Reflexivity as a Dramatic Component of Psycho by Edward Recchia (Michigan State University)
* Most of Hitchcock’s films are designed to attack social complacency by depicting the way we, ordinary and respectable citizens, accept the illusory values that society has pre-packaged for us. Hitchcock typically lures his viewers to share empathically the adventures which strip his film protagonists of their often blasé social attitudes and force them to grow into stronger, more committed individuals. Spectacularly violent action occurring at scenes normally representing social stability – The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the United Nations Building – shock both the Hitchcock protagonist and us in the audience into appreciating “the precarious balance between order and chaos, between innocence and evil, between repressions and anxiety” (James Naremore). As a result, the main character undergoes a kind of therapeutic shock treatment, and so also do we.
* By eliminating the film protagonist, the normal conduit to the viewers’ vicarious emotions, Hitchcock directs his drama outward, toward each seat in the movie theatre. As Donald Spoto says, “In Psycho, with perhaps greater insistence than elsewhere, Hitchcock directs the audience more than he directs the actors”. The key to the film’s effectiveness is that the drama takes place between the mind of the viewer and the theatre screen, luring viewers into interacting with the screened “reality” in the same way they interact with life when they are outside the theatre – according to a set of learned conventions. Accordingly, he uses traditional film conventions to tell the first half of his story and has his film’s characters act in the way that traditional film characters are expected to act, so that his viewers will react in the way that traditional film viewers are supposed to react: all of this to create a series of therapeutic shock effects for the viewers through the second half of the film.
* In believing that money will solve a deeper human problem, Marion is only doing in a more extreme form what Hitchcock feels society does all the time: using social surrogates for what should be more authentic human values. An early symbol of that tendency is the highway patrolman who awakens Marion on the highway outside of Phoenix. With his dark sunglasses and implacable manner, he seems robot-like, as though his official persona robs him of his normal human emotions. By the end of the film, we are provided with a multitude of reinforcing symbols: the circular shower head, through which flow the waters of seeming absolution when Marion showers after deciding to return the stolen money, is paralleled ironically by the circular drain down which her blood, now mixed with water, flows after she has been murdered, both scenes paralleled by the spiralling water in the toilet bowl down which Marion earlier flushed all but one piece of paper on which she wrote down the amount of money she had stolen. Reinforced by Norman’s frantic attempt to wash away all signs of his “mother’s” crime by sinking Marion’s body and car in a bog, these symbols suggest what a very thin line separates destructive psychotic defence mechanisms from socially acceptable sublimation. The surface is what is important – to Norman and to us. If something looks a little dirty, our tendency is to apply some antiseptic cleanser, flush the dirt down the drain, and pretend that it never existed. By symbolically suggesting this parallel between the Norman attitude and the “normal” attitude, Hitchcock establishes a thematic framework for the more vital dramatic awakening that is to befall his viewers by the end of the film.
* From beginning to end, the film’s narrative never stops turning around the question of privacy Bill Schaffer Cutting The Flow: Thinking Psycho A paper presented at the Alfred Hitchcock conference For the Love of Fear convened by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, April 2000
* As the action commences we find ourselves descending from the sky, sliding like snakes under the window of a motel room where an illicit couple struggle in secret over the idea of going public with their liaison. From then on,
* With every new development in the plot another invasion of privacy takes us deeper into zones of experience where the divisions between the private and the public begin to bend and blur or are deliberately transgressed:
* Cassidy's unwanted solicitations; * Marion's initial act of theft; * the mutual double-take when her boss recognises her in the escape car; * the policeman who appears at her window, his face cut out of space, absolutely frontal, like a wall, a death mask, a living poster, a talking head on TV - taking to the limit the austere, TV-like shot/reverse shot claustrophobia of all her encounters
* the hole in the wall through which Bates watches Marion * our own almost unprecedented observations of her movements in the bathroom; * the murderous attack upon her in the shower.
* Bodies, faces, looks, cars, knives – all penetrate the zones of privacy and control over proximity Marion tries to establish around herself from moment to moment.
* the Private Eye whose whole business is to conspire against the rights of privacy; * the psychoanalyst who makes it his job to expose the intangible secrets of the unconscious; * the penultimate scene where we penetrate into the devastated interior of a man unable to experience privacy even within his own head, the voice of his dead mother impossibly intoning 'they're probably watching me now'; light of day. * the final scene where the car containing Marion's body is finally retrieved from the sludge and brought into the light of day.
* You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what's coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what's actually going to happen. The director never sees his viewers, never gets his living spectators in sight, but he nonetheless makes it his business to violate their privacy on a regular basis.
* At the base of Hitchcock's engagement with cinema, if we take him at his own word, was a fantasy of transparency and control through which the director would draw the pliant viewer towards … a position of unnatural intimacy, even as he simultaneously strove to minimise all contact with the viewer, to achieve a level of control through which the viewer would … ultimately become nothing more than raw matter which Hitchcock sculpted freely in time.
* Where the fiction of Psycho explores the themes of voyeurism and privacy from being seen, Hitchcock's explicit reflections on his own role as director address the quite different question of the privacy of seeing.
* For Hitchcock, deliberate violation of the privacy of seeing constituted the director's ethical obligation, defined the very contract of perversity binding him to the mass of viewers he would never meet. There are two dimensions of privacy, then, just as there are two sides to the cinematic address: the side of the director, who works with cameras and cuts; and the side of the viewer, who expects only to be carried away in the flow.
* It is the singular way that Hitchcock makes these dimensions communicate - opens the one to the other through the precise effects of closure he exerts upon every frame - that must be articulated anew.
* All of this is effectively demonstrated by Hitchcock in the apparently simple, repeated act of framing a frame and passing through it. This gesture calls attention to itself …
* But not: * to exploit the fundamentally voyeuristic nature of the spectator's identification with the camera as it effortlessly penetrates and dominates space, * nor as a purely negative gesture aimed at exposing the mechanisms of that identification. * Nor, even, both at once.
* Something altogether different is at stake, even if it sometimes includes an appeal to voyeurism as one of its elements. The dominant note when Hitch plays his viewers is neither that of subjective mastery, nor of its exposure as merely imaginary.
* Our manipulated passage back and forth across the threshold between two worlds, a passage which is going all the time, from moment to moment, frame to frame, whenever the action rolls, signs itself here as an invocation of fate and the demonstration of its irreversibility
* Not only the fate of the characters, but even more so, the fate of the viewer, the fate of my affect, which is intensified, not diminished or held at a critical distance, by the very conspicuous and idiosyncratic way Hitchcock's camera calls attention to itself.
* In Hitchcock, cinema asserts itself as aberration of movement and dispossession of point of view. What is at stake here is a positive and specific experience of indeterminacy: of not knowing what is coming and where I will stand in relation to it.