Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How I met Norman’s mother (a spot of movie tourism)

[Did this for Business Standard]

I’m not usually enthusiastic about having a camera aimed at me (though I’m not fascist about it either, like the people who believe the thing is a devil’s tool meant to suck their souls out through their eyeballs or something). Even when travelling in scenic places, I’d rather someone just took a candid shot instead of expecting me to stand in front of something and grin moronically at a lens.

Which in no way explains why, if you chanced to visit the Cinémathèque Française museum on a particular Friday afternoon last month, you would have found me squatting next to Mrs Bates’s skull and grinning moronically at a lens. And then doing it again, to get another angle; and then yet again, after checking the light settings and tut-tutting; all the while keeping an eye out for the museum police who frowned at photography in the premises. Nor does it explain why I then stood next to Maria the robot and made faux-dramatic poses in an attempt to replicate a famous scene from a 1926 film.

But these were special circumstances: Mrs Bates and Maria are important figures in my movie-watching career. The former is the shadowy protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which infected my life when I was 13, getting me thinking about films as art and sending me down a rabbit-hole of analytical literature about movies. The latter is one of the frosty legends of early film history, the automaton created by an evil scientist in Fritz Lang’s great silent film Metropolis. And so, having arrived in the city where people typically make a beeline for Notre Dame and Versailles, for Angelina’s hot chocolate and Berthillon’s ice creams, I prioritised a meeting with these two enigmatic ladies of the night. As Mrs Bates’s little boy Norman put it, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

Mother Bates makes her famous appearance in the climax of Psycho, in a creaky (by today’s standards) but unsettling scene in the basement, where we discover that Norman’s mummy is not a living, domineering harridan but a long-dead, carefully preserved corpse. If I had wanted my illusions to be just as well-preserved, I would have avoided going to the museum at all, so that my only mental picture of her would be as she appears in the film. There was something both comical and poignant about seeing her in a glass cage at the Cinémathèque. Bathed in a beam of yellow light, she stood out from a distance in the darkened room; the idea was presumably to make her look spooky, but it also drew attention to her as an exhibit, something that visitors could point and chortle at (or sit down next to and smile stupidly for a camera). Besides, she was unexpectedly small. (What was I expecting? A two-foot-tall skull with shark-like teeth?)

Looking at other artefacts – the starfish in the jar from Man Ray’s 1928 film The Sea Star, costumes from such movies as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast – was a strange experience too. Props and objects that have such immediate, vivid associations for a viewer can, when removed from their familiar contexts, become banal and smaller than life. Cocteau’s film was in gorgeous black and white, but these costumes were in “real-world” colour and they seemed garish, almost vulgar when set against the images from the film, playing on a screen above. There was a series of still photos from the Beauty and the Beast set, which showed the blandly handsome actor Jean Marais applying the layers of makeup that would transform him into the imperious, tragic Beast. For anyone who has been immersed in the otherworldly milieu of Cocteau’s film, these stills are an exercise in demystification; with a movie like that, which gives the impression of having sprung fully formed from an alternate universe, you don’t want to be reminded that it was put together by a cast and crew, who were probably doing mundane things like talking about the day’s news or taking cigarette breaks in between shots.

Yet such experiences can also bring a new, more measured respect for the creative process – the processes by which everyday things are transmuted into magic and art, with long-term effects on people’s lives and personalities. (I would almost certainly not have become a professional writer if I hadn’t watched Psycho when I did.) Returning to Ma Bates: here is a wrinkled little skull replica, not particularly authentic-looking or scary when you see it in the cold light of day. Yet someone designed it keeping in mind a film’s lighting and colour scheme, and the desired Grand Guignol-like effect of the climactic revelation. They arranged it just so, placing it in a chair that would swivel around dramatically; at the crucial moment a swinging lightbulb cast shadows over it, making the eye sockets seem alive and menacing; and Bernard Herrman’s music score with its screaming violins added to the effect of the scene.

And now here she was more than 50 years later, outside of the film, in a boringly polychrome world, staring blankly at me from her glass home. It was a little deflating, but the sense of mystery wasn’t completely gone. For a moment I fancied I could hear Norman’s voice saying "I think we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out” followed by Mother’s cackle: “They know I can't move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do... suspect me."

[The earlier post with the museum photos is here. And here is "Monsters I have known", my piece about horror-movie love for The Popcorn Essayists]


  1. Have you been following the TV series Bates Motel? It tells the story of Norman Bates and his mother before the events of the movie, and is set in the present day.

  2. Deepti: no, and not particularly interested - my connect with Psycho is mainly about the form of Hitchcock's film, not the back-story. I wasn't even too taken by the 1990 film Psycho 4: The Beginning, which was also a prequel, and which came out at a time when I had a much more childlike interest in Norman Bates's history.