Film

Sundance: Breaking Down Terror with ’78/52′ and ‘Oklahoma City’

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One of the coolest movies at Sundance this year has to be Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, a gloriously nerdy deep-dive into the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Philippe continues a recent trend of somewhat experimental Sundance docs looking into elements of film history and filmmaking: Past entries in this subgenre include Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon and Rodney Ascher’s unforgettable Room 237.

The oddly-named 78/52 (the title refers to the number of set-ups and shots in the shower scene) is more straightforward. But that’s what makes it so daring. Over an hour and a half, a wide variety of talking heads — 39 editors, authors, directors, actors, scholars, sound engineers — talk about the shower scene: How it was done, how it works, why it works, and why it’s important — what makes it so seismic in the history of cinema and American culture.

Their observations run from the particular to the mythic. Editors like Bob Murawski (Spider-Man, Army of Darkness) and Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) get into the minutiae of the scene’s edits and effects. We learn about the 27 varieties of melons that were tested to find the right sound of a knife ripping into flesh. (It’s cassavas, for the record.) Meanwhile, writers like Steven Rebello talk about how Psycho foreshadowed the political violence of the 1960s. Peter Bogdanovich observes that “It was the first time in the history of movies where it wasn’t safe to be in a movie theater.” Dust Devil director Richard Stanley compares the swirling water in the shower’s drain to the “pointless spiraling of the universe.” Along the way, we also find out about the fascinating history of the very symbolic painting that Norman Bates uses to cover up his peephole.

It could have been a mess, frankly. But Philippe has put the film together smartly, taking us from the general to the particular: “I structurally wanted the film to be a mirror image of Psycho,” the director told me in an interview. “In the sense that you spend the first forty or so minutes setting up that scene, and what it did for culture, and then right around the forty-minute mark, which is where the shower scene happens in Psycho, you essentially get into the deconstruction of it.” The results are hypnotic.

Philippe has also included some subtle stylistic nods to Hitchcock’s film, green-screening his interview subjects into a space that looks not unlike the Bates Motel. “I wanted to create this illusion that they were trapped there on the property.” He also regularly intercuts to shots of his interview subjects just watching the shower scene, to heighten the sense of voyeurism.

One of the key interviews — and the person whose experiences form its backbone — is Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s Psycho body double. It’s actually Renfro whose body we’re seeing for much of the scene. “I don’t think she got her due after that film, and she’s kind of the hidden hero,” the director says. He also notes that there are a lot of urban legends around Renfro: “I think if you go on IMDb it says that she died, and there are a lot of people who believe in this myth that she was murdered.” That made it especially rewarding, he says, to bring her to the festival.

Philippe discovered during his interviews a suprising diversity of opinions and attitudes — from the broad, almost mythic interpretations of people like Bret Easton Ellis and Richard Stanley to the more playful observations of people like Murawski. “We had numerous interviews with great editors, from Walter Murch to Chris Innis to Jeff Ford, Bob Murawski, Amy Duddleston. At any given point, during those interviews they would all at some point go, ‘This is the greatest cut I’ve ever seen!’ and each person was talking about a different cut. They all revere the scene for very unique and different reasons.”

The director says he’s not done with Psycho yet. “After three years of working on this film, I feel like I’m just getting to scratch the surface about the shower scene. I’ve actually started conducting interviews now beyond the scope of the film… I want to talk to architects, I want to talk to psychologists and psychiatrists, and cultural experts. You can talk to so many people, and they will show you something that you had never considered before. It’s endless what you can discover about it.”

For my money, the scariest film playing at Sundance is the documentary Oklahoma City, which chronicles the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, still the biggest act of domestic terrorism in United States history. Director Barak Goodman offers a ground-level, you-are-there account of the bombing and its aftermath, but he also jumps back to chart the rise of the forces that directly led to this tragedy.

It is impossible to tell the story of Oklahoma City without talking about the emergence of extremist white nationalist groups in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Goodman’s approach to his material isn’t so much alarmist as clinical: He introduces people like Richard G. Butler, founder of the Aryan Nations movement, and Bob Matthews, who founded the roving band of racist criminals known as The Order. Along the way, he gives a sober accounting of the controversial standoff at Ruby Ridge, when Federal agents shot and killed survivalist Randy Weaver’s son and wife, and the disastrous siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, which left 76 dead. He shows how these tragedies spurred the radicalization of others — including a disillusioned young vet named Timothy McVeigh, who would later deem the Oklahoma City bombing not the start of a war but “a counter-attack.”

Goodman doesn’t have to editorialize much to convey the monstrousness of these people and their actions. Their words and their beliefs, plus the facts on the ground, are damning enough. Oklahoma City saves its compassion for the victims of this story: the men, women, and children who were killed or wounded during the Murrah bombing. The archival footage and interviews with first responders, parents, and officials are harrowing and heartbreaking. McVeigh’s fertilizer bomb was placed not far from a day care center in the building, so we hear stories of parents digging into the rubble to find their kids, and chambers below ground where one interviewee saw coagulated pools of blood on the ceiling, each a person dead on the floor above.

Goodman also doesn’t state overtly why the story of the Oklahoma City bombing is so relevant today. He doesn’t have to. His methodical recounting of the rise of white nationalism and fringe movements reverberates with today’s world, in which racist violence and conspiracist lunacy has been emboldened and brought troublingly into the mainstream. Oklahoma City, the movie, may end sometime around McVeigh’s execution in 2001, but anyone with a brain knows that the ensuing chapters of this American horror story are being written as we speak.

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