James Franco’s ‘Psycho Nacirema’ Exhibit

I recently went to visit the multi-media art installation “Psycho Nacirema” by the American artist, actor and director James Franco and presented by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. The exhibition presents a mise-en-scène of Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller “Psycho” intertwined with the 1920s Hollywood scandal involving silent-cinema star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Truth is, there is so much more to this exhibition, and everyone visiting the remodelled Bates Motel could have a different experience to tell. As Mr Franco explained in his interview with The Guardian, the exhibition is not an homage to “Psycho” – despite using it as a backdrop – it is about the way films can be re-shaped and lead to the creation of new works of art. Personally, I saw “Psycho” many years ago, so before going to the exhibition I had some vague memories in mind of scenes I remembered. I also had the whole baggage of film theory from my degree, an approach that sometimes gives you such a meticulous, almost scientific, analysis of films that makes you see them unequivocally under one light. When I went to visit Psycho Nacirema, then, I was quite surprised to find something different from either what I had stored in my memory or the one-dimensional experience of film school.

When walking into the exhibition you first find yourself at the outside of the infamous Bates Motel, the refuge Marion Crane, the beautiful secretary played by Janet Leigh in the original film, sought after running away from the evidence of her crime; then killed by the psychotic Norman Bates in one of the most celebrated scenes of cinematic history. As you enter the first room you are greeted by the disquieting portrait of a grinning Norman Bates. You are indeed in the recreation of his office. A huge register book lies on the desk and the twelve vacancy keys are hanging on the wall. Unlike in the film you are invited to step through a side passage, almost as if you were entering a fantasy world in which you are asked to take on the game of role-playing, whether it is by looking at yourself in the mirror with the juxtaposed image of Franco-Marion, or by stepping into Norman’s shoes. Like Hitchcock, who adopted oblique, almost expressionistic camera angles, here the walls and doors are constructed with a slight bend which recreates the same discomforting effect.

You then access the parlour where Norman invited Marion to dine with him. Ominous stuffed birds sit on the furniture or hang from the ceiling. A red writing on the wall prompts you to peek through the hole to spy on Marion. Cinema is voyeuristic in itself but it is also part of the human nature and as the audience you are forced to recognise this impulse. As in Psycho’s opening scene where we go from an aerial shot, fly down the façade of a building and ‘enter’ through a half closed window into the private lives of Marion and her lover Sam, here you are let in to explore a space which is embedded in everyone’s memory (if you have watched Psycho but even if you haven’t you might as well have seen stills from the film). It is a space which is both real and fantastical: it exits physically but it is based on a fictional place and now re-imagined through the eyes of an artist. Hitchcock created these worlds, which are fictional yet they exist in our minds. In 1993 Douglas Gordon mailed a letter to Lars Thorwald (the character from Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”) asking ‘What have you done with her?’; a simple yet significant action which highlights how cinema is so present in our everyday lives.

Stepping through the next door brings you to room 1 of the Bates Motel. A bed ravaged in paint, with sex toys and creepy teddy bears sitting on it seems to suggest a perverse sexual level to the events of the Bates Motel. If you had not noticed ‘Nacirema’ is ‘American’ spelled in reverse and perhaps suggests a new exploration of Psycho within a modern context. “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis recounted the story of Patrick Bateman, a businessman living in 1980s Manhattan who after murdering one of his colleagues fell into a spiral of even more sadistic crimes involving torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism and necrophilia. It was a postmodern tale which employed the narrative technique of the unreliable narrator – Bateman himself. After all, every filmmaker could be an ‘unrealiable narrator’: cinema is a medium and therefore everything we see is mediated; every shot relies to a narrator (the director) who decides what the viewers should see. Similarly, Franco-artist mediated between different entities to create a completely new artistic output. In the American Psycho frame, it then seems legit to incorporate the Arbuckle scandal although here we are talking about Hollywood – instead of Bateman’s business world. It is a sort of self-reference towards cinema and filmmaking which is essentially a modernist tract.

From the adjacent bathroom the sharp violin notes playing in the background reminds you – if the blood splashed everywhere was not enough – of the famous murder committed in that room. The environment is bleach white and clinical, as in the film. You can look at yourself/Marion in the mirror and in the background you will see the reflection of the dead Mother. Juxtaposition is something used by Hitchcock himself when, in one of the last scenes of the film, we see Bates-mother in a cell and the image of a skull (possibly the dead mother) is superimposed on his face for a few seconds. The whole exhibition seems to make use of this element, like in “Split Marion” 2013, a diptych mirror which prompts the viewer to join the artist to gaze and be gazed upon. An impulse that has been identified as a new reaction towards cinema in which artists meditate on its very nature, a process in which rather than watching film they watch themselves watching. Mirrors featured a lot in the original Psycho and suggested what would be the revelation of Norman’s split personality. Role-playing is clearly embedded in this exhibition – with Franco in drag playing the role of Marion Crane. Within the framework of cinema and filmmaking it is clear that public persona is often performance and arguably this is true also in other contexts.

All the previous explorations lead to the final room, a space which is separated from the Bates Motel but relates to it. At the centre of the room sits a bloodied bed with the name ‘Fatty’ written on the headboard; on the walls around it four videos are played in a loop. ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was a star of the silent era who worked with the likes of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In 1921 he was part of a scandal in which he allegedly raped 30 year old actress Virginia Rappe, which lead to her death a few days after. Different stories emerged but the mystery was never quite dispelled, becoming Hollywood’s first scandal. Franco filmed in the same room in which these events took place and recreated the infamous story as recounted by the press of that time. Other videos – all in colour and in slow motion – see Franco playing Charles Chaplin and remakes of Arbuckle’s “The Waiter’s Ball” (1916) and “Spaghetti” (1918). Again, cross-dressing is often involved and the idea of fiction/reality is here recreated in relation to rumours vs truth, public vs private.

This exhibition is certainly not the first one that looks back at one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films; other filmmakers and artists took inspiration from it or remodelled it into new forms of art. After Hitchcock’s death in 1980 it had three follow-ups, “Psycho II” (1983), “Psycho III” (directed by Anthony Perkins, 1986) and “Psycho IV” (written by Stefano in 1990). Gus Van Sant remade the original in 1998, in colour and with scenes of more explicit sexuality and violence although he followed the original almost shot by shot. In 1993 Douglas Gordon also created the exhibition “24 hours Psycho” in which the original film was projected in slow motion so that it would last an entire day. Hitchcock had a great interest in modern art and the avant-garde, from his early years working in Germany and watching Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau direct and studying expressionist theatre to his collaborations with Salvador Dalì (dream sequence in “Spellbound”, the painter John Ferren (dream sequence in “Vertigo”, and experimental filmmaker John Whitney and the designer Saul Bass (titles to “Vertigo”). Psycho had a vast progeny and Psycho Nacirema seems to add another level to it.

Psycho Nacirema will be visible until the 27th July 2013 at the Pace Gallery in Lexington Street, Tue – Sat, 10am to 6pm. Entry is free. For more information visit the website.

All images from Psycho Nacirema © 2013, James Franco, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Elisa was born in the small town of Udine, Italy, where she made her first short films. Aged 18 she moved to London where she achieved a degree in Film & Broadcast Production with her film "A Tragedy", based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth". She recently pursued a Master degree in Screenwriting for TV and Film thus joining the group of struggling writers. Ssst! She's brainstorming.