Psycho and the Symphony

31 October 2010 at 22:40 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. In that entry, I argued that Hermann’s scores dramatically impact the films they accompany to the extent that we should question the status of auteur imparted upon these films’ famous directors.

One of the films I discussed at length was Psycho, whose director I need not mention by name. Of all the films Herrmann scored, Psycho represents his most memorable contribution, if slightly less brilliant than his haunting composition for Taxi Driver. It was with great pleasure, then, that I attended a screening of Psycho tonight at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, with the Oregon Symphony performing the score live. The screening offered a rare opportunity for the audience by mixing of live performance with the moving image, and I am so glad that I took advantage.

For one, it made me think about what it must have been like for movie audiences over a hundred years ago when musicians regularly performed the music for otherwise silent films. The liveness of the music contrasts the fixity of the film, reminding us of that film must be produced–musicians must sit in a room for hours on end, rehearsing the sheet music before them, and then record it, hitting their cues and maintaining the tempo. The score, which so often seems invisible, becomes visible through live performance.

Seeing Psycho with the score performed live was a little like the penultimate shot from the film. Image taken from San Francisco Sentinel.

Beyond the novelty of seeing the score performed live, it was also a pleasure to see the film in a public setting. I’ve seen Psycho so many times, but never in a room full of strangers. It was fascinating to note how often we laughed at lines of dialog that seemed dated as well as those intended to be funny (“Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers!”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience members cried out and screamed not during the famed shower scene but over the second killing of the private investigator, Arbogast. My theory: that audience members are primed for the shower kill and, knowing less about it, get taken by surprise during that second kill. The final scenes, though, didn’t seem to terrify anyone–the big reveal of the corpse mother was met with laughter as was Norman in drag.

All of this is to say that experiences such as the one offered tonight by the Oregon Symphony remind us to continually look at film classics from a different angle. Just when you think you know a film front-to-back, you see it again and realize you missed something the first hundred times you saw it.

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1 Comment

  1. Alyx Vesey said,

    Thanks for sharing this experience! What a treat it must have been to see Psycho played with a live score. Is this something the Oregon Symphony does much of? I wonder if other orchestras collaborate with theaters to show movies. I regret not seeing Drafthouse screenings of Metropolis or Nosferatu with live bands/DJs (not attempting to collapse silent film with “the talkies”), but a live orchestra must be another experience entirely, from venue to sound quality on down the line.

    This post also made me think of two things:

    1. As much as I loathe Family Guy, I do find it interesting that they are one of the few American television shows that uses an orchestra. We can read into that a po-mo self-satisfied attempt at referencing early television’s transition from radio, but I think it’s still noteworthy.

    2. I’m not sure if I previously recounted the story of watching No Country For Old Men without sound, but it was an entirely inverted experience from the one you’re describing. I was at a venue attending a blues show and the movie played on a tiny TV monitor at the bar. When I first saw it, I was in a theater (with you?) at a late-night screening. Apart from the environmental and display differences, the muteness made me far more able to watch the violence without the sound of cracking bones, gun shots, and the cattle gun than when it encompassed me in stereo (seriously, it one of the scariest film-going experiences of my life). An anecdote, but it reminded me of the spectatorial importance of sound.

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