28 August 2008

Psycho (1960)

How many times have I seen Psycho? 15? 20? 30? I'm really not sure. I've seen it on my own several times, I've watched it for classes (as a student), and I've shown it to soooo many classes (as a teacher). Can I honestly say it never gets old? Maybe not. I find my emotional engagement in the movie to be diminished after so many screenings, even as my intellectual appreciation for the film grows and grows. Some scenes become increasingly intolerable, like the llllloooooonnngg and over-dramatic explanation of the psychiatrist and the embarrassingly silly climactic appearance of the cross-dressing Norman (more aggressive editing could, perhaps, have improved both of those scenes), while other scenes seem to retain their freshness despite multiple repeat viewings, like the parlor conversation between Marion and Norman, the shower scene, and the many uber-creepy shots of Norman's heavily shadowed visage.

I have to make myself very clear here--I can't think of any movie that could remain viscerally thrilling after 25+ viewings, all in the space of 18 years. So the fact that I'm not as emotionally excited about Psycho as I once was says nothing about the quality of the film. Psycho remains a masterwork of modern American film and one which, even after all these years, is at least slightly overlooked because of its "slasher" genre. Cinematographically, the movie is brilliant, particularly in its use of light and shadow, high and low camera angles, moving frames, and visual motifs to establish and reinforce the film's themes. As in all Hitchcock films, the editing is superb (despite my problems with a few plodding scenes), creating a rhythm that takes over the will of a viewer, alternately making my heart race or practically freezing me in suspended animation. The music, of course, contributes immeasurably to this pleasurable manipulation. And the acting? Perkins is peerless in his portrayal of a lovable psychopath who slowly unravels before the camera's eye.

The writing of Psycho is one aspect of the movie that I'm coming to appreciate more and more as time goes on. That's a little odd because, as someone who's studied literature for many years, it's typically easier for me to access the literary aspects of a film than the more purely cinematic aspects. But the more I see Psycho, the more I realize the myriad effects of the style in which the screenplay is written (and executed). The movie is absolutely full of people talking at cross-purposes. They talk and talk but they never actually seem to communicate with each other. No one is close in this movie (except, arguable, Norman and his mother). In the opening scene with Marion and Sam, the disjointedness of the conversation belies their physical intimacy--although they may say they love each other, this conversation reveals a broken relationship moment, where the participants are utterly (and, as it turns out, irrevocably) out-of-step with one another. This conversation seems to set the stage, and from this opening gambit, every time people talk, they talk past each other with conflicting motives, unspoken subtexts, hidden contexts, and personal (mis-)interpretations. Think of Marion and the cop, Marion and California Charlie, Marion and Norman (!!!), Sam and Lila, Arbogast and Sam, Arbogast and Lila, Arbogast and Norman, etc. It strikes me that one of Hitchcock's favorite themes is the horror of everyday life. What's more terrifying than the realization that we are, truly, all in our private traps and all we can do is "scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch"? I don't think this particular terror is on the surface of Psycho. A first time viewer most likely comes away from the movie feeling a little leery of dark shadows and showers, not worried about the intimacy of his/her friendships. Even so, I can't help but wonder if the isolation of the characters in Psycho enhances their vulnerability in a way that makes its mark on us, as Psycho's audience, making us just a little more aware of the intersections of fear and loneliness in our own lives.

(BTW, the image in this blog entry comes from my own copy of the DVD. I suppose it actually belongs to Universal, and I'm soooo grateful to them for letting me use it, even though they don't know I've used it...yet.)

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