Fan Editing as Film Criticism and ‘Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut’

“I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this … That’s why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers, to you and me.”       — Alfred Hitchock1

Everyone’s a Critic Filmmaker

François Truffaut’s extensive interview with Alfred Hitchcock formed the basis of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a book that has served as a great resource for studies of both directors. As an icon of the French New Wave, Truffaut was among a group of film critics that crossed over to filmmaking as an organic progression from their critical perspectives; they decided to make the kind of films that they had championed as critics.

Today, anyone with a computer and some curiosity can recut films and generate alternate versions known as fanedits. Given the tools for recutting and remixing media, how should we define the contemporary “filmmaker”? It’s traditionally said that “everyone’s a critic,” but now anyone can recut a film in order make a critical statement. Truffaut was an example of a critic who became a filmmaker, but perhaps now everyone is a filmmaker.

Roger Ebert vs. Hitchcock’s Pychiatrist

Coinciding with the release of the remake of Psycho in 1998, Roger Ebert revisited Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 original film. In the final paragraphs of his mostly complimentary review, Ebert criticized the film’s ending scenes:

For thoughtful viewers, however, an equal surprise is still waiting. That is the mystery of why Hitchcock marred the ending of a masterpiece with a sequence that is grotesquely out of place. After the murders have been solved, there is an inexplicable scene during which a long-winded psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) lectures the assembled survivors on the causes of Norman’s psychopathic behavior. This is an anticlimax taken almost to the point of parody.2

Here is the original sequence in question:

Annoyed by Hitchcock’s old-fashioned psychiatrist type, Ebert’s analysis led him to speculate about an alternate ending for Psycho:

If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock’s film, I would include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: “Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.” Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks (“It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son…”). Those edits, I submit, would have made “Psycho” very nearly perfect. I have never encountered a single convincing defense of the psychiatric blather; Truffaut tactfully avoids it in his famous interview.3

One ardent defense for the psychiatrist comes from Robin Wood (2002), who suggests that the superficial speech was meant to be rejected:

The psychiatrist’s “explanation” has been much criticized, but it has its function. It crystallizes for us our tendency to evade the implications of the film, by converting Norman into a mere “case,” hence something we can easily put from us. The psychiatrist, glib and complacent, reassures us. But Hitchcock crystallizes this for us merely to force us to reject it. We shall see on reflection that the “explanation” ignores as much as it explains (the murder as symbolic rape, for example). But we are not allowed to wait for a chance to reflect: our vague feelings of dissatisfaction are promptly brought to consciousness by our final confrontation with Norman, and this scene in the cell, entirely static after the extremes of violence that have preceded it, is the most unbearably horrible in the film.4

Ebert is likely aware of Wood’s earlier interpretation but remains unconvinced. Instead, Ebert dismisses the psychiatrist’s “blather” as anticlimactic, long-winded, and almost comical. This effect may have been somewhat intentional, because to Hitchcock (1985), Psycho was not supposed to be taken too seriously:

You have to remember that Psycho is a film made with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me it’s a fun picture. The processes through which we take the audience, you see, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the roller coaster, you know. After all it stands to reason that if one were seriously doing the Psycho story, it would be a case history. You would never present it in forms of mystery or the juxtaposition of characters, as they were placed in the film. They were all designed in a certain way to create this audience emotion. Probably the real Psycho story wouldn’t have been emotional at all; it would’ve been terribly clinical. 5

As part of his strategy to draw emotional responses to Psycho, Hitchcock may have included the psychiatrist to lend some credibility to the story and to serve as a shocking reminder for Hitchcock’s 1960 audience that people like Norman Bates truly exist. After all, Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who was inspired by the real case of Ed Gein. The Gein story also provided some inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Writing in 1998, decades after the release of Psycho, Ebert’s perspective may have been influenced by subsequent slasher films. For a contemporary audience in a post-Psycho, post-Silence of the Lambs, post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre world, clinical explanations of madness on screen are no longer necessary or desired. We have become more accustomed to ambiguity and chaos, and Ebert and Wood write from a similar retrospective position. They are no longer part of the audience that saw Psycho in 1960.

Additionally, Ebert wrote his review one year after George Lucas famously re-released the Star Wars original trilogy with several controversial revisions. Films have historically existed in multiple versions, but the Star Wars “Special Editions” were especially notable because the changes to the films were made decades after the films were commercially released. It might be too presumptuous to say that Ebert was somehow influenced by that case when he was “bold enough” to suggest recutting Psycho, but the chronology is worth noting.

Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut

As far as Roger Ebert was concerned, his vision of a “fixed” version of Psycho ended with his speculative review. However, in 2009, a faneditor called Stomachworm recut the ending scenes of Psycho according to Ebert’s suggestions. The fanedit was eventually distributed online as Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut 6

Custom DVD artwork for Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut

Although it reflected a slight change to the film rather than a complete revision that is typical for fanedits, the response to Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut by the fanediting community was generally positive, and many thought Ebert’s complaints were correct after they viewed the fanedit. Roger Ebert even acknowledged the fanedit with a Twitter post:

I’m opposed to piracy but find this fanedit of “Psycho” proves a point: Hitchcock didn’t need the psychiatrist. http://t.co/wrzVhRBM7

Unfortunately, in researching this article I discovered that Stomachworm’s original fanedit is practically impossible to download. The fanedit community’s links for this fanedit are now broken, and the torrent file that Ebert linked in his tweet is no longer viable. Therefore, in order to appreciate the changes of the “Roger Ebert Cut” of Psycho, I have reconstructed it. Here is the contentious sequence, recut according to Ebert’s suggestions:

Much of the psychiatrist’s purpose is retained in this shortened version, but we are spared Norman’s backstory of how he began to live a double life. An interesting consequence of this alternate version is that we, not the psychiatrist, must play detective and infer the details of Norman’s psychosis.

As a critic, Ebert described his ideal version of Psycho without any means of recutting Hitchcock’s film and so he had to let his curiosity subside. Eleven years later, Stomachworm created a fanedit that finally demonstrated what Ebert was only able to suggest in his writing. Probably more than Ebert could have anticipated at the time he wrote his review, Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut is evidence of a new form of film criticism where the critic can actually show rather than tell. In the response to a film, the critic is now free to create a new revision of the film with relative ease.

Redefining the Critic

Like all fanedits, an alternate version of a film is a comparative work; it’s always bound to its source text and inevitably evaluated by its differences from the original. Therefore, all fanedits are inherently critical works, but I believe that film critics will increasingly embrace the practice of re-editing for the purpose of illustrating the weaknesses in a film and to provide a tangible counterpoint. Established critics will explore these new methods and the increasing popularity of recutting and remixing media will provide outsiders and amateurs more access to a progressively democratic field of criticism. The film critic will be redefined.

Traditionally, films have been treated by the general public as unchangeable but fanediting has emerged as a tool for breaking open films. In addition to a growing trend of revisionism in Hollywood that includes “director’s cuts,” and “extended editions,” fanediting provides evidence to the public that films are malleable, that a film is the sum of its parts and that those parts are (re)movable. Fanediting is a means for everyone to become a revisionist critic and remix-filmmaker. Nothing is off-limits and it’s never too late to “fix” a movie.

“In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned.”  — George Lucas, 19978

Epilogue… Psycho: The JW Cut

My job as a researcher could have ended at that point. However, after seeing the effect of reducing the appearance of the psychiatrist in Psycho, I had to wonder: Why does the psychiatrist need to exist at all?

Fanediting breeds fanediting. After preparing the previous video clips for this essay, seated at a computer with Hitchcock’s classic thriller spread across the editing timeline on my computer monitor, I couldn’t resist the temptation to experiment with the scene. As Hitchcock said, Psycho is a film that belongs to filmmakers. I thoroughly enjoy Psycho uncut, but it’s also a worthy subject for experimentation. Ebert’s cut reflects a contemporary taste for ambiguity and forces us to figure out more of the mystery, but the presence of the psychiatrist still implies that Norman’s madness is comprehended by the characters at the end of the story. In that capacity, the psychiatrist is a sympathetic tool for the characters and the audience alike. What effect would the absence of the psychiatrist have on the conclusion of Psycho?

As you will see in the following version, I have removed the psychiatrist altogether. The capture of Norman in the basement now transitions to the police station where a guard hands him a blanket in the holding cell. The absence of the psychiatrist means the absence of an authority figure at the end of this film: There is no longer a voice of reason to give the surviving characters peace of mind and there is no sympathetic character who can help Norman. He is hopelessly lost in his own mind, with his mother. She is the only voice of reason. Of the three versions presented in this article, this the darkest cut.

Next installment: Fanediting as Film Criticism 2: Raising Cain: Re-cut

  1. Truffaut, François and Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock/Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985: 282-283.
  2. Ebert, Roger. “Psycho.” Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 1998: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981206/REVIEWS08/401010353/1023.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia UP, 2002: 149.
  5. Cameron, Ian and V. F. Perkins. “Hitchcock.” Movie 6. January, 1963.
  6. Stomachworm. Psycho: The Roger Ebert Cut. FanEdit.org, February, 2009. http://www.fanedit.org/ifdb/component/content/article/87-fanedit-database/custom-special-edition/315-psycho-the-roger-ebert-cut.
  7. Ebert, Roger. Twitter.com, October 16, 20122: http://twitter.com/ebertchicago/status/125662642898608129.
  8. Magid, Ron. “An Expanded Universe: Digital and Analog Special Effects Collide in the Retooled Version of Star Wars.” American Cinematographer. February, 1997.

Defining the Fan Edit (or Fanedit)

A “fan edit” can be defined as an alternate version of a film made by a fan. Increasingly we find there are fan edits based on other media by creators of different backgrounds, so a fan edit could be generally understood as an unsanctioned alternate narrative made by enthusiasts or fans. Typically these are edits of feature films made by nonprofessionals.

Elsewhere on the web you may observe the term “fan edit” used to informally describe what is better known as a video mashup, a video with custom subtitles (fansub) or audio (fandub), a video game mod, or a song remix, among other types of transformative works. In fairness, misuse of the term “fan edit” is understandable because in each case, fans “edit” media. Many creative communities thrive due to the popularization of personal computers, the Internet, digital media formats, and the impulse to organize, collaborate, and share. A fan edit is a form of remix that often includes a mashup of sources which transform media similar to a video game mod, and in some cases even include new subtitles and audio dubbing.

Like many forms of fan labor there is an inconsistency in its spelling; just as you will see “fansub” and “fan sub” you will find that “fan edits” or “fanedits” are made by “fan editors” and “faneditors” alike. However, in each case they are engaged in the same kind of work. Regardless of its spelling or formatting, it’s interesting to consider the implications of “fan editor.”

Let’s review what I mean by a fan. Essentially, a fan is an aficionado or someone enthusiastic and dedicated to a product or aspect of culture. Like most contemporary audiences, fans are not merely spectators who simply consume media. Fans have a long tradition of participation with media, from making their own band t-shirts and custom movie posters, to writing their own stories based on characters from literature, film, and television (fan fiction), and producing fan films and music videos (fanvids), and many other activities.

The “editor” in this mix refers to role of film editor, and because fans have always found ways to participate in culture and transform media we can argue that — technically — fan editors are equivocal to film editors. Fans emerge from various fields and bring to the table different blends of skill and experience; there are fan editors who are also professional film and television editors.

In particular, “fan editor” refers to the maker of a fan edit, which is an unofficial revision of a film or media text. Industry-sanctioned recuts of films have a long history and are made for various reasons, such as censorship or for facilitating distribution in different cultures or to comply with the technicalities of venues. For example, films broadcasted on television and distributed on home video in the pre-widescreen era were typically “modified” for content, running time, or to fit the aspect ratio of the TV screen. Other studio-ordered revisions to films, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), were sometimes made because of creative differences or legal disputes. Such revisions, which were made against the wishes of the filmmakers, complicate notions of authorship and the terminology of “unauthorized” and “unsanctioned.”

Filmmakers such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Oliver Stone have released high-profile revisions of their films, and since the commercialization of the DVD format there has been an increased market for “director’s cuts” or “extended” and “unrated” film versions. On the contrary, fan edits are noncommercial by design. From legal and theoretical perspectives they are as problematic as they are fascinating. Fan edits engage with contemporary issues of copyright and authorship as well media creation and distribution.

In forthcoming posts I will describe the types of fan edits, fan editing communities, and the methods of production.

Welcome

On this site I will share some of my research and projects pertaining to fanediting, film revisionism, and stories about conflicts that arise between creativity and copyright. In the forthcoming posts I will develop discussions of fanediting as forms of film criticism and research, conduct “redux retrospectives” that trace the official and unofficial versions of certain films, review individual fanedits, and provide commentary on my own editing work.

This blog also contains some works-in-progress that will eventually form polished compositions, and I welcome comments and questions from all readers. On the “About Me” page you will also find a brief autobiography and contact information.