Friday, November 25, 2016

Shock of the Unexpected...Excerpt From the Prologue to Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors


Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's sentimental comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so the public won't be sent into a panic. Of course, the new President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton. From that comedy came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made. By delving into the American experience from Kennedy to Clinton, I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back, saying that it would never sell. One Canadian press almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, and later my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, though, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama. For the past number of years, Reflections has also been a hugely successful lecture series. In light of the fact that this week is the 53rd anniversary of JFK's assassination, here is an excerpt from the book's prologue.

- Kevin Courrier


At the end of The Godfather, Part II, in the dead of fall, Michael Corleone makes the comment that history teaches us you can kill anyone. Most people heard in those remarks echoes of the assassination of JFK, even though the murder under discussion takes place three years after the mob leader's observation and Kennedy isn't yet president. For all we know, Michael could be referring to seeing Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the previous summer, for not only did Psycho teach us that you can kill anyone, but the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in a motel shower before the halfway point of the picture also flew in the face of what film history taught us – and the frisson of that moment, that shock of the unexpected, would come to foreshadow the events of the sixties. Director Martin Scorsese recently referred to Psycho in that manner in the Kent Jones documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut. Phillip J. Skerry in his 2009 book, Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema's Most Famous Scene, talks about how the film "ushered in a shift in the cultural paradigm from the bland decade of the 1950s, with its emphasis on togetherness and family values, to the 1960s, that cataclysmic decade of political assassinations, student protests, free speech conflicts, race riots, Vietnam protests, and, above all, violence – in our streets, in our political institutions, in our culture, and most vividly in our media, especially in our films, and in our music." But how could one low-budget thriller with a turbulent twist send such a ripple through the next decade?

The most obvious answer is that Hitchcock killed off the leading lady in the first half hour, which no one had ever done before. But it's much more than that. Psycho altered our expectations in a number of different ways. To begin with, the picture was a huge departure from his previous movie, North by Northwest, which had been in colour and in widescreen. As in many of the director's suspense dramas (though not his recent Vertigo), everything ends up working out in the end -- despite the presence of treachery and mistaken identity, advertising man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) winds up much happier by the last scene, in bed with the beautiful American spy, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Psycho was different in every way. It was filmed in black and white and on a lower budget. More significantly, he brought in the television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his hit TV show, who gave the film some of the same intimacy. And not only was the movie in black and white, at a time when most high-profile films were being made in colour, but the score by Bernard Herrmann was conceived in black-and-white terms. Instead of writing music that featured the full orchestral colour provided by horns and wind instruments, Herrmann scored it for a string orchestra, which deprived it of any tonal range. Furthermore, Herrmann went against the grain of our usual association of strings with romantic music: the string score to Psycho produces nothing but anxiety. Who has ever forgotten the horror of the shrieking strings during the shower scene? (Producer George Martin was clearly haunted by the sound of those staccato strings: years later he suggested to Paul McCartney a similar string orchestra sound for the despairing tone of his "Eleanor Rigby.") 

The story deviates from other norms. At first Psycho seems to be a heist movie about a woman, Marion Crane, who steals money with the hope of starting a new life rather than carrying on a backstairs affair with a married man. As she takes off in her car with the cash, we keep expecting her to get caught, but she makes it unscathed until rain forces her off the road and into the Bates Motel. When she meets the young proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), they seem to connect in a way that partially eases our anxieties, but that assurance doesn't last too long. Once she goes to her room for the night to contemplate the idea of going home and facing what she's done, we see Norman remove a painting so he can peep at her through a hole in the wall, and in that moment Hitchcock makes us complicit in Norman's act of seeing Janet Leigh undress. Hitchcock is reminding us that watching movies is an act of voyeurism, but unlike most directors, who don't implicate the audience but let us satisfy our fantasies, Hitchcock makes us conscious of the act. Since Hitchcock was one of the pioneers of cinema who worked in silent pictures, Norman's looking through a peep hole takes us right back to the early Kinetoscope shorts that aroused the curiosity of private viewers about the moving image before looking at it became a communal activity in the movie theatre. And once Hitchcock has put us in the same position as Norman Bates he sets us up for a murder we don't see coming. 

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh

But first we get treated to the image of Janet Leigh having a shower, a fuller view of her than Norman gets. Director Jonathan Demme once talked excitedly about seeing the film as a young man who got to see partial nudity after years of the censorship code, only to pay for his peaked interest by having to watch Leigh get stabbed to death. And once she gets murdered in a horrible and vicious way, we are also put in a position of helplessness, since we're not able to save her. At first we pray that she is still alive so that we don't have to carry the guilt of what we witnessed and failed to prevent. Once we realize she is dead, we shift our allegiance to Norman immediately as he cleans up after what believe to be his mother's crime. The film is all about splits. Janet Leigh's Marion Crane is in a white bra and slip as she makes love to her lover and then in a black bra and slip as she plans her getaway. The heist movie turns into a murder thriller. Norman is split sexually. The audience becomes split in its loyalties. Janet Leigh often said in interviews later that Hitchcock was being clever about the audience's shift of identification to Norman, but I think it's more than just smarts. We need the crime to be cleaned up – and that includes Marion's car going into the swamp – because we share in the guilt. It's funny and interesting that director Peter Bogdanovich once described the effect of the shower scene when he saw it at the film's New York premiere as making him feel as if he'd been raped. Well, it's Marion who gets implicitly raped, but what I think he's really saying is that the scene made him feel like a rapist.

Lee Harvey Oswald faces the TV cameras

The huge impact of Psycho is that it pulled the rug out from under our assurances. Hitchcock didn't play into our shared expectations for restored order and security in this picture; he violated that belief and made us culpable in a crime by exploiting our voyeurism. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, we had survived the Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis which almost led to nuclear war, and we began to feel invulnerable despite our fears. So when the president was suddenly killed in Dallas, our sense of protection was violated – and we got to watch it all happen on television. Jim Morrison of The Doors wrote about the relationship between voyeurism and murder and the Kennedy assassination in his book, The Lords and The New Creatures: "Camera, as an all-seeing god, satisfies our longing for omniscience. To spy on others from this height and angle...The sniper's rifle is an extension of his eye. He kills with injurious vision." Abraham Zapruder was an American clothing manufacturer who witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and filmed the murder with his 8mm home movie camera, having looking through the peep hole of his lens innocently, never expecting to see Kennedy's head getting blown off. Lee Harvey Oswald used the peep hole on his own rifle when he targeted JFK for the kill from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. There were cameras and viewfinders everywhere in this crime – even the live murder of Oswald by Ruby – that brought us intimately closer to the crime. The Kennedy assassination, as critic David Thomson once described it, was a film noir. It was a black-and-white murder that became a live thriller narrative broadcast on television over that dark weekend in November. And isn't it one of life's ironies that Lee Harvey Oswald gets captured in a movie theatre? Psycho prepared us for the shock of the unexpected. And the memorable visual motifs used by the news cameramen who framed every second of that weekend were subliminally absorbed by a number of film directors who would use some of those same motifs for key dramas in the decades ahead.

Although I don't buy Mark Lane's theories about a conspiracy in Kennedy's death, I do like his thesis in Rush to Judgment that the killing of a country's leader is an act of parricide. The murder of the father always provokes guilt in the family which leads to a rush to judgment. You can see this dynamic acted out in scenarios from Hamlet to The Brothers Karamazov. Our witnessing the crime on television drew us into its vortex, and the guilt would be played out in the decades to follow, partly in the movies. The assassination was a national nightmare, and the images that ran across our television screen that weekend were like memory traces of a horrible dream left dormant in our unconscious. Since television news was still in its infancy, there wasn't a plan for covering an event like this. News journalists and anchors were swept up in the events and carried forward by a tidal wave. On the TV news, we watched as newsmen scrambled for information, mangled names and introduced raw film footage with streaks of developing chemicals still staining the frames. We saw them trying to perform their jobs with professional detachment while experiencing the speed and horror of events just as their viewers were.

CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite trying to read the report from Dallas

If you watch Walter Cronkite in that famous CBS footage announcing Kennedy's death, he is wearing his glasses. Since he rarely ever wore glasses while reading the news, it was clear that he was having to read copy coming directly off the news wires, not from the usual neatly prepared scripts. So he had to be sure he got the information right. And like us at home, Cronkite was caught up in a horror story without knowing the outcome. By the time he came across the official announcement, he took his glasses off and put them on again, as if struggling with the truth that his eyes were showing him. Not only is it a human moment on live television that conveys the full shock of recognition, but it also reflects everything we are feeling as we watch. So, in the years ahead, these searing images find both subliminal and overt references in a variety of movies, whether or not they were commenting directly on the state of the country. Directors and screenwriters were haunted by what their eyes witnessed that weekend thanks to television, and the films they made afterwards couldn't get it out of their system.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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