Sunday, March 15, 2009

And speaking of psychopaths... (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley & Films - Psycho)

It is fascinating to watch Patricia Highsmith not merely illustrate the sociopathy of the talented Tom Ripley, but to sow the seeds of what she believes is its underpinnings. Ripley's parents are killed early in his childhood and he is raised by an Aunt who is happy to spend the insurance money but is hardly interested in having a son. He spends his childhood isolated from other children, and berated and mocked by his aunt. Interestingly, the process of diagnosing antisocial personality disorder means distinguishing those who display traits such as disregard for others and social norms, lack of remorse, and so on as a protective measure against their circumstances from those who, shall we say, came that way. Tom's disregard for others seems to be balanced by an equally tremendous regard for himself - it would be easy to look at Tom Ripley as a sort of black-hole-person - a negative space where a personality ought to be - who keeps slurping up the names and personalities of others, but Highsmith is careful to give you glimpses of the dregs of person that survives in the corpse of his personality.
A cap was the most versatile of headgear, he thought, and he wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, A Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thouroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, thought. The cap changed all that.
Wow, one cap and it's all gone. So much for psychotherapists, medication and all that nonsense. I think perhaps we should tell the insurance industry about caps - it would save us all so much time and trouble. With one size fits all, anyone could rid themselves of years of damaging pschological history with a one-time purchase. Tom is a fascinating combination of ingeniously creative and terribly shallow. Creative enough to hatch complex and manical plans to support himself, shallow enough to only see these alternatives as a means of doing so.

At one point, Dickie, the young man he is supposed to return to the bosom of his wealthy family, asks Tom what he can do. Tom answers:
'Oh, I can do a number of things - valeting, baby-sitting, accounting - I've got an unfortunate talent for figures. No matter how drunk I get, I can always tell when a waiter's cheating me on a bill. I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impresonate practically anybody, cook - and do a one-man show in a nightclub in case the regular entertainer's sick. Shall I go on?' Tom was leaning forward, counting them off on his fingers. He could have gone on.

A veritable Figaro. A man empty enough to be filled is what Tom looks like at first glance, but really he is so full of a sense of worthlessness it makes him desperate to matter deeply to someone. He's not no one. But he's not someone to anyone else, just to himself. At root he seems to feel so deeply wronged that nothing can redress the balance. Speaking of psychopaths, we had gotten Hitchcock's Psycho out of the library and watched it (again) last night. Another wounded boy deserted by his parents who method of righting his wrongs goes just a little haywire. Anthony Perkins is frighteningly good as the motelier Norman Bates, not for showing us his madness but rather his sanity. The creeping sense of menace comes from this sense of ordinary, happy-go-luck charm that unravels so subtly. Norman is slowly trapped into recognizing the elaborate lengths he has gone to not to be alone, but as the pressure starts you merely see him push his hands a little deeper into the pockets of his courderoys. Just a flash of disturbance crosses his face before it is smoothed over by the warm appealing sense of understanding Norman shows the world. Even in discovering the body after the first murder, Perkins and Hitchcock allow us barely a moment to indulge Norman's emotions before he packs it all away and cleans up his world. Makes it right again. When Norman tries to dispose of the car in the swamp, watch Perkins face register the car, first as it refuses to sink and then as it finally does. If we had to watch another actor play that scene, it would have been a Wagnerian opera of facial expressions. It is also interesting to observe his vocal production style in the film, so different from the rapid-fire, sing-song stylized delivery of most 1950s film-actors. Perkins speaks in the film like a regular young person of his day. Another way they establish his ordinaryness.

It is interesting to observe these two products of the late 1950s, that laced-up era in which much of American society was focused on fighting the insidious threat it saw in communism. It is as though this literary sociopathy might have been a way of expressing this sense of being frightened and alone in the world while the role we assumed was one of tremendous power and squeaky-clean goodness.

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