Style and Convention Breaking in Psycho

After the film studio system collapse, major distribution companies like RKO went under. Lead by industry avant-gardes, a new era of creative license for filmmakers began. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revolutionized the horror-suspense genre by defying narrative conventions established in the decades prior to 1960. Seat-gripping stylistic choices and tragic character fates exploit the expectations of audiences previously accustomed to the rigid conventions of classic Hollywood films.

Hitchcock’s stylistic niche became clear in his previous massive productions like North By Northwest, however Psycho pushed the boundaries of his provocative tendencies. One such way was through the use of realistic point of view shots in conjunction with non-diegetic sound to build suspense and terror. As the protagonist Marion drives through the pouring rain at night after leaving Fairville, a series of shots expose her view outside the car windshield. Suspense builds as rain beats down and blinding lights hit Marion’s tired eyes. Fast paced string orchestra sounds and dialogue remind the audience of her difficult situation. The dialogue in the car scene also challenges Marion’s purity; it reminds the audience of her wrongdoing. Unlike Singin in the Rain and other classic Hollywood pictures where single shots frame entire scenes, Hitchcock predominately uses restricted camera angles to emphasize the inner terror of the main characters. Perhaps no other use of POV mixed with non-diegetic sound is more famous than the shower murder. The audience never gets a full view of the bathroom and we are aware of the killer’s presence several seconds before Marion. Her screams are mixed with screeching rhythmic sounds.

Regardless of the scene’s style, the shower murder breaks a key narrative norm. Marion is killed just after she insinuates that she will return home to give the money back. Films in previous decades reprieve protagonist misdeeds given they demonstrate a willingness to change. Rather, the convention dictates those who are evil as punished and those who are good as rewarded. Also, the timing of her death so early in the film comes as a big surprise. Another tragic fate during the film is that of the private detective Arbogast, another one of the film’s positive characters. He is killed suddenly atop the stairs in Norman’s home.

The characters of Psycho are made to exist in a world where the safeguards of society are limited and the good are punished. Even when Marion’s sister and Sam visit Sherriff Chambers, he demonstrates apathy and an unwillingness to help. Clearly Hitchcock resisted the urge to deliver classic Hollywood conventions to shock his audience. He displays the fragility of human life and the twisted cousin of a just society. He defies classic Hollywood conventions by killing positive characters. Shots and stylistic choices make the audience aware of character psychology to amplify terror.

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Un Chien Andalou Beneath a Cognitivist Lens

Tyler Peters

Timothy Robinson

ENG2300

4 September 2013

The release of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) delivered on its intent to shock, mystify, and even charm some early film audiences. Film scholars and critics throughout the twentieth century have searched relentlessly for hidden meaning among the film’s string of bizarre and violent images. In a memoir Bunuel maintained when creating the film he had no other motive than to propagate his surrealist vision. He never sided with rational interpretations of his radical ideas. The film was born from his rebellious youth, a direct insult to the “avant-garde cine” in Paris that catered more toward viewer reason (Bunuel, 101). The question remains; how does one explain countless stubborn attempts to find meaning in Bunuel’s ‘Frankenstein film’? Viewing the film through the lens of cognitive film theory helps one understand why in the case of Un Chien Andalou, various interpretations of the incoherent shots persist over time but bear no validity.

Cognitivist David Bordwell asserts a broad question; how does the human mind go beyond the information given within a shot to find meaning? By drawing from past experience, images conjure up previous “schemas” to categorize shots into the context of a scene. Schemas are subjective and invite infinite interpretations. As images appear and disappear, the mind responds by integrating the images with preconceived notions of time, setting, and narrative norms. Bordwell calls this “cognizing” (Bordwell, 136). During the opening, Bunuel uses a match on action to synthesize two loosely related shots into one disturbing image. The audience thinks they see a woman’s eye being sliced when the sliced eye belongs to a calf. This particular bias is an example of a mental phenomenon that misled viewers for decades.

Other techniques set the stage for “cognizing.” Early in the film the audience is propelled further into a disjointed narrative where a man in a nun outfit bikes down an unknown street. Then we see a man and woman gazing out a window. This transition invites the audience to think three characters are operating in the same time and place among shots. This is a classic example of how shots invite the mind to find narrative significance that does not exist. Additionally, props like the striped box exert cognitive effects when seen across settings. The striped box appears during the street scene and appears again upstairs as a woman lays clothing atop a bed. Item repetition and clever editing assist in “cognizing” by creating an association between previously unrelated shots.

Despite our ability to establish cohesion, Bunuel ruins all previous associations during the final scene. A young couple is shown dead on the beach in the springtime. The stark ending is a last insult to mainstream proponents of art during his youth. The film was a violent deviation from the “avant-garde” of the time that was intended to cultivate artistic sensibility among viewers (Bunuel, 2006). Ironically, the work was well received by the French intellectual bourgeoisie (Koller, Un Chien Andalou).

Thus, the film’s controversial nature makes it an invaluable piece of film history. Today, it still continues to rouse emotions and confuse audiences. While associations in characters and settings arise, shots never reveal a consistent narrative. Through clever editing Bunuel allows just enough consistency for the audience to piece together a semblance of narrative. Cognizing the film invites creative interpretation but a dead end leaves the audience confused. Regardless, the films graphic images mixed with clever transitions will always inspire cognitive interpretation and continue to dupe creative thinkers for eternity.

Buñuel, Luis (2006). “Notes on the Making of Un Chien Andalou”, in Art in Cinema :

 

documents toward a history of the film society. Philadelphia: Temple University

Press.

Bordwell, David. “Poetics of Cinema. Taylor & Francis Group. New York, NY

2008.

Koller, Michael. “Un Chien Andalou“. Senses of Cinema. Film Victoria.

Retrieved 23 July 2012. < http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/cteq/chien/&gt;.

Metropolis as a Hero’s Journey

Tyler Peters

ENG2300

Timothy Robinson

4 September 2013

Fritz Lang’s cinematic science-fiction epic, Metropolis (1927) presents a vivid hero’s journey resembling Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Although details vary, Lang’s epic exhibits parallels to Campbell’s analysis as the protagonist navigates the narrative and encounters archetypal characters. The hero’s journey is a highly structured narrative pattern beginning with the hero’s departure and initiation.

The hero’s departure begins with the entrance of Freder Frederson, son of Joh, a ruthless city ruler. At first the hero is portrayed in the Eternal Gardens, his normal environment, playing amongst the sons and daughters of wealthy city dwellers. Maria enters amidst a group of worker children and delivers the first call to action that catalyzes Freder’s decision to explore the depths. As Joh’s heir, Freder confronts his destiny to become the city ruler while realizing he has very little knowledge of its dark secrets. This dissonance inspires full rebellion against Joh as he investigates the depths and crosses the threshold to explore the machines. Lang presents powerful visual and auditory contrasts between the city and workers of the depths to emphasize Freder’s leap into the unknown. The leap molds the viewer’s expectation of his impending character growth. In Metropolis, the hero experiences his call to action fairly quickly while most journeys involve a refusal of the call. In other words, he accepts fairly quickly that his life will change rapidly as he transitions from the luxurious lifestyle of the surface into the harsh conditions of the worker city.

The initiation involves significant hardships after which transform the hero and grant him a magical power or role. Witnessing the M-machine explosion and the appearance of Moloch mark Freder’s initiation. Subsequently, when Joh banishes Josaphat to the worker city, Freder confronts his father for the first time as a powerful obstacle rather than a provider. He does not agree with his father’s sentencing and is propelled further into his hero’s role. Freder meets Josaphat in the depths and they discuss his plan to assume a temporary worker disguise. Josaphat is the mentor archetype that imparts wisdom on the hero when beginning his harsh trials. During his first worker shift, Freder nearly passes out and confronts his father’s great power for the first time. He shouts in agony, “Father- Will this 10 hours never end!” The display represents Freder’s suffering for his fellow brothers. He emerges from the experience transformed and closer to his role as mediator. This long sequence of trials leads up to first contact with Maria, who fits the goddess archetype. Having traversed the world of the workers, he has achieved a magical power, love and empathy for Maria and the workers. She also grants him the power of a mediator that he accepts willingly. This role allows him to confront his father at the end of the narrative and restore peace between Joh and the Foreman.

Lang’s epic parallels an age-old narrative structure that relies heavily on protagonist growth. The prelude and intermezzo transport Freder from his extravagant lifestyle as a cultural elite, deep into emotional and physical conflict. Conflict forces him to confront his father’s wrath and ultimately achieve new found strength born from his love for Maria and his empathy for worker suffering. The hero emerges as the mediator in his new powerful role, a hallmark character of Campbell’s monomyth.