Psycho Is As Psycho Does

In a traditional sense, a title describes a work of art.

It’s our top-level introduction, the most basic, barebones, concise description of what’s to come. Though smart titles can be ultimately unpacked to suggest various interpretations — including those that reveal how the title might juxtapose the content within — it still stands to reason that we should be able to make statements like this:

By definition, Psycho is psycho.

I’m not saying “psycho” is necessarily an accurate label for the entirety of the movie Psycho, but it’s inarguably the label the creative powers-that-be decided to adorn the movie under.

Taking this idea a step further, while many different components of the movie can be described as “psycho” (right on down to how audiences subsequently felt every time they stepped into a shower), the most obvious “psycho” part of the movie is Norman Bates himself. Ergo, since the title positions the movie as being about Bates, or even as a titular cypher for him/her/them, it yet again stands to reason that conclusions drawn in regards to psycho Bates also can be applied to the movie Psycho.

Which brings us back to the subject of our last post. If you agree with me that the psychologist’s closing monologue is supposed to feel like an inadequate explanation of the full extent of Bates’ psychosis, then on a meta-level, the whole monologue can be a subtextual commentary on the easily-packaged wisdom movies love to espouse, which audiences love to reductively glean from their viewing experience. Even way back in 1960, it was already a cliché for a “wise” character occupying a position of authority to bring the curtain down on a story with a seemingly omniscient monologue that transparently summarizes what the audience has just seen, and what they’re supposed to take away from it.

As previously explained, Psycho foregrounds a distrust in such authority figures who continually fuck up the responsibilities implicitly entrusted to them. Marian’s boss trusts her with the money, which she promptly steals. Marian trusts Norman Bates to house her for the night safely, and we all know how that turns out. Marian’s family trusts the private investigator to return Marian, except he winds up dead. Society trusts Norman’s parents to raise a…normal child (his name’s only one letter away!), which they self-evidently did not accomplish.

And then there’s the opening credits. With this theme in our craniums, we can retroactively interpret the first shot as yet another betrayal of assumed trust. The trysters trust that they can leave ajar their skyscraper window without fear of being seen, and yet here comes Hitch’s camera flying through the window to expose their shenanigans.

Which brings us back to interpreting Psycho through a meta-lens. If the movie sets us up to doubt the comforting truths we might blindly and falsely trust, then this skepticism can — and should? — be directed at the movie itself. The psychologist seems to double as the official spokesperson for the movie, making sense of the madness that came before it.

And yet, why should we trust his words, or that his words accurately reflect the creators’ thoughts on these matters? Conventional movies, like psychologists, love to reduce the human complexity on display into easily-packaged (movies are packages themselves!), bite-sized resolutions with straightforward morals so that audiences can clearly understand the proceedings preceding it.

But why do we trust characters to be transparent mouthpieces for their creators? Why do we trust movies to tell us what the creators actually believe? Why can’t they lie to us just like Marian? Artists are in the illusion and deception business!

Also relevant: the artistic landscape Psycho was made and released in; Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave were in the midst of promulgating the auteur theory, and Hitch was their fetish object. The most common conception of the term casts the director as the dominant author of a movie, and the interpretations bred from this sort of application maintain an air of authority about them, as if the auteur provides a key to understanding their movies.

Might Psycho have been responding to this interpretative impulse? All interpretations — from the pages of Cahiers, to the movie’s apparent interpretation of Bates’ psychology, as voiced in the psychologist’s monologue — are just that: mere interpretations. No one has the resolute answers, and anyone who thinks a movie has given them such answers, or that they’ve cracked a movie’s code, should perhaps take a page out of Psycho‘s book — and learn from the mistakes of its characters — by not trusting their own authority on what the movie’s saying, and by not treating the movie nor its characters nor its authors as authorities on the movie itself, nor themselves.

Again, the title tells us the movie is psycho. And like every other psycho in the history of the world, we’re still striving and struggling to understand them six decades on. The answers escape us, because they may not exist. Instead, the answers raise more questions, which continue to confound a century later.

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