Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh Part 1 – Psychos

Welcome to the first part of a series on Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh, wherein I take a look at Steven Soderbergh‘s online video releases. Throughout these features I will not only look at the way in which these films do, or do not, work but also try to understand Soderbergh’s possible motivations.

The first of Steven Soderbergh’s published experiments, appearing on his site extension765 without explanation on the 24th of February 2014, was Psychos. And it was a video that set the tone for what would follow from Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh. This was the beginning of his experimens with beloved classics, re-cutting them in radical new ways, and providing the audience a new way to look at something otherwise familiar.

Psychos is essentially a combination edit of Alfred Hitchcock’s critically adored Psycho and Gus Van Sant’s maligned Psycho, and while Soderbergh has often chosen for his edit to show a scene from one film followed by the next from the other, his particular selections appear to reveal a great deal.

And beyond these regular choices are the more outlandish ideas that Soderbergh has executed, some more ambitious editing decisions that have created something entirely new.

It’s the very first shot of Psychos, following the merged opening titles that blend the names of both films, that perhaps provides the most interesting insight into the re-editors intentions, especially when read with his own Hitchcock homage, Side Effects, in mind.

Psycho begins with an establishing shot of a city – Phoenix, Arizona – that slowly moves towards on one window, and the room beyond in which Marion Crane and Sam Loomis lie in bed. Hitchcock seems to be riffing on the Naked City concept of ‘eight million stories in the naked city’.

We are about to be told a remarkable story, but in suggesting it is actually somewhat commonplace, something that may be happening through any of the windows that we don’t get to peek through, Hitch makes the more extreme elements of his story more horrifying. The implication is that these events could be happening right now, and to someone you know.

The sequence first pivots to the right, the camera panning across the cityscape, before lurching forward and then finally pushing in on the window. This was achieved through a number of shots, our minds naturally piecing them together into continuous movement, with thanks to the coherence of Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini‘s work.

In Van Sant’s film the shot follows the same rough pattern – a move inwards, but one that is primarily moving rightwards – but it’s all done in a single take, almost certainly using a helicopter. The shot is also somewhat less rigid in its movement, with slight swaying, and it does not move anything like as definitely towards the right as in the 1960 film.

Soderbergh opts to use Van Sant’s version of this opening in Psychos, though he has de-saturated it of colour, as he has the bulk of the film. We can never assume that Soderbergh’s decisions in Psychos represent preference for one film, or filmmaker’s approach, but I certainly feel a number of the choices are likely to have been made on this basis.

It’s an irresistible idea that Soderbergh is piecing together a version that he sees as the ‘best,’ and maybe even something closer to how he would have made the film himself, almost as if this is a second remake.

Soderbergh’s Side Effects opening represents a sort of midway point between Hitchcock and Van Sant, adopting what one could consider to be the most preferable aspects of each. Soderbergh takes a fixed position for his camera and pans right, much like Hitchcock, before slowly moving forwards, towards the window, all in one unbroken shot, as with Van Sant.

None of these changes necessarily effect the meaning of what we are watching, but the effectiveness of the sequence – particularly, how well it captures our imagination – is definitely at stake. In these three examples the outcome was heavily influenced both by budget and the time in which the film was made.

Here’s a video featuring the three sequences, in black and white and with the audio replaced in order to make the three easier to compare. These changes help remove the distraction of seeing other differences in the films. You might also consider it a tribute, of sorts, to the Raiders of the Lost Ark video that Soderbergh also created and which will be discussed in part three of this series.

Soderbergh has unfortunately provided no explanation regarding Psychos, or even any information regarding when it was made, it’s hard not to imagine that it wasn’t created during the making of Side Effects, prior to its production or even perhaps in retrospect, as he reflected on his own choices.

Following the opening and the first scene inside the hotel, Soderbergh begins to cut between footage from the two films. He seems to include larger chunks of Hitchcock’s film than Van Sant’s, again leading to questions about his possible motivations.

Soderbergh has always been a director who embraces future technologies and has focused heavily on experimentation in his technique. At times, he has even seemed to have something of an obsession with ‘the new.’

But he is also a very serious student of the past, frequently declaring his love for older films, and most particularly a number of American pictures from the 1970s. He has even joined some filmmakers on the commentary tracks for their films, including Mike Nichols on Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and Catch 22; and John Boorman on the commentary track on the Point Blank Blu-ray, which features some real detail on technical aspects, right down to the selection of lenses.

Some of Psychos appears to be concerned with highlighting the areas in which Van Sant’s film could do things that Hitchcock didn’t – or perhaps more importantly, couldn’t. This is evident from the beginning, where Hitchock would have found it nearly impossible to execute the shot that Van Sant achieved fairly easily, but it also continues throughout.

In the scene where Marion strips in her room, watched through a peep hole by Norman, Hitchcock suggests a certain level of sexual arousal from Norman, but Van Sant is able to quite explicitly show the same. Vince Vaughn‘s Bates is depicted masturbating while spying, and the implications of Hitchcock’s scene are made explicit, thanks in large part to the shift towards a greater permissiveness in Hollywood.

Asking which of these scenes is the ‘best’ is a valid question, but it’s not simply a case where one alternative is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad.’  Van Sant’s version is certainly a different scene and is the version that I personally find more uncomfortable. For the way the scene is leveraged in the film, this is a good thing.

Would Hitchcock have done it more like Van Sant, if he had been allowed, or was working in a similarly permissive context? This is, of course, a question that will never be answered, but watching Hitchcock’s nasty but quite brilliant Frenzy, there’s every indication that Hitch would have relished the opportunity to include more explicit content in his films.

Later in the film, Soderbergh’s has again chosen a very telling scene from the 1998 version. Lila Crane, here played by Julianne Moore, explores the house and Norman’s room and finds, in this modern version, some pornography in amongst all of Norman’s childish possessions. This would have been very difficult to even hint at in the Hollywood of 1960.

These relatively clear and precise choices seem fairly easy to unpack, but Psychos maybe becomes harder to understand in the sequences where Soderbergh uses both films at once, switching the 1998 footage back to colour and then and playing the two simultaneously.

This occurs when Marion and Arboghast are murdered by Norman; when the mother’s skeleton is discovered and Norman is captured; and then in a slightly different way in the film’s penultimate shot.

The murder of Marion(s) feels particularly fascinating because the shower scene has become incredibly iconic, and is perhaps the most studied cinematic sequence of all time. Watching the two iterations played over each other brings the differences into focus and it becomes obvious that Van Sant’s version is full of subtle changes. Some of these are very minor, such as a slightly different shot length or camera angle, and some are more major, like the shot of his Marion (Anne Heche) falling forward awkwardly, and displaying far more of her body than would have been allowed in 1960.

It’s also remarkable quite how much of a difference it makes that Heche is framed further to the left as she slides down the wall than Leigh was. Hitchcock’s expanse of negative space definitely made his Marion seem smaller and weaker in the frame, and she is ‘discarded’ more significantly in his framing, slipping out of the frame in a horrible manner. Marion began as the central character in the film but that has changed, and now she doesn’t even get central framing.

In combining two scenes from these films Soderbergh has also created a new experience. Watching two Marion Cranes being murdered simultaneously, and in a flurry of images that are almost impossible to keep up, with adds a certain stressful urgency to the scene, another disturbing and unpleasant element to an already graphic sequence.

Unsurprisingly, there is a net loss, however, as the stitching of these two scenes together also creates something abstract, provoking a disconnect and distance in the viewer, as we are reminded very much that we are watching a constructed work of fiction.

The penultimate shot in Psychos shows exactly that: psychos. The title characters of each film appears on screen, with Soderbergh first using the footage of Perkins as Bates and then slowly dissolving into Vaughn. The imagery perhaps conveys a passage of time, from 1960s filmmaking and mores to the 1990s, and maybe even doubles down on the duology at the heart of Norman’s psychosis.

You can stream Psychos on Soderbergh’s website here.

More from Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh soon.