This week, in the latest edition of Nomad Editions' Wide Screen, I review Jason Zinoman's Shock Value. Here is an excerpt, which largely concerns portions of the book that met with my disapprobation:
One of the several unfortunate byproducts of the success of Peter Biskind’s 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which chronicled the glories and excesses of a group of filmmakers in the “New Hollywood” of the early ‘70s, is that it created a template for any would-be popular film histories that followed. And “template” becomes just another word for “trap” in Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, in which the author, who’s clearly an enthusiast of the genre, tries to shoehorn stories of the likes of John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Brian DePalma (who also figures prominently in the Biskind book), Wes Craven, and European émigré Roman Polanski among others, into an Easy Riders-style narrative.
The book begins with an imagined / reconstructed editing room meeting between Craven and his early-‘70s partner, producer Sean Cunningham, and the two poring over graphic footage from Craven’s early-‘70s groundbreaker The Last House on the Left. Cognoscenti may find considerable comic value in the idea of Cunningham being brought to stand in for some kind of idea of artistic conscience, but this book isn’t for cognoscenti. In any event, the passage does indicate that Zinoman’s not entirely uncomfortable with the trap he’s walking into.
While Biskind’s book threaded a kill-the-father narrative throughout (starting it off with a bang with Dennis Hopper’s “We will bury you,” directed at poor little old George Cukor) Zinoman dispenses with his right off the bat, and makes a hash of it with a chapter on Hitchcock and Psycho that is so rife with perversity and misinterpretation that it may well have ardent Hitchcock scholars throwing Shock Value into the nearest roaring fireplace.
Zinoman cites the great book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the epic-length interview between the suspense master and critic-turned-filmmaker François Truffaut, over and over again, and then writes, with a straight face, “At best, [Hitchcock] was a competitive type who had no interest in revealing his secrets.” Well, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a book in which Hitchcock, um, reveals his secrets — at some length. Zinoman goes on and on about how the Simon-Oakland-played psychiatrist in Psycho “ruins” the film by explaining away Norman’s madness, referring to this sequence as the film’s “last scene,” and of course it is not; Psycho’s last scene is of Norman/Mother in custody, and it’s unsettling and hardly represents a “comfortable point of view,” as Zinoman insists Psycho finally does. And it goes on: “Hitchcock also had a teasing style that handled murder and crime with a dry sense of humor.” True that, but Psycho is one of his least jokey films, so to bring up this quality in connection with that film is stacking the deck. Zinoman never misses an opportunity to quote a “modern horror” master saying something deprecating about Hitchcock, and it doesn’t take long before it seems like beside-the-point piling on. He cites Herschell Gordon Lewis protesting that he thought Psycho “cheated.” Now Lewis is a delightful fellow and a great showman and all that, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna put aside the salt lick when contemplating film criticism from the director of Monster a-Go Go, which I have actually seen and hope Zinoman has too. We learn that a teenaged George Romero was put off by Hitchcock’s “chilly demeanor” on the set of North by Northwest, and hell, even if we’ve read The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, we’re like, “Enough already, we get it.”
And just as Biskind’s book had its misunderstood-genius-who-was-screwed-over-by-the-system-not-to-mention-his-so-called-friends in director Hal Ashby, so Shock Value has Dan O’Bannon, a film-school-and-beyond collaborator with John Carpenter who, after getting thrown off the boat by the focused and, we are to believe, ruthless future Halloween director, had a strong hand in the creation of arguably the best horror/sci-fi hybrid, Alien, before getting thrown off the picture, and went on to a rather more desultory career before his death in 2009, at age 63, of complications from Crohn’s disease. Not to speak ill of the dead, but O’Bannon’s filmography doesn’t testify as compellingly as Ashby’s did, and Zinoman does O’Bannon and said filmo a disservice by omitting from discussion one of his most beloved-among-horror-hardcore-types works, the script he co-wrote with Ronald Shusset for Gary Sherman’s still-awesome 1981 Dead & Buried.
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