How Time Creates a New Meaning

In 1998, director Gus Van Sant directed a shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Fresh off the success of the Oscar nominated Good Will Hunting (1997), Van Sant undertook the film because he wanted to see if a film would be the same if they remade it shot for shot.

10 years later, director Steven Spielberg directed Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull (2008). The first installment in the Indiana Jones franchise in 19 years, the film met with a certain critical success, but disappointed a certain number of fans. 

When both of these films emerged decades after their predecessor, they took on a new meaning due to the time period that their stories took place in. For the purposes of this article, I will not be examining the quality of the films, but how things changed from the original films.

‘Psycho’

After stealing money from a wealthy client, real-estate secretary Marion Crane (Anne Heche) checks into the Bates motel, only to discover that owner Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) is more sinister than she initially suspected.

The Inspiration

The original story for this film comes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitchcock became known for creating melodramas (now known as thrillers and horror films). His films had a certain theatricality. When the studio system changed in the 60s and 70s, Hitchcock’s films did not change that much. 

He became interested in Robert Bloch’s novel. With screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock crafted a film that kept the story of the novel, but changed many of its characterizations. The original story had a more obvious and detestable villain. The new film gave Norman Bates a boyish charm of sorts.  

Psycho was a departure of sorts from the usual Hitchcock film. The film killed off its female lead and did not have the usual Hitchcock joke ending. It became more well known and influential than Hitchcock could predict.

The Original Film

The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a young real estate secretary who wants to get married to her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but being unable due to financial problems. After stealing a client’s money, she heads off to visit Sam, so they can get married.

Along the way, she stops at the motel of Normal Bates (Anthony Perkins), a mysterious stranger who lives with his mother. When Marion is murdered and disappears, her sister Lila (Vera Miles), Sam, and Private Investigator Arboghast (Martin Balsam) go to investigate, only to discover that Bates murdered Marion and has a split personality where he thinks that he is his dead mother. 

As with many thrillers and horror films from the era, Psycho has a procedural element to it. It opens with a title card stating the date and time. The second half of the film leans into this procedural element. Many scenes in this half focus on revelations of the mysterious Norman Bates and his mother. The big revelation of the story is that Norman has a split personality, where he is both himself and his dead mother. One of the final scenes has a long monologue where a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) describes Norman’s condition. In the new version, Van Sant uses a shortened version with Robert Forster playing the psychiatrist.

Impact of Original Film

In the audio commentary of the remake, Van Sant describes Psycho as “the coca cola of 1960 due to its popularity.” The original Psycho became an Oscar nominated film that spawned 3 sequels and a television film. The remake was the last incarnation before Bates Motel (2013-2017). The infamous shower scene where Marion gets killed has been parodied many times.

When Psycho came out, it was something new to that market. During the time between the original film and the remake, the success of Psycho inspired other filmmakers. Brian De Palma loved the film and referenced it many times (the high school in Carrie (1976) is named after Norman Bates). John Carpenter used the name Sam Loomis in his hit horror film Halloween (1978) and cast Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Leigh Curtis. One of the actresses in that film is credited as Nancy Loomis.

Time Marches On

According to Van Sant, he did the film for multiple reasons. He had never heard of it being done and people were less interested in black and white movies. There were distances of technology and time. He thought of it as watching a silent movie in 1998. So he decided to reintroduce it as less of an icon and more of a new movie. He also wanted to see what would happen if you remade a film short for shot, would it be the same? Van Sant found that the answer was that it could not be the same film because of how filmmakers make in the 1990s versus the 1960s. 

Multiple little changes did occur over the course of the film. This film has a much different design than the original Psycho. As a director, Hitchcock tended to work in a very archetypal world. In the new film, Van Sant and his cast decided to focus more on the motivations and relationships of the characters. Throughout the commentary, the cast talked about what it would be like if this really happened.

The Director

As a director, Gus Van Sant became known in the early 1990s for his experimental films about outsiders. Although he became much more famous for Good Will Hunting (1997), that film represents the most mainstream version of his work. He had also previously made a parody of the famous shower scene from Psycho

Psycho is an experiment of its own. Inspired by being asked to remake films for years, Van Sant wanted to make a film as a remake, but try to remake it exactly as it existed in the original time period. The rights holder of the original Psycho, Universal Pictures, always turned him down. That was until Good Will Hunting came out and made a lot of money.  

The original film was made with a crew that had largely worked in television. In making this film, Van Sant chose the best cast and crew possible. Unlike the original, this film has color cinematography provided by Christopher Doyle, a favorite cinematographer of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Maverick producer Brian Grazer produced the film with Van Sant. However, the film largely retains the work of screenwriter Joseph Stefano and composer Bernard Herrmann with some minor changes. However, Danny Elfman signed on to supervise the music for the film. Elfman also told Van sant that he would get killed for making the movie when hearing about the production.

Color and Design

In this film, Van Sant adds color to the film. During his lifetime, Hitchcock used color in his films many times. However, this color palette is much different than the films of Hitchcock. The new clothing is very colorful and often louder than the original. They almost always have patterns. Stripes, flowers, and plaid are very common with these types of clothes. 

In the commentary, Van Sant praises the costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, and says that you will love her choices by the time the film comes out, but might not like them in the moment. In the production documentary Psycho Path and the audio commentary, Van Sant comments on how Pasztor tried to make costumes similar to what they were in the 1950s and did not quite realize they were updating it. With this in mind, the costumes have a quality that is both somewhat out of time and of the moment. 

Characterizations

Van Sant cast many actors known for prestigious dramas. Almost the entire cast had gotten their start in the independent world. At least 3 of the cast members (Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall) became known for their work in Paul Thomas Anderson movies. At one point, Nicole Kidman considered playing Marion before Anne Heche took the part.

According to Van Sant, one of the hardest parts was explaining character motivations to actors in rehearsal. In the film, some actors stick to the original characterizations of the movie, while others fundamentally change those characterizations based on what they felt worked for the roles.

Throughout the commentary, Gus Van Sant, Anne Heche, and Vince Vaughn talk about copying many of the same parts of the movie. Van Sant even found the old locations and sets where shots were originally filmed and recreated most of the original shots.

In remaking the film, they realized the inconsistencies of the original film. For example, the cast and crew realized that the film did not have a completely correct continuity. Marion arrives at the hotel on a rainy night, but when she and Norman go inside, they are both completely dry. Vaughn and Van Sant also discussed the inconsistencies within the Norman Bates character. 

Although many of the events stay much the same as they did before, there are a few notable changes in blocking, character choices, and filmmaking style. I will not go through them all because you can already find a list online. They are often small yet noticeable changes. In the commentary, Van Sant explains that many of the changes came mostly from how they were rehearsing it.

Marion and Sam

The film opens in a Phoenix, Arizona motel room where Marion and Sam are discussing their hopes and dreams. For this scene, Van Sant substantially changes the blocking and physical relationship. It was one of the few scenes that actually changed blocking.

In the original, Sam stands over Marion, who lies in bed. They perform their dialogue in a seated position on the bed. This version has the couple actually lying in bed together. The characters perform their dialogue in silhouette, which makes the proceedings more intimate. In the commentary, Heche says that the reason for this was to give a context to the relationship. 

Throughout this sequence, Marion is much more clothed than in the original, while Sam is completely naked. Van Sant and Heche attribute this change to reversing roles. Oftentimes in a scene, women are naked, while men are not.

In addition to this, Van Sant also adds a few touches to make the hotel more sleazy. A couple audibly having sex in the background. Instead of the exposed brick of the original, the new film presents a plaster hotel with a dirty wall. In addition to this, there is a fly on a sandwich in the room.

Marion Crane

In the commentary, Anne Heche saw the role of Marion as daft rather than virtuoistic based on the time period. She says that Marion would probably not be dealing with the same consequences in the 90s. Van Sant says that what would be interpreted as strong then would be considered daft now. 

The Motivations also changed considerably in this version. Heche describes giving Marion an excitement about stealing money that she did not have in the original. She also felt that the motivation for Marion to run away would be less about marrying Sam like in the original and more about escaping her current life. Throughout the commentary, she describes Marion’s motivations being unclear and wanting to clarify that. 

In the new film, Marion wears a red dress with plants on it. The buttons on it match the shower curtain that she will be wrapped in after she is murdered. In the commentary, Heche also mentions that you can find hints of the whole film in the design. For example, Marion also has birds on the inside of her purse and on her suitcase, alluding to Marion meeting the bird obsessed Norman for the first time.

In addition, green  suggests evil within this story. The film opens with green bars rather than the original black and white. In the original movie, Marion wears a white bra initially. She switches to a black bra when she decides to steal the money. The new film presents her in a green bra. Before she takes a shower and gets murdered, she puts on a green robe.

Norman Bates

In this version, Vince Vaughn plays Norman Bates. While the original Norman Bates possesses a boyish quality, Van Sant brings a more explicit nature to Vaughn’s version. New choices include Norman actually masturbating to Marion and owning porn magazines. 

Marion reacts differently too. Vaughn and Heche talk about how her reaction to Bates here is less sympathetic and more that she will say anything to get out of the situation because of how uncomfortable the situation is. 

Vaughn and Van Sant also discuss inconsistencies they found in the character’s train of thought. In the audio commentary, Vaughn talks about how he saw Norman partially based on a friend with a mentally ill mother. He also thought there was no one universal reason for a person behaving a certain way. In reviews of the time, critics objected to Norman masturbating to Marion because they felt like it released his sexual urge to kill Marion. Vaughn felt that that would overwhelm him as a character and would enhance such an urge.  

In the Siskel & Ebert review of the film, one of the elements the critics singled out was performance. Gene Siskel felt that the role wasn’t creepy enough, while Roger Ebert thought of other actors who would have been better. He suggested Jeremy Davies from Saving Private Ryan (1998). He also suggested Vaughn’s co-star Viggo Mortensen, who he found much creepier as the straight arrow boyfriend.

The Shower Scene

In Psycho, there is the infamous shower scene where Marion gets stabbed in the shower by what appears to be Norman’s mother. This film recreates the iconic scene with many changes, such as an extra side view. In the commentary, Van Sant says that they matched everything, but changed it in editing.

The original scene is more obscured and out of focus. The audience does not see that much blood or nudity. In the new version, there is more blood and actual nudity. Throughout the commentary, Van Sant and his cast talk about how there is more violence in 90s movies than 60s movies. One of the questions Heche got throughout the press tour was if the movie was gorier. At one point, Van Sant says that one way they could have remade Psycho would be to add more blood and gore and base it more on the inspiration of the book, Ed Gein. Another movie based partially on Gein (Silence of The Lambs (1991)) had come out years before to great acclaim.        

In the editing process, Van Sant also adds a few more tricks. In between cuts, Van Sant adds shots of storm clouds overhead. After the stabbing, the film also intercuts the image of an eye dilating. Along with these changes, Van Sant also added digital blood and added some spinning out from the eye on a computer.

Van Sant describes the original version of this as a Deus Ex Machina where the woman was punished for stealing the money. In the new version, Heche and Van Sant saw it as her being punished for not following her dreams.

Lila and Sam

In the second half of the film, Marion’s sister Lila (Julianne Moore), Sam (Viggo Mortensen), and Detective Arbogast (William H. Macy) set out to find Marion so they can find her and bring her back to Phoenix. There are a few key differences between the versions, especially in the difference between Lila and Sam.  

One of the big changes in the original film was that Hitchcock and Stefano eliminated a romance between Sam and Marion’s sister Lila. Van Sant and the production changed these roles substantially. For her role as Lila, Julianne Moore plays the character as what Anne Heche describes as a stereotypical lesbian who will get angry immediately.  

Viggo Mortensen also plays the role of Sam Loomis as more of a cowboy than John Gavin did. In the commentary, Vaughn describes that he feels that Mortensen’s character is more interested in hooking up with the sister than before. At one point, Sam Loomis puts his arm around Lila and she gets annoyed by it.

The Climax

The final reveal of Norman Bates’ dead mother in the new film is much different than the original film. The original film has the set-up of having Lila discover the mummified corpse of Norman Bates’ mother. After discovering the body, Bates races in dressed as her and wielding a knife. In the original film, Sam Loomis subdues him. It’s the sort of old Hollywood filmmaking fight where the antagonist quietly gives up.

In this version, there is a bit more of a struggle that ends with Lila kicking Bates in the face. This makes the character of Lila more of a heroic character than she was in the original film. The commentary also points out that Norman Bates’ mother is watching birds here.

The Ending

While the film keeps the original ending, there are a few multiple changes. Both films end with a car being pulled out of a lake. However, the original ending just shows one shot of the car being pulled out before the title sequence concludes the film. 

The new film has a continuous take of the car being pulled out with all the investigators and medical personnel surrounding it. All of these parts are played by members of the crew. This shot lasts through the end credits before holding uncomfortably until the film cuts to black. 

Editing

In the documentary on Family Plot, actress Karen Black describes Hitchcock as being a master of planning out shots and editing in camera. Black says that if most directors planned out every shot for a scene, they would end up having to re-edit the scene and then would have to re-edit that re-edit. Hitchcock would use this process for every movie.   

This film is edited a little differently from the original. In the documentary Psycho Path, editor Amy Duddleston describes putting scenes together the way that Hitchcock did and finding it kind of slow. Unlike the original film, editing had changed in pacing.

With the new film, Van Sant adds in a few new shots. Early on, the audience sees a close up of a fly on a sandwich. In the stabbing scenes, the audience sees brief cuts to clouds, a storm, and cows.

In addition, the film could now do things that Hitchcock could not do. They could travel through Phoenix in a helicopter shot before traveling into the window of a hotel much more easily with modern technology. Hitchcock also had to add a shot of the shower head in the original shower scene because Janet Leigh accidentally swallowed despite playing dead. 

Reception

From the get go, people thought this remake was a bad idea. It almost became a selling point for the film. production documentary Psycho Path begins with multiple people saying what a bad idea this is. On the flipside, Van Sant said that they were confident in what they were making. 

In the commentary, Van Sant says that the people who did not like the idea of the remake saw it as a challenge to best the original filmmaker. Van Sant never thought of it this way. This leads him, Vaughn, and Heche talking about the new culture in 1990s movies, where people determine if something is good based on box office scores. In a 2018 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, Van Sant said that he felt the film was more appreciated now than when it came out.

‘Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull’

When his friend Oxley (John Hurt) goes missing, archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) must set out to find him with a young man, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), before it is too late.

The Inspiration

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas took their work from older nostalgic pieces of cinema. The original films took inspiration from the serials of the 1930s. As one of the first people to shape Indiana Jones, Spielberg did a lot to mold the characters. Friend and Star Wars creator George Lucas first came up with the character and told Spielberg the idea. 

With screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, they constructed the world of the first film before bringing on different screenwriters for subsequent installments. According to Spielberg, they made up the initial screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark as they went along rather than having a clearly drawn out plan.  

Impact of Original Films

At the time the original Indiana Jones came out, it existed as a new twist on this type of storytelling. Siskel & Ebert praised Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) for its inventiveness. In particular, Gene Siskel spoke about how the opening was so impressive that it could have been the ending of any other movie, but this movie starts with it and builds up to even more impressive feats. In addition to this, Siskel also said that despite it being “a rotten year and half at the movies,” this would be a great movie in any year.

The first film spawned 2 sequels and changed film history. At the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989), Spielberg designed a shot of Indiana Jones and his friends riding off into the sunset to end the series at the end. However, many fans kept asking the cast and crew about the possibility of making another one. 

Time Marches On

With franchises and series, what tends to become more difficult over time is staying original. Inevitably, the success of something will lead to more and more examples to compare later installments to. This often makes the proceedings feel less special than they did when something was brand new.

By the time Crystal Skull came out, it not only had to be compared to the original films, but also to all the imitators and descendents of Indiana Jones. In the last ten years, both The Mummy and Tomb Raider had emerged as franchises at the box office. In the pre-production documentary, Spielberg says that he did not want to make another Alien movie and he felt that Independence Day (1996) had done aliens better than he could. Lucas then decided to make the characters interdimensional beings.   

On top of all this, the original Indiana Jones films were made at a much different time in the lives of everybody involved. By the time this film came out, many of the original cast and crew members had died or refused to come back. In order to remedy this, the filmmakers chose to put in a brief scene of Jones describing the deaths of his loved ones to his friend. 

The Director and Producers

As a director and producer, Steven Spielberg had a hand in creating some of the most successful film franchises of all time. Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park all began with a film he directed. 

For this film, Lucas decided that he wanted to ground Crystal Skull in 1950s B-movie serials. The story starts out at Area 51 and includes various references to the time period. In this story, Indiana Jones survives a nuclear explosion and gets accused of being a communist.

The Writers

Over the years, many people wrote drafts for Indiana Jones 4. Besides Lucas and Spielberg, many people had a hand in the newest movie. No one person is necessarily to blame or praise for any individual story choice. In interviews, credited screenwriter David Koepp credits many other screenwriters as coming up with ideas before he came along and wrote the final draft. He credits Jeb Stuart with really getting the ball rolling with his first draft used aliens. The final film represents the choices many people made and invested in over a long period of time. 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) writer/director Frank Darabont wrote a draft and contributed many details to the finished film. He suggested John Hurt for a role, but his conception of the part was different from the final film. Darabont also came up with the idea of surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding in a lead lined refrigerator. The next screenwriter, David Koepp, liked the idea so much that he incorporated it into the new script.

As the final screenwriter, Koepp helped shape the final form of the movie. In an interview with Den of Geek, he says that he tends to get the script into the best shape and then send it off. He describes a script as being like a child who will then go out into the world and make mistakes and be different things to different people.

Cinematographer

The Cinematographer for this film is different from the previous Indiana Jones films. The original cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, was in his late 60 and 70s during the making of the series. After The Last Crusade, Slocombe retired due to his failing eyesight

Spielberg’s regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, decided to make a film that honored Slocombe’s work. In an interview with American Society of Cinematographers, Kaminski describes Indiana Jones as having a warm glossy look with strong high key lighting. As part of this, he front lit the movie more than backlighting it.   

Unlike Kaminski’s other work with Spielberg, this project does not have any handheld camera at Spielberg’s request. This was because the original films did not use handheld camera shots. Spielberg also wanted the camera to move in a more dynamic way than the previous films. To achieve this, they spent a lot of filming on a technocrane with a Libra Head. 

With all that said, this film also features many of the great visual techniques Spielberg incorporates into many of his films, such as lens flares, reflections, and silhouettes.

Storytelling Changes

According to Spielberg in the pre-production documentaries, the original films were lightning in a bottle and could not possibly be duplicated. With this film, it took 19 years, so the original cast and crew had grown into a different time period in their lives. A new group of characters had to be created to fit this new time period.

The Protagonist

Indiana Jones is a character who exists as a fantasy. In the original films, he existed as a young man’s fantasy. He went on wild adventures, slept with lots of women, and saved the world multiple times.  

In the new film, Indiana Jones exists as an older man’s fantasy. His first lines in the movie comment on how he is not the man he used to be. Throughout the story, various characters comment on his age and how time changes everything. The one time we really see the character shirtless, he is being scrubbed down for radioactive waste.

The Younger Characters in the Story

In an early scene of Raiders of The Lost Ark, Jones stands in front of a class and lectures. In the audience are a whole bunch of female students sitting in the audience staring at him longingly. One of the female students has written the words “love you” on her eyelids.   

Since this is an older man’s fantasy, the fantasy involves validation of accomplishments. Instead of bedding down with women, Indiana Jones inspires the naive young people around him. For the most part, the younger characters provide comedy relief and are represented as broad types from the time. 

Unlike the younger characters in the story, Jones and the older characters provide much of the pathos and weight. Each one of them has experienced a great loss of some kind, whether it be death or loss of their position in the world.

The Companions

In each one of the Indiana Jones movies, the titular hero has at least one companion of some kind. His main companion throughout the story is not really a romantic one. In this one, the love interest is maternal rather than sexualized. 

The character of Mutt serves as a naive comic foil who Indiana must teach a few lessons to. In the featurette, Labeouf says that Spielberg told him to see Mutt as a manboy and told him to watch The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Blackboard Jungle (1955). Chron.com noted the character’s resemblance to The Wild One at the time. At the beginning of the story, Mutt is a rebel of sorts. Early on, we see Mutt dip his comb into a soda and try to steal a beer off a tray before Indiana Jones puts it back.

In many scenes throughout the story, Mutt proves to be on the butt of the joke. There is a joke about Jones asking Mutt to hold a body. In a later callback, Mutt asks Jones to do the same thing, but in the most unnecessary way. During a chase scene, two communists accidentally decapitate the statue of Marcus Brody, Jones’ old friend. In the reaction shot, Mutt laughs, while Jones looks at him sternly

The Love Interest

Unlike the other films, Dr. Jones is no longer really a playboy and now has to contend with a new situation: fatherhood. In earlier versions of this story, Jones would sometimes sleep with the enemy as he did in Last Crusade. In this story, Jones learns that he has a son (Mutt) from old girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). This film ends on Jones marrying Marion at a big church wedding with all their friends.

The Setting

Crystal Skull takes place in the 1950s and brings up a good deal of the politics and pop culture of the day. Communists and Russians loom over the story. The young cast is made up of jocks and greasers.  In this story, Jones’ adventure actually has some consequences in his personal life. In the early scenes, Indiana Jones is falsely accused of being a communist by the United States Government. The university puts him on leave with pay. To add insult to injury, the dean (Jim Broadbent) is forced to resign in the negotiations. This is by no means a criticism. It is simply the mode of storytelling. 

The original Indiana Jones features archetypal Nazis as the antagonists of the story, but so much time had passed that they were no longer viable antagonists. The production came upon the idea of setting the story during the cold war and making the villains the Russians. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) serves as the main antagonist of the story. One of Stalin’s top scientists, Spalko is interested in the crystal Skull because of the vast knowledge she will gain from it. Unlike the other antagonists in the series, this primary antagonist is female and younger than Jones.

Reception

According to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, Crystal Skull received fairly positive reviews from critics while receiving more middling reviews from critics. Over the years, the online opinion of this movie seemed to get worse.

By the time of the time of the film’s release, another new technological advancement had come along: the internet. Now every little detail that existed could be compared to people’s old memories and shared on community message boards. Terms like “Nuke The Fridge” could be coined by a fanbase on IMDB and become a meme. Spielberg was proud that it replaced the term “jumping the shark.” With this new technology, any displeasure with new changes could be voiced much easier to a larger audience very quickly.  

Conclusion

With many films I write about, I look at them partially because they present a different perspective about a subject than what might normally be shown.

Both of these films were made at a time where the material had gotten older. In that time, the films’ success had spawned more films and changed the landscape over time. Now what initially made the film special does not exist in the same context with the new film. However, it did provide a new context for the story.