Remaking or Covering Psycho?

I was reading Don Delillo’s White Noise a little while ago; the story is bookended by two scenes in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. They discuss a real-world piece of art, 24-hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon. The piece is basically Hitchcock’s original, slowed down to two frames per second, so the film takes literally 24 hours to watch from end-to-end. The book discusses how the alteration of the movie has an effect on the viewer that combines the distortion of time with the contemplation of individual frames, a sort of slideshow that disrupts the suspense in the film but replaces it with a different kind of feeling:

The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

This got me thinking about the way canonization happens – how certain bits of art become permanent, mandatory components of our cultural language while others seem to wither and desiccate until they vanish. Psycho is a legendary movie – considered influential and terrifying, even to modern audiences. A movie with that much resonance carries with it a huge amount of expectation upon viewing. Here’s what’s weird – I like Psycho, but the movie is actually kind of ruined for me. It’s ruined because the first time I saw it wasn’t the original Hitchcock version – it was the 1998 remake. Now, the remake is pretty unique because it is shot-for-shot – literally every scene is blocked and shot identically to the original, with different actors and slightly different sets. And it is just awful.

There are so many things wrong with Psycho 1998 – Anne Heche fills the role of Janet Leigh’s character, and displays that strange Hecheiness she has that makes you think she is the human-form representative of a race of oatmeal-based life forms that are due to invade our planet at any moment. There are some god-awful bits of CGI that fill in for when Lars Von Trier couldn’t find a faithful adaptation of the original set or characters. As bad as those are, however, nothing compares to the horror (and not in a good way) of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. I know that Vince was once considered a respected dramatic actor, but watch this scene and tell me you don’t think at some point he’s going to go off about maple syrup or motorboating.

Honestly, it’s funny how 20 pounds heavier makes him 137% funnier.

What’s so crazy about film is how you just can’t cover it. Remakes of originals in film just seem derivative or outright copies. I’ve been trying to think of an example of a great movie “cover”, and I just can’t think of one.

So what is it with music that makes it more prone to covering? Lord knows there are some terrible covers (and cover bands) out there, and people are going to have great music tainted by bad covers the same way that Psycho got tainted for me. Last Friday I saw a band at the Rose and Crown whose interpretations of terrible 90’s songs were primarily built around replacing all instances of the words “women” or “lady” with “bitches” or “bitch”. This, sadly, was not performance art.

Meanwhile, covering a song can do all sorts of amazing things to your regard for the original. Jose Gonzalez’s covers of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” and “Teardrop” by Massive Attack strip the songs of their electro sheen and expose the songwriting and melodies underneath. Sinatra’s covers of Broadway standards added layers of sadness and heartache to songs that were deeply unpopular with the cool kids. Then there’s Owen Pallet’s covers of Mariah Carey.

Isn’t that what’s so great about covers? It’s like Delillo said about 24-Hour Psycho – by altering the song, changing its basic formulations, remixing, editing and playing with the originals, you not only get a new piece of art, you get a piece of commentary on the original that forces the listener to consider what it is about the original that is changed and what is the same – the “songiness” of the song. What I love about the time we live in is you don’t have to wait for canonization or critical commentary before tracks are getting ripped up, changed, altered and remixed. By giving artists license to use bits and bobs of other people’s work, we are creating an amazing feedback loop on our own culture at an unprecedented rate. There’s a fear of what this means for our culture, that originality is dead and we are just going to reuse our own detritus over and over again until it is devoid of meaning. And who knows – maybe that’s true, but as long as I’m getting James Blake’s Dubstep remake of “Limit to Your Love” by Feist, I’m an incredibly happy camper.

Seriously, watch and listen to this, preferably with some good headphones or some badass subwoofer around. Or just buy the album. It’s incredible, strange and awesome.