Thursday, April 28, 2011

We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes. On Psycho

I annually watch Hitchcock's Psycho. I am a devout follower of the late director's work, and even though I think he has many better films, Psycho is the one that always sticks with me, especially the first half of the film. I can watch Marion Crane drive to her destiny endlessly, just as exhilarated on view 45 as I was the first time. Psycho is the kind of film that could or would not be made today. Not because of the subject matter, which is tame by today's standards. Nor because of the level of artistry that Hitchcock achieved in making his film. Many working filmmakers can and do reach that level quite often. One of the major elements of the film that makes Psycho so special, and what is near impossible today, is the element of surprise. Marion's death was kept so secret from the public that audiences were not allowed to enter the theater after the film began. The film's advertisements were purposely vague as to throw audiences from the plot, and critics were asked to write about the film with out revealing all that it was. Today it would be nearly impossible to keep Marion's death a secret, or Norman's identity left in the basement until the films credits. The internet is filled with spoilers and scripts and discussions that make themselves known even before some films begin production. There would be no way a film that relies so heavily on audiences have no previous knowledge of what they are walking in to to be successful. It simply wouldn't happen.

That being said, there are plenty of books that are essential for any Psycho fans. Some of my favorites are as follows:

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thompson

Thompson, whose Biographical Dictionary of Film is an essential read for any film lover, has written a slim and sometimes enlightening discussion of the film. Part analysis, part review, the work looks at the film as a whole as well as how it inspired (or is responsible for) a long list of later films. Thompson's is especially adroit when discussing Marion and Norman's pre-murder discussion ("We all go a little mad sometimes.") and also in placing the shock back into the film's opening moments. He paints a clear line from Hitchcock's work to the such modern films as Pulp Fiction and the James Bond series, most of which would feel like a stretch from anyone but Thompson. While Thompson may occasionally go off the rails (his moody and evocative coda could have easily been excised), his authoritative voice is a welcome addition the the film's written cannon.

Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut. Another essential read. French New Wave director Truffaut conducted extensive interviews with Hitchcock, in which the discussed each of his films from the beginning of his career on. The book is a great reference material and is also fun to read. Truffaut is a true fan, and admits to basing much of his career on Hitchcock's. While Hitchcock is closely guarded, never veering far from his well-orchestrated public persona, Truffaut's knowledge and love of the films keeps this from being a publicity piece. The book is neatly divided by film, so a casual reader can pick and choose what films to read about.

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, by Donald Spoto. Celebrity biographer Donald Spoto has written what is by most accounts the definitive book on Hitchcock's life. The book is somewhat repetitive; Hitchcock worked tirelessly on his film before they went into production, only to lose interest in them by the time they were ready to be shot, and Spoto runs out of creative ways in which to present this point. But this should not distract any interested fan. If anything, Spoto's Freudian approach to the director's life is great fun. Spoto is especially effective in deconstructing Hitchcock the Image vs. Hitchcock the man. This is the second of Spoto's three books on the director.

What You See In The Dark, by Maneul Munoz.

Of all the books in this list, this is the one standout, mainly as it is a work of fiction. What You See is Munoz’s first novel, and centers around the small town Bakersfield, CA, the city near which Marion Crane met her fate. The novel is told in a shifting of voices, and follows several central characters surrounding the arrival of the Actress and the Director, a fictionalized Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock. The Actress and the Director are in Bakersfield to film an exterior shot for an upcoming movie (the never-mentioned but framing and looming Psycho). Alongside this, the novel also follows a lonely, motel-owning mother whose son may or may not have killed his new love. Upfront, the novel does not fully come together in all places. I found myself underwhelmed by my own expectations: Psycho was a shocking work, and I kept waiting for the moment when the rug was pulled out from under me. That moment never came. What You See does leave the reader with two things, both worth your time: the character of the Actress and the novel’s sense of mood. Munoz’s fascinating portrait of the Actress and her search for her morally deviant character feels more honest than any biography, and allows one to see the luminous powers of fiction in fleshing out our everyday life in ways that non-fiction could never do. More fully realized, however, is Munoz’s mood, produced by his beautifully written second person narrator, which opens and closes the novel. Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” haunts the novel’s characters and What You See often reads like that song itself, quiet, beautiful and laced with a tinge of fear. Whereas Hitchcock made such an effort to have Psycho rooted in outright horror, Munoz keeps his horror just below the surface, letting the suspense reside more in the possibility of what could happen rather than what actually does. This is a lesson he learned from the master himself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


My favorite book of last year won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and I could not be happier. If you have not heard me prattle on and on and on about "A Visit From the Goon Squad," there is no better reason to go out and read it now. You don't even have to take my word for this one.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Bossypants and iPad books

"Hello. This is Tina Fey. You are experiencing an eBook. I don't know what that is, but welcome to the eBook." --Tina Fey, Bossypants

I purchased Tina Fey's Bossypants as an "Enhanced eBook" for my iPad. In case you are wondering what an "Enhanced eBook" is, a 30 second audio clip is provided of Fey explaining the concept, which is simply and audio chapter as well as extra pictures (along with an extra dollar!). I have always loved Tina Fey and knew I would purchase her book as soon as soon as I heard of its release. She is smart, her wit is quick and off kilter, and she helped get Obama elected, so what is not to love?
Purchasing Bossypants on an iPad is not something I expected to do, however. As much as I love my iPad, as well as my Oprah-given Kindle, I like books. I like holding them, I like smelling them. If anything, I like their presence. I am the kind of person who can spend hours at a dinner party staring at someone's bookshelf, looking for a connection. With an eBook, that presences is simply not there. I will often hold a book long after I have finished it simply to retain the experience. That is not something I get holding my Kindle, no matter how much it reminds me of who gave it to me. A Kindle turns off. An iPad dies after several hours. The words in a book stay on the page, even if there is no one to read them.
And yet I have had many pleasurable experiences on both of my e-readers. Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists was a perfect introduction to my iPad. Rachman's novel is a loving ode to a dying art (the newspaper), and reading it I felt that connection I get with my favorite books. I read for those moments when you aren't even aware that you are staring at words on a page, those moments when all else falls away and you are not even aware of you completely consumed, engaged, connected. Reading Rachman's novel on the iPad, I got to that place more than once and realized why E-readers have such an appeal. But you cannot stack an eBook on a shelf, or lend it too a friend, or even photocopy it. You can't smell an eBook or feel its binding. Once the device turned off, the book all but vanishes from your life.
I did not realize how I really felt about this topic until I started not finishing books I had downloaded. I am one of those people who will finish a book against all better judgment. I made it through each murder in 2666. I even read all of Clinton's My Life. But I have turned off at least 4 books on my Kindle/iPad. The reason is simple: the books on these devices are not physically present in my life, cannot sit on the shelf and remind me of my failure, their promise, and therefore they are easier to forget. I would never have made it through page 45 of 2666 on my iPad, but holding that behemoth of a novel, I was forced to finish it, less it taunt me with what I might have missed. Stumbling over it each day kept me going, seeing my progress in something other than a percentage. And when I finished it, I knew that what I read was worth my time, even if I did not enjoy it at the time. My sense of the novel was more than just accomplishment. It was rewarding for as much of what it was as what it wasn't. I would not have reached this stage on my Kindle, that blank mind space I hold so dear. I would have turned it off, out of sight, out of mind...
Which brings me to Tina Fey. She is perfect on my iPad. She is brief, witty, and has as easy going sense about her, which is not to say her writing is weak or light or that her book is a throwaway. In fact, it is anything but. However, it is something I can enjoy without having that presence I hold so dear. She can easily deal with tough subjects like sexism without becoming a treatise, and I can laugh off her list and scripts without needing a highlighter to carry on. In short, she feels right at home on my device.
I will continue to read on my Kindle/iPad, but only those things I am uncertain of, those things I don't feel I will need around (or even need to finish). From day one I have said the iPad is for readers, and that is something I stand by. I could not type this blog on my iPad, nor would I want to do so. But when the new Jennifer Egan comes out, or the latest Zadie Smith is released, don't look for me to be plugged in to read it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Open City

I am nearly 100 pages into Teju Cole's meditative Open City, and am really enjoying it so far. It is not a loud book, nor is it dull. From what I can see, the only action that takes place in the novel is a man walking around New York City and thinking, and I don't expect this to change. It is quiet. Because of this, it is also easy to put down. I started it at the beginning of last month, and closed it to read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I am always afraid to put books down, because it usually spells death for them, but this one is different. I found myself thinking about it while driving to work, moving over some of the ideas it presented. I picked it up today and peacefully read 5o or so pages. And what is nice about this book is that I may put it down again, but I know for certain I will finish it, even if I move to something else before. Some books are like that. They don't need to consume you, or demand every ounce of your attention. They are happy to let you go about your business and trust you know when to visit. This is a first for me, and for that Open City is a roaring success.