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Courtesy of Shamley Productions

April 27, 2017

Psycho as Not-so-Scary Video Art

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I often wonder why people pay money to spin around in a teacup or turn upside down on a roller-coaster. Why willfully commit yourself to nausea and headaches when your feet can stay put on the ground?  You say fun; I say torture.  I approach horror cinema with the same skepticism.  Why open your eyes to nightmares when nothing so scary need occupy your mind?  In his creation of Psycho, the definitive psychological thriller, director Alfred Hitchcock upholds my selective frugality. Hitchcock filmed the horror story with a surprisingly low budget, even for the 1960s. He used television cameras rather than a film crew and opted for gray scale quality depictions. He invested little money in scaring his audiences. This Friday, Cornell Cinema screens the film for just $5.  At that price — with “the greatest film of all time” promise added at no extra charge — Psycho is money well spent, even for the wimpiest Fun-Park attendee.

Marion Crane, played by Hollywood starlet Janet Leigh, steals $40,000 from her boss so that she can run away with her bankrupt boyfriend. She falls victim first to her senseless love, and second, to a psychopathic murderer. In order to break from the nauseating insanity, I encourage viewers to grab onto a side rail on that spinning teacup and look past the superficial terror. Hitchcock invested in a television crew, not a horror movie enterprise. His film foregrounds the medium, not the genre. Psycho plays with video as a mechanism for presentation and as a mode of expression. By the early 1960s, nearly 90 percent of American households owned a television. It became a direct pipeline for popular culture to flow into the family room. As video developed into film and film into cinema, postmodern artists exaggerated the flaws in their medium. Video critical artists emphasized the distance created between the now and the pre-recorded present. In Psycho, Marion Crane functions like Martha Rosler, Joan Jonas, or Barbara Kruger — women who, in the 1970s, used video and appropriated imagery to question the postmodern self. Hitchcock scales back his video quality from the cutting edge North by Northwest, nearly prophesying the impact of television screens on American life.

Hitchcock personifies the artificial disconnection of self and self-identity in Marion. As the second half of the twentieth century created a crisis in ego formation, actors and audiences alike defined themselves by the characters they played and the images they absorbed. Increasingly, a spectacle culture, inundated with iconography and mass media, created a pressure cooker of expectation and reality. Hitchcock brings these two elements to their boiling point. As Marion drives away from sensibility in her Ford Mainline, Hitchcock captures pure distress on her face. She is trapped between a perfect-American-woman persona and a longing for freedom. Hitchcock frames her in this moment of crisis. The simple, rectangular shot entraps Marion’s image while her mind gyrates around her desires and responsibilities. Her beauty contradicts her crime.  Her fear opposes her audacity. Every facet of Marion’s character extends the formulaic boundary line set by the film. A viewer watches faux reality and draws contemporary meaning from a recorded past. An actor expresses his character to an unknown, unseen audience while remaining a separate self. Video, as a new medium, pulled a screen-like tension between its audiences and artists. Hitchcock trades off of and exaggerates this mechanical stress. Marion captures her period’s anxiety over the video genre.

In his psychotic killer, Hitchcock forebodes a disastrous end of video’s two sided experiences. While Marion’s self identity crisis leads to a regretted theft, Norman Bates’s internal rift between reality and perception extends to bloody extremes. The screen dissolves in Norman’s character and representational confusion enters a violent realm.  His character plays with video’s distortion of the here and now and the there and then.  He both confounds the past into the present and convinces himself of an alternative reality. Through Norman, Hitchcock shows how video practice bridges on insanity. He questions where acting and impersonation become mental derangement. He asks his audiences: how far can we extend cinematic metaphors into our real lives?

Hitchcock’s Psycho draws viewers into the Tilt-a-Whirl. Audiences feel Marion’s distress, her fear, her longing, her guilt and her regret. And at the same time, viewers feel real fear. As the infamous shower scene plays across the screen, you’ll jump at the creaking of your neighbor’s chair. At least for a moment, the screen becomes an emotional reality. Hitchcock involves the viewer in the confusion of the present now and the pre-recorded then, the mirrored self and the imagistic self, the tangible fear and the imagined danger. The resulting horror film becomes not so much scary or nauseating as thought provoking and video critical. It’s the kind of amusement ride I could get used to, not for its amusement but for its psychoanalysis. Psycho’s spinning confusion provides less of a headache and more of a mental challenge.

Psycho will be playing at Cornell Cinema this Friday, April 26.

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jmc628@cornell.edu.

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