Saturday, March 27, 2010


Georgia State University

Phil always sat behind me in class. But that was fine with me, as he was one of those happy people who seemed to always be in a good mood. In fact, I don’t ever remember seeing him without a grin or offering up a cheerful hello. Phil was in row three, seat two. As the power of deduction might lead you, I sat in row two, seat two, so I was always in earshot of anything he had to say.

Phil: Hey, Chris did you see the movie The Night the Bridge Fell on TV last night?

Chris: (mystified). Are you kidding?. I watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. I assumed everyone else did too!

Phil: (laughing) M*A*S*H isn’t really my kind of humor, but I admit there probably weren’t too many of us out there that watched The Night the Bridge Fell.

Chris: Well did it?

Phil: Did it what?

Chris: The Bridge. Did it fall?

Phil: Oh, yeah. It fell all right. I wouldn’t think you could have a movie called The Night the Bridge Fell without the bridge actually falling!

Chris: If a bridge falls on network television and nobody watches does anyone hear it?

Phil: Uh, I’m not sure. I do know that it had that guy Desi Arnaz in it.

Chris: Junior or Senior?

Phil: Hmm. I guess I’m not really sure.

(Phil and Chris have a moment of uncomfortable silence.)

Phil: Anyway, we still got a lot to plow through in this book. I mean why do we have to go through all this on Czech and Swedish movies?

Chris: Well, the Swedish section would include Ingmar Bergman, one of the great filmmakers of all time and the Czechs apparently made a lot of important films in the 60’s, though I confess I haven’t seen any yet. But let us not complain, my friend. You can’t beat watching movies and getting credit for it.

Phil: I’ve liked some of them. Like that John Wayne movie.

Chris: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon? Oh, did you know John Wayne played a Roman soldier at Christ’s crucifixion in The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Phil: That’s not right.

Chris: No really, he did.

Phil: I know and I’m saying that’s not right.

(Chris and Phil laugh)

Phil: I wasn’t too sure about that French film we saw.

Chris: Oh, Rules of the Game. That’s one that might be better placed under the ‘may improve with additional viewings’ column.

Phil: Maybe. By the way, you think the bookstore will take our textbook back after this class is over?

Chris: This course is offered every year; you might be able to get a couple of bucks for it. Still think I’m going to hold onto my copy. I might want to refer to it from time to time. You never know when I might want to see a movie from the Czech renaissance. In fact, I wrote down a few notes on that subject for the test.

Phil: And you’re going to share it with me I take it.

Chris: Of course. Listen to this. (clears throat)
A Short History of Movies by Gerald Mast. Third Edition. 1981. Page 355.

Jifi Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains.
“Despite It’s Wartime Setting, the film seems to be a sex comedy, concentrating on the sexual inadequacies, failures and fears of the inexperienced boy, who is a clumsy apprentice at love as well as at work…but beneath the sexual comedy are darker elements…the ultimate seriousness is the film’s climax…we realize in this strange variation on the familiar Buildungsroman…the result of the boy’s ultimate and final coitus is the mammoth orgasm of the exploding train…the long comic apprenticeship produces a period of maturity that is strikingly and tragically brief.” I like it.

(Phil politely pretends to be interested and nods his head in agreement)

Chris: (Noticing that Phil’s interest isn’t genuine) But I guess after The Night the Bridge Fell everything must be anti-climactic.

(Phil laughs, flashing that trademark smile of his one last time.)
Twenty-five years later:
· I still have my copy of A Short History of the Movies, Third Edition and still refer to it on occasion, though many of the pages are falling out.
· Sadly, author Gerald Mast died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 48. Many subsequent editions of A Short History of the Movies have been published without him.
· Through repeated viewings, Rules of the Game has indeed become one of my favorite films.
· I never saw Phil after the class ended. But I wish him well, I’m guessing he’s still a happy guy.
· I finally watched Closely Watched Trains!
· But as of this date, I still haven’t seen The Night the Bridge Fell.

Saturday, March 20, 2010



Scott scanned his answers before handing his paper back to Mr. Hickman. He took his place at my side, ever so slightly to the left of the teacher’s desk.

Mr. Hickman looked surprised but pleased at the rapidity with which his two star students had finished. He smiled as he reached into his drawer and gave us the wooden blocks with the words hall pass boldly written with magic marker on the front of them.

As I held mine in my hand, the coldness of that little block of wood made me shudder. I felt empowered. This pass gave me strength…and…

“Are you all right son?” Mr. Hickman asked, since I was obviously staring at the wood a little longer than was socially acceptable.

I apologized for my momentary distraction.

“That’s not a problem,” the teacher continued. “I’m so impressed that you boys could finish a calculus test so quickly. You’ve definitely earned your trip to the library, I mean media center. Sorry, I’m old fashioned. I still call it by the antiquated term.”

Scott and I forced out a laugh as we headed to the door before he stopped us.

“Oh, don’t forget to stay out of trouble,” Mr. Hickman added as he came close to us, out of earshot of the rest of the class. “And don’t you boys go outside and smoke grass. It may seem innocent enough, but it’s not a big leap to get from there to the harder stuff. First it’s a cup or two of Juan Valdez, which leads to a little grass. Then the next thing you know, before you can say incense and peppermints, you get curious and want to try some bennies, which leads straight to goofballs and before you know it you’re in a purple haze and jammin’ to Hendrix playing Voodoo Chile and not that Jimi isn’t the king…Sorry, I didn’t mean to go on. Enjoy your trip to the media center.” Mr. Hickman used exaggerated quotation marks with his fingers to accentuate his contempt for this new-angled term.

“I thought we’d never get out of there,” I said as we headed down the hall.
Scott told me his theory was that Hickman had had a bad drug experience during the 60s, which forced him to abandon his career as a concert violinist. After years of rehab, he got his education degree and had been teaching indifferent high school kids the joys of upper level Mathematics ever since. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe this story, since I knew Scott had a tendency to stretch the truth all out of proportion, but I wasn’t thinking about that now.

“Scott, is your hall pass abnormally cold?”

He took mine out of my hand. “It feels like wood, and wood of moderate temperature at that.”

When he gave it back to me, it didn’t feel any different than any other hall pass I’d held for the last four years. Well, that was awkward.

As we went through the door of the media center, I could have sworn I heard orchestral music, but I didn’t dare mention it to Scott after the hall pass embarrassment.

The librarian at the desk, Ms. Hitt, (it actually said Ms. on her name plate!) looked at our passes.

“I’m glad you boys are here,” she said with a smile. “You may want to check out our just-in shelf for a new illustrated volume of Emily Dickinson poems. I wouldn’t say that to most of the students, but I’ll bet you two are of a more literary bent.”

“Yes, thank you, Missus…Miss Hitt. I’d like to look at it.” I took the book in question and thanked the librarian again on my way to a study carrel. Scott grabbed a magazine and sat next to me.

“When do we make the move? I didn’t know Hitt was going to be here. I didn’t come here to read a bunch of old poems!”

Scott was laughing. “Hey, look at her touching her hair. I think she really likes you. You two should cuddle by the fire, roast marshmallows and read sonnets and haikus to each other.”

“Come on, man! She’s probably thirty-eight or something. I’m not into necrophilia.”

“Like you can be so choosy, AV boy.”

In reality, I secretly thought about Ms. Hitt that way often. The slightly graying hair almost always strapped neatly into a ponytail. Those thick eyebrows that danced when she was looking something up in the card catalog. Those oversized black-rimmed glasses. Those small lips that she scrunched into a circle the moment before she spoke. Not that I was paying attention or anything.

“Shut up and wait for her to go,” I said, keeping one eye on Hitt and one eye on the book.

Ms. Hitt smiled at us as I began to read I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed. I turned to Scott after reading a couple of lines and said, “Hey, there’s a poem in here about beer.”

Scott didn’t answer, but indicated with a tilt of his head that Ms. Hitt had gone to the back office.

This was our chance.

We leapt up and quietly slipped into the media center’s AV room, closed the door and drew the curtains.

I looked around. There was a projector carousel filled with slides of the Italian renaissance, rows of predominately mangled audio cassettes, dusty reference books-mostly dealing with the preservation of audio visual materials, a collection of phonograph records, none of which I would ever play by choice, and a Super 8mm of a 50s instructional film called Dating Do’s and Dont's. I was wondering whether it was the one that had Dick York in it when Scott pulled out a cardboard satchel from the end of the shelf.

“That’s it! It’s in here!”

I tried to grab it from him, but in my nervousness dropped it to the floor.

“If that thing breaks, I’m not the one going to jail!” Scott shouted.

“Keep your voice down! It’s fine. Go ahead and open it,” I said as I picked it up. The locks were fastened tightly, but I held the cardboard down while he pulled, and it came out.

Scott held it aloft triumphantly, and I could have sworn I felt the warmth of the sun consume our space even though we were in a storage room, and a storage room with closed curtains at that.

Scott squinted as he turned it to read the writing on the cover. “This is definitely it! Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I repeated in reverence. “Let me touch it.” I rubbed my fingers against the label, though I was careful not to touch the tape itself. “I can’t wait to stick it in,” I continued.

“If someone walks by and hears us saying how you want to touch it and stick it in, they might get the wrong impression,” Scott said as he let out a guffaw.

“Stop jawing. This is a serious moment. Go ahead and put the tape in, ‘cause I’m not exactly sure how it works.”

“What kind of AV geek are you?” He looked hard at it. “Of course, I’ve never used one of these machines before either.”

“Well push some buttons and see what happens,” I said.

We pushed the four buttons on the front of the machine. Lights came on, at least I think there was light. The illumination could have just been my imagination getting the best of me again. The lid on the top of the player finally popped up.

“Was it supposed to do that? I hope so,” he said.

“Put it in. Or should I say put in the video cassette so no one will misconstrue your meaning.”

“I’m not sure how to stick it in.”

“Give me that.” I took it and looked at it. “Shouldn’t you have the label going down?”

We tried it but nothing happened.

“Other way. It must be the other way,” he said.

We pushed it in label side up and heard a clicking as the tape went down. I could hear it running now.

“That means it must be working! It must be!” I tried to keep my voice down, but this was an exciting moment.

Scott turned the TV switch on and we saw…squiggly lines on the screen. I put my ear to the glass of the TV and could make out a bit of the opening credits. I thought it was the opening credits anyway. I pressed my ear harder against the glass.

Scott switched places with me. “Definitely the opening theme. At least we’re getting something out of this.”

“If we can’t get any more,” I said, "This is still a working television. And I think I heard that Phil Donahue was going to have a lesbian on or something.”

Scott shrugged and flipped the channels around. When it reached channel two, we saw it. A picture.

“Oh my God!” he said. “It’s the movie. It’s playing!”

“Unbelievable! We’re controlling what’s on the screen. I feel like a god or maybe even a network executive,” I said.

I marveled at Arthur, King of the Britons, and his sidekick Patsy pretending to ride their horses about the English countryside while only clicking two coconuts together to make a hoofbeat sound. I marveled at the dialogue we were listening to. I marveled that we were watching a videocassette at school during class time and were in control. Total control. We listened.

You’re fooling yourself
You’re living in a dictatorship
A self-perpetuating autocracy
In which the working classes
We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune
We take turns acting as executive officer for the week
But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified
At a special bi-weekly meeting
By a simple majority in the case of strictly internal affairs.
But by 2/3rd’s majority in the case of

We were completely wrapped up in the dialogue and then the bell for the next class rang.


Scott punched the button, and the tape popped right out. I looked at him crossly.

“Hey, this was one of the greatest moments in my life, but it’s not worth going to detention hall for,” he said.

I took the tape from him and put it back in its satchel. I dejectedly motioned to him that we might as well leave, but then he took something out of his pocket. He balanced two extra hall passes delicately between his fingers.

“Cool.” I said. “But what’s your point?”

“We can clack them together like coconuts and jump up and down as we move down the hall, just like Arthur, King of the Britons.”

I was a little skeptical. “People might think we’re dorks, don’t you think?”

“Are you kidding? We’re talking about Monty Python here! Dorks-Ha!”

He said ha derisively as if the very thought of anything associated with the greatest movie of all time could ever be seen as anything but cool.

“I’ll be Arthur and you can be his sidekick,” Scott said.

“Wait,” I said. “Why can’t I be Arthur? You can be the sidekick.”

“Fine. Be Arthur. But you have to go first.”

“Why do I have to go first?” I asked.

“Arthur always goes first, stupid.”

I couldn’t deny his logic and grabbed the extra hall pass. I kissed the piece of wood in my hand. I went to the doorway of the media center and saw the students going to class.

This was my moment to shine. I waved to Scott to follow me and instinctively grabbed a plastic cover from the AV room that I draped over my back to mimic a cape. I took a step into the hall.

“Come on, my merry man!” I shouted as I exited the media center and began hopping down the hallway clacking my hall passes together. “I am Arthur King of the Britons!” Everyone was smiling at me. This was a statement. This was my statement.

“Onward, loyal sidekick.”

I motioned to urge Scott on, but as I turned back, I realized he wasn’t there. I caught a glimpse of him sneaking into his next class, paying me no attention. And those smiles that I had seen on the faces of my classmates had turned into laughs. Or were they laughs all along?

Ms. Hitt stuck her head out for a moment, sighing as she disapprovingly raised her sexy eyebrows before heading back into her precious media center.

I turned back around and saw Mr. Hickman, who confiscated the hall passes from me.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” he said. “Grass…isn’t it?”

He shook his head before taking my right arm and escorting me in the direction of the principal’s office.

It was then I realized that I had been close, very close. But the Holy Grail had eluded my grasp once again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

PSYCHO (1960)

What can you say about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that hasn’t already been said by hundreds…thousands of reviewers?

In his book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, David Thompson sees the two halves of the film very differently.

Make no mistake, even if the murder occurred halfway through the film, there was a balance in Psycho that required another hour of screen time, an hour that is as fabricated and spurious as the first hour is solid and resonant. –David Thompson

Hmmm. I’ve always been a fan of both halves of the film, but Thompson has made me think.

I’ve seen the film at least 10 times. What makes me come back to it? Hitchcock’s direction? The original camerawork? The famous score? Anthony Perkins? Janet Leigh? The gothic horror? That darn shower?
No, for me I think it’s the misdirection. Hitchcock leads you to believe it’s a movie about one thing and changes gears in a shocking way that shows you it’s really about another.
So what about this misdirection is so appealing?
My theory is that part of me still thinks (not hopes mind you, but thinks) the film is going to be about what it originally sets out to be. This is essentially playing a trick on myself. Like going on a roller coaster repeatedly. You know it’s not going to end with it crashing, but part of you convinces yourself that it still might.

But what would happen in this alternate movie? The first part of Psycho could stay the same, with two exceptions. The wonderful, dramatic Bernard Hermann score would have to go. It could be replaced by heavenly strings and the occasional ahhh’s of an unseen angelic choir. And the movie couldn’t be called Psycho. Of course it couldn’t.
It would be called instead…

Miss Crane’s Private Trap

Let us compare the first four scenes of Psycho and Miss Crane’s Private Trap since they are the same:

Scene One: A Dingy Hotel-Phoenix, Arizona. December 11…2:43 p. m. to be exact.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are putting on clothes and talking in a hotel room after what we presume was a sexual encounter. They act like they are having an affair, but Sam isn’t married, just poor. He has an ex-wife that he pays alimony to and debts incurred from his late father. He lives in the back of his father’s old hardware store in Fairvale. The couple considers breaking up, but decide to work things out despite their financial difficulties. Marion is wearing a white bra and slip in this scene. The bra and slip are not important plot points, just thought I’d mention them.

Scene Two: The Office-Marion is a secretary in a loan office. A client named Mr. Cassidy, a rich oil lease man, has $40,000 cash that he wants her boss to hold for him over the weekend. The boss (Mr. Lowery) is nervous and tells Marion to deposit the money in the bank. Marion decides to go home with a headache, but says she will go to the bank first. At Marion’s apartment, we see a packed bag and the envelope with the $40,000 still in her possession. Marion is wearing a black bra and slip in this scene. The bra and slip are not important plot points; just thought I’d mention them.

Scene Three: The Road-Marion hits the road with the money. Mr. Lowery sees her while he’s crossing the street. She drives and drives far out of town toward Fairvale, where Sam lives. She falls asleep on the side of the rode and a policeman comes to check on her. She acts nervous and guilty before he lets her go on her way. She goes to a used car lot and encounters prolific character actor John Anderson (232 IMDB credits) as California Charlie. She trades in her car and sets back out on the road underneath the suspicious glares of the police officer and California Charlie.

Scene Four: A Dingy Motel-Almost to Fairvale, she encounters bad weather and pulls off the interstate and comes to an out-of-the-way motel, the Bates Motel.
After she pulls in she sees the shadow of an old woman pacing in the window of the big house on the hill, before a tall, gangly, feminine but not bad looking gent named Norman Bates comes down to greet her.

“12 rooms, 12 vacancies” he says.

He checks her into a room. She says she might go to the diner down the road, before deciding not to. Norman invites her to have dinner with him.

“I don’t set a fancy table, but the kitchen’s awful homey! (Norman laughs awkwardly)”

Eating in Norman’s house on the hill is out of the question when his mother yells at him when he goes to prepare supper.

“No, I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper! By candlelight I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds…go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son.”

“Mother isn’t herself today.” Norman says when he returns to her in one of the greatest screen lines in context ever…in Psycho. Of course, In Miss Crane’s Private Trap, it’s just a line.

Norman apologizes for his mother’s faraway outburst after bringing the food down to his office parlor where he basically watches her eat.
Marion talks about her “own private island” (I hear the heavenly choir in the background)
She finds out Norman likes taxidermy (Check it out Marion, a man with a constructive hobby!)
They are getting along well until Marion asks him if he ever considered putting his mother away and Norman gets very agitated.

“People always mean well! They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!”
But he admits “Of course, I've suggested it myself.”

Norman goes on:
“We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other and for all of it, we never budge an inch” (Cue heaveanly choir)

Marion returns the thought:
“I stepped into a private trap back there and I’d like to go back and try to pull myself out of it.” (There’s the heavenly…well, you get the picture)

Norman bids Marion goodnight and says he will fix her breakfast in the morning.

After he leaves, she gets ready to take a shower. In Psycho, this is where the film about Marion Crane becomes a film about Norman Bates.

But here is what happens in Miss Crane’s Private Trap:

Marion is beat (as in tired, of course). She decides to not take a shower. She sleeps well and rises early the next day. Norman is already up and serves her breakfast for two: Omelets and Orange Juice. He has someone with him…his mother.
I’m picturing Bette Davis a la Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. No, that’s too creepy. Let's instead cast a pre-Hazel Shirley Booth as Norman's mother.

Mrs. Bates gives Marion the once over, but is still skeptical of her. She does seem to feel sorry her tirade.
Mrs. Bates: “I’m sorry I said that about erotic boys with erotic fantasies.” She stops, but Norman prods her to continue, “And I’m sorry for saying you were trying to appease your ugly appetite with my food or my son. Is that good enough Norman?” Norman smiles smugly, but Mrs. Bates still seems unsure about Marion as she heads back up to the house on the hill. After Norman and Marion have breakfast, Marion leaves. Norman smiles and waves goodbye to her as Shirley Booth scoffs as Marion smiles at Norman and waves back on her way to Arizona.

Back in Phoenix, Marion knows there will be problems. She gives the money back to Cassidy and he doesn’t press charges. Unfortunately, Lowery feels he can no longer trust her and fires her. She’s also short the $700 she paid for the car.

When she finally hears from Sam (We have to keep John Gavin in the film since he’s in the first scene) he is happy that she is safe and unharmed, but upset about her theft. He has a confession to make. He’s going back to his ex-wife.
“Beats paying alimony,” he rationalizes.
“And do I really want to be mixed up with a dame that would steal $40,000?” he goes on to her inevitable tears.

We’d have to have Marion’s sister Lila in the film since she is mentioned early on, but cute little Vera Miles won’t do for Miss Crane’s Private Trap. No, this Lila would have to play a frumpier second banana to Marion.
She’d say things like, “I told you that rattlesnake Sam Loomis wasn’t any good, you just had to give him enough time to shed his skin.”
And when Lila meets Norman she’d have to say something like, “Honey, if you don’t want him leave him for me, we can always lock his mother in the basement!” (This line would have no hidden meaning here, as this is a different movie, remember). Barbara Bel Geddes just played a similar role for Hitchcock in Vertigo. She could be the new Lila. Tart tongued but not too threatening.

Speaking of Norman, against his mother’s wishes, he goes looking for Marion in Phoenix. Marion is still heartbroken over Sam, but Lila talks him into seeing Norman when he finds her. He even brings her an omelet and a glass of orange juice to relive their morning together. She and Norman have lunch, go to the theater, go shopping together…yadda yadda yadda…they develop feelings for each other and eventually fall in love.
There also has to be the obligatory scene where Marion wins over Mrs. Bates. Lets see…Marion could save her life? Maybe. But the real icebreaker is when Marion comes up with some ideas about ways to make the motel profitable and, as luck would have it, the highway is currently being restructured to pass right by the Bates Motel! Business booms. We see a flash of the motel's many customers, including Mr. Cassidy, Mr. Lowery, California Charlie and even the suspicious cop. Mrs. Bates, Norman and Marion seem to be on their way to becoming a happy family.

Meanwhile, things don’t work out for Sam Loomis and his ex-wife. He returns to try to reclaim Marion, but of course she rejects him. And this scenario must end with Sam getting punched in the stomach by Norman’s mother, who tells him to “take his cheap, erotic mind out of Dodge!”

Marion and Norman laugh as mother dusts off her hands as Sam doubles over and Lila cries when she looks at the happy couple.

I see a final shot in the same Phoenix hotel where Sam and Marion were in the first scene. Only now, we have Norman and Marion slipping away from the shower where we see matching towels that say “Mr. Bates” and “Mrs. Bates.”

Maybe we could have some happily swaying stuffed birds thrown in for the final fade out. Then we hear those damn strings and pesky heavenly voices again over the closing credits.


I admit Miss Crane’s Private Trap leaves me kind of cold.

In the second half of Psycho, by contrast, Marion does take a shower…and the rest is movie history.