Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman in John Woo's Paycheck. Google "Woo" "Paycheck" and "Hitchcock" and see how many hits you get.
I might be the only Alfred Hitchcock geek in the world who enjoys seeing that director's films being remade or rummaged through for story ideas. Shamelessly. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Paycheck and Quantum of Solace.)
Such imitations prove one essential thing: Hitchcock’s ideas and storytelling devices are good. They endure. In fact, he is so often imitated that you could say that Hitch made, perhaps, the greatest contribution to the language of cinema of any single filmmaker. His influence is so pervasive it can be hard to measure: because his imprint is everywhere, it's nowhere.
It’s interesting to see other filmmakers riff on his themes, as they have with Disturbia (influenced by Rear Window) and The Lodger (which, as I show in an earlier post, despite its name is actually a very loose remake of Hitch’s 1926 breakout film). Other movies, like the remake of Rear Window starring Christopher Reeve are, in my view, a true homage. In each of these, the creators went in to the project knowing they could never match, let alone outdo the original; still, it’s a fun exercise and a bankable strategy. I see no harm. I’ll bet there’s hardly a film student alive who hasn’t at least contemplated reshooting the shower scene from Psycho.
Speaking of which, Gus Van Sant has been all but accused of blasphemy for attempting to literally reshoot Psycho. But so what? His exercise revived interest in the original. As Michael Koresky pointed out, his version got average moviegoers to look, really look, at a movie. It got a new conversation started. (When people find out about my geekery, often the first thing they ask is, “What do you think of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho?”) Hitch-o-philes owe Gus a hearty Thank You, not their opprobrium.
This restriction that some would place on the remaking of a Hitchcock thriller makes no sense to me. Such a position isn't often taken with regard to other art forms. Few complain when musicians cover Beatles tunes. Art museums would be empty were there no cross-pollenation between artists. Literature might be the only art form that resists imitation, but that may be due to the fact that the stock-in-trade of novelists is their unique voice. Even then, words have way of entering the public bloodstream. When people declare they haven’t slept a wink, they may not realize they’re quoting Shakespeare (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III). Such is the impact the Bard's has on our language and culture. Likewise, when we see a large flock of birds gathering on a telephone line, it’s hard not think of The Birds.
This is one reason why I believe Hitchcock is the Shakespeare of the Twentieth Century. He’s had a similarly monumental cultural impact. Judging by the number of remakes and riffs that are coming out, it looks like his stature is only growing.
Stories endure. They are as old as language itself. The mechanism for telling them has evolved and morphed over the years from dance and oral traditions to the printed word, opera and more. Hitchcock was lucky enough to be alive when film theorists were writing the basic rules of what Sergei Eisenstein calls the “visual dialectic.” Hitch seized that historical opportunity and concocted his own cinematic patois, filling in huge swaths of the filmmaker's dictionary. How can others not quote from it?
When I first heard about Van Sant's "Psycho," I was horrified. Why remake something that was as good as it could have been, in an attempt to please an audience? The answer, I think, was that its purpose wasn't to please an audience. GVS made it so that he could learn, shot by shot, what it was like to shoot a Hitchcock movie. It was an act of poetic imitation, such as writers have undertaken for hundreds of years, writing in the style of their idols, or typing out page after page of their prose, to learn it by hand.
For Van Sant, the payoff was in "Milk," a deeply affecting, beautifully made movie, built on the bones of Rob Epstein's 1984 documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk." Van Sant's dramatization naturally uses some of the same locations as Epstein's film, and includes some of the same footage. More remarkably, it uses some of the same shots: the establishing shot of the Castro, with the large vertical marquee for example. It is a form of tribute, calling to mind a younger saxophonist quoting Charlie Parker. This habit was developed in the full-on imitation of the "Psycho" remake. And it goes deeper. In "Milk," Gus Van Sant realizes a mode that is both self-effacing and fully controlled. I don't think about the director while watching "Milk;" I think about Harvey Milk, as conveyed through Sean Penn. It's the same way in which I didn't think about Alfred Hitchcock while watching "Lifeboat" this afternoon; I thought about Connie Porter, conveyed through Tallulah Bankhead. This was a habit cultivated in Van Sant's imitation of Hitchcock. It's the way of a master artist, and, through imitation, it got into his bones.
It would be foolish to damn a remake of "The Birds" before seeing it. Moreover, I could happily watch George Clooney eat lunch. But the effort strikes me as wrongheaded, as something entirely different than Gus Van Sant's homage. Rather, it reminds me of the story Hitchcock tells about the selling of "Notorious" in his interviews with Francois Truffaut. The original producers of the film got so hung up on the perceived implausibility of the uranium in the winebottles that they sold the unmade film to another studio, ignoring the director's protest that the MacGuffin on which the plot hinged was, in itself, nothing. This is the problem with most self-conscious remakes of Hitchcock's movies. Thinking that it's all about the what, they lose the how, and end up with a broken bottle, instead of Ingrid Bergman conveying Alicia Huberman. It's what Gus Van Sant learned in his attempt (whether successful or not) to recreate "Psycho" shot-for-shot -- and it's where so many others miss the boat.