Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thoughts on Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic (and possibly best) movie, Psycho was released exactly 50 years ago today.  It is arguably the first "slasher" movie--but none of its successors have had anything close to its cultural impact, which is not to deny the merit of some of them.  (Halloween, perhaps the best of the rest, capitalized on the original by casting Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh's daughter, in the lead.)  The Reagan-era sequels could not dim (or touch) the power of Hitchcock's film--largely bolstered by the estimable talent of Anthony Perkins--and the much-reviled 1998 "remake" by Gus Van Sant, which followed the original script almost word for word and the original storyboard almost shot for shot, is much much better (and more instructive in the changes in US culture) than most viewers and reviewers gave it credit for, and, as Patricia Hitchcock said at the time, it was precisely the kind of experiment her father would have attempted (he did in fact make The Man Who Knew Too Much twice).

In the homocentric manner that many straight film fans hate, I would like to make a modest, brief argument for Psycho being a "gay film."  Male homosexuality was not a theme foreign to Hitchcock.  Films like Rope and North by Northwest flirted with the subject in the 1950s, the decade in which such references were most taboo in America; Rope even obsessed over it.  Psycho alludes to some of the overt cold-war, quasi-Freudian stereotypes of the homosexual--an overbearing mother who dominates and frightens her boy, a man who likes to wear dresses and pretend he's a woman, and the "sad young man" conveyed in Anthony Perkins' understated performance.  Also the hard-to-miss fact that the film evades the subject of "romance" (heterosexual or homosexual, while rather bluntly addressing the subject of "sex") puts it outside the mainstream of American movies of the time--even in the horror genre, even among Hitchcock's other work.

The opening scene of John Gavin stripped to the waist in a cheap hotel room is one that, despite its patently heterosexual context, lets the camera indulge in the spectacle of the actor's considerable masculine beauty.  The scene portrays the aftermath of sex--worse, illicit sex, since Gavin's character is still married to somebody else.  Gavin literally embodies the ideal masculinity of the period, square jawed, tall, beefily athletic, an image more famously embodied in the fifties by Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, ironically two closeted gay actors.  This image is brought into stark contrast with (later in the film) the oddly birdlike, quiet, gawky diffidence of Anthony Perkins--a markedly different kind of American male, one seldom seen in the movies of the decade, especially not in a leading role.  Later, Gavin's character is "paired" with his girlfriend's sister (played by Vera Miles), with no real hint of romantic interest on either one's part (Van Sant's film is instructive on this point).  Perkins is often shot by himself, isolated, or surrounded by inanimate objects--stuffed birds, academic paintings on biblical subjects, and the empty immensity of the dark Victorian house he lives in.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in the Victorian era, two years before the stately old queen died.  His life spanned the end of Victorianism and the beginning of the end of postmodernism.  The Stick-Eastlake architecture of the Bates' house is in pointed contrast to the boxy functionality of the seedy post-war "motor-hotel" it looms darkly over.  Victoria's disapproving gloom towers above the image of mobile, transient, promiscuous, gawdy "free love":  that this was the established stereotype of motels at the time we know because of Nabokov's Lolita five years earlier.  The film is full of contrasts like this--the performance styles of Gavin and Perkins, as mentioned, but also the jarring abstract expressionism of Saul Bass's opening title sequence and the plodding expository monologue delivered by Simon Oakland, closing the movie on a weirdly anticlimactic note.  In fact, the whole movie appears in retrospect to be an experiment in anticlimax.  The protagonist dies 45 minutes into the film.  The young couple who meet (decidedly un-cute) later in the film never kiss, their only bodily contact occurring as they clasp each other while recoiling in horror at their various discoveries of the truth--an allegory of the Western world in the twentieth century?  A title that exploits the American public's fascination with psychoanalysis at the time (in a decade when shock therapy and lobotomy were still "cures" for homosexuality and other forms of "mental illness"), while the character of the psychologist makes his first and only appearance when the film is almost over. 

Psycho ... or The Birds or North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train ... is my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.  (Sorry to be so indefinite--but the man was a genius.)  Its influence is still felt in American Psycho and on The Simpsons, in the bleak sexuality of AMC's Mad Men and in countless shower scenes in countless erotic thrillers.  Between 1963 and 1971, I visited Universal City Studios in Hollywood three times.  The only constant was the facade of the "Psycho house" still perched on the hill that Perkins descends in horror when he sees the blood of his eroto-phobic mother's latest victim.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wanna Buy Five Copies for My Mother

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Down Time

I am depressed.  Mildly depressed.  Depressed in the probing, essayish manner I am accustomed to.  Not "sad," nothing to be sad about.  Not "bleak," or at any rate my worldview at the moment is no bleaker than it is even in the midst of euphoria.  Not even--though I feel my body losing gas, the essence of depression, as I experience it--not even "dread of death"--quite the opposite, in fact, rather a mild apprehension about the many many many classroom lectures still left to prepare, papers still to grade, bills still to pay, meals still to eat, miles still to drive, awkward silences still to clip short out of some sense of obligation to the comfort of others.

I see depression as a natural cycle of the emotions, just as sleep is a natural cycle of the body.  The unrelenting cheerfulness that Hollywood, the pharmaceutical industry, coffee commercials, cruise lines, and some insanely inhumane religions promote is, to my way of thinking, a nightmare.  Animals are not built for perpetual motion, which includes e-motion.  Mammals, in particular, are not built for the constant busyness of bees or the hyped-up lightness of hummingbirds.  Sometimes we just have to sag.  I see my dog sagging as I write this.  Think about all the indolent lions, tigers, hippos, and apes you have seen in nature documentaries.  In fact, the makers of nature films frequently complain about the difficulty of capturing wildlife on film actually doing something.  Pep is just not an important commodity at our end of the biosphere.

For the past several weeks, on vacation, I have been a slug, and now with the fall semester fast approaching I am experiencing a certain self-awareness I call "depression"--the follow-up of hours on hours of restful, restorative sloth, mixed with an agitating consciousness of impending outside obligations.  The self-consciousness of (perhaps even embarrassment over) one's propensity for slackerliness and slovenliness and one's acceptance of a set of life circumstances that are, let's say, usually unstimulating is what ordinary (i.e. nonclinical) depression is.

Reading Tom Hodgkinson's nifty little book How to Be Idle several years ago was a small transformational experience for me.  I started interpreting my life a little differently.  Like teens and other immature adults I used to panic when I felt that my emotions were depressed ("on pause," so to speak).  I feared boredom more than cancer.  I thought I had an obligation to have a stimulating life--the kind of life that was in a constant state of excitement, even turmoil, which is, after all, the soul of drama.  I even wanted--or thought I wanted--to have a "rollercoaster" life.  I thought I should want--though I never really wanted--to be a "mover and shaker."  Though I never would have put the idea in so many words, I must have thought that "war" is preferable to "peace," as well--how interesting is peace?

This is not to say that I live an uneventful life.  I have my fights and triumphs, my turbulent romances, my agonizing losses--consuming perhaps as high a percentage of my overall life as my dog's playing fetch or a lion's stalking and killing an antelope (which is to say not much, as dogs sleep for half their lives--and stare lazily at their masters for another quarter of their lives--and lions are known to sleep, just sleep, for up to 24 hours at a time).  I even found out recently that peasants, the hardest working social class of the Middle Ages, worked no more than 88 days out of a year ... peasants!

The panic over the apprehension that one's life is being "wasted," which nonhuman animals apparently never experience (not even goldfish!), is what, I think, ordinary depression is.   Depression is perhaps a distinctive effect of American-style workaholism--that neurotic "drive" that causes us to take fewer vacations than most other cultures do (cultures which are, by the way, no less productive than ours) and, when we do take them, to plan them expressly to minimize any idleness--or "rest."  This is why so many teachers believe a heap of homework is the secret to education, why so many parents believe continuous "planned activities" are the secret to happiness, why so many business people believe "efficiency" is the secret to success.  Small wonder, then, that, for the past 30 years, America has been Prozac Nation, the cradle of "cosmetic pharmacology."

I am depressed, as I said before.  Don't worry about me.  I'm dealing with it.


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