Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 1: Psycho (1960)


     Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for reading “Reel Christianity”. I have a confession to make. I haven’t written in this blog for about a month and a half. Sure, there have still been weekly posts, but over the summer I figured out how I could set my posts to post themselves whenever I wanted them to, and because of that, last week’s post, “The Third Man”, was written in the beginning of September. I did this for a number of reasons. For one thing, this semester in college has been very busy for me: I’ve been a leader at freshman orientation; I’ve performed in several concerts already; I’ve had a lot of work to do for my classes; and I’ve been preparing to shoot and finally shooting a short film. And now that October’s over (and most of the things I mentioned are done for a while), I’m finally coming back to “Reel Christianity” to give you another five-week series.

     I had a couple ideas of what I could do this month, but I eventually decided on “Light in the Darkness”. I’ll be talking about five movies this month that are either dark in nature or just plain graphic—or both—and finding elements in them that I can still relate to Christianity. I think the idea came from when I was preparing for freshman orientation. The woman in charge of us leaders was talking to us one night about loving all of the students that we would be leading, no matter who they are or what they like to do. It almost even goes back to Matthew 7:1, which I’ve cited in a couple posts already: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” So as you and I are challenged to love others daily despite of our differences, I feel like the same applies to movies I watch: even if they may be very dark, is there content in them that I can learn from—content that may even redeem the film?

     Well, with that introduction, let’s start “Light in the Darkness”. And our first film, to me, is perfect to start with since we just finished Halloween: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. This movie, made in 1960, followed Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo”, a big-budget thriller shot in color in San Francisco with some pretty cool special effects. (At least, they were cool in 1958.) So for his next movie, Hitchcock decided to make a low-budget horror film shot in black-and-white on a back lot in Universal Studios. That may make it sound a little less appealing. But if you haven’t seen “Psycho” yet, trust me, it’s pretty dang creepy. Oh, and if you really haven’t seen “Psycho” yet, go see it right now before you read this. Spoilers follow.

     So the film starts with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) having… a conversation in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kinda.) Sam is still paying alimony to his divorced wife, and in order for the two of them to get married, they need money. So what does Marion decide to do? As a secretary for a bank in Phoenix, she intercepts $40,000 from a man buying a house for his soon-to-be-married daughter, and instead of taking it to a safe as she is supposed to do, she takes it home with her and starts off to meet Sam in California.

     However, almost immediately, the guilt trip starts. (No pun intended…) On the way out of town, she and her boss make eye contact. At night, when Marion starts getting sleepy, she pulls over on the highway, and the next morning, she is woken up by a police officer next to her window. Because she acts suspicious, the policeman follows her into the next town when she goes to buy a new car to get rid of evidence. When she realizes he’s following her, she becomes more nervous than ever, and hurries out of the car dealership, full of thoughts of what’s going to come next—and who might come after her.

     But that night, during a heavy rain, she finds herself having to pull over to a little motel off the main highway: the Bates Motel. She arrives and is greeted by an awkward Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). After a dinner of sandwiches and milk and some small talk about the stuffed animals in Norman’s parlor, his childhood, and his mentally ill mother (who lives upstairs in Norman’s house next to the motel), Marion goes back to her room, resolving to return the money. And then, as most people know, she goes to take a shower, and a mysterious female figure opens the curtain and stabs her to death in one of the most iconic movie deaths ever. Norman comes back in, horrified, and then starts… cleaning up.

     Now, isn’t that scary? Killing off your main character in the middle of the movie? Who does that? Alfred Hitchcock, ladies and gentlemen. Anyway, Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) team up with a private detective named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to figure out where Marion went and get the money back. So Arbogast goes to several motels in the area to see if Marion checked in anywhere, and sure enough, he gets to the Bates Motel. He wants to go talk to Norman’s mother, but Norman won’t let him. So Arbogast goes, lets Lila know what he’s found out, but then he goes back to the motel. Into the house. Up the stairs. But before he can get into Mrs. Bates’ room, a mysterious female figure comes out the door and stabs him to death.

     So finally, Sam and Lila talk to the local sheriff, who is confused: Mrs. Bates has been dead for decades. Who could Arbogast have seen in the window? And Lila can’t take it. She convinces Sam to go to the Bates motel, so long story short, they go there pretending to be a business trip, and Lila sneaks into the Bates house, looking for Mrs. Bates. She finds her: well, her skeleton. And suddenly, Norman Bates, dressed in drag and a wig, starts coming after her with a knife, until Sam holds him back.

     Once Norman is arrested, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) talks to him and finds out once the police could not. When Norman’s father died when he was a child, he and his mother were emotionally scarred, and so for years they grew so close that when Mrs. Bates met another man, Norman became jealous and killed them both. And to hide his guilt, he stole his mother’s corpse, hiding it in his house, and taking care of it as much as he could to keep her alive in a way. He became so consumed with keeping her alive, he even talked for her, carrying on conversations with her—or himself. And soon, her identity became his, and Norman Bates became his mother.

PSYCHIATRIST: You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there’s always a conflict, a battle. In Norman’s case, the battle is over, and the dominant personality is won.

     And this is where “Psycho” ends: Marion and Arbogast murdered, Norman/Mrs. Bates in jail waiting to get let out, and $40,000 lost somewhere in a swamp behind the Bates Motel. Now, personally, when I saw “Psycho” for the first time, I didn’t think so much about this ambiguity at the end. I just liked it for being a cool-looking, thrilling movie. But now that I’m writing this, I realize how hard it might be for some people to find something redemptive about “Psycho”. Does it have a message? Not exactly. Does it resolve anything? Not exactly? Can I relate it to Christianity? Good question.

     To me, there is. And it comes in that ending, seeing Norman Bates torn between two personalities, two identities. As a Christian, I see the same battle in myself a lot of times. I want to follow Jesus, but being a sinful human being, I find myself doing things deliberately that disobey God. And to me, nowhere in the Bible is this idea portrayed better than in Romans 7:15, when the apostle Paul shows the same duality in himself: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (7:15-18)
     That may take a few times to read, because it does sound a little confusing. But the point is, there’s a battle going on in the Christian between serving God and serving his sinful nature. And it’s tough to actually go in the right direction. And as Paul continues, he acknowledges this even more: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25) Only through Jesus can I make the right decision to follow Him and turn away from my sinful nature.
     My prayer for you is that you will fight the sinful nature in you this week and decide to turn to Jesus. And I pray that as we continue to look at movies this month that may not seem redemptive and look for ways that they can teach us spiritually, you will do the same in your relationships with others—looking past failures and seeing the good in everyone we come in contact with.

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