Many film critics are wondering out loud why in God's name Gus Van Sant was allowed to spend $25 million to "restage" Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Implicit in this indignation is a knee-jerk allegiance to the sanctity of so-called masterpieces. Yet when one thinks of the legion of dreadful and misbegotten extrapolations made from the original text, including almost all of Brian DePalma's oeuvre, a faithful restaging seems both timely and gutsy.
Van Sant has argued, rightfully I might add, that what he has done is no different from what a director of opera or theater does -- hauls out the old sets, dusts off the script, brings in a new cast and mounts a production. Film, by its very nature, is an impure art, born of a dynamic alchemy of more venerable art forms.
If nothing else, the Van Sant Psycho reminds us that in film, emulation is a much more difficult project than homage. Whereas homage, as in DePalma's Dressed to Kill (1980), invites irony -- thus defusing the problematic difference in quality between the original and the referent -- the new Psycho demands that the audience watch without the prejudice of easy irony. Forget comparing and contrasting, Van Sant asks us; the fat man had his production; what do you think of mine, up front and on its own merits? A tall order indeed for an affectless age.
Thus, the true value of the new Psycho, despite its own fine aesthetic attributes, lies in the possible political resonances of the restaging gambit. For example, let's consider Macao (1952). On the surface, it appears as a poor man's Casablanca (1942), involving an American sharpie (Robert Mitchum) who, after some unsavory business stateside, escapes to Macao where he runs into a shapely cabaret singer (Jane Russell). As they dodge, parry and thrust with the help of a barbed script, a hotel owner tries to outwit the international police who would like to pin a murder on him. In the background are hard-bitten Portuguese officials and, of course, inscrutable Chinese doing their own thing.
Considering that Macao, the Vegas of the Far East, rife with feuding gangsters and greedy mandarins, will revert to Chinese rule next year, the time is now for a restaging of this classic. Not a remake, not an homage, but a slavish restaging. In his recently published memoirs, Requiem for Oblivion (translated by yours truly), ex-hotelier Rafael Osiris da Silva suggests as much: "Twenty years ago, when I first arrived here (1974), the city had a different character," he muses darkly. "It was quiet and green, a colonial backwater with a few strategic innuendos of film noir intrigue. One could still imagine Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell crossing the Three Mile Limit into exotic complications."
Now, the boom is on; investors are jostling and jiving for themselves or whomever or whatever they represent. A new crew building new sets for a new movie? Indeed. In 50 years, Macao, along with Canton and Hong Kong, will form the world's first super megalopolis -- big, ugly and frantic with the negative vibrations of the global economy. A restaged Macao would force the viewer not only back into film history, but history itself, to confront just how far and dangerous the distance is between the artificial soundstage of 1952 and the South China Sea of 1998. Yes, I admit, irony is a large component of this symbolic operation, but it comes neither easy nor cheap. When you put the teeth of colonialism into the mouth of irony, you can expect to be bitten.
Chinese Box (1997), a film about last year's handover of Hong Kong to China, foregrounds just what is at stake. In this dreary little number, no cliché is left unturned by Wayne Wang and his thoroughly overrated screenwriter, Paul Theroux, master xenophobe. Because the film tries so hard to be of the moment, we are left with nothing but the moment -- bathed in tepid melodrama about a dying diplomat, his self-serving moll and a hooker with a heart of gold -- and find it wanting. We have no perspective; we get no satisfaction.
Lest you think that your scribe is being unduly esoteric, let me remind you of a recent prequel-sequel novel based on Casablanca. No doubt a script is already in the works. The book charts Rick's course of dodgy action before arriving in Casablanca and then his war efforts after the café is shuttered. Is this sacrilege? In fact, the book seems weak because it too implies that the film has to be danced around as if it were some powerful and impenetrable monolith. Bullocks. Restage it and I bet we'll see more clearly what exactly we were thinking about colonialism in 1942.
As Umberto Eco has poignantly noted, Casablanca was the ultimate fly-by-night production of a Chinese menu script in which cliché was piled upon cliché. What is amazing about the film is how its blatant artificiality of setting and theme has become so submerged under romantic notions of authenticity and canonical reverence.
Psycho has been restaged. Bravo. Let us now put a good idea to great use.