Saturday, January 26, 2008

Monday, January 11, 1960: Cold Shower

According to author Stephen Rebello, in his extremely interesting and well-researched book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998, p. 138), on January 8, 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock sent a memo to his sound men, Waldon O. Watson and William Russell, giving them explicit instructions about the role of sound in the shower scene. Surprisingly, no mention is made of music. We can safely assume, I think, that the (now famous) shower scene of Psycho was being edited--though was certainly not completed--on Monday, January 11, 1960. The premiere of the film was slightly over five months away.

The title of Rebello's book about the film is carefully worded, because it is clear that Alfred Hitchock cannot take full credit for the success of Psycho--indeed, his role in post-production was virtually non-existent. Revealingly, after screening a rough cut of the film, Hitchcock himself thought the film was terrible, and considered cutting it down and salvaging it by showing it as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The achievement of Psycho, such as it is, seems in retrospect to have been the result of two factors: the extremely talented artists with which Hitchcock surrounded himself--first and foremost, film editor George Tomasini, the aforementioned sound designers, Waldon O. Watson and William Russell, and composer Bernard Herrmann--and the first generation of American critics (e. g., Andrew Sarris) who had adopted the assumptions and perspectives of the auteur theory. The achievement of the film itself is largely a technical one; its status as a "classic" is largely a discursive one, Hitchcock having pride of place as the first movie director bestowed the imprimatur of auteur. What was Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called Modernism in the twentieth, and like all Modernists, Hitchcock took to heart the principle of the self as art, and ran with it. (I highly recommend Robert E. Kapsis's book, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation, University of Chicago Press, 1990.)

The French New Wave critics who had disseminated and promoted the auteur theory through the journal Cahiers du Cinema—Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard—had one primary champion, and that was Alfred Hitchcock. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's Hitchcock was published in 1957, shortly after the release of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), and was an early important work of auteur theory (although it remained untranslated into English for many years). The reason for Rohmer's and Chabrol's choice to champion Hitchcock most certainly was because they perceived him to be much like themselves: Catholic, politically liberal, intelligent, and Modern. However, since auteurists (at least the French ones) always had trouble with what they called a "Tradition of Quality," the auteurist position tended to champion directors who sometimes made bad films (e. g., besides Hitchcock, Otto Preminger) or were not very nice (e. g., Sam Peckinpah) or were not very intelligent (e.g., name omitted). And as one might expect, the hallowed pantheon of auteurs was also always a boy's club--the offices of Cahiers du Cinema had pin-ups on the walls well into the 1960s.

My friend Frank Mazzola, who grew up in Hollywood and eventually became a respected film editor, told me that while he was an apprentice editor in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a "gofer" at Universal while George Tomasini was editing Psycho and Bob Lawrence was editing Spartacus (the films were released about three months apart in 1960). Tomasini's offices were at one end of the floor and Lawrence's were at the other. Saul Bass, who created the title sequences for both films, was also there, moving between both sets of offices. While Frank saw Kubrick, he never saw Hitchcock, although Hitchcock had a office/bungalow at Universal. The famous shower sequence in Psycho was created not by Hitchcock but by Tomasini, sound designers Watson and Russell, by Bernard Herrmann's strings--and, according to Stephen Rebello, by Mrs. Hitchcock, who in her screening of the sequence was the only one of them all to notice that although she's presumably dead when she falls to the floor, Janet Leigh blinked, forcing Tomasini to insert a brief cutaway to the shower head.

I should note that Tomasini was Hitchcock's editor of choice for a decade, from Rear Window (1954) through Marnie (1964). After Tomasini's early death in November 1964 at age 55, Hitchcock made only four more films in a period of twelve years, none of which are very interesting. For whatever reason, it would seem that Hitchcock lost interest in making movies after Tomasini's death.

In retrospect, the major contribution of the French auteur theorists is that they invented film studies (and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock as well), for without the notion of the director as writer, film courses never would have been able to be offered in university English departments, which is where film studies courses were first offered. Of course, there are other reasons that contributed to rise of film studies--the collapse of university enrollments following the abolition of the draft in the early 1970s being one, but nonetheless the auteur theory was an extremely important factor in the development of film studies in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Has the significance of the shower sequence been over-emphasized in critical discussions of Psycho? For interesting discussion of that question, go here. For an excerpt from Rebello's book, as well as contemporary film reviews in addition to critical interpretations and re-assessments of Psycho, see Robert Kolker, Ed., Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook, Oxford University Press, 2004).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday, January 10, 1960

The crucial role of television to promote presidential candidates and their agendas is now an accepted truism. If this commonplace bit of wisdom is indeed true, then it should come as no surprise that three future U. S. Presidents were television personalities in 1960: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, of course, were presidential candidates, but perhaps the most popularly-known figure of the three was Ronald Reagan--but not because of the "obvious" reason, that he was a movie star. In fact, at the time, Reagan was host of the highly successful television series, General Electric Theater. Broadcast by CBS on Sunday nights in the 9:00-9:30 p.m. Eastern time slot, after The Ed Sullivan Show and before Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ronald Reagan become program host of General Electric Theater on September 26, 1954; with Reagan as host, by December of that year--three months later--General Electric Theater had entered Nielsen's Top 10 among all television programs as the most popular weekly dramatic program.

According to William L. Bird, Jr., in an article on the program that can be found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website,

By the time General Electric Theater concluded its eight-year run in 1962, Reagan claimed to have visited GE's 135 research and manufacturing facilities, and met some 250,000 individuals. In later years, Reagan's biographers would look back upon the tour and the platform it provided for the future President of the United States to sharpen his already considerable skill as a communicator.

The last General Electric Theater program was broadcast on May 27, 1962; four years from that date, Ronald Reagan was about five months away from being convincingly elected Governor of California (1966). Although defeated in his 1960 presidential bid, Richard Nixon would return to politics as well, and be elected President in 1968. Perhaps it is not ludicrous at all to consider the possibility that politicians and their handlers learned something from Col. Tom Parker, who used television to catapult Elvis Presley from regional success to national sensation in 1956. Indeed, the rise of Elvis corresponds to a transitional moment in media technology--the rise of television. So, too, would the political careers of future presidents correspond to the new technology of television.

Saturday, January 9, 1960

A week earlier, on January 2, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for President of the United States, ending several months of speculation about his intentions. JFK was the first to introduce "speed" into presidential politics, as he was the first presidential candidate to use a private aircraft as his primary means of transportation--"the soaring 60s" indeed (see my blog entry for January 5). According to the page devoted to JFK's airplane at the National Air and Space Museum website, the aircraft was a Convair 240 that had been purchased several months earlier by Joseph Kennedy in preparation for his son's Presidential campaign. According to the NASM webpage:

Historians credit this aircraft with providing Kennedy with the narrow margin of victory for it allowed him to campaign more effectively during that very hotly contested race. The "Caroline," named after President Kennedy's daughter, revolutionized American politics; since 1960 all presidential candidates have used aircraft as their primary means of transportation.

Following his successful bid for President, for security reasons the aircraft was seldom used by JFK afterwards, although it was used by members of the Kennedy family until 1967, when in September of that year Senator Edward Kennedy, recognizing its historical significance, offered to donate the airplane to NASM. Following a formal ceremony in November 1967, the plane was flown to Andrews AFB and then trucked to Silver Hill where it was dismantled and left outside to deteriorate for the next twenty years. In the late 1980s, a curatorial crew and the conservator cleaned the filthy interior of the aircraft, and finally it was moved indoors to safety.

Certain material artifacts of historical significance, such as JFK's Convair 240, have a curious circulation in our culture in their "afterlife." Unlike most quotidian (manufactured) objects, they are transformed into "found objects," capable of being contemplated as works of art, but unlike found objects they often also become excessive signifiers, quasi-magical objects with demonic powers. Think of the myths surrounding James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder for instance, or the custom-built 1961 Lincoln Continental in which President Kennedy was assassinated. While I could provide many other examples of this sort of fetishization--visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get an idea of what I'm talking about--this sort of preoccupation is a peculiar characteristic of the so-called "Baby Boom" Generation (of which I am a member), which has detailed and catalogued every last compartment of Baby Boom Culture. While the preservation of such objects serves to connect us in a material way to previous generations, and thus provides the important function of continuity from one generation to the next, the transformation of these manufactured objects into excessive signifiers seems to me to be a recent historical phenomenon, perhaps because the recent hundred years or so seems so characterized by the disaster.

In the Middle Ages, superstitious religious pilgrims often purchased holy relics such as saints' bones, duped by unscrupulous merchants into buying them. The value of the contemporary equivalent of the holy relic is largely determined by that particular object's excessive signification. About a year and a half ago I visited the Titanic exhibit in St. Louis, where a portion of the hull was displayed under plexiglass. A small round hole had been cut into the display, allowing visitors actually to the hull. The hull of the Titanic, JFK's Convair 240, James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder--even Graceland itself--are all examples of excessive signifiers.

Did I reach through the hole in the plexiglass display and touch the hull of the Titanic? Of course.