Friday, November 11, 2011

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

There’s Something Queer At Work Here

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

We Need to Talk About Norman

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 homosocial 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.

Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through 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.

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 hypermasculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

However, Sam’s hypermasculinity 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 homosocial and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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.

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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"a free verse poem about [my] greatest fear", as requested by anon on Tumblr.

how absurd
the blameless absurdity
of the absurd

conditional healing
for a man
with hope
"for a better tomorrow"
but giving that up
for a neutral today

today is helpless
(or hopeless?)
and so is he
feeling around
fooling around
fucking around
turning himself (and everything) AROUND
which not everyone sees
but then again
not everyone's looking

painful explanations
he hates giving
positing understanding
against apathy
in this cruel, cruel world
(of his)

fruitless attempts
misunderstandings thrive

overcoming spatial
and mobile indifference
in flux
or never
and ever

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tribeca Film Festival 2011 in review.

This year's crop of films was indefinitely better than last year - the energy I felt while watching Give Up Tomorrow at its first screening (my third screening) was palpable, the ovation incredible. The energy carried straight through the week, from the high-profile premieres I attended (Eva Mendes and Griffin Dunne were at the Last Night screening; Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin were among those attending Higher Ground's NY Premiere) to the lower profile screenings such as Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (actor-director Michael Rapaport and Phife Dog in attendance) and Bombay Beach (director Alma Har'el in attendance, sad I didn't get to see/meet Benny). Below you will find my capsule reviews (there are a few films I'd love to watch again, but two filmmaker's in particular whose team I might have the chance, and would love, to join), enjoy!

Renée (directed by Eric Drath) | 2011 | 75m | Spotlight | World Premiere

Born Richard Raskin in 1934 into incredible privilege (both of her parents were doctors - her mother dominating her father on a daily basis), Renée Richards was “reborn” in 1975 after much anguish of feeling like she wanted to be a woman but the world not being able to looking at her that way. Why? Well, he liked to sneak into his sister’s room and wear dresses, and he just felt like he was in a woman trapped in a man’s body. It occurred to me after the film, what if cross-dressing was an acceptable practice when Richards was a child and he could have done it out in the open - I definitely believe that him having to do it behind closed doors, and the fact that he felt like he couldn’t tell anyone about it had a direct effect on his decision to transition. Too bad director Eric Drath (directing his second film - his first was a boxing documentary) doesn’t feel that this is where the meat of his story’s at, all but ignoring key issues of transgender politics and transgender life to focus on her tennis career (which I guess makes sense because the documentary was funded by ESPN films), but then again, Richards’ continuous and elliptical attempts to get across to the audience that she just wants to be considered a woman and not transgender because they’re “freakish” (her own words) grow tiresome towards the end of the film. This is an easily digestible sports documentary for people who want to know the entire story of Renée (including her relationship with her possibly addicted and twisted son who, the film tells us, has had many jobs, one of them being choreographing the first Wu-Tang video)… but not really.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (directed by David Gelb) | 2011 | 81m | World Documentary Competition | North American Premiere

Food fetishists everywhere unite: director David Gelb has created a glossy entrée for food porn enthusiasts all over. Let’s not forget about the human behind the plate of mouthwatering proportions: the title character, an 85 year old Japanese sushi chef, might be the most charming of his kind - a bully throughout adolescent, Jiro began involving himself in the restaurant business at the prime age of nine. To this day, owning a three star Michelin restaurant where people pay upwards of $300 for a full meal and make reservations a year in advance, he still strives for perfection, with a work ethnic like no one you’ve ever seen.

Complemented by the minimalist sounds of composer Phillip Glass, Jiro Dreams of Sushi details what exactly it takes to make the food of its title, and how passionate these artists are, especially Jiro himself. We create to live, because really, how else would we get by?

[trailer available for your viewing pleasure here - note: Jiro Dreams of Sushi was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for North American distribution, see it when it comes out, support indepedent filmmaking]

The Trip (directed by Michael Winterbottom) | 2010 | 117m | Spotlight | U.S. Premiere

A condensed version of a sitcom series on the BBC which was composed of six episodes trailing Steve Coogan’s trip with his colleague and sort-of friend Rob Brydon across the north of England on a restaurant tour, The Trip is Michael Winterbottom’s ode to male bonding and what it means to be an aging actor in an ageist world. Winterbottom is one of the most diverse directors working today - he’s kind of the modern day heir to someone like Howard Hawks’ genre skipping. This is a comedy, and oh my dear is it funny - but that, of course, depends on how long you can stand Coogan and Brydon’s (largely improvised) shtick for. Honestly, who would have thought that two men, one a somewhat snarky individual and the other very easygoing, talking about food would make for an engaging film (or mini-series). Luckily, I have a high tolerance for dry British humor, and was on the verge of tears from laughing so hard. Mix that with some beautiful shots of the countryside (the cinematography is by Ben Smithard) and a gentle and appropriately minimalist score by Michael Nyman and you’ve got a real winner.

[The Trip will be released in the early summer via IFC Films]

Give Up Tomorrow (directed by Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco) | 2011 | 90m | World Documentary Competition | International Premiere

It’s been a long, long time since a documentary has filled me with such a surplus of feeling. This is honest filmmaking, this is brave filmmaking, this is necessary filmmaking. These are a few of the thoughts I had while watching Give Up Tomorrow at its Tribeca premiere. With Give Up Tomorrow, Michael Collins, working with multiple talking heads and archival footage over the past 14 years, emphasizes the importance of truth, and where lies lead us (to injustices as extreme as false imprisonment). I don’t want to give too much away, I barely want to tell you anything about this incredibly dramatic and gripping, but most of all important, story. The stakes are high with this one: Free Paco - right the wrong, travel the road to righteousness.

[the trailer for Give Up Tomorrow can be viewed at the film’s website: I cannot implore you to see this film enough.]

Gone (directed by Gretchen and John Morning) | 2011 | 85m | Viewpoints | World Premiere

Gone recounts Kathy Gilleran’s story of her missing son in Austria. Aeryn was 34 years old, a homosexual, a loving son. Gilleran’s battle to find her son in opposition with an acerbic and homophobic police force is depicted through her talking directly to the camera, testimonial style, interspersed with footage she shot in Vienna while looking for Aeryn over the years since he has been missing. Sadly, the pieces of this puzzle don’t add up: while Kathy is an engaging and articulate speaker, she is simply not enough to carry the entire documentary through its 85 minute running time.

L’assault [The Assault] (directed by Julian Leclercq) | 2011 | 95m | Spotlight | North American Premiere

Juggling three separate storylines simultaneously, Julian Leclercq makes the most out of his films title action, but some might find everything preceding it rote and unsurprising - a common case of too little too late. Fortunately, I found the the action in the assault sequence to be handled well - the feeling of claustrophobia is palpable and the danger looms large. The skipping stories, however, made me lose interest in a majority of the characters, and affected my capacity to empathize with them. Even if I didn’t love it, I still liked it a hell of a lot better than United 93 (but that’s probably because I deplore that film).

[the French trailer for The Assault can be viewed here.]

Last Night (directed by Massy Tadjedin) | 2010 | 90m | Spotlight | U.S. Premiere

An engaging, if slight, affair, Last Night isn’t exactly new territory for Hollywood - themes such as love and infidelity have certainly been explored, time and time again. However, Massy Tadjedin (writer of 2005’s The Jacket) imbues her film with a European feel that is captivating from start to finish (in part because of the excellently scripted dialogue - with the exception of the trite “bad connection” metaphor), shooting New York City as a wonderland (principle photography was done by Mulholland Dr. DP Peter Deming) and almost a character of its own. Guillaume Canet’s performance makes me wonder why he isn’t a household name in the US yet: his smile, one of the best in the pictures today, telling a history of considerable depth and honesty. The sexual and emotional tension between both pairs of actors (Keira Knightley/Guillaume Canet, Eva Mendes/Sam Worthington) is palpable, although Worthington severely underplays his role in opposition to Mendes’ subtle turn as his temptress. Clint Mansell’s piano heavy score works well with the proceedings, and the film as a whole (however negligible or inessential, but enjoyable all the same) makes you wonder how and why films get shelved for years on end.

[the trailer for Last Night can be seen here - the entire film can be ordered & watched on iTunes, VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video, in addition to most VOD television outlets - Miramax is releasing it theatrically in NY at the Clearview Chelsea and Angelika starting May 6th]

Higher Ground (directed by Vera Farmiga) | 2011 | 109m | Spotlight | New York Premiere

Coming to Tribeca off the heels of its Sundance debut, where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (the theater was heavily populated with their representatives; Vera thanked the people who actually paid to see the film beforehand, which I found honorable), who plan to release it in late summer, Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground is both an inquisitive and assured piece of work - a first film that doesn’t feel like a first film, a graceful ode to the power of faith, and also the power of doubt. Farmiga deftly balances the realism of bygone eras with her own personal voice as a new filmmaker, exhibiting an unselfconsciousness and dexterity that I rarely see in most first-time directors. Her performance is (unsurprisingly, considering she has given some of the greatest performances of the decade) one of the strongest aspects of the film, portraying a woman questioning her principal beliefs. The way faith is depicted in Higher Ground is different from most traditional Hollywood narrative films released over the past few decades, veering more towards an anthropological depiction than an impressionistic judgmental one (the specific religion dealt with seems easily replaceable). The film never feels satirical - there are laughs, but not acerbic ones. Farmiga’s message, which is indefinitely a universal one, should resonate with crowds from all different religious persuasions (from atheist and agnostic to secular and fundamentalist) - it is inappropriate to condemn an entire group of people based on how they find meaning and truth in their lives. There are some kinks that she has to work out (the gap between the main character’s childhood and adulthood is choppy), but she’s definitely on the right path.

Bombay Beach (directed by Alma Har’el) | 2011 | 80m | World Documentary Competition | North American Premiere

Certainly one of the most unique visions at this year’s festival, Bombay Beach is a part-documentary part-narrative fantasia that echoes Harmony Korine’s realistic and dreamlike free-form structure (Gummo, and his most recent short Act Da Fool) and Terry Gilliam’s surreal style. Born out of a location scouting trip after Coachella, Alma Har’el’s first feature begins with newsreel footage of the Salton Sea from the 1950s promoting the area as “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea” and a tourist hot spot. Har’el then cuts to present day: dead fish, abandoned houses, trailer parks galore.

Bombay Beach’s beauty derives from Har’el’s beautiful eye for framing and composition (frequently utilizing shallow focus): she turns a wasteland into a wonderland, and fully imbues the film with the spirit of its characters. Its charm is born out of its personalities: Benny, a young boy who has to take Ritalin and Risperdal to function on a day-to-day basis and who is constantly in danger of being taken away by Child Protective Services (swimming makes him happy, and in many of the sequences the camera takes an anti-ageist neutral view); Red, an old man who rides around the desert and bootlegs cigarettes to the inhabitants of Slab City; CeeJay, a South Central native who is trying to keep his grades up so he can get a football scholarship and falls for one of his teammate’s sister. Red takes the wheel as the makeshift narrator of the project, pontificating on life, coming off as strangely optimistic in nature.

Har’el’s fascination is complimented by appropriate and inappropriate dance numbers set to the music of Bob Dylan and original compositions by Zach Condon of Beirut that lend a magical realist edge to the film as a whole. Her intimate and impressionistic strokes don’t always work, and she’s frequently very close to fetishizing this impoverished population, but Bombay Beach is an attention-grabbing first feature - it is worth your time, and surely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

[The trailer for Bombay Beach can be viewed here.]

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (directed by Michael Rapaport) | 2011 | 98m | Spotlight | New York Premiere

After an brilliantly animated opening credits sequence, longtime actor and first-time director Michael Rapaport starts at the end, showing clips he shot of legendary New York hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest at the Rock the Bells tour in 2008, what they would deem their final performance. Utilizing talking head interviews by genre insiders (Common, Pharrell, Blackthought and Questlove of The Roots, De La Soul, Beastie Boys to name a few) explaining their influence and archival footage of Tribe during their rise to fame, Rapaport, clearly passionate about his subjects, has made a film that should appeal to both fans and those unfamiliar with this game-changing hip hop crew. Spending an ample amount of time on the beef between Phife and Q-Tip and Phife’s health issues, Beats, Rhymes & Life offers a cursory glance at ATCQ in their prime and could have benefited from longer sequences featuring the actual music and how it was created. It’s hard to fault Rapaport, because while he does achieve a clear feeling of nostalgia and joy with this work (it’ll undoubtedly make you think about why there aren’t more documentaries made about hip hop), there is a lingering concern that he focuses too much on the petty drama between the group’s members.

Treatment (directed by Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson) | 2011 | 83m | Viewpoints | World Premiere

A vaguely entertaining but unsuccessful satire on the life of a mega movie star and the independent screenwriter who wants to recruit him for a timely piece on the financial crisis, Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson’s Treatment is always winking at the viewer, maintaining a selfconsciousness in regards to comedic moments that becomes overbearing by the end. Joshua Leonard tries his hardest to save the film but he is given such slight material to work with that it becomes futile, especially at the end when everything takes a turn towards the self-serious and easy moralizing. The energy is high, but there’s just nowhere to go with this one - Robyn Hitchcock’s soundtrack is excellent standalone work, and his cameo is entertaining, but it cannot lift this film up beyond bland mediocrity.

So there it is! Until next year! (maybe I'll finally volunteer)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Goodness Gracious.

O’ holy ghost!
Do you hear the celestial heavens sing?
Do you see the skyline give life to the city?
Do you smell the firewood ablaze?

O’ sacred worshipper!
Do you believe in me, your God?
Do you feel that bolt of lightning
swell inside your chest?

O’ ignorant human!
Do you think
of yourself
as anything more
your flesh,
your blood,
your judgement?

O’ holy man!
Answer my inquiry.

My lord,
thou hast beseeched much of me,
relieve me of this sin.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


So soft
is the hand which I stroke
when turned over
is dry and cracked
on the inside.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Post-Oscar Commentary.

  • I am a slave to James Franco's shtick.
  • Anne Hathaway was charming at times.
  • The King Speech winning Best Picture = boring (but at least now we know why it was shot on a gay porn set).
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross winning Best Original Score was (clearly) the best moment. The Social Network had my favourite score of the year, (along with Keegan DeWitt's work on Cold Weather) but please note: I differentiate between favourite and best.
  • Deakins should have won over Pfister (I wouldn't have minded if Cronenweth won to be honest).
  • Tom Hooper winning Best Director was depressing.
  • Overall: what a boring race and show this year, a major letdown.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Objectification #1, Law and Morality

He is wearing a t-shirt today,
flesh shining unusually bright
(to my eyes).
he is hiding under unnecessary layers
but today is different
(not really).

The fabric keeping me from you
is not only the fabric of your shirt
but the fabric of my life
and yours too.

Take it off,
or no.
It will only relieve me
for a moment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

See to Sea (for Princeton).


and he says
"you are beautiful
and talented
and amazing"
but my disagreement
is simple

these adjectives
do not describe me
in the slightest

and you laugh
and say
"it don't mean no thing"

and I agree
but that


there's light skittering on the surface
and I don't know who I am
but I do know what I am
this flesh and blood
that I bleed

there is always someone out there

physical presence

do not be deceived
it is just a mirage


the railing holds me back
but not from
the breadth of feeling
and the immensity
and the vastness


Looking over this sea of darkness,
I see now
that this is a conscious dream,

one in which I can only wake up from
by dying.

a la Mexicana.

Waiting for my Spanish mistress,
I begin to pace around the room
analyzing the space which I occupy.
She is late, as per usual,
and probably missed the bus.
I hear screams coming from another room,
high-pitched, a woman.
I pour myself a brandy,
as the disorder in the other room intensifies.
I search for a flame to light my fag,
soon finding a book of matches.
I take a drag,
ponder my mere existence,
and exhale.
A cloud of smoke rises.
And then my Spanish mistress arrives,
naked, exposed to the world.
The great phallus revealed,
I jump on the bed,
and welcome a night that will cure me.
If only.

The moon sits low,
as we do our dance,
until the morning light shines.
A la Mexicana.

Top Albums of 2010.

01. Heartland (Owen Pallett)

02. Halcyon Digest (Deerhunter)

03. Teen Dream (Beach House)

04. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West)

05. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Big Boi)

06. Have One on Me (Joanna Newsom)

07. Mines (Menomena)

08. This Is Happening (LCD Soundsystem)

09. Down There (Avey Tare)

10. The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

11. Everything in Between (No Age)

12. Treats (Sleigh Bells)

13. Subiza (Delorean)

14. High Violet (The National)

15. Lisbon (The Walkmen)

16. The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (Janelle Monáe)

17. Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Brian Eno)

18. Forgiveness Rock Record (Broken Social Scene)

19. How I Got Over (The Roots)

20. One Life Stand (Hot Chip)

honorable mentions:

Bastard (Tyler, the Creator)

Lucky Shiner (Gold Panda)

Swanlights (Antony and the Johnsons)

The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)

Dear God, I Hate Myself (Xiu Xiu)

Beach Fossils (Beach Fossils)

Lasted (Benoît Pioulard)

Swim (Caribou)

Total Life Forever (Foals)

Tourist History (Two Door Cinema Club)

Champ (Tokyo Police Club)

Body Talk (Robyn)

Odd Blood (Yeasayer)

Contra (Vampire Weekend)

Love King (The-Dream)

The Orchard (Ra Ra Riot)

Cosmogramma / Pattern+Grid World EP (Flying Lotus)

The Drums (The Drums)

Before Today (Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti)

Wild Smile (Suckers)

Avi Buffalo (Avi Buffalo)

Plastic Beach (Gorillaz)

I Will Be (Dum Dum Girls)

Big Echo (The Morning Benders)

Astro Coast (Surfer Blood)

Gemini (Wild Nothing)

Brothers (The Black Keys)

Interpol (Interpol)

Love Remains (How to Dress Well)

Go (Jónsi)

Forget (Twin Shadow)

Special Affections (Diamond Rings)

There Is Love in You (Four Tet)

Causers of This (Toro Y Moi)

The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP (Sufjan Stevens)

New Chain (Small Black)

Fang Island (Fang Island)

Electric Sunset (Electric Sunset)

Heaven is Whenever (The Hold Steady)

Clinging to a Scheme (The Radio Dept.)

Spirit Youth (The Depreciation Guild)

Crazy for You (Best Coast)

King of the Beach (Wavves)

All Day (Girl Talk)

The Monitor (Titus Andronicus)

White Magic (ceo)