Culture

Watch: David Thomson on ‘Psycho’ and the Playful Cruelty of Hitchcock

There have been two consistent complaints lodged against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. One is their mostly-white, mostly-old, and mostly-male voting bloc, which they took strides to diversify in 2016. The other is that its voters are enamored by the story of themselves, which may prove tougher to fix. This year’s list of nominees for the 89th Academy Awards saw “La La Land,” a saccharine musical about Hollywood dreamers, pick up a record-tying fourteen nominations. This, after “Birdman” and “The Artist” picked up top honors in 2015 and 2012, respectively.

The Academy, of course, also regularly promotes socially progressive stories outside the vain echo chamber it sometimes swirls in. But if you want to harumph yourself into a corner over their mirror-mirror ways, you can rejoice in knowing the Awards will never have final say over what we as Collective Critics deem ‘classics.’ Take, for example, two films: “Shakespeare in Love” and “Psycho.” One of these movies won Best Picture, and the other was actually good. (Hint: Both feature misunderstood protagonists but the winner’s didn’t kill people.)

And that’s to be expected. Rewards reflect their times more than the subjective art of filmmaking and storytelling. Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director five times and didn’t win once, but we’ll all remember “Psycho’s” shower scene, or that rainy car ride, or that peep hole, far more than the yearnings of a scribe whose story has been retread for centuries.

In the spirit of geeking out over films we can all get behind, join David Thomson, author of How to Watch a Movie, and Michael Barker in the video above talk about the rewatchability of “Psycho” and the playfully cruel ways in which Hitchcock toyed with his audience.

Transcript of David Thomson and Michael Barker on “Psycho” and the Playful Cruelty of Alfred Hitchcock

DAVID THOMSON: I always say that Hitchcock is the best director to teach because every shot, every frame, Hitchcock is making decisions. So he illustrates the nature of the medium. You know what I mean? He’s always doing something odd and remarkable.

I still remember seeing “Psycho” for the first time. I was nineteen, in London, huge empty theater. The first performance, the sort of lunchtime performance on a Friday. And I didn’t know much about the film — that ideal state, you know, we all know too much about films now — and then comes the shower killing. I was nineteen, and when you’re nineteen you think you’re sort of tough, you can handle life, you know? I remember saying under my breath to the film, Don’t do that again, please!

MICHAEL BARKER: I remember — I saw “Psycho” so many times — but I remember once I saw “Psycho” at a revival house and towards the end when Vera Miles decides to make that turn to go down to the basement, this lady yelled out at the screen, Don’t do that! Haven’t you seen this movie?

DT: [laughs] But that is Hitchcock, he makes you feel like you’re making a movie.

MB: But she’s seen it many times and it’s still like it’s the first time. You talk in this book about how we love the movies because we love this aspect of being alone, of this solitude, and that’s all about Hitchcock.

DT: And he had this great sense of the audience and why we go into the dark to fantasize. It’s almost as if he’s saying to us, Oh so you’re coming into my dark? You think you’re brave enough for my darkOK, sit down. I’m going to put you through it. And you know he often talked about putting the audience through it, testing them. And there was a…cruel side to Hitchcock, you could feel it in all the films. But he understood that sort of sex and violence appeal that everyone has always had in going to the movies.

MB: But something you talk about in the book is that real life can be really traumatic. You know if you encounter crime in real life, or if you’re assaulted in real life, it’s very, very traumatic. But in films–

DT: We just eat it up!

MB: We eat it up, and that’s the thing that Hitchcock knew.

DT: He understood, totally.