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June 26, 2010 8:46 AM   Subscribe

The secrets of "Psycho's" shower scene. "In the course of my research, I read one allegation about the weeklong filming of the scene that both troubled and intrigued me, but none of the reference books I consulted elaborated on the assertion."
posted by Obscure Reference (89 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:54 AM on June 26, 2010


So Hitchcock followed his own version of Knox's Decalogue. Interesting.
posted by charred husk at 8:57 AM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


The "shower scene" post that could have been. So one of the main characters in the scene was not played by the actor and the scene itself was not entirely created by the director.
posted by jeremias at 9:03 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

*Tears up script. Starts drinking.*
posted by Tacodog at 9:03 AM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I doubt many scenes are "entirely created by the director." Directors work from scripts, directors work from storyboards, film is handed over to editors for the final cut. Not all of those happen in every film, of course, but assuming Janet Leigh and Hilton Green are telling the truth, I don't think creation of the shower scene was any less Hitchcock's than any number of other scenes in other movies.
posted by lore at 9:12 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a freelancer, I'm impressed the guy managed to get a whole article out of one piece of information.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:13 AM on June 26, 2010 [32 favorites]


So the real killer is still loose?
posted by mmmbacon at 9:20 AM on June 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


I wrote a paper on Hitchcock, watching the scene over and over, terrified and fascinated as Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, wearing a dress and wig, his face obscured, repeatedly stabs the hapless and helpless Marion Crane.

Whatever gets you off, man.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:24 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's evidence to how much Psycho has become a film class staple -- and so dreadfully deconstructed by everyone teaching cinema -- that, when reading the article, I thought to myself "Of *course* it's not Anthony Perkins attacking Janet Leigh in the shower! That's plain as day! How is this even an article?"

And then I remembered: Psycho is a fictional film, telling a narrative in which Norman Bates is the attacker of Marion Crane, that this is the most important act in the story, and that the story makes very little sense if it was not in fact Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates with Leigh's Marion Crane in the shower.

And I realized that, all of these years, Psycho has had very little emotional effect on me *because* I found it nonsensical that the on-screen killer wasn't the same as the killer in the narrative. Yet because of the way the shower scene had been presented in film books and film classes (a curiosity of editing, a historic point in film, an experiment in a certain kind of distancing, an essential component of an auteur's library), I never really found it that odd.

I was able to look at the editing, and listen to the music, and the framing, and somehow ignore that deep in my subconscious, there was that something that kept it from making narrative sense and having emotional impact, and that thing was plain as day.
posted by eschatfische at 9:26 AM on June 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


If the fact that people view something over and over again to better experience it makes something masturbatory, then any art worth talking about is masturbatory.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:27 AM on June 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


jeremias: Very interesting that the story boards are by Saul Bass. Although I cringe ever time I see that name, because I met him a few times and then subsequently introduced him to someone as Saul Bellow. (**cringe**)
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:29 AM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't like all this talk about masturbation being bad.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:32 AM on June 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


As a freelancer, I'm impressed the guy managed to get a whole article out of one piece of information.

God, I was thinking the same thing. The big secret of the shower scene is ... wait for it ... wait for it ... Hitchcock used a stunt double! End of article. Pretty fucking thin.

There is a germ of something interesting: the "fair play" thing. When we watch mysteries (or movies like "Psycho" that are partly mysteries), do we want the storytellers to play fair? In other words, do we want them to give us all the clues -- and give them to us accurately -- so that we could, if we're smart enough -- solve the mystery ourselves.

There's no right answer. It's a question of personal aesthetic values. It depends on two things: (1) do you like solving mysteries? (2) was there something in the story to lead you on into thinking a mystery was being handed to you that you might be able to solve?

(Of course, if what Hitchcock did was a problem in any sense, it only becomes one if you're sharp-eyed enough to notice some things that go by pretty quickly. You have to see the double, notice his shape, and then later, when you learn the Perkins character is the murderer, recall that shape and think, "Wait a minute..." Or you have to read an article like this first and then watch the movie. If you do this, since the article contains spoilers, there's no way you can be trying to solve the mystery while watching it. So if you're upset by Hitchcock's trick, it must be simply irritation at an aesthetic rule being violated in the abstract.)

The article could have gone on to talk about other cheats like this. I only know of one. (Which means that I'm not yet ready to write such an article. I'd have to do more research first.) It's from Coppola's "The Conversation." [BIG SPOILER AHEAD!!!!!!]

In that movie, the protagonist, played by Gene Hackman, listens over and over to a recording of a guy telling warning his mistress about her husband. He (the guy, not the husband) says, "He'll KILL us if he gets the chance." So it seems the guy is worried that the husband will find out and kill them both.

Later, it turns out that the guy was actually plotting to kill the husband. And when Hackman re-listens to the recording, the word emphasis has magically changed: "he'd kill US if he gets the chance." It's no longer a warning; it's a justification of murder.

"The Conversation" is one of my favorite films, but the mystery element of it is rigged.
posted by grumblebee at 9:33 AM on June 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


I was able to look at the editing, and listen to the music, and the framing, and somehow ignore that deep in my subconscious, there was that something that kept it from making narrative sense and having emotional impact, and that thing was plain as day.

This reminds me of my brother's laughter at a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A man wearing a fez is beheaded by one of the traps, and the head rolls towards Indy. The whole theater gasps, but my brother, a little kid at that time, laughed. My mother was shocked, and asked what was funny.

"He still has his hat on!"
posted by filthy light thief at 9:35 AM on June 26, 2010 [17 favorites]


I doubt many scenes are "entirely created by the director." Directors work from scripts, directors work from storyboards, film is handed over to editors for the final cut.

Hitchcock had a reputation for maneuvering for control. He did a lot of films with David O. Selznick, a producer who was notorious as a control freak. Films Selznick produced, he couldn't resist fucking about with in post-production. He and Hitchcock had legendary battles over control.

One thing Hitch figured out he could do to keep Selznick and other producers at bay was to carefully storyboard every scene, and then only shoot those shots. No safety takes, no alternate angles, we do what we've got on paper, and furthermore, we storyboard and shoot in such a way that the film can only be edited together one way. There can be no major overhaul of the film in the editing room.

Hitchcock did lose the occasional battle for control, but it wasn't often. Just ask Tippi Hedren what happened to her career after she wouldn't let him fuck her.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:36 AM on June 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


"The Conversation" is one of my favorite films, but the mystery element of it is rigged.

The "rigged" aspect is absolutely on purpose, the mystery is a MacGuffin, the film is about the psychology.
posted by biscotti at 9:43 AM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


How I uncovered the shocking truth about Hitchcock's best-known moment -- and why it still matters, 50 years on.

Oh FFS. I feel dumb for having clicked/read this.

Anyway, Studio 360 had a few nice pieces of Psychophilia last week.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 9:43 AM on June 26, 2010


I'm more excited about seeing someone's daughter being sent to the dry cleaners because she can't take a shower.
posted by joni. at 9:44 AM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


there was that something that kept it from making narrative sense and having emotional impact, and that thing was plain as day.

Wait. Are you saying you experienced the film being "deconstructed" BEFORE you saw it without knowing what was going to happen? If so, isn't it more likely that the film -- which uses surprise as a major tool -- didn't affect you because you knew what was going to happen?

I first saw it when I was about ten. I knew nothing about it. I didn't know there was going to be "the shower scene" in it. When the killer pulled the curtain aside and started stabbing, I was under my seat. I was scared to take a shower for months after. My terror would have been minimized if I'd been prepared for it.

The big shock, by the way, isn't the shower scene. It's that the protagonist DIES halfway through. This is not a shock, of course, if you know "the shower scene" is coming. But if you don't know the story ahead of time, you assume (probably without thinking about it) that the protagonist is going to live until the end of the movie. Because you've been prepped for that by dozens of other movies. But then CHAOS happens! It's like your whole world gets turned upside-down. You can't count on ANYTHING anymore. No one is safe! But only if you don't know it's going to happen.

(Seeing "Psycho" unprepped is one of the great story experiences anyone can have. Shame on classes that spoil that for people! Learning about Hitchcock's themes and techniques pales in comparison as an experience. With a film like this, we should be TREASURING its surprises and protecting young people from having them spoiled.)

Kubrick does something similar (though on a smaller scale) in "The Shining." [SPOILER AHEAD.] He leads you to believe that the Scatman Crothers character is going to rescue the boy and his mother. Then he subverts these expectations and you're left in a much scarier place than you were before. Crothers was your life-raft out of danger! But this effect doesn't work if you know his character is going to die before you see the movie. (His character survives in the novel. I've always thought killing him off was a great, outrageous trick Kubrick played on people who'd read the book. I think Peter Jackson should have done something similar in his Tolkien movies. But that's another story.)
posted by grumblebee at 9:45 AM on June 26, 2010 [11 favorites]


The "rigged" aspect is absolutely on purpose, the mystery is a MacGuffin, the film is about the psychology.

How could it not be on-purpose. Someone actually had to re-record the dialog. Did you think I was saying it might have been by accident.

the film is about the psychology.

Statements like this make me laugh, as if there's some cosmic ledger that lists what films are "about," and if it's about something else to you, you're wrong.

Maybe films are "about" something to you. To me, when I tell a story, it's "about" whatever each individual viewer thinks of feels it's about. There's no way a particular viewer can "not get the point." He might not get the point I thought I was intending, but so what? My intention is just what my story is about to me. Everyone sees the story and has a reaction. How is one reaction more true to what the movie is "about" than another?
posted by grumblebee at 9:50 AM on June 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I loved The Conversation! It's been a while since I've seen it, but my memory of it is that it isn't that the emphasis of the key line ("He'd KILL/kill us/US if he had the chance") magically changed, but that Harry went back and worked on the audio more, so that the true emphasis emerged. I dunno. Even if the audio were the same, though, the point of it is that Harry's reasoning was muddied by his feelings about the characters on that audio, so he heard what he wanted/expected to hear, and only after his assumptions were shaken did he hear and recognize the truth.

I guess the movie could be accused of cheating, but I don't see it that way because the story is really about Harry's paranoia and false sense of control leading to tragic self-deception, so the mystery itself is just kind of a MacGuffin.
posted by Pants McCracky at 10:00 AM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was hoping it'd settle the long-time rumor that there were test shots in color.
posted by ao4047 at 10:01 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know if this counts as a cheat, it seems more in the "hack" category. Anthony Perkins wasn't around when they were scheduled to do the scene so a double was used. It would have been more intriguing if Hitchcock used a double even though Perkins was available.

A more drastic example of this type of hack might be Buñuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire" in which the lead character is played by two different actresses. Although it would be easy to attribute this to Buñuel's sensibilities, apparently the decision was financial.
posted by jeremias at 10:02 AM on June 26, 2010


Statements like this make me laugh, as if there's some cosmic ledger that lists what films are "about," and if it's about something else to you, you're wrong.

I was writing my comment when this exchanged occurred, and I ended up saying basically the same thing as biscotti. I just wanted to add that I don't think anyone should feel oppressed by someone else saying what a film is "about." I think it should be taken as given that we're all going to have our subjective experiences of a film, and nobody's impression should be interpreted as trying to dictate some kind of objective truth.
posted by Pants McCracky at 10:07 AM on June 26, 2010


I guess the movie could be accused of cheating, but I don't see it that way because the story is really about Harry's paranoia and false sense of control leading to tragic self-deception, so the mystery itself is just kind of a MacGuffin.

I love the movie. I think it would be a better movie if Copolla had found a way to achieve the affect without the "cheat." Slightly better. Like many here, I chiefly enjoy the movie as a psychological drama, so the mystery element isn't all that important to me. Still, it's there. It does have the surface form of a mystery. And I think it would be a slightly better film if it attended to the details of that form AND was a gripping psychological drama.
posted by grumblebee at 10:09 AM on June 26, 2010


Wait. Are you saying you experienced the film being "deconstructed" BEFORE you saw it without knowing what was going to happen? If so, isn't it more likely that the film -- which uses surprise as a major tool -- didn't affect you because you knew what was going to happen?

Yes, I had actually seen the shower scene before I had seen the rest of the movie. Of course, I didn't know when it was going to happen or how it played into the story, so there was still some degree of shock and surprise when I saw the complete film. Still, that curious disconnect I described remains, even after multiple uninterrupted viewings of the complete film.

Seeing scenes before seeing films doesn't need to pull you out of the narrative or dampen the emotions of the film. We see scenes before seeing films all the time, in trailers, or in "behind the scenes" documentaries released before the film, or on Youtube. That scene usually becomes part of the narrative and stops being this kind of separate thing after watching the film.

That didn't happen for me with Psycho, and it took this article to figure out why.
posted by eschatfische at 10:11 AM on June 26, 2010


I think it would be a better movie if Copolla had found a way to achieve the affect without the "cheat."

I guess it could be done if it were made today, and instead of a recorded conversation it could be an intercepted text message: HE'D KILL US IF HE HAD THE CHANCE. No fudging required, since we the audience (and Harry) would supply the needed emphasis.
posted by Pants McCracky at 10:14 AM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it should be taken as given that we're all going to have our subjective experiences of a film, and nobody's impression should be interpreted as trying to dictate some kind of objective truth.

I agree with this.

What's upsets me -- and I hear it more and more -- is when storytellers use some traditional form to hook their themes on, don't obey the rules of that form, and then blame the audience for "not getting it."

If I choose to use sci-fi as a way to tell my story "about" racism, I will respect the genre -- even if it's not what's important to me. I'm not going to posit realistic space science in chapter one and then have a character survive in a vacuum without his space helmet in chapter ten, and then accuse people of "not getting the point" when they focus on that instead of getting that the whole story is an allegory for the way blacks were treated in South Africa during Apartheid.
posted by grumblebee at 10:15 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Shutting up about The Conversation now, it not being the topic and all.)
posted by Pants McCracky at 10:17 AM on June 26, 2010


Seeing scenes before seeing films doesn't need to pull you out of the narrative or dampen the emotions of the film.

I suspect "Psycho" is a special case. It's not that it's an boring movie to re-watch. I've seen it many times and like it. But its strongest effect on me will always be the first time I saw it -- unspoiled. This is true of many movies, but it's a matter of degree. With "Psycho," that first, naive view was a REALLY important experience. To some extent, my re-watch enjoyment (beyond just enjoying it by looking examining its technique) is nostalgia for that first time I saw it. The main reason the shower scene still scares me is because it conjures up, for me, the mindset of that first time.

Usually, I think movies are weak if they rely too heavily on shock. They're not bad, but they're watch-and-forget thrills. They're like individual sex acts. Fun at the time, but then you're done. "Psycho" is special to me, because the WAY it shocked me that first time was so different from the way other movies have shocked me.

But it still will never have anything CLOSE to that first impact again. So I wouldn't list it as one of my ten favorite films -- or even as one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. To make that list, it would have to have more of a continual payoff during rewatches -- and not just from the point-of-view of examining its technique. "Vertigo" is my favorite. It gets better every time I see it. Very little of it is based on shock.
posted by grumblebee at 10:24 AM on June 26, 2010


This is news? I read about the fact that Perkins wasn't in the shower scene in Stephen Rebello's fairly well researched Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which came out in 1990.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:26 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


any art worth talking about is masturbatory.

Oh my goodness, yes.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:31 AM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I doubt many scenes are "entirely created by the director."

Director's always get the credit because when a film flops, the caveat is that they take all the blame.
posted by cazoo at 10:33 AM on June 26, 2010


I suspect "Psycho" is a special case. It's not that it's an boring movie to re-watch. I've seen it many times and like it. But its strongest effect on me will always be the first time I saw it -- unspoiled.

I suspect this is true of Hitchcock's best films esp. being in the suspense genre. "Rear Window" is another example: saw this with absolutely no pre-conceptions when it was re-released in theaters during the early 80's. I was 13 or 14 and it remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life. I've re-watched it many a time, perhaps trying to recapture that initial feeling.

Psycho truly is the special case of special cases though, pretty sure I saw the shower scene before the movie by one of my teachers in high school. Fits right in with screening the opening scene in Citizen Kane as a way to screw up the mystery of Rosebud.
posted by jeremias at 10:56 AM on June 26, 2010


How is one reaction more true to what the movie is "about" than another?

Principle of charity.

The dialogue has to be rerecorded. We don't hear the dialogue straight—we hear it as Caul hears it. And Caul is predisposed to hear it the way we hear it the first time (we learn in the party-after-the-convention scene that work he did back in (wherever) lead to some killing). He's already alive to such possibilities and, it is reasonable to suppose, inclined to see them where they aren't. (I mean look at how he is with his landlady and his lover!) But we aren't so predisposed; we don't know that about Caul when we first hear the dialogue and even if we did it would just be one more piece of information about Caul, not anything that would dispose us to hear the dialogue as emphasized one way rather than another.

Similarly when we hear it for the second time we still aren't hearing it straight. We're now hearing it the way Caul hears it after he's pieced together what was really going on—a way of hearing it in which the "us" gets emphasis. (It's reasonable to suppose that the "actual" straight dialogue contained neither emphasis.)

It would have been impossible to achieve that effect with a single piece of recorded dialogue, because our actual own pyschologies as viewers haven't been shaped, or changed, the way Caul's has. But looking at it this way gives a reason internal to the movie, and one, moreover, that isn't out of place with the movie as a whole. Whereas looking at it your way makes it unmotivated except as crass manipulation. That's much less interesting, and in the face of a competing, equally (if not, IMO, more) plausible explanation that makes the movie more worthwhile anyway, why endorse it?

Now, you might not care about that and still feel jerked around by the change; fine. You don't care! But it's the worst sort of antiïntellectualism masquerading as cod-pomoism to say "my reaction's my reaction and who are you to suggest I might be missing anything, bucko?".
posted by kenko at 11:36 AM on June 26, 2010


Tacodog: "5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

*Tears up script. Starts drinking.*
"

"Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please. "
posted by symbioid at 11:50 AM on June 26, 2010


But looking at it this way gives a reason internal to the movie, and one, moreover, that isn't out of place with the movie as a whole. Whereas looking at it your way makes it unmotivated except as crass manipulation. That's much less interesting, and in the face of a competing, equally (if not, IMO, more) plausible explanation that makes the movie more worthwhile anyway, why endorse it?

Sure. If it's a matter of choice, choose the more interesting interpretation. Choose the one that makes the movie better, because who wouldn't rather see a better movie. But it's not always a matter of choice. Not for everyone; not for all movies. You can choose what you say and write. You don't necessarily choose how you feel about a story.

Writer George R. R. Martin talked about this on his blog, recently. It was, to me, a rare example of someone writing a truth that few people acknowledge. As an example, he used the "Alien" movies. [SPOILERS FOLLOW.]

He fell in love with the character Newt in the second movie. He HATED the fact that the director of the third movie killed Newt off. Friends, who felt the same way, suggested to Martin that he shouldn't view "Alien's 3" as canonical. If he CHOSE that interpretation -- in which none of the events in the third movie ever happened -- his problem is solved. Newt doesn't die. She gets back to Earth with Ripley.

Martin really wanted to choose that interpretation. It was totally in his self interest. He tried. He tried really hard. He failed. Now he has trouble watching "Aliens," because he keeps thinking, "What's the point of Ripley trying to rescue Newt? She's just going to die anyway..." So Martin is accepting the third movie as canon even though he doesn't want to.

Which isn't to say this is always the case. Some of Martin's friends had no trouble forgetting "Aliens 3."

But it's not always a matter of which interpretation you choose. Sometimes, for some of us, we just HAVE an interpretation. It's not a conscious thing. It's a reaction. Of course, one can always have a conscious interpretation when one writes about a movie in a Film Studies paper. But that interpretation isn't necessarily connected to one's visceral reaction to the movie.
posted by grumblebee at 12:04 PM on June 26, 2010


But it's the worst sort of anti-ïntellectualism masquerading as cod-pomoism...

Nope. It's anti-intellectualism masquerading as anti-intellectualism. Stories, for me, appeal to the heart, the adrenaline and the genitals, not the head.

Actually, there are two intellectual processes that stories activate in me, but they're not generally ones deemed worthy in academic circles.

Stories appeal to that part of my intellect that tries to predict what's going to happen next. It's really fun to do that when I'm watching movies, especially when the movies prove me wrong in ways that are more thrilling that my predictions.

Second, stories appeal to my moral/practical intellect. In the same situations, would I make the same choices as the characters?
posted by grumblebee at 12:09 PM on June 26, 2010


If I had a selective memory eraser ala Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind or Dollhouse, I would hit (along with most of High School) any and all memories related to Psycho. Because it is nearly impossible for a modern American to watch Psycho and not know the ending or the most famous scenes. Even if you never see it, you've seen so many parodies and homages and discussion that you just know. I keep wondering what it would be like to see it completely ignorant, thinking it was a movie about a woman who stole a bunch of money, wondering who that woman was who stabbed her, shocked at the big reveals.

However, if I really did wipe my mind of it, I wouldn't think it was special to record all of my thoughts during it, it would just be "Oh hey a Hitchcock movie I never saw, neat."

And then like a week of being really annoying to friends "DUDE HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PSYCHO MOVIE? I NEVER HEARD OF IT IT'S AMAZING"
posted by The Whelk at 12:12 PM on June 26, 2010 [5 favorites]



any art worth talking about is masturbatory.

Oh my goodness, yes.


yes yes yes YES YES YES!
posted by The Whelk at 12:16 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


it is nearly impossible for a modern American to watch Psycho and not know the ending or the most famous scenes. Even if you never see it, you've seen so many parodies and homages and discussion that you just know.

I can't tell you how much this saddens me. As a culture, we don't really value stories. We don't lovingly protect them. We don't place a huge value on allowing young people to discover old stories in a virginal state, as young people once did around the camp fire.

Of course I don't believe in censorship. People should be allowed to spoil things if they feel like it. I just wish we had valued, as a piece of etiquette, the sanctity of a well-wrought tale. Instead, we care more about the meta-discussion surrounding it.

I am grateful to my dad. He was a film historian. An old-school one. If he heard someone start to talk about Rosebud, he would say, "Please stop! My son is in the room, and he hasn't seen the movie yet." I saw almost every classic movie from this blank-slate state, and I learned to cover my ears if people discussed the plot of a movie I hadn't seen yet. I was continually surprised and delighted by what I saw.

My dad's emphasis on plot and character -- which is what he talked about in his classes, as well as to me -- eventually got killed by all the po-mo people who invaded campus in the 80s, the ones who wanted to reveal the plots right away, so they could talk about how the films were "phalocentric" or in order to "deconstruct" their meanings.
posted by grumblebee at 12:25 PM on June 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


We don't hear the dialogue straight—we hear it as Caul hears it.

But that's why it's jarring--until the end, we don't know that we weren't hearing it straight before. The rest of the movie is realistic; there's no hint that we're not supposed to be trusting what we see and hear.

I don't know how you'd fix it, though. You could perform the same effect when Harry is listening to other recordings, that first time we see his shop. But then it would be totally obvious what was going to happen later.
posted by equalpants at 12:29 PM on June 26, 2010


The rest of the movie is realistic; there's no hint that we're not supposed to be trusting what we see and hear.

Yes, this is exactly my problem. It's like reading an entire novel told in third person, and then, on the last page of the final chapter, reading, "Some of what I've described never happened."
posted by grumblebee at 12:31 PM on June 26, 2010


It's interesting that grumblebee and The Whelk have commented about the main interest of the scene (at least in terms of the movie as a whole) being the unexpected nature of the character's demise. Not that I sit around discussing movies that much with people, but I've heard about this shower scene all my life, and only actually watched the movie a few years ago, and that was what immediately jumped out at me. I mean, it's rather obvious, since Hitchcock devises this whole interesting plot about the embezzlement that more or less gets put on the truck by the MC's sudden murder.

I think this POV trick, that of not quite knowing who might be buying it and when in an action, horror, or suspense movie, was quite novel in the '50s and '60s. There was an occasional 'twist', but most directors seemed to think the audience had the IQ of cooked cabbage and had to be told by the framing, the lighting, and of course the music who was the good guy, the bad guy, who was right and wrong, etc. It's really annoying when watching old movies and especially old TV shows sometimes.

Even a/o the time of Scary Movie, horror movies were still predictable enough that we recognize Drew Barrymore's demise in the opening scene for the joke it is. Psycho pulled much the same trick. Yet most people just talk about how shocking and violent the depiction of the stabbing was - I would bet most of them don't really even know WHY they were so shocked by it, or at any rate can't put it into words.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:36 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


To be more specific, it has to do with default assumptions. I have no problem watching a fantasy movie in which people can fly. But my default assumption, unless you establish flight early on (or a general feeling of magic early on), is that the rules of the fictional world, when not stated, are the same rules that exist in the real world. (If "Charles Foster Kane" saw a cow, would it be only two inches tall? No. It would be regular cow size.)

So it would confuse me no end if Indiana Jones started flying halfway through "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The movie never posits that people can't fly. But my assumption is that they can't, because, I'm not lead, early on, to see that movie's word as different from ours in terms of human flight. (I wasn't nuts about the ending of "The Inglorious Bastards." [Spoiler.] Though it was a cartoonish movie, my assumption was that it was roughly following actual history. So I got to the end, when they killed Hitler, and thought WTF? I though I was in a cartoonish version of the real world -- not a cartoonish version of some entirely different world.)

In MOST movies, other than in specifically delineated dream sequences, what you see and hear is what actually happened. Imagine if you were watching "The Godfather Part II" [SPOILER] and Sonny suddenly walked into the room, and then Michael said, "Oh, wow. I had a terrible dream that you died." Wouldn't you feel cheated? In the first movie, you were lead to believe that everything you saw and heard was real (Sonny actually died) -- not that it was possibly someone's dream or interpretation.

THAT'S my problem with Copolla's trick in "The Conversation." Other than in a sharply defined dream sequence, the movie gives me no reason to believe that I'm not just seeing and hearing what actually happened. The fact that it's a "psychological" movie makes no difference. In most movies -- character-based or not -- what you see is what happened. If it's a subjective movie, the filmmaker somehow signals that early on. Then you KNOW you can't necessarily trust anything that happens as gospel. It's a cheat for the filmmaker to willy-nilly rewrite the past when it suits his purposes.

That said, Copolla mines something fantastic out of that cheat. So I think it's worth it. There's probably a better way to do it, but I can't come up with anything easily. It's an awesome movie, despite the fact that it has -- by my reckoning -- a big flaw.

By the way, even via my aesthetics, it's only a flaw if you notice it. If you don't, you'll go through EXACTLY what Caul goes through. You'll think you just misinterpreted the line the first time you heard it. My guess is, this is what Copolla was gunning for, and I think he's successful with most viewers. He was with me the first time I saw it. When I heard the re-recorded line, I didn't think it was re-recorded. I thought, "Whoa! I never noticed the way the guy emphasized 'us'!" It was only on the second viewing that I smelled a rat.
posted by grumblebee at 12:50 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the scene has a very different impact on tv than it does in a darkened theater. After having watched Psycho maybe 5 or 6 times on tv, I finally saw a 16 mm print and it was a completely different experience. Even though I knew exactly what was about to happen, a lot of scenes did genuinely startle me. Watching the piece on tv, alone in broad daylight with the sound at a pleasant level, is markedly different than seeing it with a bunch of screaming strangers with full volume in the dark.
posted by Omon Ra at 12:54 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think this POV trick, that of not quite knowing who might be buying it and when in an action, horror, or suspense movie, was quite novel in the '50s and '60s.

This is precisely why it had such an impact. No one had ever seen something like that before, not in a mainstream movie at least.

Think about what it must have been like to see the film in the theater for the first time. It's called "Psycho." A pretty woman steals money and then meets ... a psycho. Someone that is at least a little unhinged. He even says, "We all go a little crazy sometimes."

You're probably thinking, "A-ha. This is what the movie is about. 'How is Marion going to escape this crazy guy and keep her money?' Let's get some more popcorn and settle in for a thrill ride."

Then she's dead.

DUDE.

WTF?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:01 PM on June 26, 2010


Yet most people just talk about how shocking and violent the depiction of the stabbing was - I would bet most of them don't really even know WHY they were so shocked by it, or at any rate can't put it into words.

A very similar thing happened to me when I saw the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" [SPOILER] When the zombies started running, I thought, "NO! This CAN'T happen! Zombies are slow! That's our only defense against them." I'm not even especially a zombie fan, so it's funny how much I'd unconsciously accepted the normal rules of zombie movies.

"Psycho" was similar. The main character (at least back then) just DOESN'T die. If that happens, you're totally at sea. Which is, of course, just where you should be in a horror film.

After the shower scene, the movie basically has to start all over again. It's interesting to me that Hitchcock is praised for this audacious move in "Psycho." Kubrick is generally negatively critiqued for doing something similar in "Full Metal Jacket." [SPOILER.] Many love the movie, but when it came out it was criticized for being "disjointed," for basically being two movies. (I always wondered if people would have liked the movie better if the poster had said, "Full Metal Jacket: Two Stories About War.")

Kubrick wasn't as daring as Hitchcock, because he didn't kill Joker (his protagonist), but he did kill two characters you assumed were going to last through the movie. One of the effects this had on me was to say, "this movie is playing for KEEPS," and I remember, the first time I saw it, feeling that all bets were off -- that this was about WAR and no one is safe.
posted by grumblebee at 1:01 PM on June 26, 2010


Yes, this is exactly my problem. It's like reading an entire novel told in third person, and then, on the last page of the final chapter, reading, "Some of what I've described never happened."

Another reason to hate Atonement!
posted by norm at 1:18 PM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


it is nearly impossible for a modern American to watch Psycho and not know the ending or the most famous scenes.

In fairness, this is also true of Hamlet. He's pretty much as dead, in our minds, as his father is when the play starts. It's like watching a ghost story in which everybody's already a ghost, they just don't know it yet, but we, as an audience, do.

But, then, the Greeks all knew their myths and that didn't stop them from enjoying Medea.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:01 PM on June 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here's another post about Psycho in which we learn that Janet Leigh was not in the shower scene either.
posted by amethysts at 2:05 PM on June 26, 2010


But, then, the Greeks all knew their myths and that didn't stop them from enjoying Medea.

That is the conventional wisdom. I don't buy it. I'm betting there were a number of Greeks who had no idea how Medea was going to end. These were children, some of whom surely were introduced to the story by the play. (Just as many Elizabethans knew little about Richard III until the saw Shakespeare's play about him.) But we don't talk about them. Modern, Western education teaches us to discount plot and its surprises -- and the people who are thrilled by those surprises.

Some works work well a second time, once you already know what's is going to happen. Some work BETTER once you know what's going to happen. That doesn't mean that the first time, when you don't know, isn't unique and valuable. And it's only possible to have that experience once per story.
posted by grumblebee at 2:08 PM on June 26, 2010


Here's another post about Psycho

Wow. Here's an amazing, gorgeous link from that post. I sometimes forget how stunning the photography was in that film.
posted by grumblebee at 2:11 PM on June 26, 2010


As a culture, we don't really value stories. We don't lovingly protect them. We don't place a huge value on allowing young people to discover old stories in a virginal state, as young people once did around the camp fire.

Well, repurposing the famous scenes from Psycho is a normal cultural operation. That stuff appears in Looney Tunes cartoons alongside winking references to musicals from the 1940s, to vaudeville routines of the 19teens, to Romeo and Juliet, to Odysseus, to famous stories from history and fake-history (George Washington and the cherry tree, Henry VIII chopping through wives, Roman gladiators, Cleopatra and her snake, Noah's ark and the flood, the garden of Eden)... all these are stories and they're all incorporated into the big stew of common cultural references we can draw on to make jokes and make ourselves understood. And this isn't unique to Looney Tunes -- this kind of joking reference has been going on through history. Shakespeare's doing it, right? So I don't think it's a matter if not appreciating stories -- it's a matter of "this is our common vocabulary, our common stock of concepts, let's enjoy it together".

I mean, I wish I had been able to see Psycho without knowing the shower scene was coming, sure. But I understood a lot of jokes about it for years before I saw it, just like people who've never read Romeo and Juliet can understand jokes and references to it, and that's not a negative. (I guess I mean, having things spoiled does have its down side, but there's a significant upside in there too.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:11 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's probably a better way to do it, but I can't come up with anything easily.

I don't understand what you're saying here. Are you saying he should have found another way to communicate the protagonist's subjectivity affecting the story or that that element of the story is not relevant to you?
posted by dobbs at 2:15 PM on June 26, 2010


The fact that they used a body-double in a scene where you can't see an actor's face is news? Stand-ins and stunt people have been used in scenes like that in thousands of movies for a hundred years. That's standard filming practice. It's sort of interesting since we know that scene so well but it's not really surprising.
posted by octothorpe at 2:16 PM on June 26, 2010


There's probably a better way to do it, but I can't come up with anything easily.

I don't understand what you're saying here. Are you saying he should have found another way to communicate the protagonist's subjectivity affecting the story or that that element of the story is not relevant to you?

I'm not saying either of those things.

I'm saying there's a flaw in the movie. (By which, since I don't believe in a universal aesthetic, I mean there's a flaw to me.) That's all I'm saying. (I also happen to think it's a really interesting flaw -- worth discussing.)

To me, a flaw doesn't stop being a flaw because it's necessary for the greater good. If the doctor gives me a wooden leg, to me that's a flawed leg. Someone who says, "but without it, you wouldn't be able to walk," is right (that I wouldn't be able to walk without it), but it's still not as good as an actual leg.

Party, "The Conversation" is about a man who tries hard to be detached and objective. That's such a strong value of his, he fools himself into believing that he can do it. Of course, he can't, and, in the end, he learns that his "objective" interpretation was actually marred by wishful thinking.

That's a beautiful, truthful story worth telling. Copolla found a startling, original way to tell it. By having his hero listen to the same tape twice, but hearing a different emphasis later than earlier.

The only way to tell this particular version of the story -- at least the only way I can think of -- is via Copolla's trick.

Is it possible to tell the basic story -- the one I outlined above -- some other way? Some way without the trick? Maybe. Let's say it's not. And let's say, just for the momentary sake of argument, we all agree the trick is a flaw. (I know we don't, but humor me.) If the only way to tell a story is to include a flaw, should you tell it? Or perhaps a better version of the question is, "Do you want to hear a story, despite the fact that it contains an inevitable flaw." My answer is, "Sure, if it's a good enough story."

What would I like? I'd like "The Conversation" (or something close to it) without the flaw. Maybe that's possible, maybe it's not. If all the apples in the world turned sour, that wouldn't stop me wanting a sweet one.

If it's a good enough story -- as "The Conversation" is -- does that mean the flaw stops being a flaw? No. The story is a good story that has a flaw in it. If the flaw is inevitable, does it stop being a flaw? No. It's just an inevitable flaw.

In this case, is the flaw inevitable? I don't know. It seems like it, if the movie is going to use "hearing the same recording twice with two different words emphasized" as a major plot point. Could the story be told without that plot point? Could we tell the story about a "rational" man clouded by his own irrationality without that plot point? Could we substitute another that DOESN'T contain a trick or flaw? Would that other version be as strong as the flawed version?

(Often, when person A criticizes a story element, person B will say, "That element had to be in the story, because X, Y and Z." Sometimes B is right, but often the truth is that the story COULD be fixed, but you'd have to make more than a small, local change. B IS right that there's no way to fix the broken element without also removing X, Y and Z -- but maybe X, Y and Z aren't actually critical to the story. Removing them might mean doing a major rewrite, but it's one that's possibly worth doing.)

To me, those are interesting questions. As a storyteller, I enjoy wrestling with them. It get impatient when people just brush flaws (or possible flaws) aside, because it close certain avenues of thought.

Though, of course, it's fair enough if you don't think it's a flaw in the first place.
posted by grumblebee at 2:35 PM on June 26, 2010


Here, to me, is the question in a nutshell:

You're telling a story. You come up with a cheat that will make the story better, as long as no one notices the cheat. Do you use the cheat?

My assumption here is that Hitchcock didn't want anyone to know he'd used a body double for Perkins -- one that has a different body type from Perkins.

My guess is that during the shower scene itself, he wanted the body double to keep you from guessing that Perkins' character was the murderer. And after the scene, he wanted you to forget about the shape of the shower-scene killer. He certainly didn't want you to get to the end, hear the psychologist explain that Perkins is the killer, and think, "No he isn't. His body-shape is different. I know, because I SAW the killer's body shape, and I can see Perkins' shape. No way he's the killer!" So the trick relies on you not noticing it and forgetting about it. But it's there in plain sight.

Hitchcock was smart enough to know that people might pick up on this during repeated viewings, and even that some people might notice it the first time. (Of course, this was way before DVDs made it easy to watch movies over and over.) Presumably, he thought the risk was worth the benefit.

Would you do what Hitchcock did? If your answer is yes, what does that mean? Does it mean that when you're telling a story, what you care most about is the affect it has on people who are listening to it in real-time, for the first time you're telling it? Does it mean you're willing to throw a potential spoiler in your movie, as-long-as you think there's a good chance only a few people will notice it?
posted by grumblebee at 2:44 PM on June 26, 2010


It get impatient when people just brush flaws (or possible flaws) aside, because it close certain avenues of thought.

I'm the opposite. I get impatient when people label things flaws that aren't. :)

To me, it's only a flaw if you think the story is of how anyone could have done what Harry did. But to me, it's not a story about that. It's a story about how no one but Harry could have done what he did. That makes the "trick" (though I don't think that's what it is) necessary, imo.

That doesn't mean I don't think it's a flaw. It means I think your interpretation of the story is flawed. Those aren't the same thing. You're reminding me of critics who want a movie to go a certain way or things to happen and when they don't, they criticize the movie that wasn't made. That, to me, is cheating (on the critic's part).

Here's a flaw to me. One that annoys the shit out of me. It's in The Usual Suspects (SPOILERS).

You have a character (Verbal) relaying a scenario to a policeman. He tells the cop that, during the climax of the story, he's hiding some place on shore behind some boxes. He then proceeds to tell the cop what happened on a boat that he was not on--giving him information that he was not privy to. The cop's reaction is to release Verbal. That gets a great big WTF from me. I may be remembering it wrong (I hate the movie and won't rewatch it) but that's certainly how I recall it.

You're telling a story. You come up with a cheat that will make the story better, as long as no one notices the cheat. Do you use the cheat?

In the Conversation it's only a cheat if you think that Coppola doesn't want or expect people to notice it. To me, it's so obvious that its presence is not unnoticeable. The director is "showing" you something--that the main character's interpretation of a sound bite is skewed because of his personality--the same way a director would do this with a camera; in fact, imo, this is the whole point of the story. Your assumption that Coppola is hiding this information is, imo, completely wrong and actually the opposite of the truth. Had he wanted to disguise the "trick" he would have made it far more subtle.
posted by dobbs at 2:51 PM on June 26, 2010


In the Conversation it's only a cheat if you think that Coppola doesn't want or expect people to notice it. To me, it's so obvious that its presence is not unnoticeable. The director is "showing" you something

That's why it doesn't work for me. Because I become aware that the DIRECTOR is showing me something. Which means I'm aware of the director. Which means that I'm aware the the story is a fabrication.

What I value about stories is getting totally caught up in them, to the point where I believe they are real. Of course, I generally can't sustain that feeling for an entire movie. Even if the movie is perfect, someone next to me will cough or whatever, and I'll wake up from the dream. But it's my goal, and I'm blissfully happy when I achieve it. And I want movies to help me achieve it. So I don't appreciate something in the movie itself that works against that.

(I'm not a fan of post-modern, fourth-wall-breaking devices in general, but sometimes I like them, if that's the general tone of the movie. But "The Conversation" is a traditional linear narrative in most respects. It works very hard via style-of-acting and other techniques to NOT burst the bubble.)

I actually didn't notice the tape change the first time I saw it. But I did the second time. I remember very clearly my reaction. I was totally IN the movie. Then the change happened, and I thought, "Wait a minute. That's not the same tape. Did the bad guy change the tape or something?" (I was so IN the movie, I couldn't think of external-to-the-movie explanations -- for a couple of seconds.) Then I realized that Copolla was trying to show me something about Caul's mindset, and since there's no guy named Copolla in the movie, WHAMMO -- the dream was shattered.

It was a brilliant move that, unfortunately (for the way I like to watch movies) called attention to itself as artifice. Which is why, to me, it's a flaw.

If you generally watch a movie with one foot inside it and the other foot outside it (thinking of it as artifice all along), this, of course, won't be jarring to you.

In the Conversation it's only a cheat if you think that Coppola doesn't want or expect people to notice it

What Copolla may or may not have wanted is not part of the movie. That's external to the movie.
posted by grumblebee at 3:11 PM on June 26, 2010


It was a brilliant move that, unfortunately (for the way I like to watch movies) called attention to itself as artifice. Which is why, to me, it's a flaw.

If you generally watch a movie with one foot inside it and the other foot outside it (thinking of it as artifice all along), this, of course, won't be jarring to you.


I try to watch movies in the way you imply you do above, and I always interpret the feature that you call a bug about this movie the way you say did the first time you watched it ("hey, I didn't notice that!"), because it puts you inside Harry's mind and his experience of these events and how they change his interpretations of them - he is a reliable narrator of his own experience, regardless of how unreliable his experience may be in relation to reality, which is (IMO) the whole point of the film. (Disclaimer: I am in no way intending to oppress you with my opinion of what this film is about ;)). It doesn't call attention to artifice to me (even though I know it is a trick when I am being all analytical and not just abandoning myself to enjoying the film), to me it is a subtle and clever way to disorient me and help pull me into Harry's mind and go along for the ride, which is what I think is the point.

And quasi back on topic (with spoilers), I find Arbogast's murder in Psycho far, far more disturbing and jarring than the shower scene, and the sense of dread building up to it is truly masterful. I don't remember the first time I saw the shower scene, or if I knew what to expect because of so many years of watching horror movies (nobody with any experience of film today can watch this movie without knowing what to expect, IMO, we cannot have the experience the original theatre audience did), but with poor doomed Arbogast, even knowing what's coming during the suspenseful buildup, and then to have that jarring overhead camera angle...I find that a far more effective and thoughtful and truly horrifying (in the "horror movie" sense) piece of filmmaking than the shower scene, and it still makes me jump every time, even though I've seen it dozens of times - the shower scene is beautifully filmed and edited, but its' effectiveness is tainted for me precisely by how iconic it is now, whereas Arbogast's murder still works for me every time as it was intended to. A similar unexpected camera angle effect is used in one of my favourite most-overlooked horror films: The Exorcist III.
posted by biscotti at 3:55 PM on June 26, 2010


I try to watch movies in the way you imply you do above, and I always interpret the feature that you call a bug about this movie the way you say did the first time you watched it ("hey, I didn't notice that!"), because it puts you inside Harry's mind

Of course I believe you that this is your experience, but what confuses me is that you're NOT inside Harry's mind during the movie. (And by "you," of course, I mean "me." Heh.) You are in sympathy with him, hopefully, the way you generally are with protagonists, but the movie stands outside him.

In one sense, it does this the way almost all movies do (with the exception of experiments like "Lady In The Lake," where you literally see everything from the protagonist's eyes, only seeing him when he looks in the mirror). When you look through your own eyes, you can't see yourself. So in a very literal way, it's a story about Harry as opposed to Harry's story.

But while the bulk of the movie centers around Harry -- he's the clear protagonist -- there are other characters who are realized, like his girlfriend and assistant. And the movie doesn't always show you Harry's relationship with these people in a Harry's-the-good-guy light. My point is that the movie pretty journalistically (non-judgmentally) shows you conflicts between Harry and other people without taking sides.

To me, it's a similar effect to, "Let me tell you a story about a really interesting man who you're going to like" as opposed to "let me tell you my story." So though the story is skewed towards Harry, I don't feel that it's inside his head. It's a deep, deep exploration of him. But it's not him. If Harry starts hallucinating a dragon, the style of the movie makes me think I'll see him looking confused and scared -- not that I'll actually see the dragon.

I find Arbogast's murder in Psycho far, far more disturbing and jarring than the shower scene,

Me too. I suspect this is because, brilliant as the shower scene is, it works (on the level of scaring you) via shock. And you can only be shocked so many times. (If you know about the scene before you ever see the movie, it might not even work once.)

Whereas the Arbogast scene works via sloooow suspense. The shots of him slowly climbing the stairs are like agony. Hitchcock excelled at scenes like this.
posted by grumblebee at 4:15 PM on June 26, 2010


This article presented an interesting fact that I hadn't previously known. You get a small, useful insight into how Hitchcock worked. But I was deeply dissapointed that a failry interesting fact was presented in such a self-aggrandizing manner by the author. He makes it seem like the film equivalent of Watergate. But it doesn't matter that much, does it?
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 4:32 PM on June 26, 2010


He makes it seem like the film equivalent of Watergate. But it doesn't matter that much, does it?

Also, there was more than just one fact to Watergate.
posted by grumblebee at 4:45 PM on June 26, 2010


In fairness, this is also true of Hamlet. He's pretty much as dead, in our minds, as his father is when the play starts. It's like watching a ghost story in which everybody's already a ghost, they just don't know it yet, but we, as an audience, do.

Except that the play isn't called "Hamlet." It's called "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." You know that Hamlet is going to get it just reading the title.

Tragedy and horror are not the same...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:55 PM on June 26, 2010


The subtitle of this column is:

"How I uncovered the shocking truth about Hitchcock's best-known moment -- and why it still matters, 50 years on"

-How did he "uncover" this truth? Someone else told him the whole story before he interviewed Perkins, and Perkins merely confirmed it. So the truth had already been "uncovered".

-"Shocking" truth? Hyperbolic. I wouldn't even go so far as call it "surprising". I'd just say "the truth about Hitchcock's best-known moment".

-Um, where's the part in the column about "why it still matters"?

The subtitle should instead have simply read:

"How I confirmed the truth about Hitchcock's best-known moment."
posted by jeremy b at 5:03 PM on June 26, 2010


Grumblebee: That's why it doesn't work for me. Because I become aware that the DIRECTOR is showing me something. Which means I'm aware of the director. Which means that I'm aware the the story is a fabrication.

Your perception of reality itself is a fabrication. Most of what you think you have seen is actually a reconstruction you have created in order to make sense of something that is really far more complicated than you'd be able to handle raw. The brilliance of The Conversation is that it portrays this fluidity of perception from within. Do a google on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The degree to which we misperceive the world every single day is really far more terrifying than anything any director would risk trying to portray, because he'd be accused of being Terry Gilliam.
posted by localroger at 5:08 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


> I suspect "Psycho" is a special case. It's not that it's an boring movie to re-watch. I've seen it many times and like it. But its strongest effect on me will always be the first time I saw it -- unspoiled.

I suspect this is true of Hitchcock's best films esp. being in the suspense genre. "Rear Window" is another example


As is Vertigo. I'll never forget the chill I got the first time I realized the truth about Madeleine. To me that's a greater moment than anything in the other two movies, because it so perfectly ties together the themes of past and present, truth and fiction.

Very interesting discussion; I'm in the "not bothered by the change of emphasis" camp with regard to The Conversation, but everyone here loves the movie, so it's all good.
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on June 26, 2010


> The brilliance of The Conversation is that it portrays this fluidity of perception from within. ... The degree to which we misperceive the world every single day is really far more terrifying than anything any director would risk trying to portray, because he'd be accused of being Terry Gilliam.

Brilliant comment, localroger.
posted by languagehat at 5:09 PM on June 26, 2010


That's why it doesn't work for me. Because I become aware that the DIRECTOR is showing me something. Which means I'm aware of the director. Which means that I'm aware the the story is a fabrication.

Your perception of reality itself is a fabrication.

Yes, but I'm not aware of it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:18 PM on June 26, 2010


Also, there's a difference between a fabrication made by human "error" (e.g. the quirks of the human mind) and a fabrication made by a writer/director. If "The Conversation" makes me aware that reality is different from the way I think it is, that's fine. If it makes me aware that it's a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, that's not fine (with me -- it may be fine for you.)

First of all, I knew before watching the movie that it was fiction. It's not a new and interesting thought to be reminded of that. It's what I came to forget.

That's different from learning that the protagonist is wrong about what he thinks is true (and realizing that I'm wrong in the same way). That's fascinating. I want the film to do that -- and it should be able to do that (other films do) -- without reminding me that they are fiction.

The LAST thing I want from a work of fiction is to get some point. I want to feel things, fall in love, hate bad guys, get hungry, be afraid, etc. Feeling confused or unhinged is also awesome. But being jarred out of the movie makes me feel none of those things. It just makes me be out of the movie. Once I'm out of the movie, I'm just as likely to start thinking about the fact that I need to do my laundry as I am about the director's point. If he wants me to think about something, his best bet is to keep my inside his movie.
posted by grumblebee at 5:25 PM on June 26, 2010


It's like your whole world gets turned upside-down. You can't count on ANYTHING anymore.

This was how I felt during the long pull-out during Hitchcock's Frenzy.

Also, let me also join the rest of the chorus in congratulating this freelancer in making a whole article out of a single fact, a fact already reported on years ago.
posted by jscott at 5:31 PM on June 26, 2010


Bates Motel performed by dolls.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:22 PM on June 26, 2010


grumblebee, the last thing you want from a work of fiction is the first thing I want from it. I want to be yanked out of my reality and tossed into a place I barely understand with just what I need to make sense of it, but only with some work. To turn open a work and within 100 words feel I'm being raped is perfection. If you can do that with words you're pretty damn good.
posted by localroger at 7:24 PM on June 26, 2010


grumblebee, the last thing you want from a work of fiction is the first thing I want from it. I want to be yanked out of my reality and tossed into a place I barely understand with just what I need to make sense of it, but only with some work. To turn open a work and within 100 words feel I'm being raped is perfection. If you can do that with words you're pretty damn good.

Huh? It sounds like you and I want the same thing. It sounds like you want fiction to make you feel deeply. Me to. It sounds like you want it to let you escape to somewhere else. Me too. How are we on different pages?
posted by grumblebee at 7:48 PM on June 26, 2010


My dad's emphasis on plot and character -- which is what he talked about in his classes, as well as to me -- eventually got killed by all the po-mo people who invaded campus in the 80s, the ones who wanted to reveal the plots right away, so they could talk about how the films were "phalocentric" or in order to "deconstruct" their meanings.

Well, yeah. Because in film classes, you assume that the people present are people who are looking to comprehend films on the deepest level imaginable. This means falling quite a way down the rabbit hole, so that the language you're dealing with is alien in comparison to the language you're used to. Films are not about the basic plot. They are about the themes and ideas behind the basic plot. If the ultimate (meaning "final") question an artist must ask is "What is art?", then you find yourself quickly making mountains out of a lot of molehills so that you can develop a certain perfection in your approach.

I like telling stories. I improvise yarns like nobody's business; I kept all my children's literature and immerse myself in them once or twice a year. But I've been in these po-mo classes you talk about, and I've been in classes about basic narrative, and let me remind you lest you've forgotten: The basic structure of a film can be taught in half an hour, memorized, and then all that's left is practicing it till you've got it blind. The deeper, underlying concepts will not inherently satisfy the viewer in the same way that just telling a brilliant story will. But when I look at the movies that've struck me the most powerfully, it's not just the story that's doing so. It's the way that the story revolves around subtler themes that only really present themselves to me as I think about the movie afterward.

I watched Citizen Kane knowing how it would end. I knew most of how Casablanca ended when I saw it. I haven't seen Psycho, but if I see it I'll know essentially every scene as it happens. But I don't feel like I particularly missed out. I didn't watch Citizen Kane for the plot — a killer plot is a dime a dozen these days. I didn't watch Casablanca for the characters. Rather, I watched both appreciating the craft with which they were assembled, and to think about the ideas behind both films.

This is not a typical approach to cinema. But then, most people who watch Citizen Kane nowadays aren't watching expecting a typical movie. Technology and film theory has advanced to the point where what made Kane so wonderful is no longer unique, and has in many ways been surpassed. I submit that it's a film that's impossible to really appreciate unless you're either very young and very innocent (in which case this deliberation hardly matters), or if you're already well-versed in the art of cinema.

Tying this together with the other point you've been making in this thread (and adding a massive SPOILER): My favorite film of all time is Synecdoche, NY. I've seen and reseen a shitload of movies, and Synecdoche blows my goddamned mind. What's more, it's so modern that no film yet has managed to take what's so good about it, and no series of parodies has ruined its power on the new viewer.

Synecdoche is almost an anti-story. It's not about a specific incident: It's about the arc of a single life. And while the world around that life is surreal and everchanging, the life itself is portrayed as simply and honestly as I've ever seen a life portrayed, from midpoint to ending. While the world around him is fluid, Caden Cotard is a solid entity whose every thought I could identify with. The movie itself is a commentary on how stories are essentially illusions we use to mask the obvious-but-rarely-observed path of a human life: Namely, that it ends without specific resolution.

It's a movie where you could point out entire series of inconsistencies. The newspaper in the opening scene alone advances day by day throughout an entire year, though the whole scene takes place over a single breakfast. At one point, Caden turns on the TV and sees himself thirty years in the future, though he — and we — don't know it's him yet. He sees cartoons of himself talking about his life. It's surreal, but presented as if it were entirely realistic. (Almost Lynchian, but without the other trademarks of Lynch's style.)

And the fascinating thing about the film is that it's entirely self-aware. The concepts behind the film are discussed by its characters. They admit over and over again that they will all die. That the arcs of their life are too complex to appreciate until you look back at them from the end and see how incidental moments meant more than we ever knew from the beginning. It's replete with incredible monologues. We see one of them die after another, without salvation, without respite. Yet when most people see the ending for the first time (SPOILER), it's shocking and brutal. One minute the movie's going, the next it is grey and over. We knew it was coming. But we still expect something more out of the ending than that. I've screened the movie three or four times to three or four different groups. Each one leaves the room completely, absolutely silent.

The genius of it is that you're not able to discuss the film without discussing those themes you sneer upon for being Po-Mo, Grumblebee. You can't discuss the ending without first saying if you believe in God, or if you believe in an afterlife, and WHY you believe, and if not how you feel about your impending demise. To discuss the mere plot any single scene (to discuss a synecdoche of the overall movie, in other words) is to discuss a lot of very deep, difficult concepts. Which is why I love it. I can show it to any group and it instantly gets them all tackling the same subjects, discussing, bringing themselves closer. A week after I saw it I decided it had impacted my outlook on life tremendously; I still feel that way.

Its deeper themes are so closely united with the actual plot that they are in many ways one and the same. It's got a plot, of sorts: I watch it and laugh and cry and thoroughly enjoy the watching. It is an immaculate yarn. But as I said before, plots are cheap. The wonderful thing about Synecdoche is that it managed a plot that is incredibly well-connected to a series of other thoughts, and so it makes you think certain things you wouldn't think otherwise.

That's the idea of the po-mo movement. It's entirely sacrilegious. It doesn't hold ANYTHING sacred. Not story. Not the themes you seem to think they care about. The core of the movement tries very hard not to care about any single thing. It was about dissolving plot until dissolving plot became a thing; then it stopped being that. It was about breaking with linearity until that became a thing; now it's not inherently against linearity. It finds every belief, every preconception, and does its best to smash it, to free its practitioners from the rule. Now, some people see that and think the point is to be meaningless; it's not. The point is to remove arbitrary ideas about what constitutes a story or a movie or art in general, so that individual artists are free to do whatever they see fit, and to understand their art well enough that they avoid unconscious thought in their creation. Kind of like how free jazz (the ultimate postmodern genre?) requires an extraordinary training simply to avoid structure. It's difficult to be meaningfully chaotic.

So what makes Psycho good, that's postmodern too. It's not about the incredible acting (because the acting is artificial and melodramatic and not particularly risky by modern standards). It's not about the jump cuts (though they're meticulous and convey a lot of information through a lot of chaos). It's about the fact that they kill the hero halfway through. It subverts the plot. It teaches us not to think the hero's going to survive till the ending. It creates a narrative despite breaking one of the golden rules of narration. Kind of like the ending scene in Toy Story 3, the one with the toys in the incinerator, which I think is the best piece of cinema I've seen all year. They push a certain old trope (which I won't spoil) to such an extreme limit that they managed to evoke an honest response out of me, despite my knowing the trope they exploited thoroughly.

With respect to your love of storytelling, which is a love I share, and with respect to your father's method of teaching cinema, which is a method I'm sure he tackled with a lot of love and respect and did an absolutely smashing job with — I love postmodernism with a fuck of a lot of sincerity, and I think it's the best thing that's ever happened to the idea of art, and I don't particularly like it when it gets sneered at by traditionalists, even when those traditionalists are gifted at their particular tradition. If art is meant to make us think in new ways, then I see nothing to gain by insisting on tradition, and I appreciate attempts of people to break tradition in any and every way they see fit. Not so that art breaks down into anarchy, but so the individuals who reassemble it know very well exactly how they're piecing it together, and can create something that more loyally fulfills their exact vision. I love the classics but I don't miss them, if you know what I mean.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:21 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rory, you should (and it sounds like you do) embrace movies in whatever way pleases you, but...

Films are not about the basic plot. They are about the themes and ideas behind the basic plot.

Sez you.

Sez me: films are about basic plot.

Neither of us is "right." If you're right, prove it.

And I LOVE "Citizen Kane" primarily because I love its plot and characters. If I didn't, I would quit watching the movie. And I'm sure I'll watch it several more times before I die.
posted by grumblebee at 9:52 PM on June 26, 2010


Sez me: films are about basic plot.

Actually, I would omit the word "basic." I don't know how a "basic plot" is different from a regular old plot.

To me, what's important in a movie is plot and character first -- followed by what I'd call mood. Way behind those three things are genre (sometimes I just feel like seeing a Western or a Mystery). Then there are some more technical things, like Photography. I mostly enjoy that on subsequent views. First time through, if I'm thinking about the photography, it generally means I'm not all that involved. Theme isn't on my list. Partly because I'm not even sure it exists. Mostly because one can't think about theme while believing that the movie world is real.
posted by grumblebee at 9:56 PM on June 26, 2010



it is nearly impossible for a modern American to watch Psycho and not know the ending or the most famous scenes. Even if you never see it, you've seen so many parodies and homages and discussion that you just know.


I have not seen Psycho. I am a modern American, approximately 35 years old. I know there is a shower scene, with probably [Spoiler?] a gal getting stabbed, with a particular stylistic flair, type of soundtrack at the moment, and I believe some sort of clever cut to a similar motion. That is all I can recall about the movie. After reading grumblebee's story about his experiences and his father, I've been trying to not read the rest of the thread too closely so I may better savor my initial viewing.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:23 PM on June 26, 2010


You should watch it; it's good.

Then watch From Dusk 'Til Dawn and compare and contrast.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:26 PM on June 26, 2010


In the 90's I went through this Hitchcock kick and started watching all these old movies. Yet, I never rented Pyscho because I felt like I had seen it, even though I hadn't. About 5 years ago, I finally watched it. When the shower scene hits, you're like, okay, so this is where this happens. But then there's still plenty of movie left, including another famous scene which doesn't get talked about that much.

Anywho, for those that haven't seen the movie, just go watch the damn movie. It's good.
posted by jefbla at 12:41 AM on June 27, 2010


Neither of us is "right." If you're right, prove it.

That was my point. So a film study should emphasize the fact that there IS no right way to create a movie, no rules that need following, and that every rule that exists is there for a certain reason and therefore alternatives can be discovered.

As I said: I am a passionate defender of plot in films. Mostly. I make an exception for films like Slacker and Koyaanisqatsi. And the first artistic thing I ever undertook was fiction writing, meaning plot was always a big deal in my own writing. But at the same time I'm very grateful for the teachers who taught me there are other things in art besides plot, and that we should always know they're there, even if we ultimately reject those themes.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:35 AM on June 27, 2010


Another cool article about the importance of the shower scene: Getting Alfred Hitchcock out of the Shower
posted by Geameade at 5:32 AM on June 27, 2010


Psycho is one of my favorite movies. I think I'd seen the shower scene before seeing the film in its entirety. However, I'm sure that I watched Psycho 4 before ever seeing Psycho. And let me tell you, that gave me a different perspective on the original film. Especially as Psycho 4 focuses on Bates' early childhood experiences and how they led him to kill.

I approached Psycho with all this character backstory that, sure, completely ruined all the surprises for me, but didn't take away from the power of the storytelling. In fact, for me, Psycho is a movie that gets better the more I watch it.

FYI, I'm a fan of Psycho 2 (in which a reformed Norman returns to the motel and people start dying) and Psycho 4 (which deals with his childhood and his fears that any children of his would be monsters) but not Psycho 3 (which is just a slasher.) I find it strange that people never talk about the sequels. No, they aren't Hitchcock, but some of them are pretty good horror/mystery movies and Anthony Perkins still gives entertaining performances as Norman Bates, even when the writing and directing lacks something.
posted by threeturtles at 5:58 PM on June 27, 2010


Oh, and I meant to point out that I think the silhouette of the killer in the doorway is not a very important clue in consideration of the moment when Norman Bates enters and finds the body. Perkin's performance at that moment is the biggest misdirection in the film.
posted by threeturtles at 6:05 PM on June 27, 2010


> I watched Citizen Kane knowing how it would end. I knew most of how Casablanca ended when I saw it. I haven't seen Psycho, but if I see it I'll know essentially every scene as it happens. But I don't feel like I particularly missed out.

What an absurd thing to say, especially for someone who claims "I am a passionate defender of plot in films." If plots don't make a difference, why are you so passionate about them? Do you not realize that you cannot know what you missed out on? You are in the position of the fox who can't reach the grapes and therefore proclaims them sour. Do you also not think it would make a difference if you knew how your life was going to come out before you lived it? Hey, it's the same life, so how are you missing out? Did you not read the comments from people who talked about the tremendous impact certain plot twists made on them, an impact that would have been impossible if they had been known in advance, or did you think we were all lying? I'm used to people smugly proclaiming that spoilers are fine because plot is unimportant and if we place that much emphasis on it we're fools who deserve anything we get, but it's bizarre to see such an argument from someone who claims to think plot is important.
posted by languagehat at 6:02 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What an absurd thing to say, especially for someone who claims "I am a passionate defender of plot in films." If plots don't make a difference, why are you so passionate about them? Do you not realize that you cannot know what you missed out on?

I've heard this argument all my life. It baffles me. And it doesn't just come up in discussion about plots and movies. The essential form is:

A: X is SO much better if combined with Y.

B: I disagree. I've never had X with Y, and yet I love X.

It's as if B thinks A is saying "X is WORTHLESS without Y" or "If you claim you enjoy X without Y, you're lying." And, as you point out, B almost never seems to grasp that, having never tried X with Y, he's in no position to know whether A's claim is true or false.

No one here is saying, "'Psycho' sucks if you know what's going to happen." I've seen it before, and I know what's going to happen, and yet I still enjoy it. That's not my point. My point is that first time was SPECIAL.

But this fallacy manifests itself in much subtler ways in discussions about art. If Sam likes a movie and Joe suggests there's a flaw in it, Sam will almost always claim that the flaw doesn't matter. It's one thing if Sam doesn't feel the flaw is a flaw. Then what he's saying makes complete sense. But saying, "Sure, it's a flaw, but it doesn't matter, because I liked the movie anyway," is odd.

(It's not odd if you're just having a casual discussion about movies you like. But if you're having a more rigorous discussion about aesthetics, then flaw are more meaningful.)

First of all, it's odd because it makes it sound as though Joe didn't like the movie. He did (or at least it's possible he did). He just noticed a flaw. Second, it creates this weird binary world in which you either like a movie or you don't, and there's nothing more to say about it aesthetically. It denies the possibility that you might like a good movie even MORE if it didn't contain the flaw. Or at least you might like it just as much. At least fixing the flaw wouldn't hurt anything, and it might help someone else -- someone bothered by the flaw -- like the movie better.

That last sentence is important. When I was a kid, I had a pet boa constrictor. So I happen to know what their markings look like. Boas are used as dangerous snakes in many movies, because they're actually not dangerous, and so the actors are never at risk. But every time I see someone threatened by a dangerous boa, it totally takes me out of the movie. It might as well be a kitten.

Now, if you never had a boa, and don't happen to know much about markings on snakes, then this isn't going to bother you. But if I said, "In terms of pleasing more people, do you think the movie would be improved if they replaced the boa with an actually dangerous snake?" I don't see how a reasonable answer isn't yes, of course.

A realistic snake would help people like me enjoy the movie more without damaging anyone else's ability to enjoy more. To me, if you're going to feature a snake (in a realistic movie), your goal should be to please the snake EXPERTS. The lay people will be pleased anyway. Why not please the experts, too? Similarly, if there's going to be a computer in a realistic movie, aim to please the programmers.

Yeah, doing that is harder. Who said storytelling is supposed to be easy?

I know NOTHING about guns. I hear people say that all sorts of unrealistic stuff happens with guns all the time in (supposedly realistic) movies. It goes right by me. It doesn't bother me. But I would HOPE that movie-makers would care enough about the details to make their films stand up even AFTER I decide to become a gun expert.

And no, I'm not saying movies should always be exactly like real life. I'm saying that if you veer from real life, have a good story reason for doing so. Don't just do it because, "Oh, what we're doing is good enough for 90% of the audience." Aim higher than that! Or, if you don't, at least be honest enough to admit that your movie is flawed (at least for some reasonable members of the audience).
posted by grumblebee at 8:17 AM on June 28, 2010


> I've heard this argument all my life. It baffles me.

It took me some time to figure out you were agreeing with me and not the reverse!
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on June 28, 2010


Sorry. Need more coffee. (Or less?)
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on June 28, 2010


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