On Knowing Stuff (and Other True Life Stories)

The film class I am currently taking in college is Practical Film Analysis. According to my professor’s syllabus, the course “will be devoted to close analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.” (We will also watch Rear Window, Halloween, North by Northwest, Dressed to Kill and the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho.) The class meets every Thursday. Last week, on the first day that the class met, we watched Psycho. I was one of only a handful of students who had already seen the film. My professor asked me how old I was when I saw it (did he mean when I first saw it or does he think I’ve only seen it once?). I said, “I guess I was about 13 or 14. I saw it on VHS when I borrowed it from the library.”

Now, let’s be honest. I can’t remember how I first saw Psycho. My memory is good, but it’s not THAT good. I probably first saw Psycho on TCM, if anything. I think I was correct about the age I guessed, although ages 14-15 may be closer to the truth. I know that by the time I was 15 I was deep in the throes of my great fascination with Anthony Perkins. I remember being in my 10th grade global studies class with this biography on my desk. I was surprised when Jeannie, a girl I had had many classes with since freshman and who had never before expressed any interest in older movie actors, saw the book cover and said, “Hey! That’s the guy from Psycho.” (I was, of course, very pleased by her recognition.) Besides the biography, I also watched a ton of other Anthony Perkins movies as a result of my fascination: The Actress, Friendly Persuasion, Fear Strikes Out, The Tin Star, Desire Under the Elms, Green Mansions, Goodbye Again, Phaedra, Five Miles to Midnight, The Trial, Pretty Poison, Murder on the Orient Express and, yes, Psycho II.

Despite a desire to the contrary, I did not tell my professor why I saw Psycho. From an early age I was a fan of Hitchcock, especially North by Northwest. I had seen a number of his films by the time I started high school but what really got me interested was when I read Janet Leigh’s memoir of making the film. In retrospect, it probably was not a great idea to read a book that gave away every plot point of a film I had never seen. True, like everyone else in the world, I already knew about the shower scene. But because reading about a film is nothing like actually seeing it, watching Psycho was better than I ever could have imagined. I felt, however, that telling my film class any of those details would make me sound like a show-off or a know-it-all. I suppose I’m quite self-conscious about things like that.

Since I can’t brag in my class, I’ll brag here. Allow me to list the 23 Hitchcock films I have seen, in chronological order: The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. There! Now I feel a bazillion times better. Actually, I watched Marnie just this past Saturday night; I have a Hitchcock box set at home with a few more films I have not yet seen, namely The Trouble with Harry, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot. I think I can safely say that I have seen enough from Hitchcock’s oeuvre for me to have qualified opinions of his career.

In the film class I took back in spring, I would not have minded showing off a little knowledge of film history. My whole childhood was all about reading books about movies, actors, screenwriters and the like: The Marx Brothers, Clara BowMary Astor, Mary Pickfordthe Pre-Code era, etc. Nobody had to tell me to read those books; I found them on my mother’s bookshelves and read them on my own. I only wish I had a class where I could talk freely about some of the movies I love, especially from the 1920s and 30s.

A few months ago, in the aforementioned spring film class – a course on Asian film studies – my class watched the Ming-liang Tsai film The Hole. Afterward I asked my professor if Tsai could have been influenced by the musical scenes in Pennies from Heaven, which has been one of my favorite films for years. My professor said it was possible and I asked if I could bring in my DVD of Pennies from Heaven. Cut to me running to class two days later, breathless because I had had train delays, the DVD in my hand. If I may say so, one of the greatest joys of my college career so far has been sitting with that film class and watching Christopher Walken do a striptease to “Let’s Misbehave.” Trust me when I say you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced seeing that, especially on a decent-sized screen.

Do I dare take a chance on appearing slightly snobbish in my Thursday film analysis class? I don’t mean to be a film snob or to come off as pretentious. I genuinely love Psycho and I want to be able to talk about it and Hitchcock in general. I’ll be damned if I can’t somehow find a way to mention my favorite bit of symbolism: Janet Leigh’s underwear changing from white (pre-theft) to black (ready to hit the highway… and meet her maker at the Bates Motel).

My problem in class, unlike in Psycho, is not a “crime of passion” – it’s that passion itself has become a crime.

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