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Welcome to the fourth episode of the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast! Today, I am joined by my friend and Ricochet compeer @stsalieriericcook. Eric Cook is a history teacher in a charter school in North Carolina, an organist in a church, and a builder of pipe organs, actually. One of Ricochet’s eccentric scholar-gentlemen, with an all-American upbringing in the working classes of Western Pennsylvania and a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes angry respect for the dignity of work, which is not faring well in our times. He also scores silent films–this is his BluRay of the 1922 movie Timothy’s quest–and leads the Ivy Leaf Orchestra!
We’re beginning a series talking about sacred limits in Hitchcock’s films and what happens when they are unwittingly transgressed. We want to bring out the critique of liberalism in his movies, as well as the elements of Christianity. I’m not trying to say that Hitchcock was a believing Catholic–he was brought up Catholic. I’m not saying his movies are religious, either. But they certainly involve important Biblical stories; Christian symbolism; and, I think, a Christian criticism of art. This is therefore a great introduction to one of my themes and future books on film: the horror movie as moral education. This may be an unusual thought, but it has obvious importance for conservatives who want to reflect on the culture and to find persuasive ways to reflect on society without pedantry or preaching. That’s my claim for Hitchcock at any rate and I hope you’ll give it a hearing!
The “sacred” is one of those words that sounds important and is unfortunately too often used to refer very vaguely to something to do with religion. Unfortunately, religion is, often enough, that sort of word as well. We’ll look at four Hitchcock movies–over several episodes, of course–to show a couple of things that have to do with his being (brought up) Catholic. The first two movies start from “the hidden family.” This is the symbol that the movie Psycho wants you to take seriously, beyond pop psychology or sensationalism and titillation. The most obvious connection to Christianity is through the Bible: the very important painting of the story of Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13). That turns out to be the barrier between life and death.
So here’s my three-point pitch to conservatives, What Hitchcock can teach modern audiences:
- Why there are sacred limits to human action–this is where the Old Testament and Greek tragedy agree: The family is the place of tragedy.
- How guilt and innocence are connected in human life and complicated by the necessity in society for respectability. We hope to show the origin of the American social horror in individuals who break unwritten laws, put themselves beyond respectability, and then discover beyond it something horrifying.
- How the low-brow horror genre and the use of high-brow works of art make an American form of middle-brow: the movies. This cinema fights off respectability without encouraging lawlessness. It satisfies the vice of curiosity against the not-entirely-sound virtue of respectability, but in the service of showing the public to itself. The public is both curious at the movies and respectable otherwise, and therefore not really innocent.Moral fallibility and the need to defend innocence emerge as the concerns of this kind of movie-making. This looks suspiciously like the perfectly Catholic and Christian concern to remind people they are not above sin and that they therefore cannot simply trust themselves to their desires for freedom, or their society, which itself may desire too much freedom from being judged. Movies in this sense foster a kind of self-awareness.
By way of show notes: the novel on which the movie is based was written by Robert Bloch, famous as a horror, then crime writer in mid-century America. He was a protegee of H.P. Lovecraft. This is yet another part of my attempt–see my podcasts on Ridley Scott’s Alien–to talk of horror as a moral education and a conservative genre. Lovecraft’s writing was all about how progress is leading us into horror and how the future is not automatically superior to the past. Also, therefore, about what we might need to recover to live with life. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about this part much…
Next, the music Eric talked about–he’s of course around to discuss it with whoever is curious, better informed, or at all moved by it:
- The Psycho suite
- The Bernard Herrmann Sinfonietta
- The Cowell Sinfonietta
- Beethoven’s third symphony, Eroica, First movement and also the Second movement
I’ll end on a light note with the long trailer Hitchcock shot and sent to theaters–himself showing off the setting with colorful commentary:
By the way, that’s not Janet Leigh screaming–it’s Vera Miles!