Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Norman Cousins, on ‘The Case for Hope’)

“The case for hope has never rested on provable facts or rational assessment. Hope by its very nature is independent of the apparatus of logic." —Editor-essayist Norman Cousins (1915-1990), “Hope and Practical Realities,” Saturday Review World, Dec. 14, 1974

Monday, October 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on the Obliviousness of Fools)

“Out with it, Dunciad: let the secret pass—
That secret to each fool—that he's an ass.
The truth once told (and whereby should we lie?),
The queen of Midas slept, and so may I.
You think this cruel? Take it for a rule,
No creature smarts so little as a fool.”—English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), An Epistle from Mr. Pope, to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735)

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Joseph Mary Plunkett, on Christ, the Reaper)

“The sun rose up at midnight,
The sun rose red as blood,
It showed the Reaper, the dead Christ,
Upon His cross of wood.
“For many live that one may die,
And one must die that many live—
The stars are silent in the sky
Lest my poor songs be fugitive.”—Irish poet, journalist, and patriotic martyr Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916), “The Stars Sang in God’s Garden,” in Joyce Kilmer’s Anthology of Catholic Poets, with a supplement of more recent poems edited by Shaemas O’Sheel (1939)
(The image accompanying this post, a detail of the painting Christ Crucified, was part of the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, by the late Italian Renaissance master Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Psycho,’ With a Subtly Suspenseful Sequence)

Milton Arbogast [played by Martin Balsam]: “I'm a private investigator. I've been trying to trace a girl... that's been missing for, oh, about a week now from Phoenix. It's a private matter. The family wants to forgive her. She's not in any trouble.”

Norman Bates [played by Anthony Perkins]: “I didn't think the police went looking for people who aren't in trouble.”

Arbogast: “I'm not the police.”

Norman: “Oh, yeah.”

Arbogast: “We have reason to believe she came along this way. Did she stop here?”

Norman: “No one's stopped here for a couple of weeks.”

Arbogast: “Mind looking at the picture before committing yourself?”

Norman: “Commit myself? You sure talk like a policeman.”

Arbogast: “Look at the picture, please.”

Norman [looking at it]: “Mm-mmm. Yeah.” 

Arbogast: “Sure? Well, she may have used an alias. Marion Crane's her real name... but she could've registered under a different one.”

Norman: “I tell ya, I don't even much bother with guests registering any more. One by one, you drop the formalities. I shouldn't even bother changing the sheets, but old habits die hard. Which reminds me...”

Arbogast: “What's that?”

Norman: “The sign. A couple last week said if the thing hadn't been on... they would've thought this was an old, deserted...”

Arbogast: “You see, that's exactly my point. Nobody'd been here for a couple weeks... and there's a couple came by and didn't know that you were open. As you say, old habits die hard.”— Psycho (1960), screenplay by Joseph Stefano based on the novel by Robert Bloch, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I am afraid that, for all its formal cinematographic brilliance as an experiment in low-budget Gothic horror, the lesson of Psycho for subsequent filmmakers lay less in how to scare audiences—i.e., how to make them feel delicious tingles at the back of their necks over something that might or might not occur—than in how to shock them, with depictions of gore (though much of this, given censorship regulations of the day, was simulated).

But moments of anticipation, a tightening of mortal stakes for the film’s characters, did exist, even though they were not of the conspicuous kind present, for instance, in the famous shower scene. Such was the encounter—a portion of which I’ve excerpted here—between Norman Bates and Arbogast, a detective hired by the employer of embezzler Marion Crane.

What the audience knows—but Arbogast doesn’t—is that Marion has been stabbed to death in Bates Motel. But in the lines I quoted above, Norman—despite his attempts to stonewall the detective—has made a slip.

It's the slip that a nervous person, hoping to fill a conversational void or to add a detail that might add more weight to what he's said, might make. It’s a small error, maybe the kind that you or I might not immediately realize in the ebb and flow of a conversation. 

But Arbogast immediately pounces on Norman’s contradiction. He pursues the accidental disclosure that people have indeed stopped at the motel, and he uses it as an opportunity to persuade a now-tenser Norman to allow him to check the motel register and establish that Marion, under an assumed name, checked in. 

From there, the conversation gears shift rapidly. Little physical action occurs between Balsam and Perkins that would constitute a normal marker of suspense (a body dangling from a cliff, say, or two arms reaching for a gun).

No, the suspense lies in what is said and what is not—Arbogast's flat declaration that something is amiss (“If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling”), followed by his increasingly confrontational, accusatory questions (“Did you spend the night with her?... Then how would you know she didn't make any calls?”) and Norman’s stuttering responses and sweating attempts to end the conversation-turned-interrogation.

Alfred Hitchcock didn’t give his actors much direction, believing that he’d chosen them for their skill and that they’d figure out how to play their scenes. Here, Martin Balsam justifies that faith.

Over the course of his long career, the character actor won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the mid-Sixties comedy A Thousand Clowns, acted in classics like Cape Fear, 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, and appeared before a sizable weekly audience as Carroll O’Connor’s Jewish business partner in Archie Bunker’s Place.

But as Arbogast, he made the most of short screen time and limited plot function to suggest character dimensions not apparent in his dialogue.

The audience already knows something about Norman—his shyness, his domination by “Mother,” his weirdness beneath that nice-young-man exterior. But here, Balsam establishes Arbogast.

Well-schooled in his craft, the detective is cool and confident but also can be blunt, brusque and maybe cockier than this setting previously unknown to him might warrant. 

He has learned that something has happened here. But, once he glimpses “Mother” in the window in the house on the hill, the chief instinct of his profession—curiosity—leads him to disregard the chasm between his knowledge and the real situation.

His entry into that dark, foreboding house is inevitable, then, as is his ill-fated encounter with “Mother” on its stairs.

In October, which has become the de facto month for horror depiction on film and television, Psycho holds pride of place. The sequence I’ve discussed supplies many of the sinews of this classic—and, following the surprise dispatching of the focus of the first third of the movie, Marion, follows with that of Arbogast, whom we had only shortly before expected to relentlessly pursue her killer and bring him to justice.

The detective proved inadequate to the task. Blessed with the intelligence to sense a crime, even one different from the embezzlement he’d been hired to investigate, he still lacked the imagination to comprehend the level of insanity and evil—not to mention the danger that represented to him—in this sleepy backwater of the American Southwest. Who could?

Song Lyric of the Day (Joni Mitchell, on ‘Where the Wealth's Displayed’)

“Where the wealth's displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it's made
The slaves will be taken.” — Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, “Dog Eat Dog,” from her CD of the same name (1985)

(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)

Friday, October 22, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ As a Bragging Hubby is Quizzed by a Cop)

[Roger has been bragging to wife Carol and Sis about how he defended himself and then chased a mugger. A detective has come to their home to take Roger’s statement.]

Police Detective [played by William Conrad]: “Let me ask you this, if I may: How tall was the assailant?”

Roger [played by Harvey Korman, pictured] [glances back at Carol, nervously]: “How tall?”

Detective [looking up from writing in notebook]: “Yes, from the ground up, of course.”

Roger: “Uh…” [leaning over, whispering so Carol won’t hear]: “Five-three.”

Detective [taking more notes] [loudly]: “Assailant was five feet, three inches.”

Roger [grimacing as he looks at Carol, who now has a skeptical look on her face]: “Yeah, I’d say that was about it.”

Carol [played by Carol Burnett]: “Kung Fu strikes again!” [Makes karate-chop sign, frowning.]

Detective: “And how old would you say he was?”

Roger [standing up, angrily]: “Look, is all this necessary?”

Carol: “How old would you say he was?”

Roger: “Uh…uh…about sixty.”

Carol: “The big six-o!”

Roger: “Well, he was a wiry guy…looked dangerous.” [raises fists]

Carol: “You mean to say you chased a five-foot three, 60-year-old man a block and you couldn’t catch him?”

Roger: “Well, I almost had him. He hit me with his cane.”

[Carol walks away.]

Roger: “Where are you going?”

Carol: “I’m going into the bedroom. I just hate to laugh in front of company.”—The Carol Burnett Show, Season 6, Episode 23, “Carol and Sis” skit, original air date Mar. 17, 1973, directed by Dave Powers

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (W. B. Yeats, on Literature, ‘Always One Man’s Vision of the World’)

“Literature is always personal, always one man’s vision of the world, one man’s experience, and it can only be popular when men are ready to welcome the visions of others. A community that is opinion-ridden, even when those opinions are in themselves noble, is likely to put its creative minds into some sort of a prison.” —Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet-playwright William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “An Irish National Theatre” (2008), in Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, Vol. 4 (e-book edition, 2015)