At Film Space on Saturdays at 7 pm
December is “The Month of Classics” at Film Space. January, “The Month of Coincidence.”
Film Space is to the right and in the back of the CMU Art Museum, in the Media Arts and Design building across from the ballet school. Showings are in a classroom on the second floor or on the roof, weather permitting. A contribution is requested in the donation box at the entrance – you should leave 20 baht. Well worth supporting.
At Film Space Saturday, December 26: Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock – 109 mins – US, Horror/Thriller. In B&W. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 89 out of 100.
Rotten Tomatoes: Credited with inventing the genre of the modern horror film, Psycho has had its share of sequels and imitators, none of which diminishes the achievement of this shocking and complex horror thriller. Alfred Hitchcock's choreography of elements in Psycho is considered so perfect it inspired a shot-by-shot remake by Gus VanSant in 1998. However, Hitchcock's black-and-white original, featuring Anthony Perkins's haunting characterization of lonely motel keeper Norman Bates, has never been equaled. Bates presides over an out-of-the-way motel under the domineering specter of his mother. The young, well-intentioned Bates is introduced to the audience when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a blonde on the run with stolen money, checks in for the night. But Momma doesn't like loose women, so the stage is set for this classic tale of horror--and one of the most famous scenes in film history. Psycho was initially received by audiences with shock and amazement--and it still terrifies today. Though it is now considered prototypical Hitchcock, its setting, pace, and emphasis on terror were major departures for the director at the time, coming after the more classically grand North By Northwest.
Consensus: Infamous for its shower scene, but immortal for its contribution to the horror genre. Because Psycho was filmed with tact, grace, and art, Hitchcock didn't just create modern horror, he validated it.
Roger Ebert [December 6, 1998]: "It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance...they were aroused by pure film."
So Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut about Psycho, adding that it "belongs to filmmakers, to you and me." Hitchcock deliberately wanted Psycho to look like a cheap exploitation film. He shot it not with his usual expensive feature crew (which had just finished "North by Northwest") but with the crew he used for his television show. He filmed in black and white. Long passages contained no dialogue. His budget, $800,000, was cheap even by 1960 standards; the Bates Motel and mansion were built on the back lot at Universal. In its visceral feel, Psycho has more in common with noir quickies like "Detour" than with elegant Hitchcock thrillers like "Rear Window" or "Vertigo."
Yet no other Hitchcock film had a greater impact. "I was directing the viewers," the director told Truffaut in their book-length interview. "You might say I was playing them, like an organ." It was the most shocking film its original audience members had ever seen. "Do not reveal the surprises!" the ads shouted, and no moviegoer could have anticipated the surprises Hitchcock had in store--the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh), the apparent heroine, only a third of the way into the film, and the secret of Norman's mother. Psycho was promoted like a William Castle exploitation thriller. "It is required that you see 'Psycho' from the very beginning!" Hitchcock decreed, explaining, "the late-comers would have been waiting to see Janet Leigh after she had disappeared from the screen action."
These surprises are now widely known, and yet Psycho continues to work as a frightening, insinuating thriller. That's largely because of Hitchcock's artistry in two areas that are not as obvious: The setup of the Marion Crane story, and the relationship between Marion and Norman (Anthony Perkins). Both of these elements work because Hitchcock devotes his full attention and skill to treating them as if they will be developed for the entire picture.
The setup involves a theme that Hitchcock used again and again: The guilt of the ordinary person trapped in a criminal situation. Marion Crane does steal $40,000, but still she fits the Hitchcock mold of an innocent to crime. We see her first during an afternoon in a shabby hotel room with her divorced lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). He cannot marry her because of his alimony payments; they must meet in secret. When the money appears, it's attached to a slimy real estate customer (Frank Albertson) who insinuates that for money like that, Marion might be for sale. So Marion's motive is love, and her victim is a creep.
This is a completely adequate setup for a two-hour Hitchcock plot. It never for a moment feels like material manufactured to mislead us. And as Marion flees Phoenix on her way to Sam's home town of Fairvale, Calif., we get another favorite Hitchcock trademark, paranoia about the police. A highway patrolman (Mort Mills) wakes her from a roadside nap, questions her, and can almost see the envelope with the stolen money. She trades in her car for one with different plates, but at the dealership she's startled to see the same patrolman parked across the street, leaning against his squad car, arms folded, staring at her. Every first-time viewer believes this setup establishes a story line the movie will follow to the end.
Frightened, tired, perhaps already regretting her theft, Marion drives closer to Fairvale but is slowed by a violent rainstorm. She pulls into the Bates Motel, and begins her short, fateful association with Norman Bates. And here again Hitchcock's care with the scenes and dialog persuades us that Norman and Marion will be players for the rest of the film.
He does that during their long conversation in Norman's "parlor," where savage stuffed birds seem poised to swoop down and capture them as prey. Marion has overheard the voice of Norman's mother speaking sharply with him, and she gently suggests that Norman need not stay here in this dead end, a failing motel on a road that has been bypassed by the new interstate. She cares about Norman. She is also moved to rethink her own actions. And he is touched. So touched, he feels threatened by his feelings. And that is why he must kill her.
When Norman spies on Marion, Hitchcock said, most audience members read it as Peeping Tom behavior. Truffaut observed that the film's opening, with Marion in a bra and panties, underlines the later voyeurism. We have no idea murder is in store.
Seeing the shower scene today, several things stand out. Unlike modern horror films, Psycho never shows the knife striking flesh. There are no wounds. There is blood, but not gallons of it. Hitchcock shot in black and white because he felt the audience could not stand so much blood in color (the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake specifically repudiates that theory). The slashing chords of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack substitute for more grisly sound effects. The closing shots are not graphic but symbolic, as blood and water spin down the drain, and the camera cuts to a closeup, the same size, of Marion's unmoving eyeball. This remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that situation and artistry are more important than graphic details.
Perkins does an uncanny job of establishing the complex character of Norman, in a performance that has become a landmark. Perkins shows us there is something fundamentally wrong with Norman, and yet he has a young man's likeability, jamming his hands into his jeans pockets, skipping onto the porch, grinning. Only when the conversation grows personal does he stammer and evade. At first he evokes our sympathy as well as Marion's.
The death of the heroine is followed by Norman's meticulous mopping-up of the death scene. Hitchcock is insidiously substituting protagonists. Marion is dead, but now (not consciously but in a deeper place) we identify with Norman--not because we could stab someone, but because, if we did, we would be consumed by fear and guilt, as he is. The sequence ends with the masterful shot of Bates pushing Marion's car (containing her body and the cash) into a swamp. The car sinks, then pauses. Norman watches intently. The car finally disappears under the surface.
Analyzing our feelings, we realize we wanted that car to sink, as much as Norman did. Before Sam Loom is reappears, teamed up with Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) to search for her, "Psycho" already has a new protagonist: Norman Bates. This is one of the most audacious substitutions in Hitchcock's long practice of leading and manipulating us. The rest of the film is effective melodrama, and there are two effective shocks. The private eye Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is murdered, in a shot that uses back-projection to seem to follow him down the stairs. And the secret of Norman's mother is revealed.
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.
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.
What makes Psycho immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theater, is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.
At Film Space Saturday, January 2: Burn After Reading (2008) by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen – 96 mins – US/ UK/ France, Comedy/ Crime/ Drama. With George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt. Rated R in the US for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence. Generally favorable reviews: 63/61 out of 100.
With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers have crafted another clever comedy/thriller with an outlandish plot and memorable characters.
Rotten Tomatoes: With their overtly comedic follow-up Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers return--about a third of the way--from the dark, dank recesses of the human psyche they traversed in their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men. For those unfamiliar with the landscape of modern movie psychoanalysis, this puts the fraternal filmmakers square in the cruel, misanthropic, and farcical realm of their 1990s-era body of work, somewhere between the tragicomic crime thriller of Fargo and the disconnected noir-homage anti-storytelling of The Big Lebowski, with 2007's No Country retroactively adding new nihilism-tinged dimensions of smart skepticism to the proceedings. In a more linear trajectory, Burn After Reading also stands as the third entry, after Blood Simple and Fargo, in what could be an unofficial Tragedy of Human Idiocy trilogy, wherein characters make the most outlandishly moronic moves to devastating consequences simply by adhering to true human behavior. Indeed, Carter Burwell's emotionally weighty score, which washes over biting scenes of explosive, anesthetizing belly laughs, is very reminiscent of his Fargo work. Burn is ostensibly structured and propelled by a spy-thriller plotline involving a classified CD lost by a disgraced CIA spook and found by two simple gym employees. But, in actuality, it's simply--amazingly--a collection of brilliant caricature studies interwoven by veracious, if Coenesque, social interactions, as epitomized by the pathos of the Frances McDormand character's precipitous quest for cosmetic surgery. The CIA superior who learns of the film's events (always second-hand and sometimes along with the viewer) doesn't know what to make of it, and why would he? This is the first Coen film in almost 20 years not shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, yet the "new" guy, Emmanuel Lubezki (Children Of Men), has created as visceral and emotionally fraught a high-definition cartoon as any since Barton Fink.
At Film Space Saturday, January 9: A Stranger of Mine / Unmei janai hito / 運命じゃない人 (2005) by Kenji Uchida– 98 mins – Japan, Comedy/ Drama/ Romance. A multi-award-winning film.
In one long Friday evening, Takeshi Miyata, a straight-arrow businessman, will encounter a number of people (some only fleetingly) who have intertwining fates. After six months he is still mourning the loss of his girlfriend, Ayumi and is lured from his apartment when his childhood friend, the detective Yusuke Kanda, telephones invoking Ayumi's name. Arriving late at the appointed restaurant, Kanda says Ayumi is getting married and chides Miyata over not finding a new girlfriend. He then spontaneously invites a solitary [female] diner, Maki, to join them. Although she is silently vowing to be alone because of bitterness over her engagement being broken just the day before, she quickly agrees. Kanda makes a sudden exit, leaving his friend to contend with the despondent and homeless girl. The two return to his apartment, …
Japan Times, Mark Schilling: Interestingly, this is not a festival film, in the high-brow, deep-think sense. Instead it is a circularly plotted, slickly made relationship comedy that abounds with witty lines and twists, but has about much weight as a "Seinfeld" episode (which is not meant as a slam).
Uchida sees himself as a mainstream entertainer – Billy Wilder is one of his idols – whose talents lie more in casting the right actors and giving them funny things to say than in the nitty-gritty of lighting, shooting and cutting (for that he relies heavily on his staff, beginning with cinematographer Keiichiro Inoue).