Fifty years ago, all America was convulsed by a low-budget, violent movie in black and white, featuring a motel bathroom with a shockingly visible flushing lavatory and a grisly murder scene of unparalleled ingenuity and cinematic flair: Psycho.
Nowadays, such a film would be expected to come from a young hotshot, but this was directed by the 61-year-old Alfred Hitchcock, a figure known for elegance and high production values and as the star of a popular TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also as someone beginning a gentle career decline. Instead, Psycho sensationally jolted Hitchcock’s reputation up to a higher level, and as the owner of a profit-percentage in the film, he became staggeringly wealthy as few studio directors could ever dream of being.
The career of fellow Englishman Michael Powell had been destroyed by his own transgressive chiller, Peeping Tom, made the year before, but Hitchcock was the toast of every town. A promotional campaign centering on his reputation for disarmingly droll black comedy, combined with the stunning fact of the film’s commercial success, neutralized any outrage from the beginning. That murder scene in the shower, the masterpiece-within-a-masterpiece — a dizzying succession of images whose explicitly violent effect was created chiefly by the shrieking violin-stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s score — took Hitchcock fully seven days to film out of a 30-day shooting schedule. It was a 45-second sequence of 70 camera setups plus one “lost” image: an overhead shot showing Janet Leigh’s naked buttocks, withdrawn lest it upset the censor. All this lived on in America’s intimate dreams and nightmares, and accelerated American popular culture into its modern age of permissiveness and exploitation.
David Thomson intuits the secret afterlife of Psycho in the American mind, in a short book that is like an inspired, bravura jazz solo. Robert Graysmith, the author whose books on the Zodiac serial killer were themselves made into a movie, composes some strange, pungent, but anti-climactic reportage, footnoting the film’s occult traces in two unknown lives: those of Henry Adolph “Sunny” Busch Jr, the real-life “Psycho” serial-killer reportedly inspired by the movie to murder (although he saw the film halfway through his murderous spree) and Marli Renfro, the naked body-double for Leigh in the shower scene, who was never credited, disappeared into obscurity, and who was herself, incredibly, assumed to have been murdered by a serial killer in 1988 — until Graysmith tracked her down and uncovered the truth.
Thomson attempts to place himself inside the fabric of Psycho, floating in its pin-sharp monochrome nightmare, living through its narrative and the narrative of its cultural impact in a sort of subjective real time. Shrewdly, he places it alongside Truman Capote’s 1966 true-crime study In Cold Blood, as a work that shows that America’s hinterlands are not the places of provincial decency quaintly imagined by popular culture, but un-policed worlds of melancholy and menace. Who are all these lonely men? Good ol’ boys? Momma’s boys? Thomson playfully asks us to imagine that dutiful son Elvis Presley in the Tony Perkins role: a disquietingly plausible cine-fantasy and the kind of brilliant flourish that only Thomson could conjure.
Hitchcock was of course adored by Truffaut and the new French generation, and Thomson suggests that the provocative, endlessly deconstructible shower scene ignited the discipline of film studies itself. (When I was at Cambridge University in the 1980s, Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath were agitating for film to be critically understood, and the gaunt Edwardian villa that housed the university’s English Faculty was known as the “Bates Motel.”) Thomson is interestingly tough on the unreal, regressive quality of Hitchcock’s work: He has a list of films that have inherited the Psycho gene, among them Nic Roeg’s masterly Don’t Look Now.
Graysmith’s book is an oddity: a shaggy-dog story of great incidental interest, but a letdown in its final moments. He intercuts between the seedy, nasty life of the killer “Sonny” Busch, and the upbeat, cheerful world of Renfro: pinup model, nudist and Vegas dancer who, after the Psycho gig, found herself, in a career-move of perfect irony, taking a small part in the young Francis Ford Coppola’s wacky sex comedy about a sad-sack voyeur: The Peeper. Naturally, the reader expects Busch to make an attack on Renfro, or for there to be some sort of contact. Instead, Graysmith reveals that in 2001, an entirely different man, one Kenneth Dean Hunt, was arrested for a string of murders including the 1988 slaying of Myra Davis, a model who was a stand-in for the initial camera tests that Saul Bass and Hitchcock carried out for the shower scene. Media reports assumed that Myra Davis and Marli Renfro were one and the same. Graysmith knew they could not be — he tracked Renfro down through the Internet, and the resulting interviews formed the basis of this book. Exasperatingly, Graysmith tells us precisely nothing about Hunt and Davis. Perhaps the book should have been all about them.
For all its problems, Graysmith’s book does at least offer something usually absent from any discussion of Psycho: a female presence and a woman’s perspective. This is a movie popularly supposed to be about the male gaze, and these are very male critical accounts. The subtitle of Thomson’s book is “How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder” — an alternative could have been “How Hitchcock Legitimized the Spectacle of Violence Against Women.” Perhaps what is most needed for its 50th anniversary is a new feminist reading of Psycho.
Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 If word got out that you were planning a wedding during the Martial Law era, the “Committee for the improvement of Folk Customs” (改善民俗實踐會) might knock on your door. Each borough in Taipei had at least one “agent” who kept a pulse on community happenings. They would visit the family planning the wedding with a letter from the mayor, touting the benefits of being frugal and not wasting money on lavish ceremonies, even encouraging the families to donate money for scholarships. The authorities also discouraged them from hiring musicians and dancers, who were often loud and
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way urban households can obtain healthy produce, while helping to build a more sustainable farming sector in Taiwan. King Hsin-i’s (金欣儀) transformation from advertising copywriter to social entrepreneur began in 2008, when she visited a rice farmer who practiced pesticide-free agriculture. “He explained that we have to leave space for other species. At the same time, I realized that while big companies have budgets to spread their messages, farmers have few chances to tell the public about their beautiful concepts,” she recalls. Inspired, she quit her job and traveled throughout rural Taiwan for a year. King went
Every day before she starts her shift at a government hospital in Singapore, Farah removes her hijab — the Islamic veil she has worn since a teenager. Although minority Muslim women can freely wear the hijab in most settings in Singapore, some professions bar the headscarf — and a recent case has triggered fresh debate on diversity and discrimination in the workplace. Now Farah has joined a growing number of Muslims — who account for about 15 percent of Singapore’s 4 million resident population — calling for the ban to end, with an online petition gathering more than 50,000 signatures. “They told me
If ever there was a reason to be inside on Mid-Autumn Festival, even for just an hour or so, while still celebrating the natural world, Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) has provided one with his first full-length work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) as artistic director, Sounding Light (定光). Judging by the excerpt performed for the press last week, Cheng shows he can be just as minimalistic as his mentor, troupe founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), while still forging his own unique path. Just as he did with last year’s Lunar Halo (毛月亮), his final work as director of Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), Cheng