30 August 2009

Psycho

Novel by Robert Bloch, New York: Simon & Shuster. 1959.
Film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Script by Joseph Stefano.
109 mins, 1960.
Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates
Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane
Vera Miles plays Lila Crane
Martin Balsam plays Milton Arbogast
Country of finance: USA
Nationality of director: UK
Location of story: Arizona
Filming location: California, Arizona.

Synopsis

Norman Bates poisoned his widowed mother when she was forty, when she took a lover, had her embalmed and buried, and then two months later dug her up and kept her around the house. This left her a little bit immobile, and so he had to move for her. So he dressed as her, and as such carried out her will. Especially her will to protect her son from strange women, and to that end it was sometimes required that she must kill them.

Marion Crane stole $40,000 from her employer, and ran away. She stayed in the Bates Motel. Norman spied on her as she undressed. ‘Mother’ then killed her. Norman then sank her and her car in a nearby swamp without finding the money.

The detective who comes after her is killed by ‘Mother’ when he enters the house. Eventually Norman is arrested and the police psychologist declares that he is a transvestite.

Curiosities

Hitchcock in his determination that audiences would not anticipate the climax cheated from the point of view of gender impersonation. Anthony Perkins does not play ‘Mother’ for the first two killings. In the famous shower killing scene, 'mother' is played by Margo Epper, a stuntwoman; and in the knifing at the top of the stairs scene she is played by another stuntwoman who goes by the name of Mitzi. Mitzi is petite and completely unlike Anthony.

The voice overs by “mother’ are even more rococo. First hired was Paul Jasmin, an aspirant actor who had developed, as a joke, a practice of phoning well-known actors as 'Eunice Ayers'. Hitchcock also hired actresses Jeanette Nolan and Virginia Gregg to record the same lines. The version on the sound track is a splicing together of the three voices. From word to word it jumps from one to the other.

Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974, and Silence of the Lambs, 1991, Psycho is sort of, loosely, based on rumours of Ed Gein.

In Robert Bloch's novel Norman is in his forties, short and fat. However in the film, Anthony Perkins is still in his twenties, which changed the nature of Norman.

The first US film ever to show a toilet being flushed.

The film is in black & white because a) Hitchcock thought that it would be too gory in colour, b) he wanted to make it for under $1m c) he was making a superior version of the cheap b/w B-movies that did so well in the 1950s.

Some people have speculated about the licence plate on Marion’s second car: NFB-418. NFB =National Film Board of Canada, and 418 is the area code of Quebec City where Hitchcock had made I Confess, 1953. However there is no Canadian money or content in the film.

In the opening scene, Marion wears a white bra. After she steals the money, she wears a black bra.

The white Ford sedan is the same car used in Leave It to Beaver, 1957.

The house was built by cannibalizing several stock unit sections. The tower is from the house in Harvey, 1950.

It is Vera Miles, not Janet Leigh, in the shower scene in the trailer.

Parallels with Orson Well’s Touch of Evil, 1958.
An extended show-off dolly shot as a opening.
Janet Leigh is harrassed by a transvestite (an uncredited Mercedes McCambridge as a man) in a cheap motel in the US South West.
Both hotel managers are badly dressed, nervous, stammers, uncomfortable with women.
For more see the article by John Hall.

Is Norman a transvestite?

The MPAA censors objected to the use of the term "transvestite" to describe Norman Bates in the final wrap-up. They insisted it be removed, until writer Joseph Stefano used a dictionary to prove to them it was a clinical psychology term with no sexual connotation. They thought he was trying to get one over on them and place a vulgarity in the picture.

The psychiatrist at the end claims that Norman was a transvestite. Purely technically, as he sometimes dressed as his mother, then he must have been. But he wore her dress over his male clothes, and has no existential need to crossdress as an end in itself. In previous decades the term ‘pseudo transvestite’ was used for persons who cross dress e.g. to commit a crime, to appear on stage etc. Norman is more of a pseudo transvestite than an existential transvestite.

He is not like any other transvestite that you may have met.

Other transvestites in Hitchcock’s films.
Murder, 1930. Handel Fane, a trapeze artist who also does female roles on stage, is the killer.
To Catch a Thief, 1954. Danielle Foucard imitates a retired jewel thief so that he will be blamed.

Conclusion

Psycho joins a puritanical view of sex with psychopathology. This illiberal view was continued in giallo and slasher films in great number.

Psycho was effectively the first slasher film, a genre that generally retained gender ambiguity (see Clover’s book).

Bell-Metereau sees Psycho as the start of a new era, particularly in contrast to Some Like It Hot of the previous year. The Dame role, dressing as an older woman, Charleys’ Aunt and Old Mother Riley, a tradition that goes back to medieval morality plays and is found in Shakespeare, Music Hall and Pantomime, is usually taken to be good-natured (if you ignore the misogyny) but has had a dark side all along (think of Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three ,1925 and 1930, Lionel Barrymore in The Devil Doll 1936). Psycho is the iconic Dame and murder film, and much better made than most of the other films that came in its wake.

We can admire Psycho as a film, but the gates that it opened, not just the murderous Dame characters, but also the psychotic transy killers who came afterwards, added an undesirable colour to the public perception of trans persons.

There are transgendered killers. I have featured some of them on my other blog. But there are far too many in movies compared to a) the number of trans characters in movies b) the numbers of real killers who are transgendered.

Sequels and Remakes

There are three sequels: Psycho II, Psycho III, Psycho IV: The Beginning. In these Anthony Perkins does get to play ‘mother’ as well as Norman.

Psycho was remade shot-by-shot from Joseph Stephano’s script, copying the camera angles of the originals, with the same errors, and in colour, by Gus Van Sant in 1998.
  • Rebecca Louise Bell-Metereau. Hollywood Androgyny. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Second Edition 1993: 129-132.
  • Stephen Rebello. Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. New York: Dembner Books. 1990.
  • Carol J.Clover. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • John W. Hall. “Touch of Psycho”. Bright Lights Film Journal. September 1995. www.brightlightsfilm.com/14/psycho.html.
  • Richard Scheib. “Psycho”. The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review. 1998. www.moria.co.nz/horror/psycho.htm.
  • “Psycho (1960 film)”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psycho_%281960_film%29

28 August 2009

The Rose

Directed by Mark Rydell
Script by Michael Cimino (uncredited) & Bo Goldman, based on a story by Bill Kerby
125 mins 1979
Bette Midler plays Mary Rose Foster
Alan Bates plays Rudge Campbell
Frederick Forrest plays Huston Dyer
Michael Greer plays emcee
Kenny Sacha plays Rose impersonator
Sylvester plays Diana Ross impersonator
Claude Sacha plays impersonator
Michael St Laurent plays impersonator
Country of finance: US
Nationality of director: US
Location of story: New York, Florida
Filming location: New York, Los Angeles

Synopsis

Rose Foster is and is not Janice Joplin. She is a big blues singer in the 1960s given to self-destructive behaviour. She is kept going by the bullying of her manager, Rudge. She takes up with Huston, an AWOL-soldier cum chauffeur, and then drives him away. One of the best scenes is 40 minutes into the film when she takes Huston into a supposed gay bar where she used to work, and the drag performers pull her on stage to sing with them.

Who is who

This is Bette Midler’s first real film. She had first made her name singing at the gay Continental Baths in New York. She went on to become a big star as a singer and actor.

Alan Bates is a distinguished English actor who started in the 1950s. He was awarded a CBE in 1996. In The Rose he does not attempt a US accent. He has never played a drag or transgendered role.

The club emcee is Michael Greer who was in The Gay Deceivers, 1969, and was the flamboyant prison drag queen in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1971 (on both stage and film). He has worked only infrequently since the 1970s, probably because he was so good in Fortune and Men’s Eyes that he was typecast.

For Kenny Sacha this was his first film. In the next five years he did Bette Midler impersonators in the television shows Madame’s Place and Simon & Simon, and and was a female impersonator in Miss Lonelyhearts, 1983. After that he played a few male roles, but died in 1992 of AIDS.


Sylvester is Sylvester James, who was The Cockettes in the early 1970s, and went on to become a famous disco singer. His biggest hit was "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". He died in 1988. He contined doing drag until the end.

Claude Sacha appeared in only this film. One wonders if he is Kenny Sacha’s brother?

Michael St Laurent appeared in only this film. One wonders if he is part of the St Laurent voguing house featured in Paris is Burning, 1990?


Curiosities

The crowd in the gay bar does not look gay.

There are 6 drag queens/performers in the club, but only 5 are credited.

When the emcee removes his dress, he is wearing a white tuxedo underneath. However when he was in the dress we do not see trousers underneath, and he is not shown rolling down the legs.

16 August 2009

Caldonia

One of the notable female impersonators in New Orleans in the early 1940s was Caldonia, who was a major influence on Patsy Valdalia.

In 1945 Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five has a number one on the ‘Race Records Charts” with a song called ‘Caldonia’.  The song was written by Louis Jordan under his then wife’s name.  It was featured in the film Caldonia, 1945, and the sequence was cut out and featured as a Soundie, a short musical piece that was played in cinemas at that time (a precursor of the music video).  The song was also recorded by Woody Herman, B.B. King, Muddy Water, Bill Haley, James Brown, The Band, Van Morrison and many others.  Thus it is one of the standards of Blues and Rock music.
Here are the lyrics:
Walking with my baby, she got great big feet
Long, lean and cranky and ain't had nothing to eat
But she's my baby, I love her just the same
I'm crazy about my baby 'cause Caldonia is her name
Caldonia, Caldonia
What makes your big head so hard?
I love you, I love you just the same
I'm crazy about you, baby, 'cause Caldonia is your name
You know my mother told me to leave Caldonia alone
No kidding, that what she said
She said, "Son, the woman ain't no good, leave her alone"
But mama didn't know what Caldonia had been putting down
So I'm going down to Caldonia's house and ask her just one more time
Caldonia, Caldonia
What makes your big head so hard?
I love you, love you just the same
I'm crazy about you, baby, 'cause Caldonia is your name
Now remember the analysis of Little Richard’s lyrics.   Is this song about Caldonia the female impersonator?   I cannot find any statement that it is.  But it is suggestive that it might be.

One of the performers who had toured with Louis Jordan was Estella Young, a contortionist who was almost sixty but still agile.  She danced to the song and took Caldonia as her professional name, but not until after he had written the song.

10 August 2009

Célestine Berger

Dorothy L.Sayers. “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” in Lord Peter Views the Body. London: Gollancz. 1928. London: Penguin Books. 1962.

Synopsis

Célestine, 'a slim singled creature with the face of a Paris gamin' but with ankles 'a trifle on the thick side', took a job in England in 1928 in the service of the Dowager Duchess of Medway.

She had the misfortune, in the queue at the Gare Saint-Lazare to have one’s luggage weighed, to be immediately in front of the English private detective Peter Wimsey. Wimsey's idiosyncratic mind was bothered by a phrase that she used: 'Me prends-tu pour un imbécile?'. He had a surreptitious photograph taken of her.

When the family diamonds disappeared just before the wedding of the Duchess's granddaughter, Wimsey, working with the police knew enough to have Célestine arrested. He explained that he was quite intrigued that a young woman would use a masculine article to describe herself, rather than saying 'une imbecile'. He had her photographed and confirmed with the Sûreté that she was indeed Jacques Lerouge also known as Sans-culotte.

Curiosities

While Dorothy Sayers(1893-1957) was an androgynous dresser, she rarely used gender variance in her plots, this being almost the only exception.

“Sans-culotte” was a expression used in revolutionary France where men wore pantaloons rather than the knee breeches of upper-class men. Here of course it means in a skirt rather than a culotte.

La Celestina was a major character in the 1499 Spanish novel by Fernando de Rojas, Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea or Libro de Calisto y Melibea y de la puta vieja Celestina. She is a former prostitute who now arranges discreet meetings between lovers, and runs a brothel.

Celestine is also the name of five Roman Catholic Popes.

Sayers regarded her translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia to be her best work. It was released as three Penguin Classics.
  • Marjorie Garber. Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge. xiii, 443 pp. 1992. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. London : Penguin Books, 1993: 190-1.

02 August 2009

Le locataire

Novel by Roland Topor, Paris: Buchet-Chastel. 1964. English translation by Francis K. Price. The Tenant. London: W.H. Allen. 1966. New York: Bantam Books: 1966.
Film directed by Roman Polanski
English title: The Tenant.
Script by Gérard Brach & Roman Polanski, based on the novel by Roland Topor
126 mins 1976
Roman Polanski plays Trelkovsky
Isabelle Adjani plays Stella
Shelley Winters plays the concierge
Country of finance: France
Nationality of director: Polish
Location of story: Paris
Filming location: Paris.








Synopsis

In urgent need of an apartment in Paris, Trelkovsky finds one on the rue de Pyrenees that was about to become vacant as the current tenant, Simone Choule, had thrown herself out of the window into the courtyard below. He visits Simone in the hospital ward where she is dying, and becomes acquainted with her friend Stella.

After being criticized by the neighbours for a flat-warming that was too noisy, Trelkovsky became more and more paranoid about the neighbours. Some stand in the toilet across the courtyard and stare at his window, there are knocks on his door but no-one is there. The neighbours organize a petition to evict a woman with an handicapped child; they fight with each other over noise.

The cafe owner across the street insists on always serving the hot chocolate and toast that Simone Choule had always had, and pushes Trelkovsky into smoking her brand of cigarettes. The landlord persuades him to wear slippers in the apartment as she had done. One morning he awakes to find his face made up in a feminine manner. For a while he plays along with the role, going out made up, buying a wig, a dress etc., shaving his legs and enjoying the normal pleasures of transvestity. Then one morning he awakes and finds one of his upper incisor teeth missing - as Simone Choule had.

The next time that he awakes he is dressed and made up, he sees a parade of people in costume in the courtyard suggesting a ritual sacrifice. He barricades himself in, and escapes the next morning in his regular male outfit. He stays with Stella. After being knocked down by a car, he is sedated by a doctor. The driver of the car, to make amends, drives him home: however the driver was one of the neighbours from the rue de Pyrenees.

The next morning, Trelkovsky, in full drag, jumps out of his window. Surviving, he struggles back to his room, only to be stabbed, and thrown out the window again.

He awoke in hospital, to find Stella calling him Simone, and a man who looks like himself looking on.

Curiosities

Most critics point out that it was Roman Polanski’s third film about apartment neighbour paranoia (after Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby). But we could also categorize it with his occult films: Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth, The Ninth Gate.

The film is also a time loop. Time loop films, where the end is also the beginning, often have a trans or androgyny theme. A good example is Before the Rain, 1994.

Like Polanski himself, Trelkovsky was a Pole in Paris who did not know how to do things.

Trelkovsky is given no first name in either the novel or the film.

The story fitted so well into Polanski’s oeuvre that the file critic Rebecca Bell-Metereau attributes details found in the novel - such as finding Simone's tooth behind the wardrobe - as Polanski's additions. The film suggests more strongly than the book does that Trelkovsky was imagining it.

Polanski, playing the lead role, is actually uncredited as an actor.

The film has no final credits.

Although the UK cinema version was complete the 1986 video was cut by 6 seconds by the BBFC to remove a brief extract of the banned nunchaku scene from Enter the Dragon (1973) (seen by Trelkovsky and Stella during a cinema visit). The cuts were restored in the 2004 Paramount DVD.

The film is not really in either French or English. No matter which audio language you choose on the DVD, the lips never properly match.

This is the last film made by Polanski while still persona grata in the US. Two years later he fled from a paedophile charge in California and has not been back since.

Awards

Nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, 1976.
Nominated for a César Award for production design, 1977.

Transvestity in the films of Roman Polanski

This is hardly a theme in Polanski’s films. In Cul-de-Sac.1966, George (Donald Pleasence) is encouraged by his young wife (Francoise Dorleac) to put on a nightie and makeup. This is pretty minor.





In The Magic Christian, 1969, Polanski was the straight man to Yul Brynner’s drag performance.



The only real Polanski drag movie is this, The Tenant. Polanski cast himself as Trelkovsky, but we cannot assume anything about his gender identity from this. The protagonist being a Pole in Paris, who does not fit in, as was Polanski himself and also Topor, was enough reason for him to identify with the part. The themes other than the cross-dressing, especially the neighbour paranoia, are very Polanski.

However, despite Polanski using transvestity to tell a tale of madness and fear, and having little interest in real transvestites, there are moment that trans women will relate to. The days of not really knowing who you are, and that period when you do not quite pass and are the neighbours talking about you, especially when they stop and stare at you.

01 August 2009

The Magic Christian

Directed by Joseph McGrath
Script by Terry Southern & Joseph McGrath, with additional material by Graham Chapman, John Cleese & Peter Sellers, based on the novel by Terry Southern.
92 mins 1969
Peter Sellers play Sir Guy Grand
Ringo Starr plays Youngman Grand
Country of finance: UK
Nationality of director: UK
Location of story: London
Filming location: London.

Synopsis

Billionaire Sir Guy Grand adopts a young man whom he finds sleeping in the park, and together they bribe people to abandon their principles, do silly things etc. A large part of the film takes place aboard the new cruise ship, The Magic Christian.

Trivia

The novel was set in the US, but was relocated to London for the film.

This is the only film that is that features Beatles, Goons and Monty Pythons.

This is the last thing that Polanski did before his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson gang, although the film was not released until afterwards.

Cross-Dressing

There is a short scene with Guy Grand dressed as a nun. That is not very interesting.

However there is also this with one of the uncredited stars. Note the man at the bar, who is Roman Polanski and credited. The point is that at the last moment you should recognize the female singer. A great performance by one of Hollywood’s biggest macho stars.