A to Z of Films Meme (P)

P

Psycho

Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.

Alfred HitchcockPsycho

I usually hate horror films to the point of being indifferent to them. Specifically, I hate two sub-genres of horror – horror of Armageddon and horror of the demonic. Horror of personality involving psychologically deviant but otherwise ordinary humans is a genre that has unfortunately been relegated to countless B-grade films and ‘slasher’ flicks. And the sole reason for this pathetic state of affairs is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

One of the most talked about films, one of the most analyzed, one that gave rise to countless imitations and parodies, one that had books and interviews and scholarly papers devoted to it, one that had remakes that served only to elevate its own status. A film that everyone seems to know about even if they have not seen it.

Psycho as a horror film is about fear and suspense, not revulsion, not repulsion, not aversion. It connects directly with our fears – fear of being killed by a maniac, fear of being caught by the police, and so on.

You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen.

– Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock is such a master manipulator that he achieves the impossible. He builds up the character of the protagonist, and then kills her a third through the film. Then he turns the villain into the protagonist and makes us root for the villain for that point onwards!

There are innumerable subtleties, symbols, and manipulations to cover in any single article. From the credits symbolizing schizophrenia to the famous shower scene, there are countless studies and researches delving into excruciating detail. It is said that Psycho “simultaneously epitomizes and disturbs, completes and undermines, enacts and exposes, the defining norms of commercial film practice”.

Hitchcock knew very well that it is not the director, but the mind of the viewer, that can imagine the worst horror. Just like the actual shark is not shown at all in most of Jaws, the ‘horror’ of Psycho and the shower scene is created mostly by us. Instead of grisly sound effects, wounds, and gallons of blood, what works is artistry and style.

I’m full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications.
    I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm.
    I don’t want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of inner peace from a well-organized desk.
When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place.
You wouldn’t even know I’d been in the bathroom.

– Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho broke many conventions. The heroine dressed in her underwear. The first shots of a toilet and flush in American cinema. The use of the word ‘transvestite’ in dialogue. Indulging and hinting at taboo subjects like schizophrenia, transvestism, incest, necrophilia. Hitchcock knew he was pushing the limits.

Bullet wounds and head injuries can be depicted safely in films. But a knife striking nude flesh presented challenges in both violence and nudity, and it was masterful editing and clever marketing that made it possible. Hitchcock falsely claimed that the knife is never shown striking the flesh (it is shown very briefly) and that the body double used was that of a male (it was a voluptuous stripper). There was no ‘R’ rating in those days, just an ‘Approved’ censor certificate one had to get! His marketing gimmicks worked well and people believed him. Like always, he was one step ahead of everyone.

Runner Up

Pather Panchali

Pather PanchaliA director who had never directed a scene before. A still photographer who had never been a cameraman. Actors who had never even been tested for their roles. The background score by a novice Ravi Shankar. With a meager budget, this team went on to create a renowned classic that brought Ray into the spotlight of international fame.

While Psycho is voyeuristic to the extreme, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is the exact opposite. Everything in Pather Panchali is honest and true. It is meticulously believable and draws you in. There isn’t a single false note in this symphony. We feel with the characters, not for them.

The power and beauty of this film is that I never felt as if I was watching a movie. I was not a viewer and what was happening on the screen was not a movie. The experience was as if I was inside the life and minds of the characters. The stooping old aunt, Chunibala Devi was 80 and living in a brothel when Ray located her for the film. There are too many poignant passages, but the one that remained in my heart was the delight and wonder of the children as they wander far away in the fields to catch the sight of a train. Ray made me a child again.

Noteworthy Mentions

I have not seen acclaimed films like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. While there are many good films like Pulp Fiction, Parash Pathar, Pestonjee, The Philadelphia Story, The Pianist, The Piano, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I’d like to list the following as noteworthy:

  • A Passage To India, the meticulous craftsman, David Lean’s beautiful adaptation of a literary classic.
  • Philadelphia, the first time Hollywood dealt with AIDS using stars in a courtroom drama. The brilliant scene where Hanks talks about his favorite aria brings about a conversion of the soul in Washington, and is one of my most beloved cinematic scenes.
  • Pushpak, a silent film about an unemployed youth, an Indian cult classic.
  • The People vs. Larry Flynt, that shows how a pornography publisher became a defender of free speech for everyone.
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31 thoughts on “A to Z of Films Meme (P)

  1. Mahendra

    Something must be wrong with me because somehow when I see a horror film, I find myself laughing uncontrollably. :-/ Most horror films – including Psycho – strike me as being irrational, ludicrous and therefore funny.

    Of the rest, I have seen Pyaasa, The Pianist and Philadelphia (about which we have had a conversation here before). In hindsight, The Pianist strikes me as laboured and very stylised whereas whatever appreciation I had for Pyaasa has been diminished over the years (I must have seen the film when I was 13 or 14, and the film was on Doordarshan) because I am increasingly unable to accept the highhandedness of self-proclaimed artistes who think their ‘art’ is worth a lot more than it may be. The market does not have to put a price on everything but somewhere I see the whole thing as extremely selfish and exploitative (by the artiste, of his/ her family and friends). I find artist-y angst self-indulgent and wasteful. Mala Sinha’s character was distinctly amoral possibly to draw a contrast with Waheeda Rahman’s character possibly amplified thanks to the off-screen relationship between her and Mr Dutt at the time. That in real life too, Guru Dutt was exploitative of the women he knew and claimed to love, does nothing to redeem the film in my eyes. :-/ All this despite my liking for slice-of-life films.

    Now as mindless entertainment goes, Pulp Fiction is my absolute favourite. Pather Panchali is on my list and I have not, sorry to say, seen any of the other films. 😦

  2. Did you watch Psycho on the big screen? I too find most horror films funny, since they’re so over the top. With Psycho it was different.

    The Pianist somehow fails to impress if one sees it in the shadow of Schindler’s List. But it is a very good film in its own right. Pyaasa has been criticized as being too narcissistic and I perfectly understand what you mean. I have watched none of Guru Dutt’s films! I didn’t know so much about him as a person, was not very keen on watching his films somehow, and with your revelations, my enthusiasm (or whatever was left of it) has further waned.

    I’d highly recommend Pushpak and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for a perfectly enjoyable light watching. They’re hilarious, heart-warming, and highly entertaining. Clean, simple, pure fun.

  3. Mahendra

    I watched Psycho on TV I think which makes it less scary and more hilarious I think. Lights are on and one inevitably needs the loo in the midst of an important scene – not because of fear, mind you 😉

    I have been told to watch Pushpak before, but not Planes, Trains & Automobiles. (Note to self – add to list and start watching quickly.)

    I think at the time, either it was fashionable to exploit women in the name of romance or the film industry was such that women were easy to exploit. e.g. Guru Dutt/ Geeta Dutt, Kamal Amrohi/ Meena Kumari, V Shantaram/ Sandhya to name a few. I find it hard to dissociate the misogyny of Hindi film industry from its products from the 1950s/ 1960s.

  4. P, T & A combines empathy and comedy and becomes poignantly touching while making you laugh at the same time…

    I think the industry was such that women were easy to exploit. C Ramachandra/Lata Mangeshkar is another that comes to mind – I’m sure there are many. This and the other aspect of being heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism puts me off of many films of that era.

  5. Oh man..I cannot watch Horror films for the simple reason that I get scared..forget about finding them ridiculous and all, I simply dont have the balls to watch them..period..lol. Can you imagine that I havent even watched my God’s (Kubrick) Shining for that reason? I have watched every other Kubrick film atleast three times if not more, but could not bring myself to watch this one..because I know Kubrick does everything better than the others..so when he decides to scare you, it must be too real and scary..:)
    It was incredible how Ray made Pather Panchali without any experience before, not even a short film..he continues to inspire all budding filmmakers..
    Talking of David Lean’s Passage to India, that’s my least favorite Lean film because I thought the characterization of Indians in the film was too stereotypes and not up to the mark. I read somewhere that, in closet, Lean considered Indians not very good actors; the reason why one of the main characters, Godbole, was actually British.
    Finally, Guru Dutt was a very good technical filmmaker..considering the times and limited resources Indian filmmakers had at that time..
    In terms of his fatalistic sensibilities, well lot of Indian filmmakers were like that during that era..I always believe that Cinema, like everything else, is a product of times..
    I still think Pyaasa was a good film overall and it had some birlliant poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi.. even the ending of Pyaasa was much more positive and hopeful compared to Gur Dutt’s some other darker films..

  6. Pather Panchali is on my list and I have not, sorry to say, seen any of the other films.

    Shefaly, if you can watch it in a theater on a big screen (instead of on a TV – I’m assuming), you’ll appreciate the beauty of that film even more. There must be art-house movie theaters (or other similar venues @ universities/colleges) in London, no?

  7. Mahendra, Psycho has nothing on Powell’s Peeping Tom when it comes to “fear of being killed by a madman” – and how!!

  8. I find it hard to dissociate the misogyny of Hindi film industry from its products from the 1950s/ 1960s.

    Shefaly, your statement reminded me of what Orwell said about Dali: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.”

    Admittedly, I too find it difficult, to dissociate artists from their despicable behaviors, be it Woody Allen, or Elia Kazan, or Charlie Chaplin, or Polanski. Yet, it’s hard to ignore or deny the genius of these film-makers which is evident in their films. I’ve come to accept that people are complex and flawed, and while I admire the art, I don’t put these artists on a pedestal as wonderful human beings.

  9. RE A Passage to India: I attributed the stereotypical characterization to the novel…what I find noteworthy in the film is the difficulty in adapting a novel where the central or primary event happens off-stage. That is something very difficult to adapt to a visual medium like film, and I think Lean has done very well. Whether the event happened or didn’t happen is left open to the viewer…

    Yes, I’ve heard a lot about Dutt’s film-making. But somehow I’m not very enthused about it. Don’t exactly know why!

  10. Amit:

    Most people would not even acknowledge two conflicting things simultaneously existing within an entity (say, a human being). That said, we tolerate flaws within ourselves much better than we tolerate them in others. I don’t put anyone, no matter how celebrated, on a pedestal. You can call it hubris if you like but that is why I have never had a “role model” in life. I am my own role model.

    I do feel though that the flaws must be discussed at least at the same volume, with the same fervour as the creative output, especially if they are sociopathic. I class misogyny and adults knowingly consorting with minors in the same basket in that respect. :-/

  11. Satyajit Ray’s films return again and again in festivals to London. I shall see if I can catch it sometime. Else a projector and a screen at home would also do 🙂

  12. since a while now, my visits here make me realise I have been missing such a lot.. i am waiting you to reach z so that i can stop feeling so left out. 🙂

  13. Yes, I’ve heard a lot about Dutt’s film-making. But somehow I’m not very enthused about it. Don’t exactly know why!

    Mahendra,
    What if I mentioned that Guru Dutt’s character in Pyaasaa has shades of Roark and a bit of Rand’s philosophy in terms of not compromising on one’s principles? 😀

  14. Hitting my soft spot are you! 🙂

    Since there are many advocates thirsty (Pyaase?) to have me watch it, I give up. I will see it whenever I can!

  15. Hey…:-)

    That’s certainly not the intention! I hope this series helps you pick out some good movies whenever you feel like and can.

  16. I don’t put anyone, no matter how celebrated, on a pedestal.

    Shefaly, agreed. While we can find inspiration in others, IMO it is best to live one’s own life rather than trying to emulate others after putting them up on a pedestal.

  17. Wow! Nice going Mahendra! Totally like the series you are on. 🙂

    Sorry, I’ve been outa the blog hops for a bit now.

  18. Thanks, Rads! I’ve been following your fables on Twitter. The hundreds of comments on your blog posts make me reluctant to add another meaningless comment!

    No blog hopping? No tunneling thru? 🙂

  19. haha, work and stuff at home have been intense after my excuse of a vacation. 🙂

    You are?! I had no idea. Let me add u on!

  20. I do not like horror but I have seen Psycho as it was a kind of classic which I had to see. I was fascinated although I suffered too! 🙂 I loved Pushpak. One of my favourite films! And Pyasa too.

  21. Psycho, Pulp Fiction, Pyaasa, Philadelphia – all great movies.

    Some of my American friends wanted to see an Indian movie. So I organized a movie night at my place and showed them Pushpak. 5 mins into the movie, one of them asked me if there were going to be any dialogs 🙂

  22. Anand, as they say, बंदर क्या जाने अदरक का स्वाद. I wonder what your friend would’ve said if you’d picked a silent film by Buster Keaton or Chaplin. I see no need to prove to anyone (share – yes; prove – no) that Indian films (or even Bollywood films) are good – after all, I don’t hold my American friends responsible for the odious films that Hollywood forces down the throat of the entire world every Friday, with their slick marketing/packaging. 🙂

  23. I actually liked A Passage to India- haven’t read the book. Haven’t seen any other of Lean’s movies. I’ll probably change my mind if I do.

  24. Mahindra, have you seen the other two movies from The Apu Trilogy? Pather Panchali is a classic- no doubt. I enjoyed the movie even more because I can read, write and speak in Bangla 🙂 I had the pleasure of enjoying the dialogues and emotions even more because Bangla is a very sweet language. One of the few gems that I own in my personal collection 😉

  25. Yes, I’ve seen the complete trilogy, though it is Pather Panchali that I’ve seen several times. Apur Sansar, with the 14 yr old debutante Sharmila Tagore is my beloved too. 🙂

    I don’t speak or understand Bangla, but I love the language. I like its mellifluous sound.

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