Thursday, August 28, 2008

psycho, by alfred hitchcock

This week, Film Club continued our investigation into early serial killer pictures by looking at Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (from 1960, as was our last pick, Peeping Tom). I'm making the assumption that anyone who reads this blog for the film writing already knows the major surprises in Psycho, but if you don't, you should be forewarned that this essay-let discusses most of them, so you might want to check out now.

The first forty-odd minutes of Psycho stand as one of the all-time great acts of directorial misdirection. We're introduced to Marion Crane, a nice-enough woman from Arizona, who is carrying on a relationship with Sam Loomis, a strapping young divorcee from California.

Both of them suffer from some degree of financial hardship—Marion is employed as a low-wage clerical worker, and Sam runs a hardware store but is saddled with some pretty punitive-sounding alimony payments. Consequently, they're forced to stay apart: neither one appears to have the wherewithal to up and quit their job and relocate to where the other one lives. That is, until one day some loaded Arizonan comes in waving a huge wad of cash:

Long story short: Marion, entrusted to take this wad to a safety-deposit box, instead decides to go on the run to California, planning to use the funds as a means of achieving her escape velocity. So far, this is all relatively standard fare for a romantic melodrama of the era—although what it's all doing in a movie called Psycho isn't exactly clear, at least not until the second night when she's on the road.

Marion opts to stay at the creepy-looking Bates Motel, whereupon, as you probably know, she is promptly stabbed to death in the shower.

Now, the "shower scene" is one of the most famous scenes in all of film history: even if you have never seen Psycho, odds are that you know that Psycho features a scene where someone gets stabbed in the shower with a giant knife (you can even probably imitate a short chunk of Bernard Hermann's memorable score). The scene is famous enough that we might forget just how much it flouts narrative convention: what has happened here is that Hitchcock has essentially set up a movie which, nearly an hour into it, has killed off its own protagonist. I see a lot of movies, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with another protagonist-centered movie that takes a similar chance. (Pulp Fiction kills off Vincent Vega in its second act, but has rearranged chronology so that he's back for the third. A very special and possibly nonexistent Film Club prize will go to the first person who can identify Pulp Fiction's more blatant lift from Psycho.)

Anyway. With Marion gone, the narrative leaves us in the hands of Norman Bates, the main proprietor of the motel. We follow him through the process of cleaning up the murder, disposing of the corpse, etc. There's something very odd that happens here, and Hitchcock highlights it through one profoundly troubling sequence. It comes when Bates tries to get rid of Marion's car by pushing it into the swamp. It sinks about halfway and then stops:

And then we're granted one of the great "oh fuck" reaction shots in all of cinema history:

What's remarkable about this moment is that the audience, too, thinks "oh fuck." We have somehow, through the magic of narrative psychology, bought into Norman's own wants and desires. In effect, Norman has become the film's new protagonist, the key figure of audience identification. This has an unsettling effect even if we only think he's an accomplice to his mother's murder—which is what the film, at this stage, wants us to believe—and that creepiness grows exponentially after the first viewing, because we know, in fact, that Norman is the one doing the murders. It's a nasty trick, making us realize just how easily we can identify with a murderer, and it's also vintage Hitchcock—at least as early as Strangers on a Train Hitchcock is probing the various ways in which even the most genteel-appearing people are fascinated by and attracted to ghastly violence. (1958's Vertigo also presents a variation on this theme, in the way that it radically deconstructs the folksy, likeable persona of one of the most folksy and likeable actors of all time, Jimmy Stewart.)

Ultimately, however, both Vertigo and Psycho back away from the darkest ramifications of their own nightmarish logic(s). Psycho tricks us into uncomfortably identifying with its central killer, but it chooses not sustain this discomfort. It balks at having a serial killer as the protagonist (making Peeping Tom the more daring film), and instead has to resort to bringing back Sam and introducing two new characters, Marion's sister Lila and a private investigator, Arbogast.

In a way, it could be said that the film's reluctance to stick with Norman as the new protagonist creates something of a "protagonist vacuum," into which the film's remaining characters temporarily step. For a while, we follow Arbogast on his investigations...

But then he comes to a bad end, too:

Inasmuch as Arbogast had become the protagonist for a while, this is essentially the same trick the movie used when it did away with Marion, although it functions less well the second time, for three main reasons: 1) we care less about Arbogast, having followed him for less time and having less sense of his motivations and character, 2) the film doesn't toggle back to Norman as the protagonist, but rather back to Sam and Lila, and 3) perhaps most simply of all, any shock repeated in a film is less shocking the second time.

So, in the end, this is Psycho's flaw: in its third act, when the tension should be ratcheting up to a great finale, we're instead left swamped in a bunch of talky scenes with a bunch of, well, nobodies:

This perhaps explains why, although Psycho is such a seminal film (all the great slasher franchises owe something to it), its most notable narrative moment has been copied so infrequently. (Of course, trying to keep a central protagonist alive for the whole run of a horror movie can sometimes post its own sort of challenge: see my write-up of Aswang (Film Club XVII) for a reminder about those perils.)

Next week: the latter half of Psycho becomes something of a missing-persons drama, so we'll take a look at a similarly-minded picture, The Vanishing (the 1988 Dutch original, not the 1993 American remake). Stay tuned~

Thursday, August 14, 2008

peeping tom, by michael powell

One of the things that's going on in Diary of the Dead that I didn't write about last week is the film includes a critique of spectation: the human desire to look at things. Specifically, the film wonders aloud about the part of human psychology that wants to look at horrible things—violent acts, accidents, etc.—and it repeatedly holds up the film's documentary-filmmaker character as a character who possesses a hypertrophic form of this particular desire. (It's not too hard to speculate that Romero intends this criticism to extend to horror filmmakers as well, and thus functions as a form of self-critique.) For Romero, spectation serves at best as a form of passivity and at worst as a kind of morbid perversion. We don't look because we want to help, we look because it gratifies some vaguely unwholesome impulse in us.

As a critique, Romero's definitely holds water, although there are more extreme critiques of spectation out there, including the one found in this week's pick, Peeping Tom (1960).

Peeping Tom announces its interest in "looking" pretty baldly in its opening shot:

...and, like Diary, it draws a bridge between "looking" and "filmmaking": our main character is not only an aspiring filmmaker with a handheld camera:

...but he also works as part of a film-production crew (making a suspense thriller entitled The Walls Are Closing In):

...and, just to emphasize the focus on "looking" even more strongly, the film has him also working as a smut photographer:

In terms of its take on pornography, Peeping Tom would seem to echo Diary's concerns about spectation (or LOL's for that matter): in all three of these films, the consumption of visual matter is seen as a somewhat gross indulgence of the suspect desire to look. Here's how Peeping Tom portrays the average consumer of pornography:

However, Peeping Tom is willing to go a bit further, explicitly equating the viewing of bodies with the suffering of those bodies. It does this both subtly... (note the repetition of the word "PAIN" here outside the newsstand among the bodies of pin-ups):

...and also, as we will see, more explicitly. For, in the world of Peeping Tom, it's not merely that suffering is connected in some vague way in the production of pornography, but rather that the act of viewing in and of itself is a form of violence, making the camera a sort of weapon-technology. Here's the view through Mark's camera:

Those hairlines aren't just there for show, either: the main premise of the film, for those of you who don't know it, is that Mark is not merely a voyeur, but also a psychopath. Periodically he converts one leg of the camera's tripod into a blade, which he then uses to murder the women he's filming, while simultaneously filming the murder. We've learned this before the opening credits are finished:

Mark's obviously an extreme case, but the film doesn't hesitate to draw parallels between his behavior and the behavior of every other filmmaker in the film. The director of the film-within-a-film is also governed by sadistic impulses, as we see when he presses his lead actress to do take after take, until she collapses from exhaustion:

[To cement the parallel as explicitly as possible, Mark later murders the actress' stand-in, on set: a sequence during which he occasionally sits in the director's chair.]

There's a third sadistic filmmaker in the film, too, namely, Mark's father, a psychologist studying the physiology of fear in children. As the film unfolds, we learn that the young Mark was subjected to fear experiments, being used essentially as a human guinea pig, and having the results documented, on film, by Dad himself:

So. An interesting result of the filmmaker's decision to show Mark as having himself been the subject of spectation and the victim of sadistic impulses is that the film ends up generating a considerable amount of empathy for him (putting this film perhaps in the category of earlier Film Club picks like Spike Lee's 25th Hour (Film Club VII). In point of fact, Mark ends up being one of the most sympathetic serial killers in film history (Mark's character owes more than a small debt to Peter Lorre's portrayal of an also not-entirely-unsympathetic killer in Fritz Lang's fantastic M (1931)).

This empathy is pretty essential for the narrative of the film to hang together, because it's set up not so much as a horror-thriller (the way it seems to commonly be understood) but rather as a kind of doomed romance between Mark and his downstairs neighbor, Helen.

Helen is kind, and reaches out to Mark in a way that he's clearly not accustomed to: she invites him to her 21st birthday party, and even after he declines in the most squirrely, nervous way possible, she brings him a piece of her birthday cake:

Like other romances, then, Peeping Tom is structured narratively in a way that sets up a couple that looks like they should be together, and has them attempt to surmount obstacles that are in their way. It's just that, in this case, the obstacle is, well, irreperable psychosis. Much of the film is spent showing Mark putting energy into attempting to resist his psychotic impulses, an endeavor that also involves actively attempting to re-think his relationship to women, in order to think of Helen as something other than prey.

It's an odd choice, and in order for it to be successful we have to erase our memory of the humanity of Marc's vicims, and our desire to have him be brought to justice. However, this aspect does add a lot of extra pathos to a story that's already shocking, and clever, and theoretically interesting to boot. Next week we'll compare it against that other 1960 proto-slasher-film, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 8, 2008

diary of the dead, by george romero

So, this week, Film Club watched George Romero's new zombie picture, Diary of the Dead, as a way of continuing our investigation of representations of the contemporary hyper-mediated landscape.

This film represents a break in continuity for Romero: whereas his previous four Dead films (Night, Dawn, Day and Land) follow one another chronologically, Diary chooses instead to go back to the day when zombie activity first breaks out (what we could call "Z-Day," to borrow a term from Romero homage Shaun of the Dead).

Z-Day is a conceit invented by Romero in 1968 and has not visited by him again since then, and his return to it may represent something of an attempt to rethink the story for a contemporary audience. For starters, Diary represents a sustained attempt to realistically represent how a zombie attack would look through the lens of contemporary televised crisis reportage: we repeatedly see footage that conjures up memories of the LA riots / Columbine / 9-11 / Katrina, etc.:

It's worth noting, however, that this isn't really a new concern for Romero: even in the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, radio and television reportage is central to the way the story unfolds, and even back then Romero pretty much nailed how, in a crisis, people tend to huddle around the protective glow of anything that emits information. Diary recognizes, however, that the palette of these technologies has expanded pretty dramatically over the past forty years:

...and it expends a goodly amount of its run-time trying to consider how people (especially young people) might make use of the Internet to respond in a Z-Day type situation. (One wonders whether he was aware of last year's Internet event in which hundreds of bloggers made posts about the global zombie uprising.)

Ultimately, though, Romero is less interested in blogs and more interested in the Internet's capacity for widespread digital video distribution. Indeed, the film itself is primarily conceived of as a film-within-the-film (a documentary called The Death of Death), and a chunk of the film's narrative propulsion (although less than is ultimately possible) comes from our protagonist's desire to record more footage for the film.

In some ways, this decision to make the protagonist a young filmmaker invites a reading of the film as autobiographical, although Romero traditionally feels a deep pessimism about all human endeavor, and that includes here the impulse of "bloggers, hackers, [and] kids," to grow their own media. An incomplete version of the protagonist's film, once uploaded, gets 72,000 hits in eight minutes, which helps him to argue that the film is "saving lives," but one gets the feeling that Romero himself isn't convinced. "The more voices there are," says the film's narrator, "the more spin there is. The truth gets that much harder to find. In the end, it's all just noise."

These reflections upon media are pretty obviously the film's reason for existence: although the normal emotional touch-points of the zombie film (killing your friend who has become a zombie, etc.) are dutifully included, they are dispensed with in an almost perfunctory fashion. And ultimately, this year's earlier Cloverfield may be a better investigation of the intersection of monster apocalypse plus man-on-the-street video—Cloverfield's dialogue is far more naturalistic, and features less overt hand-wringing about the nature of mediation. Nevertheless, this still feels like something of a return to form for Romero: he still has considerable skill at imagining the way our contemporary infrastructure might slide into collapse, something Land, a film with no small whiff of science fiction about it, got away from a bit.

Next week we're sticking with horror and spectation, which means we're going to have to pay a pilgrimage to Horror and Spectation Ground Zero: 1960's bit of snuff nastiness, Peeping Tom.

Monday, August 4, 2008

krapp's last tape, by atom egoyan | LOL by joe swanberg

[Some of the later pictures in this post are marginally NSFW, scroll with caution.]

Over the past few weeks Film Club has watched two films that deal with the relationship between human beings and their technologies of communication, recording, and archiving.

First up was Atom Egoyan's memorable adaptation of Krapp's Last Tape, Samuel Beckett's meditation on old age. (It's available on the third disc of the Beckett on Film set.)

In this play, the main character, Krapp, spends his days in a dwelling which (at least in this particular production of the play) is crammed to the gills with journals, notes, and files.

He's an old man, and he appears to be going at least partially mad from extended isolation. There are no other characters in the play (or the film), it's just Krapp and us.

As it turns out, Krapp has been something of an obsessive self-documenter for much of his life, and he has spent many years keeping a sort of audio journal. The central dramatic event of the film is simply Krapp selecting a spool of audiotape out of his archive and listening back through it.

If you've ever kept a journal (or audio journal, or blog), and then revisited it years later, you know that this is not an activity that comes without its fair share of emotional risk. It has the capacity to summon up fond memories, yes, but it also has the capacity to summon up regrets, remorse, feelings of loss, irrational contempt towards one's younger self, etc. In short, it can be the stuff of drama. John Hurt does a fantastic job embodying the complexities and subtleties of Krapp's reactions:

The play's most clever conceit is its doubling of this entire dramatic mechanism: the tape that Krapp selects to listen to is one from his late-thirties, but the tape was made on an evening when Krapp had engaged in the activity of listening to an even earlier tape, one from his mid-twenties. Krapp at thirty-nine listens to himself at twenty-five and thinks "God, listen to that arrogant, self-important, foolish young man. Look at the mistakes he was making, and he didn't even know it." Krapp at sixty-nine listens to himself at thirty-nine and thinks the same thing. One gets the sense that there's never a point in life at which one can speak in a way that one's future, hopefully wiser self will respect.

So, in Beckett's universe, the pleasures of one's life—being grounded in the present—tend to deliquesce, whereas one's regrets and remorse—being grounded in the past—tend to persist. Therefore, there can be no comfort in the archive: attempting to experience a pleasure via its documentation only helps to remind us of its loss. This is the stuff of real terror.

* * *

To get the idea of our follow-up, LOL, you could almost think of it as "Li'l Krapps." Where Krapp is about an old man looking back on recordings of his life and lamenting what an arrogant, self-important, foolish young man he once was, and the mistakes he once made, then LOL is about a group of arrogant, self-important, foolish young men, making recordings of their life and making mistakes, but still young enough not to have had the experience of looking back on this with regret.

The other big difference between LOL (made in 2006) and Krapp (originally written in 1959), of course, is the increased ubiquity of recording, archiving, and communications technology. I'm a little surprised that Facebook people seem to dislike this film quite as much as they do (it's only pulling in a pretty low 2 1/2 stars at Flixter's "Movies" application), for it seems like it's made by and for them. (The weak characterization of the female characters might have something to do with it, I guess.) But still, I'm pleased to see a film that acknowledges the existence of a behavior as contemporary as taking a picture of one's own haircut with a cell phone:

And I'm always pleased when people in movies use actual browsers instead of some phony movie-world browser:

As you might have guessed from that preceding screenshot, one concern that LOL shares with Krapp's Last Tape is the mediation of pleasure, although in LOL this is specifically located around the erotic electronic image, either pornography located on the Internet:

...or the amateur image transmitted between members of a relationship as an expression of erotic connection:

...or even the (ever-growing) areas where these two categories become indistinguishable from one another:

Whether this sort of image-transmission constitutes interpersonal connection is one of the more genuine areas of concern in this film. As for whether the surplus mass of electronic documentation we generate these days will, forty years down the road, constitute something we can paw through to generate the kind of reflections that characterize Krapp's Last Tape remains to be seen.

Despite the fact that I'm now in MA, and my Film Club collaborator Skunkcabbage remains in Chicago, we're going to try to keep the Film Club going. Our next film will stick with this "mediation" theme, although see how it gets interpreted by the world of horror: we'll be moving on to George Romero's latest, Diary of the Dead (2008).