When it came to close up, hard focus revulsion, nothing could beat the movies. The most recent item I’d seen at the Ritz ended with the mother of a graphically raped daughter just as graphically castrating the villain with her teeth. On all sides, hoots of delighted approval from an audience of teenage troglodytes munching big Macs and pizza.
Where did such fury come from? Such a vindictive rage? Almost resentfully, I told myself they don’t have the right to go so ugly-nuts. They haven’t earned it. That should be the privilege of age and much suffering.
Or was there, I wondered, some deeper human sensibility rising to the surface here, a thin-skinned, hair-trigger capacity for hurt that would no longer deny it self-expression? If so, hurt by what? These weren’t the casualties of atrocity, of historic horror, of which there were many tending their scars with quiet dignity. These were pampered suburban school kids, for gods’ sake, seemingly unscathed in their enclaves of affluence. Hurt, then, by life itself. Cheated by the act of birth, striking out, hitting back. Was that possible?
True, these tacky little films were a fringe phenomenon. But new growth, including rot, starts at the fringe, working in, and these days traveling at a dizzy pace. No more than a few years after underground and sexploitation films had pioneered the way, major movies at first-run houses were featuring glossier versions of the same sadistic capers, ghoulishness, kinky sex, diabolical obsession. All of which, once it penetrated the mainstream cinema, was apt to be heralded by leading critics as a bold stroke, a daring innovation, a breakthrough. As if everyone, even the best and the brightest, were just waiting for the barriers to crumble.
And here I was at the poisoned source of it all. In this audience, I senseed I was close to some privileged vision into the troubled soul of the time, a truth with a twisted face. The experience took my thoughts back more than a dozen years to a time when movies still largely belonged to an adult culture and the quaint phrase “art film” still held a bright promise. Clare, who was the product and still the game champion of that era, had offered me one of my most memorable lessons in film criticism. It might have been a review of the movie I’d seen that day.
At the time I was still an impressionable undergraduate; and with my film courses, we were using the famous shower murderscene from Hitchcock’s Psycho to learn some fundamentals of film editing. The movie was then Hitchcock’s most recent release, and this shocking sequence had quickly been identified as a stunning technical tour de force. Enthusiastically, I reported to Claire how my instructor was deftly combing through the 70/count them 70/separate shots that compose this sensational minute of film in which Janet Leigh is hacked to bloody ribbons in the tub. Claire greeted my report with a cold stare and total silence. The following week, she rented Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and arranged to borrow a freeze-frame projector. Then she led me frame by frame through the tennis match sequence at the end of the movie. She did this quite expertly, delineating the thematic contrast between the sunlit tennis court and the murderers hand reaching down into the dark sewer.
I was deeply impressed by the analysis. Even so, I ventured to say that the effect in Psycho was better. Claire scoffed. With her typical perversity, she let me know she deplored much-praised Psycho and insisted that Strangers was Hitchcock’s last good movie before he turned psychotically self-indulgent.
“But more important then which film is better,” she went on, “is your judgment, Johnny, about what you saw/or think you saw. Sure, Psycho is razzle-dazzle editing. But did your teacher also call it to your attention that Psycho is sick thrills? Never take your eye off the ball, lover. Otherwise, any clever mechanic with a moviolas a lot will sucker you in every time. This is a mighty medium. It lends itself to such abuse. Look, I show you gorgeous sequence from Strangers on a Train has just as much tension, plus elegance, symbolic overtones, plus no blood. But you tell me Psycho is better. Why? It’s a crummy script, a contrived plot, badly paced, miserably constructed. So why do you think it’s better/really better? Admit it. You’re a man, sitting here in the protective dark, watching a naked lady getting knifed in all her private parts. That’s cliché porn, no matter how you slice it. Believe me, the guys who applaud such mayhem in the shower would be getting their rocks off if Hitchcock gave them the scene in one long take/in slow motion yet.”
Exasperated, she made a dire prediction. “Psycho is the beginning of something very bad. Mark my words. In another few years, every sadistic nut in the film industry is going to be grinding out mad slasher helpless female victim flicks, served up with fancy editing, the same types were praising Psycho will be saluting what they see as film art. Meanwhile, the women of the world will have to start walking the streets dressed in armor. And after that, it’s going to be straight ahead into new frontiers of mayhem. I wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a day when they hire disposable extras for guaranteed lethal stunts. Just remember, my dear, the pictures move/that’s a good trick. But either they move to tell the human truth or they’re just a trick. Movement that excites without personal contact/that’s a good definition of masturbation. And not caring how you fuck over the person you contact/that’s the rape of the mind.”
/ Theodore Roszak, Flicker, in chapter 20.