Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

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The Intersection of Theory and Practice in Yvonne Rainer’s “Privilege” (1990)

By Daniel Spada

Playing with the So-Called Truth Value of Documentary and the Authenticity of Identity[1]

The filmic image evokes an affective response that is pointedly different than one aroused by the reading of text on a page. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, in an introduction to Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, “Writing is an erotic device. The imaginary gaze of the gentle reader has no function other than to give the word a new and strange consistency. The reader is not an end; he is a means, an instrument that doubles the pleasure, in short a voyeur despite himself” (25). Likewise, the viewer of a film, be it a fiction or documentary production or a combination of the two, feels around the crevices of the composed images like a child discovering itself and its relational embodiment to the outside world, giving it meaning through an active participation that is both psychical, in the active linking up of image and sound, and physical, in the simple act of opening up to this specific, singular experience.

Film is demanding and special in the sense that it relies on that capacity to construct meaning out of the connection of image and sound; films that mark themselves or are marked by their makers as functioning within the documentary spectrum of film production require a criticality that is both more immediate and easily overlooked. Is what we are being presented with the (definitive) truth on a particular subject, or case? While most social issue documentaries encourage a participation that is embedded within dominant social structures that requires a special form of forgetting – a forgetting that entails a lack of acknowledging positionality and intersectionality in their complex realizations – others are constructed with a more holistic approach in mind and execution, one that takes to task not only the demonstration of ways in which theory and practice interact, but also integrating theory insofar as it enacts the process of constructing itself within which a functional analysis of relationality occurs.

An ongoing analysis of being in the world, creating, and being created in the image of others, Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) offers numerous ways to deconstruct and reconfigure the production of knowledge, truth claims, and the creation and perpetuation of social inequities by deploying structural techniques including: the film-within-a-film; reenactments and multiple direct addresses therein; the combination of archival footage, interviews, and scripted segments with professional actors; and the use of text on screen. Through the implementation of these varied stylistic methods, a narrative, however experimentally played out, emerges – a narrative that instigates a scrutiny of the power of myths, the reality of differing and intersecting levels of privilege, and the liberation to be wrought from the intersecting forces of theory and practice. A critical analysis of Rainer’s prior choreographic and dance work’s influence on her film trajectory is necessary, while a close look at the interviews within the film, as well as an inquiry into one instance of evidence blindness, the qualifications of an essay film, and attention to critical reception will lead to a fuller study of the film on all accounts.

Keep Me Running, You Keep Me Running[2]: Rainer’s Choreographic and Dance Work’s Influence on Her Film Trajectory

The aforementioned Sarte quote extends itself beyond a simple application to general film viewing when discussing Rainer’s work. Renowned in the avant-garde world for her choreographer work in the 1960s and 1970s, Rainer’s dance work explicitly influenced her film work during the 1970s all through the 1990s, both ideologically and, by extension, formally and structurally. In an overview of her work for Senses of Cinema’s 27th issue of Great Directors, Erin Brannigan cites Peggy Phelan and Jonathan Walley as two of a longer list of film writers who emphasize her questioning and criticality of “spectatorial positions within the film text and the corresponding functions of narrative” (par. 5) which can also be found in her choreographic work. Brannigan comments in a footnote on the influence of John Cage,[3] a composer and collaborator, accentuating a move away from habitual ‘hard-wired’ movement and toward a minimalism that discarded dramatic elements.[4] She makes clear in her composite analysis of Rainer’s move from dance to film that it was a “reaction against the minimalism and Cagean traditions that had informed her choreography” (par. 5). Previously indicating that “her influences were from outside the experimental film scene” of the work of such filmmakers as Maya Deren (whom she does reference later on in her career as an influence), Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, Rainer says she was primarily struck by Cage’s music ideas and 1960s art practices (par. 3).

Rainer’s critique of the performer/spectator relation and her conflict against the narcissistic/voyeuristic model of dance performance, reflected in her No Manifesto, redistributed attention and negated spectacle, realigning the positionality of the spectator through the structure of the dance performances. Walley is of the opinion, as Brannigans denotes, that this is a failure on Rainer’s part, thus impels her move towards narrative performance and film. Brannigan debates him on this point, finding her breaking trends within contemporary avant-garde film and exploring the structural problems inherent within art, on an ideological level, characterized by problems with mediated power and authority that were already present in her choreographic work. As Brannigan says, “The various combinations and contradictions of figural movement, image, spoken or printed text, sound and spatial perspective, and the relation of this on-screen material to audience expectation, is an area for constant interrogation in Rainer’s film” (par. 7). A case study of Privilege seems particularly apt as Rainer’s deconstruction and critique seem particularly pronounced in this film.

Privilege “by Yvonne Rainer and many others” vs. Privilege “by Yvonne Washington and many others”: Beginning Again[5]

The first few minutes of Rainer’s Privilege are misleading, and intentionally so, insofar as they set up audiences’ expectations and lead the viewer to believe that with the rest of the running time they will be presented a definitive statement on the experiences of women who have gone through menopause,[6] in the process divesting the power of authoritative knowledge from doctors in the creation of images and control of bodies. While the film does this, it also analyzes cultural constructions and self-embodiments of race, class, and sexuality, and the influence they have on one another and the construction and perpetuation of social inequities, always occurring simultaneously and resulting in differing effects relational to the subjugated subject and the diffuseness of power.

The following two parts of the film introduce the characters of Helen Caldicott, an actual person that is played by Rainer herself, and the black signer, both of whom are dropped thereafter. In an interview with Gabrielle Finnane for The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Rainer states that the beginning is “deliberately confusing” and alludes to the inclusion of Caldicott as the introduction of a performance piece. She comments on the reversing of a center and margin, with the black signer filling up the frame and Caldicott minimized in an oval in the left right hand corner, and the establishment of the theme of race which will run throughout. In an interview for The San Francisco Cinematheque with Kurt Easterwood, Laura Poitras, and Susanne Fairfax, Rainer says that the Caldicott speech “introduces the sexuality motif with the lipstick” and the signer also gives Yvonne Washington, the black alter-ego interrogator of Rainer and fictional documentary maker of the film-within-a-film, “the opportunity to make a comparison of medical attitudes to deafness and menopause via their presumed status of ‘disease’” (235).

The way Rainer initially films herself as Caldicott, center frame and then applying the lipstick to an extent beyond that which it is intended while “My Funny Valentine” plays on the soundtrack, is the first example of representational subversion, in conjunction with the previous classic films clips that contradict the interviews with the women that have gone through menopause. Gwen Raaberg speaks to this aspect of the film in her essay “Views from ‘The Other Side’: Theorizing Age and Difference in Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Privilege’” for Women’s Studies Quarterly, saying, “The image effectively ruins expected cinematic representations of women and conventional modes of viewing,” going on to say that it “directly confronts a culture saturated with representations of women as unreal objects of sexual desire. This is no object amenable to the consumerism of the gaze.” She proceeds to declare that the image insists on expressivity, not effacement, and that it acts as an entryway for the audience into the “carnivalesque realm of the film, where the calculated chaos of Rainer’s experimentalism subverts hierarchies, questions cultural codes, and provides a space for presenting alternative perspectives and voices” (122). It is both ironic, in the soundtrack’s effect on the image, and foreshadows the way Rainer will conduct her discourse throughout the rest of the film.

Middles and Ends: Shifting Pronouns

Throughout the rest of Privilege, the viewer is presented with a fairly accessible fictionalized narrative of the past, told by a present day fictionalized version of Rainer herself, named Jenny (played by Alice Spivak), who is being interviewed and, moreover, cross-examined by friend and filmmaker Yvonne Washington (played by Novella Nelson)[7], also a stand in for Rainer, for a documentary on menopause. Included in this narratives are monologues, sometimes disguised as dialogue, delivered by the actors, in character, the original source of which Rainer then cites via text on a computer screen. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,[8] Rainer invokes certain conventions, as she says in her interview with Finnane, “to better tear them apart,” while situating the action of the film around realistic characters encourages critical awareness and analysis on the audience’s part of the ways in which the theoretical and poetic addresses throughout the film play out in everyday life.

While Raaberg is of the opinion that “Rainer’s strategies effectively block the prevalent tendency of audiences to become engaged with the narrative or empathetic with a central character; by contrast, they enforce distance and enhance the viewer’s critical capacity” (122), Finnane finds there to be an “oscillation between identification and disengagement or detachment” and that that “was increased because of the initial fictional identification with the characters.” I find Rainer’s approach to align more with the latter interpretation. An identification with Jenny’s character, and the other characters in the films as well, is simply one way to engage with the film on a narrative (as well as subsequently analytical and theoretical) level. However, it is important to remain critical of that identification, paying close attention to both her blind spots in relation to her status as privileged in some senses (her race and class), while markedly unprivileged in others (her age and gender), and our own.

Rainer’s deployment of different structural documentary techniques is disruptive insofar as they lift the viewer out of the narrative and expose the social hierarchy that at once seemed foundational to all narrative structures. In the interview with Finnane, Rainer points to the theorizing done on the idea of the narrative structure as an analogue for social hierarchy, and sees her own disruption in this sense to point towards “possibilities for a more fluid and open organizing of social relations.”

The different techniques being placed alongside one another also contributes commentary and demands a more active participation on the part of the viewer. This includes the interviews with the women going through menopause and the archival medical footage of doctors delivering what is thought to be, although is clearly proven not, authoritative knowledge on the subject. The objective knowledge claims made about women’s bodies by doctoral (read: patriarchally defined) authority is juxtaposed next to these confessional interviews, and repetitively so, to make clear one of the arguments Rainer is making, and the way the processes of image (and subject) construction actually occur in this society and culture. This is not to say that the interviewees experiences are the be all end all truths, but, as Raaberg notes in her article, identity simultaneously constructs itself and is constructed socially (124).

The Interviews: True/False, Fake/Real[9]

One of the hallmarks of documentary or nonfiction filmmaking is the interview. The interview is a technique in which the director allows an outside party, or even her or himself (in Privilege Rainer surfaces via the fictionalized form of Jenny), to tell what is presumed to be the truth about a certain topic or event. With Privilege, Rainer plays around with the assigned truthfulness of interview in documentary film.

In a discussion with Susanne Fairfax on the subject, Rainer delineates the three kinds of experiences presented through interview. They are, “the traditional professional talking head (the doctors who represent authoritative kinds of speech); the so-called ‘real’ interview–with their ‘spontaneous’ speech–which have been highly selected from hours of material; and the ‘fake’ documentary in which Yvonne interviews Jenny” (235). She says that these all play on each other and that, although she makes distinctions between them, there is not a system of prioritization being consciously enacted.

Evidence Blindness, or: and a Self-Proclaimed Missed Opportunity

One problem within feminist methodology is evidence blindness.[10] Evidence blindness is the phenomena of not taking evidence into account. While this has been explained away by multiple competing viewpoints as a cognitive incapacity (as per Anthony Appiah) and cognitive immunity in relation to the conception of the sociology of knowledge (as per Karl Mannheim), evidence blindness still flourishes within diverse disciplines, skewing data and sometimes making it unusable.

While Rainer makes connections between relations of privilege according to race and gender in her film-within-a-film and her discourse at large, she does not asks the black interviewees about their race in relation to their aging and menopause. This is noted in her interviews with Finnane and Fairfax. Rainer states in the Fairfax interview that she was asked a question by a dark-skinned woman at a Melbourne screening that enacted a self-realization about her own assumptions about documentary that went unchecked during the making of the film. The woman asked why she “treated in documentary form women speaking about menopause whereas the material dealing with issues of race is only treated in this didactic fictional form” (235-6).

Rainer justifies this visible exclusion in two different ways. In the Fairfax interview she says that if she had asked about how race functioned in relation to their aging, menopause, and treatment by the medical establishment, she “would have gone at these interviews with some preconceived agenda that they would have had to fall into” (236). This explanation does not stand the test of scrutiny because, as her film-within-a-film shows, there was already a preconceived agenda present with the analysis of race and gender in relation to one another. Likewise, in her interview with Finnane she also justifies this exclusion on the grounds that “the fictional conceit is that it’s a documentary film about menopause,” but this does not adequately address the problem. While she reconfigures social hierarchies with her disruption of narrative cohesion, she also reinscribes this particular one with the absence of authentic speech voicing issues of race. An admittance of missed opportunity and the aforementioned justifications do nothing to absolve the invisibility of these essential voices.

Is Privilege An “Essay-Film”?

A question that naturally arises from a viewing and critical analysis of Privilege is of its classification in relation to cinematic genre: does it fall under the rubric of the “essay-film”?[11] Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro’s discussion of the filmic essay in their book Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning is borne out of an analysis of the “meeting between nonfictional representation and experimental aesthetics” (149). They say, “the essay assumes a comparable dialogue between the subjectivity of the essayist and the themes discussed” (150), and Privilege surely qualifies in partaking in this type of exploration. They go on to comment, “the essay film contradicts, for example, the assumption that the world can be known in a definitive way. It shifts the focus from the end product of the investigative effort to the process by which knowledge is created” (151). If we are to go by this understanding of the qualities of an essay film, Privilege surely fits the bill in its obfuscation of epistemological expectations regarding the documentary film. The confounding beginning is understood better in relation to what Rainer discloses as her main preoccupations throughout the rest of the film.

However, other films critics, naturally, have different views on what marks a work as an “essay-film” – one of those critics, Phillip Lopate, is critical of Privilege‘s induction into this filmic categorization. In an article for The Threepenny Review entitled “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” he rails against the status of the film, referring to it as a “collage film” in reference to its experimental deployment of various film techniques: the dramatized scenes, the found footage, the faked interview, the written texts, etc. In particular, he criticizes Jonathan Rosenbaum’s defense of the film as an essay. His issue with the film lies in its narrative incohesion (noted before as being an intentional deployment on Rainer’s part). He sees this, along with his own lack of understanding regarding Rainer’s argument, as negating its status as an essay film.

Privilege certainly has essayistic qualities. It tackles highly theoretical issues such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and age in and through different experimental forms. Its narrative configuration plays with the so-called truth value of documentary, and the authenticity of identity, thus making it incomprehensible to some – but to others, easily falling into the category of the essay film.

Locating an Audience

In his interview with Yvonne Rainer for Film Quarterly, Scott MacDonald asks about the response to the film elicited from African-Americans. He proclaims that in Utica the audience was only 20 percent African-American, and Rainer responds that she has had “very little response from nonwhites so far.” She cites a showing at the Frederick Douglass Institute of African American Studies at the University of Rochester where she expected at least a 50-50 balance of racial diversity in the audience, however finding that “it was an almost totally white crowd” (29).

Rainer’s remarks on the absolute need of hers to find the black audience is important, as is the actual act of the film being seen by black audiences. Like one of the interviewees mentions in a discussion about the lack of experiential knowledge regarding menopause within male doctors, a discussion with a black audience is crucial insofar as they have experiential knowledge regarding race, from the subjugated position (the “other side” of privilege, so to say), that white audiences simply do not.

Momentary Utopias

One aspect of the film that has been noted by several critics and interviewers is the inclusion of the wrap party at the end of the film that runs throughout the end credits. This comes back to the inclusion of the aforementioned “and many others” in the beginning credits which indicates the actuality of film as a collaborative effort and process. In the introduction to his interview with Rainer in which he later asks her about that inclusion, MacDonald expresses the belief that “we get a sense of the private world or at least the social milieu out of which the public event of the film has developed” (20). He asks her if the line “UTOPIA: the more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes” that we see during the end credits is a marking of the wrap party as “a kind of momentary Utopia” and if the process of making the film is her attempt “to model Utopian interaction,” to which she responds, “Yeah,” and, “why not document what was already going to happen” (31).

In her discussion with Rainer, Laura Poitras also asks about the quote at the end of the film and the function of the wrap party’s inclusion. Giving a more fleshed out response than with MacDonald, she says, “I liked the idea of showing all those people socializing with each other. So there is a utopian cast to it” (241). She responds to criticism of a conscious invoking of the American melting pot fantasy by saying she intentionally put the scene into context “as some kind of dream, or a utopian gesture, along the lines of all tensions and social conflicts momentarily forgotten or maybe at some time in the future, resolved, a coexistence with no racial conflicts” (242).

Regardless of whether it is considered a film essay or not, Privilege‘s capacity to make the viewer do work, and actively construct theory is a productive use and advancement of the documentary film form. Through the use of different stylistic approaches, Rainer exposes (and leaves open for discussion) connections between what would be thought of as disparate subjects. Bearing her one acknowledged missed opportunity, her call for a functional and intersectional engagement with such foundational ideologies surrounding and structuring the (self and socially) constructed categories of gender, race, age, etc. lays the essential groundwork for critical and perceptive dialogue on these topics to flourish.

[1] I take this phrasing from Yvonne Rainer’s interview with Scott MacDonald for Film Quarterly, where she states, “the film is very artificial. It continually plays with the so-called truth value of documentary and with the authenticity of identity. I’m split across any number of people in this film. You might say the whole films goes on in my own head” (29).

[2] I take this (repeated) lyric from British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware’s song “Running” (the debut single on her debut studio album Devotion, released in the UK in 2012 via PMR/Island Records and in 2013 in the US via Cherrytree Records, an imprint of Interscope).

[3] Although she is not the only to do so, as a lot of the writing I have come across on Rainer, even done by herself, points to these facts.

[4] We do see an inhabitation of drama with the reenactments, however minimal, that lie at the core of the film-within-a-film in Privilege.

[5] I take this phrasing from a comment by Rainer for The San Francisco Cinematheque. Laura Poitras asks her to explain why Rainer introduces the film twice in two different ways and Rainer responds, “I’ve always liked the idea of beginning again.”

[6] Which is also, ironically enough, is the conceit of the film-within-a-film being made by Yvonne Washington.

[7] In her interview with Scott MacDonald, Rainer states that Nelson had an input into the film – specifically pointing out instances in which she corrected Rainer’s grammar and in her response to Eldridge Cleaver (29).

[8] I take this phrasing from Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

[9] I take these dichotomies from a song title by the American house group Hercules and Love Affair.

[10]  Mary Hawkesworth, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, devotes an entire chapter to it in her guide book to methodological issues within feminist scholarship, Feminist Inquiry (2006).

[11]  As it has been designated by numerous film critics (although a reductive New York Film Festival review of the film by the New York Times called it an art film as opposed to a documentary, as if a film couldn’t be both), including, but not limited to, Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose 1991 review for the Chicago Reader was taken to task by Phillip Lopate.

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014)

By Colleen Rowe

It looks as if colored oils are being splashed and organized into figures on canvas before your eyes. Director Peter Strickland’s full-length Drama, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is like a homoerotic Baroque painting, with its two female leads, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, dominating the screen in separate, but conjoined spheres. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is Evelyn’s (Chiara D’Anna) employer, but their relationship escalates quickly with a peer through a doorknob’s keyhole. Looking in from the outside, Evelyn peers into her ruler’s world: Cynthia’s matured body in lingerie as she undresses in unassuming privacy. Does she know that Evelyn is watching her as her dress slips from her waist, down her thighs…and falls upon the floor like a splash of flowing ink?

And so, the ink dries and the women continue with their master-servant relationship. Cynthia orders young Evelyn to do her bidding, which includes cleaning her boots vigorously, her eyebrows raised almost as high as her expectations. Cynthia’s impatience grips Evelyn forcefully, pushing her into seemingly torturous punishments—at first these inflictions are usually unseen, initially; the bathroom door is closed and there are gurgling sounds of a mouth full of water, Evelyn is choking, sputtering…but somehow loving every single moment of it. If the master had been a man, these interactions would have been looked upon with disgust, and people would shake their heads slightly with immense disdain for the abuser. But, as an attractive, mature woman perpetuating the servant’s liking for her punishments, the audience seemed intrigued, and turned on to understanding the parallel roles that are expected of women. Are these expectations acceptable to condone? Of course not, but they are there.

A male “master” can be more frightening to a woman, because of the power men have tried to hold over women since written documentation was first recorded in the grand scheme of time. There is also the vast history of social inequality between men and women that really taints the filters of perspective while watching this film. In the past, women who were unrightfully enslaved were raped by their masters; an account of this was recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs, a true story of a young girl who struggled for equality in a world where her race and sex subjected her to the abuses she faced. Jacobs’ written work was influenced by Samuel Richardson’s famous novel, Pamela, also known as Virtue Rewarded. Pamela is a tale with dense misogynistic undertones and a plot that circulates around a male master who follows, confines, and stalks his servant until she finally succumbs to his rule and has sexual relations with him. Yes, her virtue is rewarded in the end. Let us make it clear that any forced sexual relations are abusive, even if they are “achieved” by manipulation.

A woman ordering another woman to do something is more comfortable, simply on the level of an employer/employee relationship, but one should not assume this is the reason why Cynthia’s inflictions against Evelyn, as they pursue a more personal relationship, are somewhat condoned by viewer reactions. It’s because they love each other, and that’s where gender or sex is stripped of relevance here. These two people love each other, and if the master had been a man, in the context that they truly care for each other, the accepted “abuse” would seem less horrible because Evelyn is constantly begging Cynthia to “punish” her. Evelyn, at one point, asks Cynthia to lock her in a chest that is large enough to hold her small frame. Cynthia allows it, but, she is concerned for Evelyn soon after, asking her to come back into the bed. Evelyn proceeds to tell her to leave her in the chest, as if she is enjoying her opaque cage. Cynthia eventually enters a dreamlike state, where she seems to imagine that she opens the chest and all that is left is Evelyn’s rotted skeleton, lying in the same position that Cynthia left her in. This scene is comparable to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in which the character, Emily Grierson, is found out to have been sleeping beside her dead lover for decades, after a single strand of her hair is found on the pillow beside his skeleton. Morosely similar, The Duke of Burgundy uniquely portrays this implied necrophilia in a series of frames that demonstrate a transient passage of time. With shots focused on a clothed female crotch, delving into all-encompassing darkness, and Cynthia’s venture into the woods to metaphorically revive her skeletal lover, lifting her from the chest that has become her casket, they are swallowed into the darkness together.

There are two scenes that are brilliantly paired in The Duke of Burgundy; one takes place at the beginning, where Cynthia reprimands Evelyn for incorrectly washing and tending to her clothing. Cynthia is the master here, her deadpan glare ripping into Evelyn’s timid demeanor with disrespectful loathing. A flicker of hate for Cynthia might rise in your chest, temporarily, during this scene. Her pretentious, lifeless glare is captivating, and you sort of feel like she owns you, too. In a later scene that parallels this, after the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia has been established through playful, loving nights as they sleep beside one another, and Evelyn’s obsession with gaining new items and wealth becomes a dominant factor, disrupting their connection, the roles are reversed. Evelyn, the now master reprimands Cynthia, the previously glaring, dominant force within the film, and the woman you once hated, becomes the woman you now feel sorry for. With the dialogue and setting matching the earlier scene, Evelyn’s manipulations to rise above her social class have now succeeded, and as Cynthia cries, Evelyn reaches for her, as Cynthia once did, and whispers to her soothingly.

With profound directing, cinematography, acting, and editing leading this film into the depths of greatness, it’s almost impossible to look away as the storyline progresses and you watch the character development escalate.

This film is a work of art. However you paint the picture, after viewing The Duke of Burgundy, you will find your mind to be a color so incomprehensible that you won’t be able to forget what your eyes were just captivated by.

The Duke of Burgundy was a part of the Hamptons International Film Festival 2014 program.

The House of the Devil

By Daniel Spada

Minimalism in horror films has the distinct possibility of undermining the genre altogether. Not so much the absence of such an approach, but the lack of popularity reflects the need for instant gratification that is so deeply embedded within our culture. The more recent iconography that defines the horror film genre emphasizes grandiose conceptions of evil and reveals the trouble and reservations with which Western audiences grapple when viewing such a film. Horror film directors whose intent is to reinvent or consciously revise the genre are scarce because audiences are content with simply acknowledging the classic iconography that this particular genus of filmmaking has evoked, and are privy to ironic tendencies that would certainly offset their appreciation or enjoyment of the film and make them wary to come back for more.

The simple title of Ti West’s The House of the Devil explicitly puts the ownership of the house at the forefront. It would be reasonable to assume that the audience is not totally unaware of the macabre hiding underneath the woodworks of said abode, but that they are more concerned with the physical representation of the evil that is clearly lurking behind those closed doors. The rhetorical underpinnings of West’s authorial style and play with realism (making this markedly an art-horror entry) show a reverence for the genre (at least in the classical sense), with nothing in the film hinting at a satirical or mocking tone. West is neither imitating nor parodying horror, but paying homage (akin to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s engagement with the American genre films they so heavily revered)  and playing with the audiences’ expectations of what is appropriately categorized as horror. By doing so, he “implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema” while also creating a new future life for the film genre commonly known as horror.

West begins the film strategically, with text on the screen that hints not only at the physical Satanic ritual that occurs at the end of the film, but also the theoretical underpinnings regarding beliefs in the existence of such cults. Therein lies part of the importance of the era in which the film takes place. In American culture, the 1980s were marked by a major rise in people who actually did believe in the existence of Satanic Cults so this is factually correct information supplied by Mr. West (he consistently refers to it as “Satanic panic” paranoia in interviews). However, there is no evidence to show that the events in the film are based on some sort of unexplained truth to which the text alludes. This is not uncommon with horrors film from the 1970s and 1980s; some of the most popular ones purporting fact-based events include The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It is important to note that this is a just simple rhetorical device used on West’s part to engage with both the genre and the viewer.

The common horror genre tropes are all there: a haunted house, the presence of evil in some form, an innocent young girl (whose decisions, although some would call stupid, are realistically conceived and depicted), etc. It is also impossible to miss the iconography that defines the film as horror: the creaky and creepy Victorian house in which Mr. and Mrs. Ulman live, the extensive use of shadows and low-key lighting when Samantha is roaming around the house (knife in hand), and the discovery of evil at the climax of the story. Ti West reinvents and revises the horror film genre by skillfully emphasizing the cognitive response of the audience, in addition to the aforementioned movement towards realism and implicit critique of the current state of horror cinema (which acts as the cultural commentary of the film).

Before continuing on to what West achieves and how he does it in relation to the genre, it is important to consider The House of the Devil’s narrative framework, coupled with its aesthetic style, to give a sense of what exactly the audience is dealing with, because it directly relates to how they view the film and react to certain shots and sequences. The House of the Devil only partially follows the requirements of the Discovery Plot  — there is no talk about what Samantha might find in the rooms of the Ulman home, but there is that basic overarching narrative ploy of discovery and confrontation that defines the first two essential movements of the Discovery Plot structure. However, in The House of the Devil the discovery and confrontation are combined in the climax.

It is not until 39 minutes through the film that the first violent, bloody act occurs (and images henceforth depicted on-screen), the intention of which is to evoke a cognitive response of shock and awe in the viewer, although the act is not entirely surprising. The setup is a tip-off: a young woman driving through a cemetery stops to light her cigarette. When a young man comes up to her window with a lighter, seemingly out of nowhere, her fright is directly mirrored by the audience’s – it is a “jump” moment, but not in the manipulative sense. The gunshot is sudden, but not completely unexpected. The execution is perfectly calculated for optimum audience response. West states that the importance of it “was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie.”  The viewer now explicitly knows more than Samantha, and possibly fears for her safety. The initiation of a sexual discussion by Mrs. Ulman puts her at unease (and the audience as well). From the moment that the Ulmans leave, to the point at which they are reintroduced, West lets his film breath, and simultaneously breathes new life into the horror film genre.

The current state of horror cinema is largely characterized in part by throwing victims into horrific scenarios and showing how they deal with them. What sets The House of the Devil apart from present trends and its predecessors is that it is rich with characterization. Throughout the film, Samantha becomes an empathetic figure. We watch her stress over money (a familiar problem with college students, which plays toward the realism of the film) and become apprehensive when Mr. Ulman tells her that there is no child she will be watching after. We watch her explore the house, dancing around to the The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another” on her giant Sony Walkman. The audience becomes concerned with her wellbeing.

The film, in essence, is not very suspenseful because the audience is aware of information not available to Samantha. Since Samantha is the main character and the bulk of the film is filled with sequences of her doing mundane human activities, like watching television and eating pizza, the viewer is forced to either accept said circumstances or reject them (the most common backlash thrust upon the film has been people calling it “boring” or “slow”). What makes West’s technique so effect is the contrast between the disparate sources of fear: Samantha walking around an ominous empty house versus Samantha surrounded by a Satanic cult and a deformed figure pouring blood into her mouth; the horror of not knowing versus the horror of discovery and confrontation; finally, routine versus ritual.

When the strobe lights and flashing kicks in around the one hour and 17 minute mark (with less than 20 minutes left remaining), the viewer is plunged into a disorienting state – the same state which Samantha is surely in. Samantha’s “felt agitations” are reflected in the audience’s “analogous emotional state”  as a distinctly physical response. Samantha’s physical state and reaction to being tied up (trying to break herself free) is caused by her fearful cognitive state. Samantha’s response is one of fear, disgust, and repulsion. It only worsens when her vision clears and she sees the deformed figure standing above her (she is situated on the pentagram at this moment) who is about to cut its own wrist and pour its blood into a skull as a sort of funnel going into her mouth.

Samantha’s response to the Satanic ritual she was the unlikely participant of and the deformed figure’s impurity partly define The House of the Devil as an art-horror entry. Samantha’s repeated flashbacks to the deformed figure after her escape from the pentagram, and the subsequent slowing down of her ultimate escape from the house, shows a preoccupation with its monstrous façade (which she, undoubtedly, will never forget). Her complete aversion to its physical being creates a tension within the viewer.

Critics of the last 20 minutes of the film cite the change in tone and pacing to be problematic. This analysis shows more about them than it does West. The switch from meditations in a minimalist setting emphasizing minimalist actions to maximum intensity (but still in a minimalist style) is done in a way that draws attention to itself – and that is exactly the point, to stress and heighten the contrast. By the time the Satanic ritual begins, we care enough about Samantha to root for her. We want her to shoot Mr. Ulman at the end. We want her to get help and get away.

The conditions under which Samantha’s character is built are believable and realistic, which make the last shot all the more sad and terrifying. Being a college student in need of cash is not a foreign prospect, especially in today’s economy. She likes pizza. She enjoys listening to music on her walkman and dancing. She isn’t averse to snooping around a house that is not hers. She is a curious, intelligible young woman who just needs money to make rent.

The fact that the monster (well, monsters if you consider Victor and Mr. & Mrs. Ulman) of the film is both more human than expected (and much less “big” than what Western audiences, if they do, usually conceive of the devil or evil) and does not appear until the last 20 minutes is a testament to the will of Ti West’s filmmaking. He realigns what we fear (implication versus reality), how we fear it (cognitive versus physical), and makes us challenge the actual fear itself and how we conjure it up. The movements of the film are dissimilar insofar that what we have been told about meaning in horror films is a cop out: what usually has meaning (the physical presence of evil or the devil, violence, blood and gore, etc.) is comparable to what usually doesn’t have meaning (mundane human activities, what precedes the physical presence of evil or the devil and the violence, blood and gore, etc.). This strategy is barely, if ever, used effectively in the horror film genre.

The lack of dialogue is supplemented by Jeff Grace’s piano and orchestral heavy score. The mix of quiet piano keys and orchestral music (the intensity of which rises throughout to the climax of the film) carries a certain power that parallels the action. The score becomes a language unto itself, not unlike the language of the cinematography or editing. West again tips his hat to some of the forefathers of the genre and the bygone era in which the film takes place: the opening credits (shot in 1970s/early 1980s style, using the zoom instead of the dolly and yellow-font title credits over by freeze frame shots) echo the electronic synthesizer music of John Carpenter and Goblin (who frequently collaborated with the master of Italian giallo films Dario Argento).

Extended long takes are efficiently used to show Samantha performing aforementioned mundane human activities and they are effectively used in the sense that they show her at a remove (akin to the perspective of a documentary) and enhance the realism of the film. The house of the title itself looks like any old Victorian home you might find Upstate.  However, the way the film emphasizes the temporal (interior and exterior) space of it adds to the eerie atmosphere already been established.

The theme of innocence is explored in a way unlike most horror films today. Since the viewer spends so much time with Samantha, we are much more in touch with her innocence than if she had just been thrown into the Satanic ritual right at the onset of the film. In an inversion of expected genre conceits, it is the adult talking about sex rather than the adolescent (Mrs. Ulman rather than Samantha, who is not very receptive to the conversation at hand – and there is rarely talk of sexual interest or identity even between Samantha and Megan, only a fleeting mention of a boy Megan is seeing and Samantha’s roommate having sex). This aspect of the film shows discipline and reserve, with which most horror directors struggle (sex is so commonly exploited in horror films it seems commonplace and natural).

The House of the Devil also subtly engages with sub-genres of horror, in particular that of the slasher film and the haunted house film. Characteristic of the slasher film (which was popularized in the late 70s and early 80s by such films as Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.)  is that of a younger generation being the target of an older generation, the showdown between the main character and the force of evil (usually a killer, but in the case of The House of the Devil it is a Satanic cult), and the eventual freedom of the protagonist, which the audience later finds out is not truly freedom (in Samantha’s case she is impregnated with Satan’s child). On the other hand, the haunted house genre has been around since the advent of the horror genre itself, most popularly seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and the more recent, independently made hit Paranormal Activity (2007). The House of the Devil maybe a little too obviously lends itself to the haunted house genre, especially when reflecting on West’s exploration of the interior and exterior space of the Ulman’s house and its surroundings.

To make an object that is ordinary and common into something that should be approached with apprehension and even “fetid disgust”  is an incredible feat which Mr. West accomplishes. Pizza, now known as some sort of qualifying college cuisine, becomes a harbinger of doom. This should make the viewer reflect on the ontological root of fear and consider the multifarious possibilities of where it may hide (unconsciously), including what we need to survive (food).

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.

Moving Away from Cinéma Vérité and Towards a Self-Realized Subjective Documentary Cinema

By Dan Spada

Frederick Wiseman‘s firmness in not situating himself as a cinéma vérité filmmaker is entirely justified, even though there are links to be drawn between the markers of that style of filmmaking and his oeuvre. A few ways in which his films, and in particular High School (1968), do not properly align with the stylistics of cinéma vérité include the lack, or subversion by interruptive focusing, of long takes and the strategic use of editing, used to narrative ends, both of which draw attention to the subjective structure inherent within all, but specifically, his exercises in non-fiction filmmaking. Bearing the absence of narration, the fly on the wall “observer” approach, and “intimate” involvement, Wiseman’s films still seem to actively self-define against a cinéma vérité deployment. Setting up the institution as the protagonist and emphasizing different relations of power, some entirely human, but both physical and psychical, Frederick Wiseman’s High School exposes its differences from the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking both aesthetically, as well as, by extension, rhetorically. Wiseman presents the viewer with an assortment of scenarios that show the functioning of different relations of power (teacher-student and individual-institution, among other more specific ones).

After bringing the viewer into the school, and then into the classroom, with a wealth of expressive close-ups in tow, Wiseman settles into multiple scenes of disciplinary action, enacted upon both male and female students. The character of Mr. Allen, both an arbiter of social control and a teacher, is introduced within the first few minutes and turns out to be the most prominent disciplinarian over the course of the film’s 75 minute running time. His various scenes include reprimanding a student for not wearing proper attire to a gym class, being the mediator between a student and his off-screen teacher that (misguidedly, in the student’s explanation) gave him a detention, and, finally, reprimanding and doling out a suspension to a student who has hit one of his peers. Just briefly describing Mr. Allen’s scenes with a few words gives the impression that the split between powerful and powerless is simple, but looking at the language of the filmmaking and the language of the social actors allows for a more complex interpretation.

The scene in which the student protests his assigned detention, like the rest of the film, does not include a direct (visually) or indirect (aurally) inclusion of the filmmaker. It is thus the viewer’s job to deconstruct the filmmaking techniques to come the best possible reading of the scene at hand. Also like the rest of the film, this scene does not hinge on an interview, archival material, or a reenactment, but exists as an everyday, unrehearsed reality (however selected by the director to be filmed and included in the final cut). The way in which Wiseman edits his shots together assists in the viewer’s reading of the characters and situations; the way he edits his scenes together is rather like the creation of a sandcastle, the building up of components to naturally make a cohesive whole in the end, instead of the collage-like compositions of non-fiction films classically defined as cinéma vérité. Wiseman’s editing, on both the small and the large scale, draws attention to itself.

The scene begins with a medium close up profile shot of Michael, the student who has defied his teacher by walking out of class after being wrongly accused, in his portrayal of the unseen situation, of goofing off, and then pans left and downward to Mr. Allen, who is seated.

The camera then pans back right and up to Michael, who explains his case, slowly zooming in so his head fills up the frame.

After Michael finishes speaking, the camera pans back down to Mr. Allen (maintaining the close up from the previous shot) saying that he showed poor judgment and that it is his job to respect and listen to someone older than him or in a seat of authority.

The camera pans back right and down – now Mr. Allen’s hand fills up the frame, holding a card over his desk with, presumably, the information regarding Michael’s incident. Mr. Allen references the card to go against Michael’s claim that he was not assigned a detention: he reads it, and the camera pans back over (right) and up to his face.

Michael explains that it was another teacher, Mr. Walsh, who assigned it to him, while the camera lingers on Mr. Allen’s face as he listens to Michael, and then the camera pans back over (left) and up to Michael. The camera then zooms in on Michael’s facial features. The extreme close up of his face is momentarily obscured by what looks like a bobbing head in the left hand corner of the frame.

The conversation shifts in tone at the moment of this close up. Michael’s defiance, emphasized by the extreme close up on the vector of expression (his mouth), is made clear. The camera pans back over (right) to Mr. Allen’s face, while he listens to Michael explain himself. Wiseman then cuts away to an insert – an extreme close up of Mr. Allen’s hands, with a class ring on his left hand ring finger. He puts the card down, picks up a pen, and folds his hands. The camera then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Michael’s face. The camera momentarily loses focus, quickly regains it, then zooms out a little so Michael’s head, with the exception of his hair, fills the frame.

Another shift in tone occurs: the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot from behind Michael (who is not sitting), showing other bodies in the room as Mr. Allen goes off on how Michael should be a man and take orders. Wiseman then cuts to a shot, clearly not in sequence from the last one (the audio jumps to a whistle being blown), of a close-up of Michael’s face (not standing up), as he makes a plea for his principles. The camera then pans back down and over (right) to Mr. Allen as he repeats the line about Michael proving himself to be a man. The camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Mr. Allen’s mouth. Wiseman cuts back to Michael, who is now standing with his left arm behind his back, clutching his right arm, listening to Mr. Allen. The camera cuts back to a close-up of Mr. Allen’s face as he implores Michael to take the detention, zooming out to a medium-close after a few seconds and then quickly panning back over (left) to Michael.

The viewer is on the cusp of an abrupt ending: the camera cuts back to a medium shot of Mr. Allen asking, finally, if Michael will take the detention, as the background noise of chatter increases in volume. The camera stays on Mr. Allen as Michael says he will take it under protest. An unmistakable smile runs across Mr. Allen’s face. The camera pans back over (left) to Michael one last time, as a girl walks across the bottom left hand corner of the frame and Michael confirms the details of his detention.   Wiseman then swiftly cuts to a school authority walking down a hallway making sure that students are where they are supposed to be. Throughout the entirety of this successive sequence, the authority figure remains faceless, stalking the halls and students within them ever so aggressively. The transition from Mr. Allen and Michael’s dispute to this man’s disciplinary tactics is meaningful insofar as it shows two different kinds of power relationships within the same structure (teacher-student) and institution (the school).

The scene between Mr. Allen and Michael is just one in which Wiseman complicates the idea of his filmmaking being that of the cinéma vérité variety, pushing against the notion that there is anything but subjective cinema, even when it defines itself as documentary. He does this by using short, syncopated takes that emphasize certain aspects of a person or a setting and thus displaces common conceptions of power and power relations (Wiseman is in step with the intellectual leanings of Michel Foucault on this subject it seems). Mr. Allen could be seen as stepping in for society at large, in a way, teaching Michael the importance of compromising and its relation to the way we are seen as adults (rather than children, or students). Wiseman’s focus on Mr. Allen’s ring points to the possibility of a generationally-focused interpretation, one that relies on a certain passing down of ideas on character and specific values one should have. This student’s protest lays the foundation for what’s to follow, which Wiseman wisely builds on, the camera gazing over and into both interested and disinterested young faces, and across institutional landscapes and the people that run them.

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s Degree in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop Films Summer Series.

Abject Bodies and Gender Instability in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

By Dan Spada, originally published on Raving Through Dark Nights. Republished with permission.

The way performance functions in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” reflects a deep, abiding preoccupation with gender roles and the truth economy that is generated therein. The oscillation between masculine and feminine, and the instability of gender is depicted in the construction of characters that do no satisfy ideal, conventional roles regarding sex and gender, but rather expose a profoundly unsettling inconsistency in respect to bodies, both abject and normalized. The gender role reversal in Psycho is blindingly obvious, particularly in the scene where Lila goes to explore the house and find Mrs. Bates, while Sam acts as a decoy to distract Norman. This scene and the following one, in which it is revealed that Norman has been preserving the skeleton of his mother and dressing up in her clothes, stress the transience of gender, and how it is not always in sync with biological sex. Sam’s aggressive homo-social taunting of Norman in this sequence, and Lila’s exploration of the house, leading up to the discovery of the skeleton and Norman’s performance as his mother, all hint towards an inherent gender instability within the characters of the film and a masculine/feminine malaise that is developed throughout the course of the film.

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Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through the cabin one for any clues. They find a slip of paper Marion wrote on regarding the stolen money (just numbers and equation signs) that missed the toilet when she flushed the rest down. Lila becomes desperate to search the house and speak to Mrs. Bates, and Sam fulfills the typical role of male protector by saying, “I don’t like you going into that house alone.” This dialogue is in line with the heterosexist ideology of the time, and an ideology that Sam’s character clearly held true. He sounds resigned when he says that he’ll find Bates and keep him occupied.

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It is important to note that Sam’s gender performance, like everyone’s inside the world of the film (and outside, according to feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler), is a failure. He cannot provide for Marion in the way that she wants and needs him to (as evident from the first scene); ironically, right after Norman watches the swamp swallow the car with Marion’s body in it, Sam is seen writing a letter to Marion professing that he doesn’t care if they are poor, cramped, or miserable – at least they’ll be happy (and alive). This could be why he overcompensates when in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to her, and this overcompensation comes on particularly strong throughout the scene in which he keeps Norman occupied. His hyper-masculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

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However, Sam’s hyper-masculinity does not surface until after they enter the office. Norman is already suspicious of the couple, and Sam is clearly nervous, at first (before entering the office), to be diverting Norman’s attention. He knows that he is a potentially dangerous person, although he is not yet sure in what way. The sexual tension between the two is immediately felt in Norman’s body language. His confidence (both in body and speech) when he asks, “You looking for me?” slowly begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. His body then enters a visible state of unrest, and Sam’s teasing line, “I never can keep quiet enough for her, so I thought I’d look you up and talk”, with all its erotic undertones, hints towards a fluctuation between homo-social and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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Sam then begins to try to bully the truth out of Norman, which, although it does not work (in regard to what he wants to hear – about the money and Marion), puts him in a progressively more distressed state over the duration of their conversation. It seems that Hitchcock implies that when Sam says “Buy a new one, in a new town, where you won’t have to hide your mother,” when talking about the hotel and the money, that Norman is actually thinking about himself and his gender identity. Hitchcock is also suggesting the possibility of Norman thinking Sam is aware of his secret, which makes him noticeably tense up – his jaw muscle begins to contract faster, and his speech begins to tremble.

In the office scene, the frame is split perfectly in two. Sam inhabits one side (the left – customer), Norman the other (the right – owner): one proper body, one abject; one (normalized) heterosexual identity, one (shamed) queer; one searching for what he will not find, and one hiding something everyone is looking for – but also the opposite, something no one expected to find. Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman also could be looked at as a gender role reversal – why is it Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman? Shouldn’t they use Lila’s female sexuality to keep Norman’s attention while Sam (born explorer, essence of man) searches the house? Or were they already unsure about Norman’s sexuality? They certainly were not given any clues to his gender trouble at that point.

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The revelation of Norman as Mrs. Bates is a different kind of performance when looked at against those outlined by Judith Butler. Butler offers drag as the ultimate portrayal of gender instability. However, almost always, drag offers some sort of comedic edge (whether it be inherent in the participants/the performance or reactionary from the audience) and her syllogism that if one understands drag as a portrayal of gender instability, then they must believe gender to be socially constructed, is reductive and unrealistic. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock offers his character’s gender trouble in a less deductive and more effective/affective way: Norman is not a sideshow, a circus act for the people from within the film or the audience to laugh at (up until the end, when a feeling of camp arises). Hitchcock is not setting it up so that once the audience witnesses the wig falling off Norman’s head in the big reveal that they will instantly be convinced of gender’s contingent foundations. Hitchcock is, however, offering a deeply troubling ambiguity that confounds the characters within the film, and finds the audience feeling a deep unease in regards to what they have just seen. It’s the slippage between masculine and feminine, the undeclared sexuality of Norman that is emphasized by Hitchcock and felt by the audience; it is that uncertainty which functions as the crux of the film and is the key to its understanding. With drag, you only get the performance. With “Psycho”, you get more: the visage of the boy next door and the spirit underneath the skin of Norman Bates – the creation of a monster a little too human for our liking.

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About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.