November 10, 2021

Don’t Tell Me How It Ends

Est. Reading: 3 minutes
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Compare these two experiences. Some random citizen is walking down the street in 1960 looking for a way to spend the afternoon. On the next block is a movie theater and our random citizen, lets call her Sandra, decides she will go watch whatever is playing. She doesn’t even bother to look at the marquee and goes inside to take a seat. The screen goes dark and the word Psycho appears. She has never heard about the film, doesn’t know who Hitchcock is, she’s just rummaging through her popcorn and waiting.

Sitting a few rows away from Sandra is Albert. He has been following Hitchcock’s career, and has seen many Hitchcock films. Albert has a subscription to Variety Magazine and has heard about all the controversy involved in the film’s production. He also knows about Janet Leigh’s career and saw her in Touch of Evil two years ago. He has read the novel that Psycho was based on and knows about the horrible events that took place in Wisconsin in 1957.

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Who would you rather be? Who is going to have a better experience? When Hitchcock makes his appearance in the film just outside the real estate office Sandra wont notice. She wont understand why the film is in black and white. However when Janet gets in that shower Sandra is in for quite an experience. Albert’s heart will no doubt race too, but he also might be busy comparing what he sees on the screen to the book and to the newspaper articles. He may be thinking about Hitchcock’s style or about Bernard Herman’s score. These extrinsic considerations could be seen as enriching and enhancing Albert’s experience, or they might be seen as obstacles to his fully investing in the film.

When I fist saw Psycho I was 15. I knew a bit about Hitchcock but I had never seen any of his movies before. I knew My mother had seen Psycho in the theater 23 years prior and that it terrified her so much she took baths for ten years before she was ready to take a shower again. It was a fun fact to hold onto going into the film. When Janet Leigh walked toward the bathroom I was both scared and excited.

I loved the film, and still love the film but years later when I read about the original crime Psycho was based on, the film seemed watered down and tame. I know Hitchcock battled with the censors and probably knew he couldn’t get away with depicting the true horrors of Ed Gein’s story but I still felt disappointed.

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This is not the sort of issue that can be resolved one way or the other. It is more of a dynamic that pushes and pulls on our experience depending on our knowledge. It is difficult to find a film that completely fails due to lack of context, and it is also difficult to find a film that does not benefit from extrinsic research.

Most of Godard’s films rely heavily on the viewer being an experienced cinema goer. Breathless, Contempt or The Chinese (1967) almost require the viewer to be one of the initiated. Not to mention a glutton for punishment. In fact I believe when I watched The Chinese I stopped it after 15 or 20 minutes so I could go read about it before continuing. I felt ill-equipped to digest the movie on its own.

I went to watch Hagazussa completely blind. All I saw was a picture of a skull on the cover. I didn’t know what the word meant or what the film was about. I had never heard anyone mention it or review it and I am so glad for my ignorance. It kept me from trying to anticipate a direction or theme. I was sucked into a world and an atmosphere and had to just follow where it led me. Not knowing what to expect was often the most terrifying part.

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