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Monthly Archives: September 2010

Like Dylan in the Movies

Something’s always happening in the world of Bob Dylan, even if you don’t know what it is, but this fall sees an unusual amount of activity on the part of the Bard of Minnesota. Before the end of the year, he will exhibit new paintings in Denmark (and release an accompanying coffee table book, “The Brazil Series”), as well as release two new CD sets: the 9th installment of the official Bootleg Series, focusing on demos recorded in the early ’60s, and an 8 disc set of his first 8 albums in mono (the way they were originally meant to be heard), all on compact disc for the first time. And of course, his never-ending tour will roll on with fall dates across the U.S., including a show in Champaign on October 22nd.

To commemorate, here is an essay I wrote about Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s unjustly maligned 2003 movie collaboration with director Larry Charles. The original version appeared in the English Dylan fanzine “Isis” but this has been substantially reworked.

Masked and Anonymous Unmasked

“I’m in the amusement business, along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows.”
– Bob Dylan

“What’s so bad about being misunderstood?”
– Bob Dylan

You would probably have to look to Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless Bob Dylan has cited as the kind of film that made him feel like he could make films himself, to find a movie as audaciously perverse in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s 2003 (and presumably final) foray into fictional narrative filmmaking. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum might as well have been describing Masked and Anonymous when he wrote in the late 1980s that Godard’s King Lear “. . . has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form – director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics – look, and presumably feel, rather silly.” Like most of Dylan’s post-Don’t Look Back filmic output, Masked and Anonymous was considered a mess by most critics upon its initial release while simultaneously being hailed as a masterpiece by members of the Dylan faithful. Larry Charles, the film’s director, would later split the difference, pronouncing the film a “messterpiece.”

When news broke in 2002 that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus (his starring role in Hearts of Fire in 1987 being the arguable nadir of his career in any medium), it was couched in the disingenuous terms that Dylan was “in negotiations” to star in a new film. It was soon discovered that Dylan was in fact responsible for the film’s conception and that he and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Yet right up until the film’s Sundance premiere, many Dylan fans thought it was some kind of elaborate hoax. And who could blame them? Prior to production, press reports suggested Dylan would play the ridiculously named “Jack Fate,” a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, the aim of which was to “save the world.”

The curiosity and confusion aroused by the film’s seemingly outrageous concept was then exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film’s production and the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and so on) who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan. Shot on digital video in just twenty days in the summer of 2002 and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result turned out to be a dense collage of image and sound, a film that almost overwhelms the senses but never quite does, regularly threatening to plunge the viewer into some horrific, unfathomable abyss but continually pulling back from the brink in a strange spirit of shaggy-dog-tale charm.

The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal and portentous, all adjectives we’ve come to associate with Dylan’s work as a recording artist. Larry Charles has been quoted as saying, “I tried to make it like a Bob Dylan song,” which appears to be the strategy of anyone directing a Bob Dylan film, including Todd Haynes and Dylan himself. Whether or not this is desirable or even possible is open to debate but Masked and Anonymous is probably more successful in capturing the “feel” of Dylan’s music than any other Dylan movie. This is no doubt in part due to a cut-and-paste style of screenwriting that mirrors Dylan’s own songwriting process; in describing the writing of the film, Charles said, “He [Dylan] had a pile of scrap paper with little notes written on them. He threw them down on the table like a jigsaw, and we started playing with the pieces. . . . One thing about working with Dylan is you learn to trust your instincts.” Charles also confirmed that lines that began as dialogue in Masked and Anonymous ended up as lyrics on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album and vice versa (“I’m no pig without a wig” from the song “High Water” being one such example).

Of course, songwriting and filmmaking are vastly different art forms and Dylan-the-songwriter’s latter-day fondness for allusion, quotation and theft doesn’t always successfully translate into film dialogue as meant to be spoken by coherent, three-dimensional characters. But in a risk-averse age where more and more American indie films function merely as Hollywood calling cards, Dylan and Charles’ complete lack of interest in creating Screenwriting 101-style characters is so pronounced that they should be applauded for the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the demands of commercial narrative cinema alone. Unfortunately, Dylan’s status as an interloper from another medium, even if a legendary one, has made it all too easy to write Masked and Anonymous off as nothing more than a “vanity project,” as Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics have done.

One thing we didn’t know in 2003 that has since become obvious in hindsight is that Larry Charles, a veteran Seinfeld writer making his feature film début with Masked and Anonymous, developed into a very interesting director, a kind of “invisible auteur” along the lines of Raul Ruiz. Although all of Charles’ movies share stylistic and thematic similarities, he is hardly ever credited as the dominant creative force behind these films; due to his habit of collaborating with co-writers/lead actors with bigger than life personalities, Masked and Anonymous is seen as a “Dylan film,” Borat and Bruno are seen as “Sasha Baron-Cohen films” and Religulous is a “Bill Maher film.” Yet all of these movies are unified by their status as subversive political satires that attempt to blur the line between documentary and fiction. Masked and Anonymous is especially interesting as a companion piece to Borat in this regard since both films are essentially about the creation of government-sponsored, made-for-television documentaries (the aforementioned “benefit concert” and Baron-Cohen’s foreigner’s eye-view work of video journalism).

If Borat and Bruno seem like quintessentially 21st century, YouTube-age films (especially by way of enticing audiences into google-searching anecdotes about their methods of production so as to determine what is “real” and what is not), Masked and Anonymous melds fiction and documentary in a way that looks more to Hollywood’s past. In writing about the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, film scholar John Belton has noted, “Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity – the narrative – and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle: in this fantasy world, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others drop the pretense, for a moment, that they are playing characters and perform for us simply as Astaire and Kelly.”

A similar shift occurs in Masked and Anonymous whenever “Jack Fate” plays a Bob Dylan song with Dylan’s touring band, and Charles and Dylan muddy the waters further by self-consciously studding the film with references to Dylan’s life and career. The result is a fascinating self-criticism of the myth by the author, perhaps the only kind possible when the author is a “living legend.” In this respect, the film most comparable from the history of cinema may be Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, another highly personal and thinly disguised self-portrait by a master in his autumn years. (One obvious allusion to Dylan’s career is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan’s own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman’s size and boorish demeanor don’t give it away, the Coke-bottle glasses do. And a similar case can be made for Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid, who bears a strong resemblance to Dylan’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth.) Ultimately, what these personal references suggest is that, like Chaplin’s Calvero, Jack Fate the washed up troubadour is both Dylan’s fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.

The story: in an alternate-reality, civil war-torn America, Jack Fate, a legendary singer jailed for unspecified crimes, is released from prison on the condition he agrees to play a benefit show live on television. As he gradually makes his way to the sound stage where the show will be held, Fate’s first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young soldier played by Givovanni Ribisi. The soldier regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream; it’s the story of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets a tone and a narrative pattern that the rest of the film follows; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as the taciturn Fate encounters a series of eccentric, speechifying characters, each of whom reminds him in some way of his past. Flashbacks are introduced to Fate’s childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of America’s dying, dictator-like President.

Subplots involving the President’s former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed destined for Fate, indicate that Charles and Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. Apparently without trying to be perverse, Charles has mentioned Shakespeare and John Cassavetes in the same breath as influences on Masked and Anonymous. As befitting such a wild hybrid, the film’s structure is alternately “loose” (a bunch of actors wandering around warehouse-like interiors and shouting cryptic, occasionally meaningless dialogue at each other) and “tight” (a surprisingly elegant symbolic use of staircases in the film’s most crucial scenes). To direct the heavyweight Hollywood cast to speak the script’s poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors, for the most part, do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony.

Everyone that is except for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and Charles gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Dylan’s deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it’s like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the 1940s and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science fiction landscape – the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remain hilariously intact. Of course, Dylan’s non-acting was offered as Exhibit A by most critics who wanted to write the film off as a folly but I would give most of post-9/11 American cinema for that one shot, “badly acted” but infinitely moving and worthy of Robert Bresson, in which Fate visits his father’s deathbed and looks toward the heavens with glycerine tears streaming down his cheeks.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him not to worry about the film “in the short term.” The film was indeed a critical and commercial disappointment in 2003. But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, years later Masked and Anonymous is holding up just fine on DVD, looking better and more interesting than most of the acclaimed American films that surrounded it at the time of its release.


Me and director Larry Charles at the film’s 2003 Sundance premiere

For  a list of Dylan references in my own short film, At Last, Okemah!, go here:

http://www.atlastokemah.com/2009/10/dylan-fans-guide-to-at-last-okemah.html/

Works Cited

1. Gunderson, Edna. “USATODAY.com – Tell It like It Is.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 09 Sept. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.

2. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Importance of Being Perverse”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

3. Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

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A Blu Red Circle

“The Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle, saying: ‘When men, though unaware of it, must meet again someday, they may follow diverging paths to the given day when, ineluctably, they will be reunited within the red circle.'” — Rama Krishna

“All men are guilty.” — L’inspecteur général de la police

While watching Studio Canal’s newly released Blu-ray of Le Cercle Rouge, it struck me that Jean-Pierre Melville is to the French crime film what Sergio Leone is to the Spaghetti western: Melville, like Leone, made outrageously entertaining films that reflected a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, the conventions of which he inflated to a near-operatic scale after refracting them through his own unique cultural sensibility. And there is evidence that Melville wanted Le Cercle Rouge to be his magnum opus, as Once Upon a Time in the West was for Leone; it was his penultimate film and is permeated by a mood of fatalism even more pronounced than usual for this master of film noir. At times it feels like an epic, self-conscious attempt to outdo every heist picture ever made, including The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Melville’s own Le Doulos. As a series of bravura set pieces and a statement of existential despair, it just might succeed.

The quote that begins Le Cercle Rouge is a bit of nonsense attributed to Rama Krishna but apparently invented by Melville himself to justify the chief narrative contrivance of his plot: Vogel (Gian Maria Volante), a murderer who has just escaped police custody, seeks refuge in the car trunk of Corey (Alain Delon – to Melville what Clint Eastwood was to Leone), a man he has never met but who happens to be a master criminal just released from prison. The two form a fast friendship and immediately conspire to rob a jewelry store with the aid of one of Vogel’s acquaintances, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (French icon Yves Montand).

Vogel and Corey aren’t the only two characters fated to meet within the “red circle.” Joining them is Mattei (Bourvil), a police detective hot on the trail of Vogel who appears to be the opposite number of our criminal protagonists while being simultaneously cut from the same cloth as them. Mattei describes himself as a “hunter” and Vogel as “intelligent prey”; in other words, while on opposite sides of the law, he considers Vogel a worthy adversary. (Mattei is also visually linked to Corey through his steely blue eyes, trench coat and fedora.) At first, Mattei balks at his superior’s claim that men are born innocent but, without exception, become guilty during the course of their lives. By the end of the film, however, he seems to recognize the tragic kinship he has with the men he is hunting. They are all “guilty”; it’s just a question of to what degree.

The highlight of Le Cercle Rouge is the film’s climactic heist sequence, which is sustained for an exhilarating twenty five minutes (about 20% of the film’s two hour and twenty minute running time) and contains no dialogue. We watch, hypnotized, as the trio of robbers break into the building, take a security guard hostage, disable a series of alarms and clear the joint out of $20 million dollars worth of merchandise. The surgical precision with which they pull off the operation is mirrored by the rigorousness of Melville’s elegant camera movements and deft cutting. This sequence, from the muted colors to the balletic choreography of the performers, is the epitome of cool. How cool is it? It’s so cool that you can’t help but feel cool just by watching it.

Because the film’s drama has its origins in Melville’s movie memories, it is arguable that the most prominent quality of Le Cercle Rouge is its cinephilia. In the age of Quentin Tarantino (who has repeatedly cited Melville as someone who proved you could make a movie if you simply loved movies enough), this may not sound like a big deal. But Melville was the prototypical cinephile-filmmaker, pre-dating the Nouvelle Vague by more than a decade and always examining genre conventions in a way that was both critical and playful. For instance, in Le Cercle Rouge you know who the characters are not because of what they say but because of their trench coats, fedoras and the fact that they smoke a lot. This iconic “costume,” based on the look of American movie gangsters, had been employed by Melville since the mid-1950s but by 1970, the sense of disconnect between the “real” France and Melville’s iconographic images was pronounced to the point of abstraction. The Paris of Le Cercle Rouge is a Paris that only existed in Melville’s imagination: a jazz-inflected, nocturnal world populated by professional, well-dressed and taciturn criminals, all of whom drive classic American cars. This is a Paris in which rock and roll and the Nouvelle Vague do not exist and the events of May 1968 never happened.

I hasten to add that Melville’s lack of engagement with contemporary society does not mean Le Cercle Rouge lacks a moral dimension. On the contrary, Melville’s morality is precisely the difference between him and most of his imitators and I would argue that the film’s theological inquiry into the nature of evil is its raison d’etre. Melville was deeply concerned with the concepts of right and wrong and there’s a sense in each of his films that he believed in the importance of conducting oneself the “right” way, especially in the face of certain death. Melville’s concept of the right way to live (and die) has to do with old fashioned values such as honor, loyalty to one’s friends and chivalry, all of which are exemplified by Delon’s Corey. Melville may even have had Corey in mind when he delivered one of my favorite of his many memorable quotes: “Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself.” (Film Dope, 42, October 1989 p.16)

To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, Melville must have been some kind of a man.

Studio Canal’s new high definition transfer of Le Cercle Rouge is unquestionably the best presentation the film has ever received on home video. It corrects every flaw in the standard definition Criterion release from several years ago. Most notably, it restores the film’s original deep-blue color scheme, which perversely skewed more towards green on the Criterion. It also sports a healthy amount of film grain; there were times when I felt like I was seeing a 35mm print being projected onto my television screen. Finally, it should be noted that this is a dark, dark movie. The interiors are illuminated by low-key lighting and the exteriors seem to always take place at night or during the day when everything is bathed in the indirect light of a dusky sunset. Because darkness has always been the enemy of compression, this Blu-ray represents a more substantial leap in quality than the typical HD upgrade.

Although Studio Canal has tended to be hit or miss in terms of Blu-ray image and sound quality thus far, Le Cercle Rouge is one of their most impressive releases, alongside of Belle de Jour. It is a very welcome addition to my library.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. French Cancan (Renoir)
2. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
3. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
4. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
5. Secret Reunion (Jang)
6. The Old Dark House (Whale)
7. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
8. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura)
9. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville)
10. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay

While on a recent trip to the Chicago History Museum, I found (much to my embarrassment as a film studies instructor and longtime Chicago resident) that the role Chicago played in early motion pictures was considerably larger than I had ever realized. Most film histories, even reliable ones, tend to describe New York and New Jersey (home of Thomas Edison’s studio, the Biograph Co., the Solax Co., etc.) as the birthplace of American movies, before charting the migration of production talent to southern California in the mid 1910s. However, this glosses over the fact that Chicago was arguably equally as important as the northeastern United States as a center of American film production prior to the rise of Hollywood. Two of the most significant American film studios in the first two decades of the 20th century were located in Chicago: Essanay Studios and Selig Polyscope. Today’s post is the first in what will be a series about the little known history of early film production in Chicago.


Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson (Photograph: Chicago History Museum)

Between the first, primitive slapstick comedies he made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company in 1914 and the immortal comedy shorts he made at the Mutual Film Corporation from 1916 to 1917, Charlie Chaplin made 15 short films for Chicago-based Essanay Studios in 1915. These films were an important evolutionary step for Chaplin as both performer and filmmaker. Fourteen out of these fifteen films were shot at the Essanay studio in Niles, California. This post will focus on His New Job, the first and only movie Chaplin made entirely at Essanay’s studio in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Essanay was founded in Chicago in 1907. Originally titled The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, the name was soon changed to a corruption of the initials of the last names of founders George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson (“S-an’-A”). Between 1907 and 1917, the studio churned out an astonishing 2000-plus shorts and feature films. Among the movie stars under contract to Essanay were Anderson himself (performing under the name “Broncho Billy”), Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Chaplin. Among the screenwriters under contract were future director Allan Dwan and future gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Among the most significant films produced by Essanay were the first film version of A Christmas Carol (1908), the first American Sherlock Holmes (1916) and the first film about Jesse James, The James Boys of Missouri (1908).

Today the studio is best remembered, if at all, for the Chaplin shorts, of which the Chicago-shot His New Job happily remains a high point. When Chaplin first arrived in Chicago in December 1914, he bunked at Broncho Billy’s luxurious apartment at 1027 W. Lawrence Ave, a building that still stands today. Chaplin’s optimism about living and working in Chicago is reflected in the first newspaper interview he gave to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s film writer, the splendidly and pseudonymously named “Mae Tinee”: “I think I’m going to like it here,” Chaplin told her in early January 1915. “Nice people, nice studio, etc. With conditions favorable, a man can do so much better work, you know.”

Unfortunately, Chaplin’s enthusiasm would not last and he would end up moving back to Hollywood in less than a month. Chaplin recounts in his autobiography that Spoor intentionally avoided coming to the studio, perhaps furious that Anderson had promised Chaplin a $10,000 signing bonus. To make matters worse, Chaplin was horrified when it came time to watch daily rushes of His New Job and realized that Essanay technicians, in an effort to save money, screened the original negative instead of striking a print.

Charlie slept here: Charlie slept across the street from here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

On the other hand, Chaplin was given carte blanche by Spoor and Anderson to use all of the studio’s facilities and complete creative control over his productions. This allowed Chaplin to try new things, in particular the blending of comedy and pathos that would be the hallmark of his mature masterpieces of the 1920s and 1930s. The aptly titled His New Job was shot on Essanay’s impressively large studio complex. Located at 1333 – 1345 W. Argyle St., the buildings, now owned by St. Augustine College, also still stand today.

The Internet Movie Database claims Chaplin and Louella Parsons as co-authors of His New Job but it was most likely improvised. In the film, Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character shows up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios” (an obvious dig at former employer Keystone). The interior stages at Essanay essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent movie-making, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy.

One of the film’s gags features the Tramp and co-star Ben Turpin rolling dice while waiting for production to begin. This was apparently inspired by the real life dice games played by the cast and crew while lunching at Al Sternberg’s bar and restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Argyle (the loser had to pay the bill). Although His New Job is still quite funny by modern standards, its most interesting aspect today is probably the dramatic moment in the film-within-the-film when the Tramp tearfully pleads for the leading lady not to leave him. From here, the tear-jerking theatrics of The Kid are just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Charlie worked here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

Chaplin’s Essanay contract expired in January of 1916. When Essanay refused to meet his new salary demand of $10,000 per week, Chaplin was signed to Mutual where he went on to achieve greater fame. Essanay, meanwhile, was among the companies sued by the United States Justice Department for violating antitrust laws as part of the Motion Pictures Patents Company. During this time, most of the country’s filmmaking talent permanently settled in southern California where the moderate climate and diverse geographical terrain was ideal for year-round shooting. In 1918, Essanay closed its doors for good.

All of Chaplin’s Essanay films are available on a triple DVD set from Image Entertainment. His New Job can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (look sharp for a young Gloria Swanson as the stenographer):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIIuhlruc14

Photogaph by Michael Smith


Crazy About Psycho

“Hitchcock requires a situation of normality, however dull it may seem on the surface, to emphasize the evil abnormality that lurks beneath the surface. Hitchcock understands, as his detractors do not, the crucial function of counterpoint in the cinema. You cannot commit a murder in a haunted house or dark alley, and make a meaningful statement to the audience. The spectators simply withdraw from these bizarre settings, and let the decor dictate the action. It is not Us up there on the screen but some play actors trying to be sinister. However, when murder is committed in a gleamingly sanitary motel bathroom during a cleansing shower, the incursion of evil into our well-laundered existence becomes intolerable.”

– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which turns 50 years old(!) this year, will be screening at the Music Box theater in a new print in October, immediately followed by a release on Blu-ray, making it only the third Hitchcock film to get the HD treatment on home video (after The 39 Steps and North By Northwest). I first saw Psycho on basic television, commercials and all, when I was around ten years old, an ideal age for one to start watching Hitchcock, and even then I already knew the film’s “secret.” Psycho is so ingrained in the American consciousness, it has been referenced and parodied and ripped off so many times, that it has become one of those works of art, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” that viewers may feel they were born knowing.

So what is it about Psycho that makes it so special? How exactly did it single-handedly inaugurate our modern era of horror and why has it been so influential over the past half-century? As its title would imply, Psycho is part of the subgenre known as psychological horror. Although the subgenre has been around since the silent era, as anyone who’s seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can attest, Psycho kicked off a particularly modern cycle of psychological horror that, as Sarris notes, is rooted in the most banal aspects of contemporary American life. This, combined with Psycho‘s graphic violence, helped to pave the way for the physical horror movies (“slashers”) that became increasingly prevalent from the 1960s through the present day.

It is important to remember that Hitchcock was in an extraordinarily privileged position when he made the film. Indeed, he was perhaps the only director working in America at the time who was even capable of making such taboo-busting and groundbreaking genre fare (in addition to its “graphic” violence, which of course looks tame today, Psycho also features the first onscreen toilet flush in a Hollywood movie). Hitchcock was privileged primarily because of his long track record of making movies that had been commercially successful. But, even then, in order to quell the anxieties of Universal executives, he had to shoot the film quickly and cheaply using a crew from his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This meant foregoing the widescreen format and Technicolor process of his previous few movies. In exchange for keeping costs down, Hitchcock did not have a lot of people looking over his shoulder and telling him what to do. Consequently, he was able to make a highly personal film utilizing the resources of Hollywood in which his obsessions were writ large on the big screen.

At the time of making Psycho, Hitchcock had been in the business for thirty-five years. Starting out in England and Germany in the silent era, then in America beginning in 1940, Hitchcock had honed his filmmaking craft on a series of thrillers that had achieved an unparalleled visual and thematic complexity by the late 1950s. Interestingly, Psycho consciously builds on what Hitchcock had been doing specifically during the previous decade and is sometimes referred to as the third part of a loose “trilogy of voyeurism,” following Rear Window in 1954 and Vertigo in 1958. In these movies, Hitchcock demonstrated the power of cutting a scene together by alternating subjective and objective points-of-view, having the audience see the world through a character’s eyes, usually with the purpose of making us identify with the darker side of human nature. In Psycho, Hitchcock took this technique to its logical, disturbing limit.

In the trilogy of voyeurism, Hitchcock’s treatment of the theme starts off as relatively lighthearted in Rear Window and then becomes progressively darker with each subsequent film. The consequences of voyeurism also became more disastrous for the characters in each film, culminating in Psycho’s shower murder, which can be seen as Norman Bates’ only means of sexual release after arousing himself through the act of spying. The interplay of subjective and objective points-of-view is particularly disturbing here as the viewer is asked to assume Norman’s perspective not only during the murder but also during his meticulous cleaning up of the bathroom in its aftermath. The hypnotic, silent, clean-up scene, in which we watch Norman wash away and mop up every trace of blood spatter in the porcelain and tile-lined bathroom, goes on far longer than it needs to for any narrative purpose and is arguably the most compelling sequence in the film. By assuming Norman’s point-of-view, we feel, against our better judgement, a wish for him to succeed in his efforts of covering up the crime.

Our identification with Norman reaches its apex in the following scene when he attempts to get rid of Marion’s car by pushing it into the swamp behind the Bates Motel. By alternating between objective shots of Norman’s anguished face with subjective point-of-view shots of the car as it temporarily stalls while only half-submerged in the swamp, Hitchcock has the audience identify with Norman’s desire to see Marion’s car continue its downward trajectory. No matter who you are or how many times you’ve seen the film, at that moment you want the car to sink! That is a testament to how well-constructed Hitchcock’s best sequences are. That is the genius of Hitchcock.

Another reason Psycho continues to be an object of fascination fifty years after its release is what I would term its treatment of the “doppelgänger motif.” Hitchcock had always been interested in the duality of human nature, the belief that good and evil co-exist side by side in the human heart. In his earlier Hollywood films, he illustrated this by having two different characters represent two different sides of a single personality. This is most obvious in Shadow of a Doubt (where parallels are constantly drawn between Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie and Theresa Wright’s Young Charlie) and Strangers on a Train (where Robert Walker’s Bruno is depicted not so much a fully rounded character as he is the murderous id of Farley Granger’s Guy). By the time he made Psycho, Hitchcock was also ready to push the concept of the psychological double to its logical limit by having two distinct personalities housed within a single character, a disturbing idea never before seen in a Hollywood movie. This concept is visually represented by the ordinary looking Bates Motel with the gloomy Victorian mansion lying incongruously on the hill just behind it.

The above-mentioned aspects of Psycho are just some of the reasons it has become one of the most cherished films in the history of cinema. In the span of fifty years, there have been three Psycho sequels, one made-for-TV movie spinoff, a remake and literally hundreds of imitations both in America and abroad. Yet I don’t believe anything compares to the original, which still has the power to shock and entertain and to draw us into its nightmarish world time and time again. I have seen Psycho twice in 35mm prints. I have seen it on television, video and DVD. Shortly after October 19th, just in time for Halloween, I will watch it on Blu-ray for the first time. And I know I will still want to see Marion Crane’s car sink, I will still jump when Detective Arbogast gets it at the top of the stairs and I will still get goosebumps when Mrs. Bates tells us that she couldn’t even hurt a fly.

Happy Birthday, Norman.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Seven Days (Won)
2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
3. Nosferatu (Murnau)
4. The Age of the Medici (Rossellini)
5. Sunrise (Murnau)
6. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura)
7. M (Lang)
8. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger)
9. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
10. Lebanon (Maoz)


Claude Chabrol RIP

The great French film critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol, one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. With the death of Eric Rohmer earlier in the year and widespread speculation that the most recent films of Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) will be their last, it is beginning to feel more and more like the end of an era.

Chabrol was never the most respected of the major French New Wave directors; the quality of his amazingly prolific output probably varied more wildly from film to film than the work of any of his compatriots. But the man made more than his fair share of masterpieces, especially during an incredible six year run from 1968 – 1973, and he cultivated a style that was completely and unmistakably his own. Absorbing lessons in technical virtuosity from his heroes Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol made “classical” thrillers that were shot through with a vein of dark comedy, a scathing critique of the bourgeoisie (which, crucially, one always felt contained an element of self-criticism) and a legendary appreciation for fine cuisine.

Chabrol once wrote an amusing article honoring American genre master Robert Aldrich in which he named a “dirty dozen” of his favorite Aldrich films. Given Chabrol’s obsession with food and scenes involving eating, here is a “baker’s dozen” of my own favorite Claude Chabrol films.

In chronological order:

Les Cousins (1959)
Chabrol’s second feature, about a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to share an apartment with his decadent, city-bred cousin, is one of the most significant early French New Wave films and contains seeds of the director’s mature work; a darkly ironic tragedy contrasting two characters on opposite ends of the moral compass.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Chabrol’s first masterpiece follows a quartet of young women as they search for love in a modern, freewheeling Paris. What starts out as a charming and humorous document of a newly-swinging era gradually darkens until Chabrol delivers a shocking and unforgettable finale.

L’avarice (1962) / La Muette (1965)
One respect in which Chabrol absolutely schooled his fellow New Wavers was in the making of short films. The highlights of the omnibus films The Seven Deadly Sins and Six in Paris respectively, L’avarice and La Muette are like perfectly executed short stories, featuring droll, devilishly clever endings worthy of Poe, and guaranteed to stick with you for a very long time.

Les Biches (1968)
The beginning of Chabrol’s mature period is this elegant psycho-drama about a love triangle between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s architect and two bisexual women: the rich, beautiful Frederique (Chabrol’s then wife Stephane Audrane) and a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Chabrol’s philosophy of “simple plots, complex characters” pays dividends in this mysterious but humanistic character study.

La Femme Infidele (1969)
One of Chabrol’s best loved films is this stylish and ingenious thriller about a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and plots the murder of her lover. Chabrol expertly employs Hitchcock’s famous theme of the “transfer of guilt” so that the movie becomes a fascinating inquiry into the concept of moral relativism.

This Man Must Die (1969)
The story of a grieving father who hatches an elaborate scheme to find and get revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his only son, this is yet another beautifully crafted thriller that gains resonance through its examination of the weighty themes of solitude, grief, guilt and justice.

Le Boucher (1970)
My personal favorite Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

La Rupture (1970)
As a pure genre piece, this may be Chabrol’s most entertaining film; in advance of an ugly divorce / child custody battle, a wealthy older couple hire a private investigator to “find dirt” on their daughter-in-law at all costs. Jean-Pierre Cassel is terrific as the slimy P.I. and the film’s psychedelic climax will blow your mind.

Wedding in Blood (1973)
The end of Chabrol’s golden age is marked by this brooding, sinister tale of marital infidelity and small town politics. Stephane Audrane plays the last in a series of cool, enigmatic Chabrol women named Helene, this time as a mayor’s wife engaged in an affair with her husband’s assistant, a perfectly cast Michel Piccoli.

Story of Women (1988)
Both atypical and a return to form, this Isabelle Huppert vehicle recounts the true story of a woman who performed illegal abortions during the second World War in Nazi-occupied France. A complex and riveting historical drama featuring one of Huppert’s very best performances.

La Ceremonie (1995)
The masterpiece of Chabrol’s late period, this pertinent study of contemporary class warfare centers on the relationship between Sophie (the great Sandrine Bonnaire), an illiterate maid, and Jeanne (Huppert again), the postal worker who spurs her on to stand up to her wealthy employers. In a career filled with memorable finales, Chabrol outdoes himself by ending La Ceremonie on a note of apocalyptic perfection.

The Bridesmaid (2003)
A lot of Chabrol’s post-La Ceremonie work was devoted to lightweight genre fare, agreeable but forgettable mysteries like The Swindle and Merci pour le chocolat, but he made a roaring comeback with The Bridesmaid. In this unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a salesman falls in love with the enigmatic title character and, unaware that she is mentally unstable, jokingly agrees to “exchange murders” with her. A deeply satisfying, multi-layered film, as fun to think about afterwards as it is to watch.


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