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Have you listened to my new movie podcast about Psycho? During the discussion of the moral concerns and conservative intentions of the movie-making, we tried to bring in the objects of art, and suggested that Hitchcock shows the audience certain important juxtapositions of movie plot and works of art, of settings–like the imposing residence–and societies–liberalism. I want to show you the works of art and to discuss their importance to the movie’s moral concerns. I’ll discuss them in the order in which they appear.
You can see that it’s viewed from the same direction in the movie, except, of course that it’s perched on a hill, which makes it look more imposing.
Part of what I’m trying to show in the discussion is that this is somehow tied up with the dark side of respectability, first because it conceals something–it removes awareness of the dark passions of the soul.
Secondly, because it tends toward an open show of the dangers that lurk in the soul, which is nevertheless ignored. The connection between beauty and sexual desire, between beholding and holding, is supposed to be utterly severed. There’s no risk to nudity in paintings, sculptures, etc.
It makes sense, therefore, to turn, in a horror story, respectability on its head.
He’s not very concerned with spoilers and he treats it all as a trifle. He obviously banked on the effect the movie itself would have. Then again, there’s something to Hitchcock’s famous remark that it was a comedy, or a very funny movie. There is such a thing as tragic irony and, in this movie, horror irony.
2. The painting you see in that screenshot–van Mieris’s painting of Susanna and the elders, the Biblical story in Daniel 13. This was a great subject of painting in the Renaissance and well into the nineteenth century.
The painting conceals the peep hole that allows Norman Bates to spy on his guests.
He moves it to see and so does the movie–we get to see his eye at the peep hole and to spy on the very attractive Janet Leigh in various states of undress along with him.
As a warning against shamelessly looking upon shameful things, the painting is a very weak obstacle. It seems to conceal and help the shameful deeds by making the peep hole invisible.
Although, again, you could see a certain irony in hiding a peep hole behind a picture of peeping men trying to rape a woman…
But the work of art is also a symbol–it makes a certain argument. Even if you dismiss the moral or ending of the Biblical story depicted in the painting: the lustful, shameless old men who attempt to achieve a murder with the forms of law on their side are punished themselves to be killed–there is still something to be said for the movie itself: we tend to want to go beyond the surface of things, to look behind, to pry into what’s secret or, indeed, invisible. The movie itself ends with two versions of the invisible–the soul of Norman Bates. But instead we should stare at the surface more carefully, instead of trying to remove it.
As with the horror irony of Norman Bates’s unwitting self-disclosure whenever he opens his mouth, much is hiding in plain sight. The warning of the painting seems to be that respectability can become a weapon turned against any innocence left when shame becomes shameless. Weakness turns into corruption in that way. The movie is supposed to use the immoral desires that get people to the theater to ward against a worse immorality. Normality might be more bearable if respectability wasn’t turned into an attack on what’s not respectable. Curiosity is surely a vice, but there is something more dangerous in a situation where normality is defended by ignorance–an uninnocent defense, because it requires a complete blindness to the possibility of evil.
3. The other two paintings in the parlor. Here’s a painting by a Frenchman, Boucher: Venus consoling Amor. The way this seems to fit into the story is to announce the possible corruption of nurturing mother love into a kind of stifling of eroticism.
The shift between the two kinds of intimacy, that at some level does great violence to the soul, is the psychological problem of the story and it emerges thematically only in the conclusion, when the psychiatrist and the insane Norman give two accounts of what’s going on in his soul.
This extends the moral-religious criticism of art implicit in the story. First, of course, a parlor at a motel-by-the-highway near some small town in California would not be boasting such art. You could say, well, there could be prints – but these are all paintings. It’s not plausible that there would be replicas.
The impossibility of the presence of the paintings at first seems to reveal to the attentive viewer ‘what’s wrong with the picture’–with Norman and his mother. It does do that: the parlor with all these paintings is opened right after Marion Crane hears the ‘argument’ between Norma and Norman in the second-floor room of the house.
4. The other painting recognized by insistent viewers and scholars is a Titian: Venus with a mirror. What you see in the parlor thus also seems to announce the plot. Psychologically, this would be the self-love of the mother who tyrannizes over the child. You see eros always as a child in these paintings, as in the sculpture which is the first thing you see entering the house. That’s part of the infantilizing iconography of classical and Renaissance art. But Venus/Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as opposed to eros, is always an adult and dominates the space and the story of the paintings. This offers the psychological possibility conveyed by the movie–eros impotent before beauty.
This seems to also announce the later scene where Marion’s sister, Lila, is shocked by her own reflection in the set of parallel mirrors. In this other comparison of the scene in the painting and movie scene, you see the different possibilities of thinking about the power of beauty.
This leads to the deeper meaning of the presence of these works of art that just cannot be there–if you pay more attention to the superficial stuff rather than to the less obvious, more sophisticated thinking that connecs plot, psychology, and paintings. These works of art put beauty under control in a certain way and pretend at the same time that it’s innocuous. Beauty is tame in them. To hold the painting and behold it has no effects on who you are or how you live.