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Getting a grip on guilt

The subject of Hitchcock, particularly "Psycho," came up recently. It occurred to me afterward how the current dearth of personal responsibility has affected how we view art created in an earlier environment. Mr. Asimov might have suggested that art and writing are living breathing things, subject to the interpretations of new generations. I am prone to adhere to the "intent of the framers" philosophy.

Psycho is a prime example. It saddens me that current generations do not feel its impact. The reason, I've come to believe, resides in the lack of personal responsibility in society today. Where there is no responsibility there is no guilt. Without a sense of or identification with guilt, the impact of much of Mr. Hitchcock's work is lessened. Think about it.

Hoards of moviegoers flocked into the theater to take a ride on Mr. Hitchcock's roller coaster, not knowing what this gore-and-violence inundated generation does now, and feeling quite different about what was transpiring on the screen. Psycho is a movie immersed in guilt and Mr. Hitchcock manipulated his audience to share and identify in that guilt. We start off with the camera searching across the city until it finds its way into the hotel room where Sam and Marion are having a "light lunch." She is wearing a white bra, and we feel rather naughty watching, most of us not having seen something like that on the big screen before, and having literally sneaked into the window to see it. Marion herself feels less than "respectable" for having to meet there. Sam feels guilty for not being financially able to marry her.

So what does she do? She lies about having a headache, steals forty-thousand dollars and takes off (not before being caught by her boss on the street looking quite healthy). She absconds with the money (we see her dressing again-this time wearing a BLACK bra with her family pictures behind her looking on disapprovingly) and we just know this foolish caper has no chance of succeeding. And so it continues...lying to the cop on the road, trading in her car for a new one, running into poor Norman Bates who is carrying the ultimate guilt himself. She sees her future in him and appropriately has a change of heart. We sympathize and empathize until he (and we) peep into her room and follow her (having forgotten about the money - we can't help it) into the shower.

You all know what happens next, after we watched her sensually washing her sins away. We didn't, and we felt all the guiltier and horrified because of the state of mind Mr. Hitchcock had ushered us unto. Talk about cutting edge! We had been very naughty, and Mother wasn't very happy. I don't think that shock and reaction would be possible today on any wide scale. Audiences are too sophisticated and too "guilt free." Indeed, modern audiences might even cheer "Mother" as she tears the shower curtain aside and slashes away, missing the whole "point." Too bad.

The theme of "normalcy" is also central to the story. In the novel by Ray Bloch, Norman Bates is a balding, paunchy little neurotic character clearly identified as having issues. In Hitchcock's vision, Norman becomes the kid next door, troubled for sure, but due to circumstances any one of us might get caught up in. His very name, Norman, is only one letter off from being "Normal". I don't believe it's accidental that Hitchcock changed the Mary Crane (birds abound in psycho) character's name to Marion. If you rearrange the name Marion, you get "Normai" - again, one letter off from being Normal. Norman and Marion, in effect, are two of a kind. Given the right circumstances, she could be just as deranged as we slowly come to realize poor Norman himself is. You could extend that to you and I as well, especially if we allow ourselves to be driven by impulse and other forces beyond our "control", like poor Norman. The only difference is we, like Marion, should know better.

And so I say, a little personal responsibility and a healthy dose of guilt can be a good thing. With self-examination and personal control comes growth, wisdom, and curiosity. Perhaps there would be fewer blank, lifeless stares on the streets, and in the stores and parks, and schools, and maybe fewer eyes peeking through dusty curtains wondering who that could be knocking on doors that more and more are going unanswered these days.

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