Thursday, October 28, 2010

All about my dead mother: 24 hour Psycho, Psycho, Psycho II: window, Lightbox, idiot box

24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro
as installed in the Tramway, Glasgow

It yielded a very, very strange and fleeting moment of tranquility when I paused on King Street one night during the Toronto International Film Festival last September to observe a teenage couple holding hands, calmly watching the two projected images nestled against one another, hovering just a few feet inside the window. We were all of us just outside the newly opened TIFF Bell Lightbox, whose gallery housed the piece, and the street was bustling with people and traffic. Line-ups were filing inside and others still forming outside for the evening’s various screenings. The couple watched Douglas Gordon’s
24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro. I watched them watching 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro. None of us spoke for a long while. I wondered if how intimately they knew Hitchcock’s movie, what this might mean to them if they didn’t know it at all, if it was a sort of American icon you didn’t really need to experience to feel that you were already on familiar terms with, like Warhol’s soup can, the Statue of Liberty, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I felt tremendous satisfaction, seeing how transfixed the couple appeared, because like a million other people I love Psycho. It scares me and moves more now than when I first saw it, back when I was a little younger than the couple on the street. As for 24 Hour Psycho, I first saw that in Mexico City a few years ago at a massive Gordon retrospective, where it inhabited an enormous room, looming over its audience from a great height, and I was drawn into it for I don’t know how long. Time became slippery, both on screen and off. My first experience of it wasn’t too different from the sort of experience described in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which opens and closes with a man experiencing Gordon’s piece at the Museum of Modern Art. This experience, here in Toronto, was different, being outside, being in the street, not in the air-conditioned comfort of a museum. While the three of us stood there Marion Crane was alive on one screen and dead on the other. It was like the two screens were pages of a book from which many other pages had been ripped out, the pages that detailed Marion’s death. The kids walked away and I stayed on, watching. On one of the screens a pair of eyes were slowly, slowly moving in my direction, and I felt I couldn’t look away.

The story, you’ll recall, concerns a secretary living in Phoenix named Marion, who might be in love with a married man who owns a hardware store in another town—if it isn’t love it’s close enough, given her prospects. She’s entrusted with a not unsubstantial envelope filled with cash. She flees with that cash, almost gets to Fairvale, where the man lives, but she stops at a motel, meets a peculiar, lonely, yet oddly endearing young man. They sit in his parlour for a little while with sandwiches and milk, overseen by stuffed birds, and have what is easily the most intimate moment of human connection in the entire movie—what is one of my favourite scenes in
any movie. Their encounter is essentially random, and proves to be devastatingly so. From this point things are turned on their head, a detective story begins, a swamp in consulted, certain scenes become almost funny, a sister arrives and maybe she’ll eventually take Marion’s place in the arms of the man, sort of like in that other story of a missing woman that came out the same year, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. Seeing Psycho again I recalled a terrific moment in Hal Hartley’s Simple Men. If I remember correctly (it’s been many years), it’s early in the movie, and Martin Donovan, in defense of a woman he loves, barks out “Pushy women are great!” The Crane sisters, Marion and Lila, are pushy and they are great, though it’s the far sexier and cagier one, the one played by the inimitable Janet Leigh, that exits the movie halfway through. The 50th Anniversary Restoration of Psycho opens at Lightbox today. Unlike Gordon’s installation, you can’t see it from the street—you need to buy your ticket and be nestled in the darkness of the theatre. The movie looks gorgeous, the shadows deep and dense and almost eerily immaculate, so that every wrinkle in Marion Crane’s bare feet as she lies collapsed in the bathtub could be traced with a finger. The movie also sounds tremendous, especially every time the silence is cut by Bernard Herrmann’s dynamic, electroshock therapy score, which pivots bracingly from screeching violins to what sound like low fog horns from Hades. Another digression: I recently attended a Lightbox screening of The Godfather. I enjoyed it immensely, but every time the theme music started up I found it difficult to hear it as anything other than corny and over-familiar. Herrmann’s Psycho score by contrast never seems to get old. I get excited to hear it the same way I would to hear a beloved record. If by chance you’ve never seen Psycho—and if you haven’t stop reading this and just go already—I can’t really think of a better introduction. If you know Psycho, know how chilling, psychologically rich, and formally interesting it is, do yourself a favour and see this latest re-release.

Between, I’m going to guess, the ages of about nine and fourteen, I watched
Psycho II so many times I lost count. It came out in 1983. I taped it off TV and for some reason just kept returning to it late at night when my parents were in bed and I couldn’t sleep. I just returned to it for the first time in about twenty years and it was the weirdest feeling—though most of it left my conscious memory, watching it again I could anticipate almost every line and gesture, but only about thirty seconds before it happened. I wish I could tell you that my revisiting of Psycho II after all these years was rewarding. Truth is it’s not very good. It actually opens with a bafflingly awful idea, replaying Hitchcock’s shower scene in its entirety as a sort of vestibule, as if to remind you what this sequel will never come close to living up to. Anyway, after 23 years of being locked up Norman Bates is declared “restored to sanity” and allowed to take a job in a diner and reinstate himself at the Bates Motel. It is, of course, utterly fascinating to see Tony Perkins re-inhabit the role of Norman. His speech patterns and body language and odd paucity of affect suddenly resemble those of Andy Warhol. Preposterously, a very young, vulnerable, and holy-cow-beautiful Meg Tilly comes to live with Norman in the house where he had his troubles. Rather quickly the killings begin, but it doesn’t seem like it’s Norman doing them. Could it be Mother? Is this going to be a zombie movie? Answers eventually come, though they don’t make much sense. Director Richard Franklin has studied his Hitch and echoes the master director’s swoops and close-ups, and even painstakingly quotes the shower scene—that very same one we just saw at the top of Psycho II—with nearly as much fidelity as Gus Van Sant. If Franklin and writer Tom Holland really wanted to mimic Psycho however then they would have had to have made Dennis Franz the protagonist for the first half of the movie. Incidentally, Franz turns 66 today—happy birthday, Dennis!

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