In honor of Halloween, I finally watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…what a disappointment! Maybe I lack the critical eye or the film warrants multiple viewings, but I hated it! Well not hate (hate’s too strong a word); I was underwhelmed.
I get it: the masterful cinematography; the way Hitchcock plays with light and shadow and the way mirrors point to our own natural duplicity; the surprising choice of Anthony Perkins, a lanky, boyishly handsome actor with kind eyes and expressive good looks, for the part of deranged serial killer; the shocking and totally unprecedented demise of a main character 45 minutes in; the iconic shower scene that terrified audiences everywhere.
But, I don’t know, the film lacked something for me. Psycho felt more like a noir (which you’d think I’d like), but the total implausibility of some of the characters’ actions ruined the film’s realism. I suppose I shouldn’t demand realism from a trashy genre like the slasher flick, a genre which traditionally asks us to suspend our disbelief as we watch the killer miraculously emerge alive after being shot 10 times in the chest or as we observe the female protagonist decide to go unaccompanied (yet again!) into that creaky, darkened old house.
Make no mistake: I love the idiocy and predictability of such conventions.
But in Psycho, Marion Crane’s sloppy crime and overtly suspicious behavior (“What’s wrong with knowing what you want and wanting it in a hurry?” she demands at the used car lot while trying to exchange her vehicle for another) is just a little too distracting. Can she be anymore obvious?! Narratively, her endless miscalculations and silly screw-ups build suspense and push our tolerance to its absolute limit. Who impulsively steals $40,000, skips town, sleeps alongside a highway and refuses to cooperate with a police man who innocently wakes her and, up until that moment, harbors no kind of suspicion against her?! Certainly, Crane is not good at playing it cool. And she is certainly not a practiced criminal: she exchanges her car for another at a dingy used-car lot right in front of the police officer who’s been following her. Does her ineptitude prove she is not, really, a criminal? Perhaps Crane’s familiarity as a character proves that the potential for criminality exists within us all.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, I did like that Hitchcock’s universe offered no possibility for redemption: though Crane realizes the error of her ways and decides to do right and return the money, she is killed before she can do so. Interestingly after Crane dies, Norman is our only constant as we are forced to identify with both murderer and victim. In the end, Psycho seems to suggest that humanity exists alongside Norman Bates as an irreconcilable split-personality, capable of the most incredible good and the most monstrous evil.
Recluse. Eccentric. J.D. Salinger is perhaps as known for his reputation as for his work. When Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, it was an instant classic, topping bestseller lists and becoming a sort of misfit’s anthem for angsty teenagers everywhere. But when Salinger found fame too much, he retreated to a wooded hillside in Cornish, New Hampshire where he lived in almost total seclusion until his death more than 50 years later. An enigmatic figure who fiercely safeguarded his privacy, he refused interviews, demanded his picture be removed from all book jackets, and notoriously blocked Sam Goldwyn and Steven Spielberg from securing the much coveted rights to Catcher in the Rye.
So with only 4 major publications to his credit after 1951, the question remains: what had the legendary author been doing all these years? According to family and friends, Salinger never stopped writing: a reported treasure trove of 10 novels remain locked away in his fire-proof safe today.
When he wasn’t writing, Salinger was dabbling in homeopathy, acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine. But we’re not talking aromatherapy and scented candles here. Salinger would spend hours searching for the perfect cure to the common cold and even test his “remedies” on his two children, Margaret and Matthew. Rather than use needles for acupuncture, Salinger would use big, wooden dowels (rods commonly used in furniture-making). The pain was excruciating. “It felt like having a blunt pencil shoved into your skin,” Margaret said later.
And that’s not even the weirdest of his home remedies. In her tell-all book, Dream Catcher, Margaret reveals her father made a habit of drinking his own urine. Yup, urine. Urine therapy, the medicinal use of pee, has been practiced through the centuries by everyone from the Romans, who used it as a teeth whitener, to the ancient Hindus, who believed urine was an elixir for the soul. Today, advocates claim urine can cure just about anything from the flu to cancer. But before you go rushing to fill up on your own golden showers, you should know there is little evidence to confirm this interesting, if bizarre, theory.
2. Ernest Hemingway Was Raised as a Girl
Ernest Hemingway was a guy with some serious mommy issues. And we can’t say we blame him. Domineering and a bit neurotic, Grace Hemingway had always wanted twin girls. When she gave birth to Marcelline and then Ernest 18 months later, she was more than a little disappointed. Rather than give up on her dreams of matching outfits, Grace enacted her twin fantasies onto Ernest and his older sister. At first, she just dressed him up in Marcelline’s old clothes: frilly dresses, pink bows. But soon, she was forcing them to wear identical outfits and actually telling people they were twin girls. She even went so far as to hold Marcelline back a year so that the “twins” could be in the same grade. Talk about nuts. So persistent was her delusion that Ernest was a little girl that she took to calling him “Ernestine”. Ouch. No wonder poor Papa spent his life trying to prove his machismo.
3. Tolstoy Inspired the Liberation of India
Known as one of the greatest novelists of all time, Leo Tolstoy was also a political activist and social reformer. Tolstoyism, as his philosophy would later be known, distrusted all forms of authority but rejected violence as an adequate means of resistance. In addition to preaching the importance of non-violence, Tolstoy condemned private property and detested material excess, arguing instead that we live by our own labor. And boy, did he practice what he preached. Wanting to lead a simple, monastic life, he became a vegetarian, rid himself of most of his possessions, and-much to the dismay of his wife-relinquished the rights to his work. His radical political leanings made him quite a few enemies: he was spied on by the Russian secret police and, in 1901, excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.
But soon, Tolstoy was champion for the world’s oppressed and poor. In May 1908, Taraknath Das, editor of the underground journal Free Hindustan, wrote Tolstoy asking him to contribute a piece for the paper. An anti-British Bengali Indian revolutionary, Das was an extremist who openly criticized those in favor of gradual independence for India. Tolstoy, of course, refused his request, claiming only passive resistance-not violence- could liberate India from British rule. When in 1909 a young Gandhi came across Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu (as it came to be called), it changed his life. Inspired, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy and the two began a warm correspondence that would last until Tolstoy’s death. “Russia gave me Tolstoy,” Gandhi said later, “It was he who had prophesied that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the down trodden people of the earth.”
4. Virginia Woolf was on Hitler’s Hit List
Planning to invade Britain in 1940, Nazi officials prepared The Gestapo Handbook for the Invasion of Britain: a top secret manual for the occupation forces which was to be distributed to all soldiers. This frightening how-to guide contained 2 sections: the first, an alarmingly accurate account of British political and cultural life; the second, a list of 2,820 British politicians, artists, writers, and actors who were to be arrested if Germany’s invasion was successful. Coined “Hitler’s Black List,” names listed included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, fellow writers Aldous Huxley and E.M. Forester, Sigmund Freud, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Though it’s unlikely that Virginia and Leonard knew of their presence on Hitler’s hit list, as members of the Bloomsbury intellectual elite, they knew they were in danger. If Hitler invaded, they decided, they would kill themselves. As they awaited Britain’s inevitable capture, the suicidal couple prepared to meet their fatal end, leaving an extra can of gas in the garage in case they had to asphyxiate themselves. And in case poisonous gas fumes weren’t enough, Leonard always made sure to have a lethal dose of morphine handy.
Woolf did end up committing suicide, but not because of a Nazi invasion. When her lifelong struggle with depression finally caught up with her, Woolf filled her pockets with rocks, strolled to the River Ouse behind her house and killed herself on March 28, 1941. But the most tragic thing about the author’s death was how the media-like vultures picking a carcass- would distort her legacy. Soon after her untimely demise, the coroner who ruled her death a suicide misquoted her suicide note, telling reporters at The Sunday Times of London that she said-“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times”-when in fact she had said- “I feel certain I’m going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” Who would’ve thought a puny little pronoun would taint our view of her forever?
Convinced she killed herself because of the war, the coroner went on to tell the papers that: “Mrs. Woolf was undoubtedly of an extremely sensitive nature and was much more responsive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world today.”
His commentary brought on an outraged response from Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of London: “Sir,- I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest of Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was ‘undoubtedly much more sensitive than most.’ What right has anyone to make such an assertion? If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil. Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on?’”
Thanks to Hicks’s incensed condemnation, the British public began to regard Woolf’s suicide as a ‘sign of surrender.’
Furious, Leonard sent the newspaper an impassioned rebuttal. But despite his best efforts, the media continued to paint a rather unflattering portrait of his wife as a traitor. TIME magazine even reprinted the misquote in their May 5, 1941 issue a few days later.