Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Pleasure of Watching.

Above all Psycho is a movie about the movies. From its opening shot, in which it establishes that it takes place in a city not so far away, it's telling us "this could happen to you".
Alfred Hitchcock was the ultimate voyeur, but unlike many filmmakers who used this as means to their specifically sexual ends, Hitch turned each of his voyeuristic adventures into explorations of the human subconscious.
Particularly when it comes to the eyes as a camera.

Notice how right after this city setting, he takes us right into the room where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is spending the afternoon with her lover (John Gavin).
The fact that the blinds are halfway down makes our intrusion even more violent, but Hitchcock calms our nerves because the window and the blinds resemble the eye of a camera, attracting us towards its darkness, always ignoring what we will capture with it.

That we end up capturing one of the most erotic love scenes ever filmed is no coincidence.
After all, one of the reasons why we go to the movies is to fantasize about things we might never have.

The scene is filled with sweeping camera moves that approach the characters without ever feeling intrusive or announcing its presence. The closer the camera gets to them, the less aware they are of it even being there. The more intimate they become.
Hitchcock has established the fact that while this is happening in a world like ours, once we entered the hotel room, we are watching a movie.

When later, we meet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Hitchcock has no trouble in making him seem like the weirdest guy who lived. His love for taxidermy, only an extension of the themes of preservation Hitchcock had explored in the past.
What's so different between these stuffed, dead animals and the Carlotta painting in Vertigo?

Hitchcock who's often regarded as a misogynist, probably knew that the easiest way for him to look past his personal issues and to represent them on film would be to filter them through lenses, cameras and movies.
Therefore as Norman feels the urge to spy on Marion (and later kill her) it all begins with a simple peek through a peephole.

We are reminded this way of the Lacanian notion that men derive sadistic pleasure out of watching women fragmented by the camera. By spying on shattered women, male audiences (and the director himself) felt a reassurance that their own bodies were complete, whole.
Watching women through cameras, whether on regular films or pornography, realizes males' fantasies because it gives them godlike power.
They are whole, they have control.

This leads to my favorite shot in the movie:

Here, as Norman's curious eye discovers Marion for the first time we too feel his pleasure, we too want to watch what he's watching.
Not all of us want to be murderers, but that was never the point. It's the pleasure of viewing that seduces and eventually releases our innermost desires.
The notions of media and real life violence being related are questionable (at least not provable in scientific terms) but for a moment we understand that the joys of watching are some we share with everyone: from serial killers, to babies, to hypnotized movie audiences.

Have you ever noticed how after that first shot of the city, nothing else in Psycho ever looks "real"?
When the movie ends, it's as if we never left the world we entered through the first hotel window. Norman is inarguably trapped in it, but are we too?
This reminds us of the Lacanian notion that fantasy is not really the object of desire, but its setting. Through fantasy we learn to desire.
Whether you desire to be a killer, a thief, or a taxidermist is strictly up to you. The movies can help us find our heart's desire but their power isn't enough to control it.

This post is part of Nat's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Re-watching PSYCHO this time around it occurred to me how unfairly it's remembered. Sure, people love it but there's so much more going on that what it's remembered for and your entry is a fine example of that. It's not the first thing that comes to mind here, but the voyeuristic nature quite significant.


I'm really glad you focused on the opening scene. I think it's one of the best openings ever for a movie. It tells you so much about how to see the movie but it also tells you literally nothing about the movie -- except for Marion's wild side -- so it's this weird balancing act.

and my god it's sexy.

Anonymous said...

About the 'nothing else in Psycho feels real,' after rewatching it, for some reason, I was surprised by the car lot scene, where there's a triple shot-counter shot with the parking lot and where the police officer is parked. The backgrounds behind them, the parkette behind the cop or the houses and the sidewalk behind the lot seem convincing. That, or that black and white does wonders for hiding things.

Pedro said...

Me gustó mucho tu ensayo. Y es curioso que escogimos la misma toma de la película. En realidad es excepcional.

Tom Clift said...

I love the analysis of the opening sequence.

I'm also so happy you included that shot of Norman approaching the peephole in the wall - I completely overlooked it when selecting my own favourite, but it's definitely a great shot that I wish I'd considered; the undecorated wall surrouding the pin point of light, and Norman filling up the left hand side of the frame. Brilliant!

As for your own favourite shot, I'll repeat a comment I left on another blog that picked the same one: this shot would have been my second selection; it's definitely the most visually attractive/"beautiful" shot in the film in my opinion. I also love how Hitchcock, after setting up Norman as such an unsettling character in the parlour scene, puts the audiences in the creepily enjoyable position of the voyeur. We know we shouldn't like it, but staring at such an attractive woman as Janet Leigh...for male viewers at least, it's an uncomfortable position to be in.

Great piece!

Runs Like A Gay said...

Great piece, with nicely balanced entries both of which say so much about the characters as well as speaking to the themes of the piece as a whole.