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Slavoj Zizek: IS THERE A PROPER WAY TO REMAKE A HITCHCOCK FILM?

 

In any large American bookstore, it is possible to purchase some volumes of the unique series SHAKESPEARE MADE EASY, edited by John Durband and published by Barron's: a "bilingual" edition of Shakespeare's plays, with the original archaic English on the left page and the translation into common contemporary English on the right page. The obscene satisfaction provided by reading these volumes resides in how what purports to be a mere translation into contemporary English turns out to be much more: as a rule, Durband tries to formulate directly, in everyday locution, (what he considers to be) the thought expressed in Shakespeare's metaphoric idiom - say, "To be or not to be, that is the question" becomes something like: "What's bothering me now is: Shall I kill myself or not?" And my idea is, of course, that the standard remakes of Hitchcock's films are precisely something like HITCHCOCK MADE EASY: although the narrative is the same, the "substance," the flair that accounts for Hitchcock's uniqueness evaporates. Here, however, one should avoid the jargon-laden talk on Hitchcock's unique touch, etc., and approach the difficult task of specifying what gives Hitchcock's films their unique flair.
Or - what if this uniqueness is a myth, the result of our (spectators) transference, elevation of Hitchcock into the Subject Supposed to Know. What I have in mind is the attitude of overinterpretation: everything in a Hitchcock film has to have a meaning, there are no contingencies, so that when something doesn't fit, it's not his fault, but ours - we didn't really get it. While watching Psycho for the 20th time, I noticed a strange detail during the final psychiatrist's explanation: Lilah (Vera Miles) listens to him enraptured and nods two times with a deep satisfaction, instead of being shaken by the final confirmation of her sister's meaningless death - was this a pure contingency, or did Hitchcock want to suggest a strange libidinal ambiguity and rivalry between the two sisters? Or the scene of Marion driving in the night on her escape from Phoenix: just before reaching the Bates motel, when she listens to the imagined voices of her boss and the millionaire who bought the house, furious at her deception, her expression is no longer angiushed - what we perceive is a strange manic smile of a deeply perverse satisfaction, an expression which uncannily resembles the very last shot of Norman-mother, just before it dissolves into the skull and then the car appearing out of the swamp. So, in a way, even before actually meeting him, Marion already becomes Norman: a further feature that confirms this point is that her expression emerges when she is listening to the voices in her head, exactly like Norman in his last shot… Or - the supreme example - the scene when Marion checks in at the Bates motel: while Norman has his back turned against her, inspecting the row of keys to the rooms, she furtively looks around to get an idea which city to put down as her residence, sees the words "Los Angeles" as part of a newspaper headline and writes them down. We have here two hesitations coinciding: while Marion hesitates as to which town to write (which lie to tell), Norman hesitates as to in which unit to put her (if it's 1, this means that he will be able to observe her secretly through the peephole). When, after some hesitation, she tells him "Los Angeles," Norman picks up and gives her the key of the number 1 unit. Is his hesitation a simple sign that he was considering her sexual attraction and then finally opted to pursue her, or is it that, at a more refined level, he detected in her hesitation that she is about to tell him a lie, and then countered her lie with an illegal act of his own, finding in her small crime the justification for his own? (Or is it rather that, upon hearing that she is from LA, he thinks that the girl from such a decadent town can be an easy pick?) Although Joseph Stefano, who wrote the scenario, claims1 the creators had in mind only the growing sexual attraction that Norman felt for Marion, there remains the shadow of a doubt that the coincidence of two hesitations cannot be purely contingent… This is called true love in theory. So, out of this true love, I claim that there IS a unique Hitchcockian dimension.

The Hitchcockian sinthom

My first thesis is that this unique dimension is not to be sought primarily at the level of the narrative content - its original locus is elsewhere - where? Let me begin with contrasting two scenes from two non-Hitchcockian films. There is one memorable scene in the otherwise dull and pretentious Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It. Of the two preacher's sons, we are all the time aware that the younger one (Brad Pitt) is on a path to self-destruction, approaching catastrophe because of his compulsive gambling, drinking and womanizing. The thing that keeps the two sons together with their father is fly-fishing in the wild Montana rivers - this Sunday fishing expeditions are a kind of sacred family ritual, a time when the threats of the life outside family is temporarily suspended. So when they go fishing for the last time, Pitt achieves perfection: he adroitly catches the biggest fish ever; however, the way he proceeds is presented with a shadow of constant threat (Will the dark river bend where he spots the great trout swallow him? Will he reappear after he slips into the fast water?) - again, it is as if this potential threat announces the final tragedy, which occurs shortly afterwards (Pitt is found dead, with his fingers broken, on account of his gambling debts).
What renders this scene from A River Runs Through It rather ordinary is that the underlying threatening dimension is directly reinscribed into the main narrative line, as an index pointing towards the final catastrophe. In contrast to it, Peter Yates' outstanding Breaking Away (1979), a gentle comedy/drama about the coming of age of four high school kids in Bloomington, Indiana, in the final summer before they face the inexorable choices of jobs or college or the Army, resisted this temptation. In one of the memorable small sequences, Dave, one of the kids, on a racing bicycle engages in a high-speed highway duel with a semitrailer truck. The uneasy effect is here the same as in a couple of scenes involving swimming in an abandoned quarry, in which kids jump into deep dark water with bits of sharp stones hidden beneath the surface: Yates suggests the constant possibility of sudden catastrophe. We wait for the terrible accident to happen (for Dave to be hid and crushed by the truck; for one of the kids to drown in the dark water or to hit some sharp stone when jumping into it) - none does, but the hints of one (its threatening shadow evoked just by the general atmosphere of the way the scene is shot, not by any direct psychological references, like the uneasiness felt by kids) make the characters seem strangely vulnerable. It is as if these hints lay the ground for the very end of the film, when we learn, from the legend on the screen, that, afterwards, one of them died in Vietnam, another had a different accident… This tension between the two levels is what I want to focus on: the gap that separates the explicit narrative line from the diffused threatening message delivered between the lines of this narrative.
Let me introduce here a parallel with Richard Wagner (is not the ring from Wagner's Nibelungen the greatest MacGuffin of all times?). In his last two operas, the same gesture is performed: towards the end of Goetterdaemmerung, the dead Siegfried, when Hagen approaches him in order to snatch the ring from his hand, threateningly rises his hand; towards the end of Parsifal, in the midst of Amfortas's lament and refusal to perform the ritualistic unveiling of the Grail, his dead father Titurel also miraculously lifts his hand. Features like this attest to the fact that Wagner was a Hitchcockian avant la lettre: in Hitchcock's films, we also find the same visual or other motif that insists, imposing itself through an uncanny compulsion and repeating itself from one film to another, in totally different narrative contexts. Best-known is the motif of what Freud called Niederkommenlassen, "letting /oneself/ fall down," with all the undertones of melancholic suicidal fall2 - a person desperately clinging by his hand onto another person's hand: the Nazi saboteur clinging from the good American hero's hand from the torch of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur; in the final confrontation of The Rear Window, the crippled James Stewart hanging from the window, trying to grab the hand of his pursuer who, instead of helping him, tries to make him fall; in The Man Who Knew Too Much (remake, 1955), on the sunny Casablanca market, the dying Western agent, dressed as an Arab, stretches his hand towards the innocent American tourist (James Stewart) and pulling him down towards himself; the finally unmasked thief clinging from Cary Grant's hand in To Catch a Thief; James Stewart clinging from the roof funnel and desperately trying to grasp the policeman's hand stretching towards him at the very beginning of Vertigo; Eva Marie-Saint clinging from Cary Grant's hand at the edge of the precipice (with the immediate jump to her clinging to his hand in the sleeping car's berth at the end of North by Northwest). Upon a closer look, we become aware that Hitchcock's films are full of such motifs. There is the motif of a car on the border of a precipice in Suspicion and in North by Northwest - in each of the two films, there is a scene with the same actor (Cary Grant) driving a car and dangerously approaching a precipice; although the films are separated by almost 20 years, the scene is shot in the same way, including a subjective shot of the actor casting a glance into the precipice. (In Hitchcock's last film, The Family Plot, this motif explodes in a long sequence of the car that rushes down the hill, since its breaks were meddled with by the villains.) There is the motif of the "woman who knows too much," intelligent and perceptive, but sexually unattractive, with spectacles, and - significantly - resembling or even directly played by Hitchcock's own daughter Patricia: Ruth Roman's sister in Strangers On a Train, Barbara del Geddes in Vertigo, Patricia Hitchcock in Psycho, and even Ingrid Bergman herself prior to her sexual awakening in Spellbound. There is the motif of the mummified skull which first appears in Under Capricorn and finally in Psycho - both times, it terrifies the young woman (Ingrid Bergman, Vera Miles) in the final confrontation. There is the motif of a Gothic house with big stairs, with the hero walking up the stairs where, in the room, there is nothing, although he previously saw a feminine silhouette on the first-floor window: in Vertigo, it is the enigmatic episode of Madeleine seen by Scottie as a shade in the window and then inexplicably disappearing from the house; in Psycho, it is the appearance of the mother's shadow in the window - again, bodies which appear out of nowhere and disappear back into the void. Furthermore, the fact that in Vertigo this episode remains unexplained opens up the temptation to read it in a kind of futur anterieur, as already pointing towards Psycho: is the old lady who is the hotel-clerk of the house not a kind of strange condensation of Norman Bates and his mother, i.e. the clerk (Norman) who is at the same time the old lady (mother), thus giving in advance the clue on their identity, which is the big mystery of Psycho? Vertigo is of a special interest, insofar as, in it, the same sinthom of the spiral that draws us into its abyssal depth repeats itself and resonates at a multitude of levels: first as a purely formal motif of the abstract form emerging out of the close-up of the eye in the credits sequence; then as the curl of Carlotta Valdes' hair in her portrait, repeated in Madeleine's haircut; then as the abyssal circle of the staircase of the church tower; and, finally, in the famous 360 degrees shot around Scottie and Judy-Madeleine who are passionately embracing in the decrepit hotel room, and during which the background changes to the stable of the Juan Batista Mission and then back to the hotel room; perhaps, this last shot offers the key to the temporal dimension of "vertigo"- the self-enclosed temporal loop in which past and present are condensed into the two aspects of the same endlessly repeated circular movement. It is this multiple resonance of surfaces that generates the specific density, the "depth" of the film's texture.
Here we have a set of (visual, formal, material) motives which "remain the same" across different contexts of meaning. How are we to read such persisting gestures or motifs? One should resist the temptation to treat them as Jungian archetypes with a deep meaning - the raising hand in Wagner expressing threat of the dead person to the living; or the person clinging by another's hand expressing the tension between spiritual fall and salvation… We are dealing here with the level of material signs which resists meaning and establishes connections which are not grounded in narrative symbolic structures: they just relate in a kind of pre-symbolic cross-resonance. They are not signifiers, neither the famous Hitchcockian stains, but elements of what, a decade or two ago, one would have called cinematic writing, ecriture. In the last years of his teaching, Jacques Lacan established the difference between symptom and sinthom: in contrast to symptom which is a cipher of some repressed meaning, sinthom has no determinate meaning - it just gives body, in its repetitive pattern, to some elementary matrix of jouissance, of excessive enjoyment - although sinthoms do not have sense, they do radiate jouis-sense /enjoy-meant/.3 According to Svetlana, Stalin's daughter, the last gesture of the dying Stalin, significantly preceded by the cast of the evil gaze, was the same gesture as in Wagner's last operas, the gesture of threateningly raising the left hand:

"At what seemed like the very last moment /Stalin/ suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of fear of death and the unfamiliar faces of the doctors bent over him. The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and terrible happened that to this day I can't forget and don't understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something up above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh." 4
What, then, did this gesture mean? The Hitcocockian answer is: nothing - yet this nothing was not an empty nothing, but the fullness of libidinal investment, a tick which gave body to a cipher of enjoyment. Perhaps, their closest equivalent in painting are the protracted stains which "are" the yellow sky in the late van Gogh or the water or grass in Munch: this uncanny "massiveness" pertains neither to the direct materiality of the color stains nor to the materiality of the depicted objects - it dwells in a kind of intermediate spectral domain of what Schelling called geistige Koerperlichkeit, the spiritual corporeality. From the Lacanian perspective, it is easy to identify this "spiritual corporeality" as materialized jouissance, "jouissance which turned into flesh." Hitchcock's sinthoms are thus not mere formal patterns: they already condense a certain libidinal investment. As such, they determined his creative process: Hitchcock did not proceed from the plot to its translation in cinematic audio-visual-terms. He rather started with a set of (usually visual) motifs that haunted his imagination that imposed themselves as his sinthoms; then, he constructed a narrative that served as the pretext for their use… These sinthoms provide the specific flair, the substantial density of the cinematic texture of Hitchcock's films: without them, we would have a lifeless formal narrative. So all the talk about Hitchcock as the "master of suspense," about his unique twisted plots, etc., misses the key dimension. Fredric Jameson said of Hemingway that he selected his narratives in order to be able to write a certain kind of (tense, masculine) phrases. The same goes for Hitchcock: he invented stories in order to be able to shoot a certain kind of scenes. And, while the narratives of his films provide a funny and often perceptive comment of our times, it is in his sinthoms that Hitchcock lives forever. They are the true cause of why his films continue to function as objects of our desire.

The Case of the Missing Gaze

The next feature concerns the status of the gaze. The so-called Post-Theorists (cognitivist critics of the psychoanalytic cinema theory) like to vary the motif of how writers of the "Theory" refer to mythical entities like the (capitalized) Gaze, entities to which no empirical, observable facts (like the actual cinema viewers and their behavior) correspond - the title of one of the essays in the Post-Theory volume5 is "The Case of the Missing Spectator." Post-Theory relies here on the commonsense notion of the spectator (the subject who perceives cinematic reality on the screen, equipped with his emotional and cognitive predisposition, etc.) - and, within this simple opposition between subject and object of cinematic perception, there is, of course, no place for the gaze as the point from which the viewed object itself "returns the gaze" and regard us, the spectators. That is to say, crucial for the Lacanian notion of gaze is that it involves the reversal of the relationship between subject and object: as Lacan puts it in his Seminar XI, there is an antinomy between the eye and the gaze, i.e. the gaze is on the side of the object, it stands for the blind spot in the field of the visible from which the picture itself photo-graphs the spectator - or, as Lacan puts it in his Seminar I, whose uncanny evocation of the central scene of The Rear Window is sustained by the fact that it was held in the same year that Hitchcock's film was shot (1954):

"I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze." 6
Is this notion of the gaze not perfectly rendered by the exemplary Hitchcockian scene in which the subject is approaching some uncanny threatening object, usually a house? There we encounter the antinomy between the eye and the gaze at its purest: the subject's eye sees the house, but the house - the object - seems somehow to return the gaze… No wonder, than, that the post-theorists speak of the "missing gaze," complaining that the Freudo-Lacanian Gaze is a mythical entity nowhere found in the actuality of the spectator's experience: this gaze effectively is missing, its status is purely fantasmatic. At a more fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is the positivization of an impossibility which gives rise to the fetish-object. For example, how does the object-gaze become a fetish? Through the Hegelian reversal from the impossibility to see the object, into an object which gives body to this very impossibility: since the subject cannot directly see that, the true object of fascination, he accomplishes a kind of reflection-into-self by means of which the object that fascinates him becomes the gaze itself. In this sense (although not in an entirely symmetrical way), gaze and voice are "reflective" objects, i.e. objects which give body to an impossibility (in Lacanian "mathems": a under minus small phi).
In this precise sense, fantasy proper is not the scene itself that attracts our fascination, but the imagined/inexistent gaze observing it, like the impossible gaze from above for which old Aztecs draw gigantic figures of birds and animals onto the ground, or the impossible gaze for which details of the sculptures on the old aqueduct to Rome were formed, although they were unobservable from the ground. In short, the most elementary fantasmatic scene is not that of a fascinating scene to be looked at, but the notion of "there is someone out there looking at us"; it is not a dream but the notion that "we are the objects in someone else's dream"… Milan Kundera, in La lenteur, presents as the ultimate sign of today's false aseptic pseudo-voluptuous sex the couple feigning to make love anally close to a hotel pool, in view of the guests in the rooms above, faking pleasurable cries but effectively not even accomplishing the penetration - to this he opposes the slow gallant intimate erotic games of the 18th century France… Did not something similar to the scene from La lenteur effectively take place in Khmer Rouge Cambodia where, after too many people died from purges and starvation, the regime, eager to multiply the population, ordered each 1st, 10th and 20th day in a months the day for copulation: in the evening, the married coupled (who otherwise had to sleep in separate barracks) were allowed to sleep together and compelled to make love. Their private space was a small cubicle isolated by a half-transparent bamboo curtain; in front of the row of such cubicles, Khmer Rouge guards were walking, verifying that couples are effectively copulating. Since the couples knew that not making love was considered an act of sabotage to be severely punished, and since, on the other hand, after a 14 hours working day, they were as a rule too tired to effectively have sex, they pretended to make love in order to dupe the guardian's attention: they made false movements and faked sounds… Is this not the exact inverse of the experience from the pre-permissive youth of some of us, when one had to sneak into the bedroom with the partner and do it as silently as possible, so that parents, if they were still awake, would not suspect that sex is going on? What if, then, such a spectacle for Other's gaze is part of the sexual act - what if, since there is no sexual relationship, it can only be staged for the Other's gaze?
Does not the recent trend of "-cam" web-sites which realize the logic of "The Truman Show" (in these sites, we are able to follow continuously some event or place: the life of a person in his/her apartment, the view on a street, etc.) display this same urgent need for the fantasmatic Other's Gaze serving as the guarantee of the subject's being? "I exist only insofar as I am looked at all the time…" (Similar to this is the phenomenon, noted by Claude Lefort, of the TV set which is all the time turned on, even when no one effectively watches it - it serves as the minimum guarantee of the existence of social link.) The situation is here thus the tragi-comic reversal of the Bentham-Orwellian notion of panopticon-society in which we are (potentially) "observed all the time" and have no place to hide from the omnipresent gaze of the Power: here, anxiety arises from the prospect of NOT being exposed to the Other's gaze all the time, so that the subject needs the camera's gaze as a kind of ontological guarantee of his being…
As to this paradox of the omnipresent gaze, a funny thing happened not long ago to a friend of mine in Slovenia: he returned to his office late in the night to finish some work; before he put the light on, he observed in the office across the courtyard a couple of a senior (married) manager and his secretary copulating passionately on his table - in the midst of their passion, they forgot that there is a building across the courtyard, from where they can be clearly seen, since their office was brightly lighted and there were no curtains on the large windows… What my friend did is that he called the phone of this office, and, when the manager, interrupting his sexual activity for a brief intermission, picked up the phone, he whispered ominously into the receiver: "God is observing you!" The poor manager collapsed and almost had a heart attack… The intervention of such traumatic voice which cannot be directly located in reality is perhaps the closest we can come to the experience of the Sublime.
And Hitchcock is at its most uncanny and disturbing when he engages us directly with the point-of-view of this external fantasmatic gaze. One of the standard horror movie procedures is the "resignification" of the objective into the subjective shot (what the spectator first perceives as an objective shot - say, of a house with a family at diner - is all of a sudden, by means of codified markers like the slight trembling of the camera, the "subjectivized" soundtrack, etc., revealed as the subjective shot of a murderer stalking his potential victims). However, this procedure is to be supplemented with its opposite, the unexpected reversal of subjective into objective shot: in the midst of a long shot unambiguously marked as subjective, the spectator is all of a sudden compelled to acknowledge that there is no possible subject within the space of diegetic reality who can occupy the point-of-view of this shot. So we are not dealing here with the simple reversal of objective into subjective shot, but in constructing a place of impossible subjectivity, a subjectivity which taints the very objectivity with a flavor of unspeakable, monstrous evil. An entire heretic theology is discernible here, secretly identifying Creator Himself as the Devil (which was already the thesis of the cathar heresy in the 12th century France). The exemplary cases of this impossible subjectivity are the "subjective" shot from the standpoint of the murderous Thing itself upon the transfixed face of the dying detective Arbogast in Psycho, or, in The Birds, the famous God's view shot of the burning Bodega Bay, which is then, with the entry into the frame of the birds, resignified, subjectivized into the point-of-view of the evil aggressors themselves.

Multiple Endings

There is yet another, third, aspect that adds a specific density to Hitchcock's films: the implicit resonance of multiple endings. The most obvious and well-documented case is, of course, that of Topaz: before deciding on the ending of Topaz that we all know, Hitchcock shot two alternative endings, and my point is that it is not sufficient to say that he simply chose the most appropriate ending - the ending we have now rather in a way presupposes the two other, with the three endings forming a kind of syllogism, i.e. Granville, the Russian spy, (Michel Piccoli) telling himself "They cannot prove anything to me, I can simply leave for Russia" (the first discarded ending); "But the Russians themselves now do not want me, I am now even dangerous to them, so they will probably kill me" (the second discarded meaning); "What can I do then if in France I am outcaste as a Russian spy and Russia itself no longer wants me? I can only kill myself…" - the ending that was effectively adopted. - There are, however, much more refined versions of this implicit presence of alternative endings. Already the denouement of Hitchcock's early melodrama The Manxman (1929) is preceded by two scenes which could be read as possible alternative endings (the woman kills herself; the lover never returns). Hitchcock's masterpiece Notorious owes at least a part of its powerful impact to the fact that its denouement should be perceived against the background of at least two other possible outcomes that resonate in it as a kind of alternative history. 7 In the first outline of the story, Alicia wins redemption by the film's end, but loses Devlin, who is killed rescuing her from the Nazis. The idea was that this sacrificial act should solve the tension between Devlin, who is unable to admit to Alicia his love for her, and Alicia, who is unable to perceive herself as worthy of love: Devlin admits his love for her without words, by dying in order to save her life. In the final scene, we find Alicia back in Miami with her group of drinking friends: although she is more "notorious" than ever, she has in her heart the memory of a man who loved her and died for her, and, as Hitchcock put it in a memo to Selznick, "to her this is the same as if she had achieved a life of marriage and happiness." - In the second main version, the outcome is the opposite; here, we already have the idea of a slow poisoning of Alicia by Sebastian and his mother. Devlin confronts the Nazis and flees with Alicia, but Alicia dies in the process. In the epilogue, Devlin sits alone in a Rio cafe, where he used to meet Alicia, and overhears people discussing the death of Sebastian's wanton and treacherous wife. However, the letter in his hands is a commendation from President Truman citing Alicia's bravery. Devlin pockets the letter and finishes his drink… Finally, the version we know was arrived at, with a finale that implies that Devlin and Alicia are now married. Hitchcock then left this finale out, to end on a more tragic note, with Sebastian, who truly loved Alicia, left to face the Nazi's deadly wrath. The point is that both alternative endings (Devlin's and Alicia's death) are incorporated into the film, as a kind of fantasmatic background of the action we see on the screen: if they are to constitute a couple, both Devlin and Alicia have to undergo the "symbolic death," so that the happy ending emerges from the combination of two unhappy endings, i.e. these two alternative fantasmatic scenarios sustain the denouement we actually see.
This feature allows us to insert Hitchcock in the series of artists whose work forecast today's digital universe. That is to say, art historians often noted the phenomenon of the old artistic forms pushing against their own boundaries and using procedures which, at least from our retroactive view, seem to point towards a new technology that will be able to serve as a more "natural" and appropriate "objective correlative" to the life-experience the old forms endeavored to render by means of their "excessive" experimentation. A whole series of narrative procedures in the l9th century novels announce not only the standard narrative cinema (the intricate use of "flashback" in Emily Bronte or of "cross-cutting" and "close-ups" in Dickens), but sometimes even the modernist cinema (the use of "off-space" in Madame Bovary) - as if a new perception of life was already here, but was still struggling to find its proper means of articulation, until it finally found it in cinema. What we have here is thus the historicity of a kind of futur anterieur: it is only when cinema was here and developed its standard procedures that we can really grasp the narrative logic of Dickens's great novels or of Madame Bovary.
And is it not that today, we are approaching a homologous threshold: a new "life experience" is in the air, a perception of life that explodes the form of the linear centered narrative and renders life as a multiform flow - even and up to the domain of "hard" sciences (quantum physics and its Multiple Reality interpretation, or the utter contingency that provided the spin to the actual evolution of the life on Earth - as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in his Wonderful Life8, the fossils of Burgess Shale bear witness to how evolution may have taken a wholly different turn) we seem to be haunted by the chanciness of life and the alternate versions of reality. Either life is experienced as a series of multiple parallel destinies that interact and are crucially affected by meaningless contingent encounters, the points at which one series intersects with and intervenes into another (see Altman's Shortcuts), or different versions/outcomes of the same plot are repeatedly enacted (the "parallel universes" or "alternative possible worlds" scenarios - see Kieslowski's Chance, Veronique and Red; even "serious" historians themselves recently produced a volume Virtual History, the reading of the crucial Modern Age century events, from Cromwell's victory over Stuarts and American independence war to the disintegration of Communism, as hinging on unpredictable and sometimes even improbable chances9). This perception of our reality as one of the possible - often even not the most probable - outcomes of an "open" situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply cancelled out but continue to haunt our "true" reality as a spectra of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant "linear" narrative forms of our literature and cinema - they seem to call for a new artistic medium in which they would not be an eccentric excess, but its "proper" mode of functioning. The notion of creation also changes with this new experience of the world: it no longer designates the positive act of imposing a new order, but rather the negative gesture of choice, of limiting the possibilities, of privileging one option at the expense of all the others. One can argue that the cyberspace hypertext is this new medium in which this life experience will find its "natural," more appropriate objective correlative, so that, again, it is only with the advent of cyberspace hypertext that we can effectively grasp what Altman and Kieslowski - and, implicitly, also Hitchcock - were effectively aiming at.

The Ideal Remake

This, perhaps, also points towards what a proper remake of a Hitchcock film would be. To try and imitate Hitchcockian sinthoms is an exercise in advance condemned to failure; to remake the same narrative results in a SHAKESPEARE MADE EASY output. So there are only two ways left. One is indicated by Gus van Sant's Psycho which, paradoxically, I am inclined to consider a failed masterpiece, rather than a simple failure. The idea of the exact frame by frame remake is an ingenious idea, and, in my view, the problem was rather that the film did not go far enough in this direction. Ideally, what the film should strive for is to achieve the uncanny effect of the double: in shooting formally the same film, the difference would have became all the more palpable - everything would have been the same, same shots, angles, dialogue, and, nonetheless, on account of this very sameness, we would all the more powerfully experience that we are dealing with a totally different film. This gap should have been signaled by barely perceptible nuances in the way of acting, in the choice of actors, in the use of color, etc. Some elements in van Sant's film already point in this direction: the roles of Norman, Lilah (portrayed as a lesbian) and Marion (a non-maternal, withdrawn, cold bitch in contrast to the big-breasted maternal Janet Leigh), even Arbogast and Sam, nicely indicate the shift from late 50s to today's universe. While some added shots (like the enigmatic subjective shots of cloudy sky during the two murders) are also acceptable, problems resurface with the more brutal changes (like Norman's masturbation while he peeps on Marion before slaughtering her - one is tempted to make the rather obvious point that, in this case, i.e. if he were to be able to arrive at this kind of sexual satisfaction, there would have been no need for him to accomplish the violent passage a l'acte and slaughter Marion!); on the top it, some scenes are completely ruined, their impact is completely lost, by changing Hitchcock's precise framing (say, the key scene in which, after leaving her office with the money, Marion at home prepares to escape). Hitchcock's own remakes (the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as well as Saboteur and North-by-Northwest) point in this direction: although the narrative is very similar, the underlying libidinal economy is wholly different in each of the subsequent remakes, as if the sameness serves the purpose of marking the Difference. 10
The second way would be to stage, in a well-calculated strategic move, one of the alternative scenarios that underlie the actualized by Hitchcock, like the remake of Notorious with Ingrid Bergman surviving alone. This would be a proper way to honor Hitchcock as the artist that belongs to our era. Perhaps, more than de Palma's and others' direct "homage" to Hitchcock, the scenes that announce such a proper remake are to be found in unexpected places, like the scene in the hotel room, the place of crime, in Conversation of Francis Ford Coppola, who certainly is not a Hitchcockian. The investigator inspects the room with a Hitchcockian gaze, like Lila and Sam do with Marion's motel room, moving from the main bedroom to the bathroom and focusing there on the toilet and the shower. This shift from the shower (where there are no traces of the crime, where everything is clean) to the toilet sink, elevated it into the Hitchcockian object that attracts our gaze, fascinating us with its premonition of some unspeakable horror, is crucial here (recall Hitchcock's battle with censorship to allow the inside view of the toilet, from where Sam picks up a torn piece of paper with Marion's writing of the amounts of spent money, the proof that she was there). After a series of obvious references to Psycho apropos of the shower (quickly pulling open the curtain, inspecting the hole in the sink), the investigator focuses on the (allegedly cleansed) toilet seat, flushes it, and then the stain appears as if out of nowhere, blood and other traces of the crime overflowing the edge of the sink. This scene, a kind of Psycho reread through Marnie (with its red stain blurring the screen) contains the main elements of the Hitchcockian universe: it has the Hitchcockian object which materializes some unspecified threat, functioning as the hole into another abyssal dimension (is flushing the toilet in this scene not like pushing the wrong button that dissolves the entire universe in the science-fiction novels?); this object which simultaneously attracts and repels the subject can be said to be the point from which the inspected setting returns the gaze (is it not that the hero is somehow regarded by the toilet sink?); and, finally, Coppola realizes the alternative scenario of the toilet itself as the ultimate locus of mystery. What makes this mini-remake of a scene so effective is that Coppola suspends the prohibition operative in Psycho: the threat DOES explode, the camera DOES show the danger hanging in the air in Psycho, the chaotic bloody mess erupting from the toilet. 11 (And is not the swamp behind the house in which Norman drowns the cars with the bodies of his victims a kind of gigantic pool of excremental mud, so that one can say that he in a way flushes the cars down the toiled - the famous moment of the worried expression of his face when Marion's car stops to immerse into the swamp for a couple of seconds effectively signals the worry that the toiled did not swallow the traces of our crime? The very last shot of Psycho, in which we see Marion's car being pulled out of the swamp, is thus a kind of Hitchcockian equivalent to the blood reemerging out of the toilet sink - in short, this swamp is another in the series of the entrance-points to the pre-ontological Netherworld.)
And is not the same reference to the pre-ontological Underworld operative also in the final scene of Vertigo? In the pre-digital times, when I was in my teens, I remember seeing a bad copy of Vertigo - its last seconds were simply missing, so that the movie appeared to have a happy ending, Scottie reconciled with Judy, forgiving her and accepting her as a partner, the two of them passionately embracing… My point is that such an ending is not as artificial as it may seem: it is rather in the actual ending that the sudden appearance of the Mother Superior from the staircase below functions as a kind of negative deux ex machina, a sudden intrusion in no way properly grounded in the narrative logic, which prevents the happy ending. 12 Where does the nun appear from? From the same pre-ontological realm of shadows from which Scottie himself secretly observes Madeleine in the florist's. 13 It is the reference to this pre-ontological realm that allows us to approach the quintessential Hitchcockian scene which was never shot - precisely because it renders the basic matrix of his work directly, its actual filming undoubtedly would have produced a vulgar, tasteless effect. Here is this scene that Hitchcock wanted to insert in North by Northwest, as reported in Truffaut's conversations with the Master:

"I wanted to have a long dialogue between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers /at a Ford automobile plant/ as they walk along the assembly line. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they've seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at each other and say, 'Isn't it wonderful!' Then they open the door of the car and out drops a corpse." 14
Where did this corpse emerge, fall, from? Again, from the very void from which Scottie observes Madeleine in the florist's - or, from the void from which blood emerges in Conversation. (One should also bear in mind that what we would have seen in this long shot is the elementary unity of the production process - is then the corpse that mysteriously drops out from nowhere not the perfect stand- -in for the surplus-value that is generated "our of nowhere" through the production process?) This shocking elevation of the ridiculously lowest (the Beyond where shit disappears) into the metaphysical Sublime is perhaps one of the mysteries of Hitchcock's art. Is not the Sublime sometimes part of our most common everyday experience? When, in the midst of accomplishing a simple task (say, climbing the long line of stairs), we are overwhelmed by an unexpected fatigue, it all of a sudden appears as if the simple goal we want to reach (the top of the stairs) is separated from us by an unfathomable barrier and thus changed into a metaphysical Object forever out of our reach, as if there is something which forever prevents us from accomplishing it… And the domain where excrements vanish after we flush the toilet is effectively one of the metaphors for the horrifyingly-sublime Beyond of the primordial, pre-ontological Chaos into which things disappear. Although we rationally know what goes on with the excrements, the imaginary mystery nonetheless persists - shit remains an excess with does not fit our daily reality, and Lacan was right in claiming that we pass from animals to humans the moment an animal has problems with what to do with its excrements, the moment they turn into an excess that annoys it. 15 The Real in the scene from Conversation is thus not primarily the horrifyingly-disgusting stuff reemerging from the toilet sink, but rather the hole itself, the gap which serves as the passage to a different ontological order. The similarity between the empty toilet sink before the remainders of the murder reemerge from it and Malevitch's "Black Square on White Surface" is significant here: does the look from above into the toilet sink not reproduce almost the same "minimalist" visual scheme, a black (or, at least, darker) square of water enframed by the white surface of the sink itself? Again, we, of course, know that the excrements which disappear are somewhere in the sewage network - what is here "real" is the topological hole or torsion which "curves" the space of our reality so that we perceive/imagine excrements as disappearing into an alternative dimension which is not part of our everyday reality.
Hitchcock's obsession with cleansing the bathroom or the toilet after its use is well-known, 16 and it is significant that, when, after Marion's murder, he want to shift our point of identification to Norman, he does this with a long rendering of the careful process of cleansing the bathroom - this is perhaps the key scene of the film, a scene that provides an uncanny profound satisfaction of the job properly done, of things returning back to normal, of situation being again after control, of the traces of the horrifying netherworld being erased. One is tempted to read this scene against the background of the well-known proposition of Saint Thomas of Acquinas according to which a virtue (defined as a proper way to accomplish an act) can also serve evil purposes: one can also be a perfect thief, murderer, extortioner, i.e. accomplish an evil act in a "virtuous" way. What this scene of cleansing the bathroom in Psycho demonstrates is how the "lower" perfection can imperceptibly affect the "higher" goal: Norman's virtuous perfection in cleansing the bathroom, of course, serves the evil purpose of erasing the traces of the crime; however, this very perfection, the dedication and the thoroughness of his act, seduces us, the spectators, into assuming that, if someone acts in such a "perfect" way, he should be in his entirety a good and sympathetic person. In short, someone who cleansed the bathroom so thoroughly as Norman cannot be really bad, in spite of his other minor peculiarities… (Or, to put it even more pointedly, in a country governed by Norman, trains would certainly run on time!) While watching this scene recently, I caught myself nervously noticing that the bathroom was not properly cleansed - two small stains on the side of the bathtub remained! I almost wanted to shout: hey, it's not yet over, finish the job properly! Is it not that Psycho points here towards today's ideological perception in which work itself (manual labor as opposed to "symbolic" activity), and not sex, becomes the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye? The tradition which goes back to Wagner's Rheingold and Lang's Metropolis, the tradition in which the working process takes place underground, in dark caves, today culminates in the millions of anonymous workers sweating in the Third World factories, from Chinese gulags to Indonesian or Brasilian assembly lines - in their invisibility, the West can afford itself to babble about the "disappearing working class." But what is crucial in this tradition is the equation of labor with crime, the idea that labor, hard work, is originally an indecent criminal activity to be hidden from the public eye. The only place in Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity are when the action hero penetrates the master-criminal's secret domain and locates there the site of intense labor (distilling and packaging the drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York…). When, in a James Bond movie, the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, usually takes him on a tour of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to the socialist-realist proud presentation of the production in a factory? 17 And the function of Bond's intervention, of course, is to explode in firecraks this site of production, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of our existence in a world with the "disappearing working class"…
And, incidentally, is the same attitude of forceful identification against one's will not clearly discernible in those Leftist cinema theorists who are in a similar way forced to love Hitchcock, to libidinally identify with him, although they are well aware that, measured by the standards of Political Correctness, his work reads as a catalogue of sins (obsession with cleansiness and control, women created upon the male image…). I never found convincing the standard explanation of the Leftist theorists who cannot help but to love Hitchcock: yes, his universe is male chauvinist, but at the same time he renders visible its cracks and as it were subverts it from within. I think the social-political dimension of Hitchcock's films is to be sought elsewhere. Let us take the two closures at the end of Psycho - first the psychiatrist wraps up the story, then Norman-mother herself delivers the final monologue of "I wouldn't even hurt a fly!". This split between the two closures tells more about the deadlock of contemporary subjectivity than a dozen of essays in cultural criticism. That is to say, it may appear that we are dealing with the well-known split between expert knowledge and our private solipsistic universes, deplored by many social critics today: the common sense, a shared set of ethically engaged presuppositions, is slowly disintegrating, and what we get is, on the one hand, the objectivized language of experts and scientists which can no longer be translated into the common language accessible to everyone, but is present in it in the mode of fetishized formulas that no one really understands, but which shape our artistic and popular imaginary (Black Hole, Big Bang, Superstrings, Quantum Oscillation…); and, on the other hand, the multitude of life-styles which one cannot translate into each other: all we can do is secure the conditions for their tolerant coexistence in a multicultural society. The icon of today's subject is perhaps the proverbial Indian computer programmer who, during the day, excels in his expertise, while in the evening, upon returning home, he lits the candle to the local Hindu divinity and respects the sacredness of the cow.
However, on a closer look, it soon becomes apparent how this opposition is displaced at the end of Psycho: it is the psychiatrist, the representative of cold objective knowledge, who speaks in an engaged, almost warmly human way - his explanation is full of personal tics, sympathetic gestures -, while Norman, withdrawn into his private world, is precisely no longer himself, but totally possessed by another psychic entity, the mother's ghost. This final image of Norman reminds me of the way they are shooting soap operas in Mexico: because of the extremely tight schedule (the studio has to produce each day a half hour installment of the series), actors do not have time to learn their lines in advance, so they simply have hidden in their ears a tiny voice receiver, and a man in the cabin behind the set simply reads to them the instructions on what they are to do (what words they are to say, what acts they are to accomplish) - actors are trained to enact immediately, with no delay, these instructions… This is Norman at the end of Psycho, and this is also a good lesson to those New Agers who claim that we should drop the social masks and set free our innermost true selves - well, we see the final result in Norman who, at the end of Psycho, effectively realizes his true Self and follows the old Rimbaud's motto from his letter to Demeny ("Car je est un autre. Si le cuivre s'eveille clairon, il n'y a rien de sa faute"): If Norman starts to talk with the strange voice of his mother, it's none of his guilt. The price I have to pay in order to become "really myself," undivided subject, is total alienation, my becoming an Other with regard to myself: the obstacle to my full self-identity is the very condition of my Selfhood.
Another aspect of this same antagonism concerns architecture: one can also consider Norman as the subject split between the two houses, the modern horizontal motel and the vertical Gothic mother's house, forever running between the two, never finding a proper place of his own. In this sense, the unheimlich character of the film's end means that, in his full identification with the mother, he finally found his heim, his home. In modernist works like Psycho, this split still visible, while the main goal of today's postmodern architecture is to obfuscate it. Suffice it to recall the "New Urbanism" with its return to small family houses in small towns, with front porches, recreating the cozy atmosphere of the local community - clearly, this is the case of architecture as ideology at its purest, providing an imaginary (although "real," materialized in the actual disposition of houses) solution to a real social deadlock which has nothing to do with architecture and all with late capitalist dynamics. A more ambiguous case of the same antagonism is the work of Frank Gehry - why is he so popular, a true cult figure? He takes as the basis one of the two poles of the antagonism, either the old-fashioned family house or a modernist concrete-and-glass building, and then either submits it to a kind of cubist anamorphic distortion (curved angles of walls and windows, etc.) or combines the old family home with a modernist supplement, in which case, as Fredric Jameson pointed out, the focal point is the place (the room) at the intersection of the two spaces. In short, is Gehry not doing in architecture what the Caduveo Indians (in Levi-Strauss' magnificent description from his Les tristes tropiques) were trying to achieve with their tattooed faces: to resolve through a symbolic act the real of a social antagonism by constructing a utopian solution, a mediation between the opposites? So here is my final hypothesis: if the Bates Motel were to be built by Gehry, directly combining the old mother's house and the flat modern motel into a new hybrid entity, there would have been no need for Norman to kill his victims, since he would have been relieved of the unbearable tension that compels him to run between the two places - he would have a third place of mediation between the two extremes.

[…]

 

1. During the public discussion at the Hitchcock Centennary Conference organized by NYU, October 12-17 1999. back up
2. See Sigmund Freud, "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality In a Woman," The Pelican Freud Library, Volime 9: Case Histories II, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1979, p. 389. back up
3. For a more detailed account of this Hitchcockian sinthom, see Slavoj Zizek, ed., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), London: Verso Books 1993. back up
4. Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters To a Friend, New York: Simon and Schuster 1967, p. 183. back up
5. Post-Theory, David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1996. back up
6. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book I: Freud's Papers o Technique, New York: Norton 1988, p. 215. I rely here on Miran Bozovic, "The Man Behind His Own Retina," in Slavoj Zizek, ed., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). back up
7. See the fascinating report in Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System, New York: Hold and Co. 1996, p. 393-403. back up
8. See Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, New York: Norton 1989. back up
9. See Virtual History, edited by Niall Ferguson, London: MacMillan 1997. back up
10. Perhaps the greatest achievement of van Sant's remake is the scene of final credits, which follows the shot that ends Hitchcock's film and goes on for long minutes - a continuous crane shot showing what goes on around the car being dragged out of the swamp, the bored policemen around the towing truck, all this accompanied with a soft guitar repeating in an improvised way the main motif of Herrmann's score - this feature supplements the film with the unique touch of the 90's. back up
11. Hitchcock's obsession with cleanness is well-known: in an interview, he boasted that he always leaves the restroom so clean that no one would have guessed, upon inspecting it, that he was there before… This obsession also accounts for the obvious pleasure-in-disgust Hitchcock finds in the small filthy details that characterize the Cuban mission in Harlem in Topaz, like the official diplomatic document stained by the grease from a sandwich. back up
12. Is this sudden appearance not similar to Wagner's Tristan? Towards the very end of the opera, after Triton's death, Solder's arrival and plunging into the death trance, the break occurs with the arrival of another, second, ship, when the slow progress all of a sudden accelerates in an almost comic way - in 5 minutes more events happen than in all the previous opera (fight, Melt and Kurwenal die…) - similar to Verdi's Il Trovatore, where in the last 2 minutes a whole package of things happen. Such unexpected intrusions just before the ending are crucial for the reading of the underlying tensions of a narrative. back up
13. When Lesley Brill claims that in Under Capricorn is a kind of underworld creature trying to drag Ingrid Bergman back into hell, one is tempted to say that the nun which appears at the very end of Vertigo belongs to the same evil netherworld - the paradox being, of course, that is a NUN, a woman of God, who embodies the force of Evil that drags the subject down and prevents her salvation. back up
14. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, New York: Simon and Schuster 1985, p. 257. back up
15. It's similar with the saliva: as we all know, although we can without problem swallow our own saliva, we find it extremely repulsive to swallow again a saliva which was spit out of our body - again a case of violating the Inside/Outside frontier. back up
16. He liked to boast that after he leaves the toilet, no one could, upon inspecting it, guess that someone was there using it. back up
17. I owe this observation to Boris Groys, Koeln. back up

 

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