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Sundance 2017: “78/52”

Editor's note: Walker King is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2017. 

It takes guts to make an entire movie about a scene from another movie, especially when it ends up running about 60 times the length of the original material, but that’s what Alexandre Philippe is attempting in “78/52,” a documentary about the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” that premiered at Sundance on Monday. Infectious in its love of cinematic history and theory, “78/52” is a breezy and enjoyable doc that should appeal even to people who’ve never seen its source text, which is partly due to the way “Psycho” has inescapably thrust itself into American culture. To hear “78/52” tell it, “Psycho” is more than just a great film, it’s practically the ur-text of modern cultural discourse on topics from sex and violence in America to storytelling structure and film editing. And maybe if these societal conclusions come off as slightly stretched, he makes at least one case very, very, well: it’s a really great scene.

Considering that the murder of Marion Crane is so far beyond famous it’s practically popular myth, its impressive how much new information and analysis Philippe manages to shake loose. Enough people know that the blood in the shower scene is chocolate syrup for it to function as a gag in Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” but did you know that the sound effect for the stabbing is a knife hacking apart a cassava melon? Or that the painting Norman takes off the wall to spy on Marion is of a classical theme about a young woman being spied on bathing by lecherous old men?

Philippe has help from a cadre of talking heads amusing in their diversity. This is likely the only film to feature contributions from Danny Elfman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bret Easton Ellis. The real hero of the movie is the storied film editor Walter Murch, most known for his work on “Apocalypse Now” and “The Conversation,” who practically takes over when the film gets to down to the nitty gritty of each cut and framing in the scene.

“78/52” bills itself as the world’s first documentary about a single scene, but that’s a slight exaggeration. The first half of the film sets up the state of American culture and Hitchcock’s career at the close of the ‘50s, and while less interesting than the later shot-by-shot analysis, only marginally so. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity for a more avant-garde take on Hitchcock—something more film essay than documentary. "Psycho," chopped and screwed.

While “78/52” is highly enjoyable for film geeks, two events from the film’s midnight premiere stuck out as especially interesting. The first is the attendance of the one-time Playboy bunny, dancer, model, and most relevantly, Janet Leigh’s body-double: the amazing Marli Renfro, who’s also featured in the film. Since every shot in the scene without Janet Leigh’s face is Renfro, she’s an indelible part of the scene, and therefore of movie history. Having her at the screening to speak was an incredible experience, and she quickly took over the question and answer portion with anecdotes about working with Alfred Hitchcock (he had a large tent on set he would retreat to after every shot, sometimes for hours) and her overall fascinating life (one story necessitated a brief aside about her experiences as a nudist). I ran into her a day later and she regaled me with even more stories about living in Miami, New York, and Nichols Canyon (one canyon over from Laurel) throughout the ‘60s. A truly fascinating woman, she’d be an excellent subject for a film of her own.

The second was that by pure-happenstance I happened to sit next to two people instrumental in the making of “78/52,” John and Cindy Holley, who graciously lent their bathroom to Phillippe to use for re-enacting the scene after he put a call out for a backroom that “looked ‘50s.” The two had known the filmmaker for some time after meeting him through screenwriting classes in Denver, where Phillippe is based. While the two often watch movies with Phillippe, it can occasionally be a frustrating experience as the director frequently pauses to comment on the filmmaking. “We watched 'No Country for Old Men.' With Alexandre, a two-hour movie takes four hours,” John said. It was a nifty reminder of the kinds of communities that spring up everywhere and make independent filmmaking possible, especially outside the hubs of Los Angeles and New York. Though it was somewhat surprising when I learned that, even after all this, John has still never seen “Psycho.”

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