick that Gus Van Sant pulled to greater controversy, and on a rather bigger budget, with his recent shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Van Sant's film has stars, fancy art direction and studio backing; Huyghe's no-budget enterprise has the austere feel of a conceptual art project and can currently be seen in a British art gallery. But which one is really the conceptual art piece? I like to think they both are - and Van Sant's Psycho, made within the studio system but stretching the genre of the remake to its most problematic limits, may well be the more radical of the two. (And a further thought - isn't Van Sant's film, since it adopts exactly the same strategy as Huyghe's, also a sort of remake of Remake?)

The current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, entitled "Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and contemporary art", is positively brimming with remakes. It features not just Huyghe's film but also Douglas Gordon's already famous 24-Hour Psycho, Stan Douglas's remake of a sequence from Marnie and a scene from Vertigo into which David Reed has digitally inserted one of his own paintings - not to mention Cindy Sherman's famous photographic remakes of herself as Hitchcockian heroines. "Notorious" highlights the way that Hitchcock's imaginative universe and its structures have caught the modern art imagination more than any other film-maker's - as the exhibition note says, there has never been a comparable exhibition on art and Orson Welles or John Ford (although I suspect there may have been a few on art and Disney).

There are various reasons for this. One is that, despite being claimed for the pantheon of great cinema, Hitchcock's work still carries a residue of disrepute and is still widely regarded as fast and trashy. Maintaining a foothold in the realm of popular imagination, it remains endlessly recyclable as myth. Another reason is that Hitchcock has been repeatedly "remade" by critical commentary, from Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to Slavoj Zizek, via countless psychoanalytic, feminist and deconstructionist theorists, not to mention the occasional artist-theorist such as Victor Burgin (included in "Notorious").

Artists like the fact that Hitchcock's work is about looking, its structures and consequences; they also like the fact that the Hitchcockian "look" comes with its own reading list attached. Hitchcock's imagination has so suffused our culture that his films have taken on the status of genuine myth - that is, of stories that seem always to have been in circulation, that seem never to have been new, never to have happened for a first time.

That repetition - that sense of the world and the psyche simply retracing ancient patterns - is the theme of much Hitchcock, the late films especially (although it was already the central theme of 1940's Rebecca). The Birds seems to re-enact an ancient elemental visitation; the explicitly Freudian Marnie is about a woman reliving a childhood trauma; Vertigo is about a man erotically fixated on a ghost. The Hitchcock we've become familiar with today is no longer the well-marketed image of "Hitch" the jolly ghoulish uncle but Hitchcock as nexus of cultural traumas - an image that emphasises the late Hollywood films, and only a certain number of those.

"Notorious" abounds with references to Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and Rear Window - but don't expect reappraisals of Topaz or Family Plot. For artists, the more overtly psychoanalytic films have become the official canon, while the earlier ones, especially the British period, seem to have been pigeon-holed as jovial try-outs, however shadowy their imagery. Just think, though, what could be done with the ominous silences of Blackmail or The Lodger. Even the 1940s Hollywood melodrama period - the time of Rebecca, Suspicion and Notorious itself - seems scarcely to have marked the gallery imagination. The MOMA show consequently feels a bit like a Beatles tribute album that features tracks from only Revolver.

The show's most holistic view of Hitchcock is found in the series of six Phoenix Tapes by Christoph Girardet and Matthias Muller, which form an inventory of Hitchcock motifs across his career: a sort of mini-encyclopaedia edited along musical lines, giving us fugues of staircases, stranglings, signatures and monograms, guns, kisses and mothers. It's a perfect illustration, in concrete terms, of the auteur continuity of the entire Hitchcock oeuvre. The exhibition's least likely and literal homage is Atom Egoyan's Evidence, a series of teenage girls talking on video: an unsettling presence sculpted from material for Egoyan's new film Felicia's Journey (which itself alludes to several Hitchcock films, but not apparently in these sequences).

The best-known piece is Douglas Gordon's Hayward hit 24-Hour Psycho, to which crowds hang transfixed, as if on flypaper. But while people seemed willing to trance out to Gordon's hypnotically extended images - the visual equivalent of a Steve Reich piece - no one seemed to have much patience with Stan Douglas's Subject to a Film: Marnie, a six-minute video remake of a section from Hitchcock's distressing tale of female kleptomania and male libido. Douglas's piece is too narratively structured simply to hypnotise as Gordon's does. It demands to be followed, in every sense (it's partly about the fascination of the tracking shot), so at first sight it's boring. In fact, what you at first assume is a single fastidious tracking shot turns out to be nine shots and a trick dissolve. It's all on a loop, but the loop doesn't start or end exactly where you expect: instead, it overlaps on to itself to form a tantalising Mobius strip of micro-narrative.

I found it endlessly watchable, with its sense of acts performed in an automaton haze of compulsion. Douglas's piece evokes the seamless repetition, without beginning or end, of the eternal remake, the infinite retake. The sense, if you like, that que sera, sera: whatever will be, will be.

"Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and contemporary art" runs until 3 October at the Museum of Modern Art, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP (01865 722733); "The Ultimate Hitchcock" retrospective runs at the NFT during August and September; "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Strangers on a Train" are re-released in August

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide