The documentary 78/52 is ideal viewing for anyone who has always wanted to know what Elijah Wood or the guy who did the sound editing on the South Park movie think about the shower scene from Psycho. The calibre of interviewees and the level of their insights in Alexandre O. Philippe’s film is on the distinctly variable side, closer to one of those I Love… nostalgia-fests that are used to pad out the television schedules than to something valuable and rewarding such as Kent Jones’s Hitchcock/ Truffaut.
There are some people here you’d happily listen to for several hours: the great editor Walter Murch, who shows how the shower scene influenced his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or the director Peter Bogdanovich, who was there on Psycho’s opening day. Others you would cross the road at a Grand Prix to avoid. One man offers as evidence of the ubiquity of Bernard Herrmann’s screeching score, the fact that his own seven-year-old daughter can imitate it despite having never seen the movie. His daughter is in all likelihood an absolute peach, but that’s still no reason for this anecdote to occupy screen time in a film about Psycho.
It would have been the most fatuous moment in the picture, if only another interviewee hadn’t compared the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to the demise of a character from Game of Thrones. I think we can say with some confidence that audiences 50 years from now won’t be watching a documentary about the beheading of Ned Stark.
Titbits of insightful information bob to the surface now and then. There is an illuminating section about the painting of Susanna and the Elders which Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) uses to conceal the peephole in the wall, and a nice comparison of the shot sequence in the shower scene with one of the fights in Raging Bull (though it’s nothing you couldn’t find in your average YouTube video, and Scorsese’s commentary has been lifted from another source). Gus Van Sant’s subversive remake of Psycho gets a brief look-in, though Van Sant does not (he turned down a request to be interviewed for the film). Representing the directing contingent instead is Eli Roth, director of Hostel, who is given lots of time in which to tell us how Psycho was the first film to make horror feel plausible (not so) and how it influenced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (no kidding).
The violent reaction of the first Psycho audiences (they were screaming so loud that you couldn’t hear the soundtrack, according to Bogdanovich) is likened to the response of those present on 28 December 1895 at the Salon Indien beneath the Grand Café to see the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat. The critic David Thomson is on hand to repeat the myth peddled in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that “some spectators ran fearfully away”, thinking that the train photographed by the Lumières was going to burst through the screen and mow them down. Neal Marshall, director of The Descent, falls in line with that too.
I recommend both of them put on their Christmas lists this year a copy of Matthew Sweet’s fine book Inventing the Victorians, which contains the following testimony from George Méliès, who, unlike Thomson or Marshall, was actually present at that screening and remembered it rather differently:
“At this sight, we sat with our mouths open, thunderstruck, speechless with amazement. At the end of the screening, all was madness, and everyone wanted to know how they might obtain the same results.”
But why let the truth get in the way of a bunch of people sitting around repeating things they once heard or talking about their kids?
To get some balance back, I turned to VF Perkins’s book Film As Film, where elegant analysis accomplishes in one paragraph what the documentary fails conspicuously to do. Here is Perkins linking the shower scene to the rest of the picture organically in a way that 78/ 52 never manages:
“The knife’s plunging diagonal contributes strongly to the composition of movement, consistently downwards, towards the climax in Marion’s fall. In this, the scene is part of the film’s general movement. Each of the climaxes is built around a vertiginous descent which sweeps the audience farther downwards towards an abyss of darkness, madness, futility and despair. That is why the picture’s final image, reversing this pattern—a brief shot of Marion’s car being hauled up out of a swamp—carries such a powerful sensation of release.”
78/ 52 opens on 3 Nov.