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Hot Docs 2017 ’78/52′ Review: Welcome To Cinephile Nirvana

78/52 spends 91- minutes examining the significance of the infamous shower scene in the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Psycho.

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Staying dialed in to what’s relevant in pop culture is becoming a full-time commitment. 24-7 news cycles, peak TV, streaming services, a booming film industry, and social media have us sprinting on a popular culture treadmill. There aren’t enough minutes in the day to absorb every piece of info the universe hurls our way. Fortunately, films like 78/52 help us choose our battles by curating significant moments that demand our attention.

There are certain earth-shaking events that helped define the movies, TV, and music we enjoy today. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho, stands chief among them. Casual moviegoers can tell you that Psycho is a classic, but how many people can tell you why? 78/52‘s director, Alexandre O. Philippe is up to the task. 78/52‘s level of specificity sets it apart from other documentaries that focus on classic films. Philippe takes a deliciously pedantic 91-minute look at one particular sequence: Psycho‘s iconic shower scene. Aided by a series of experts, 78/52 unpacks that infamous scene and gives viewers the who, what, where, when, how, and why of one of cinema’s seminal moments.

Just as Jaws made people “afraid to go into the water,” Psycho had people locking their bathroom doors and sheepishly peeping behind shower curtains. Psycho wasn’t the first movie to depict a brutal murder, but it sent shocked audiences in a manner unlike any film before it. To help us understand why, Philippe goes back to the late 50’s and explores the era’s conservative state of filmmaking. For instance, shooting a scene in a bathroom was enough to put viewers on edge. TV and film refused to acknowledge that something as lowbrow as a toilet even existed. Having Psycho‘s “central character,” Marion Crane, dispose of some torn paper in a toilet bowl was a huge middle finger to “tasteful filmmaking.” As small as that detail is, it’s immensely significant. Hitchcock’s inclusion of a toilet created an era-specific unease that is lost on today’s audiences.

78/52 is loaded with knowledgeable actors, directors, and film aficionados who examine the shower scene from every conceivable angle. Guillermo del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich lend their expert insights as filmmakers, and legendary composer Danny Elfman shows up to discuss the impact of Psycho’s score. Even Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, chimes in with a personal story about how Psycho‘s legacy affected her own career. If you’re the type that buys Blu-rays for the director commentaries, then 78/52 is Christmas come early.

78/52’s interviewees are the best part of the film. They’re engaging storytellers who burst at the seams with passion as they share their considerable knowledge. In one instance, Elijah Wood and his cohorts sit crammed together on a couch. The group is literally on the edge of their seats, mouths agape as they run through a sports telecast-style breakdown of Psycho. There are several similar scenes in 78/52, where a speaker’s love of the material radiates off of the screen. If you’re a film buff, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement as giddy showbiz insiders drop anecdotal jewels.

The thing about 78/52 that makes it special is the same thing that holds it back from mainstream appeal: exploring cinematic minutiae. The film tosses out lots of dry technical details; terms like breaking the line and ADR get thrown around as if casual viewers know what they mean. At one point, the film breaks down a scene, literally frame-by-frame. These ultra-deep dives will get editors’ and cinematographers’ hearts racing, but will leave more than a few people wishing they could hit fast-forward.

Conclusion:

Cinema has existed for over 100-years and in 2017, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen it all. Between reality show cat-fights, 70’s exploitation films, and viral iPhone footage showing cops shooting citizens in the streets, we’re numb to the stories playing out on our screens. How are modern provocateurs supposed to shock us? Unless you were around for Psycho‘s initial run, it’s next to impossible to grasp what made the film so unsettling.

To fully grasp a piece of art, one must understand the social climate from which it arose, and this is where 78/52 shines. The film does a fantastic job explaining why Psycho‘s shower sequence sent shockwaves through the cultural zeitgeist. The film also excels at pointing out the scene’s influence, still rippling through pop culture today. 78/52‘s engaging speakers, with their anecdotal gems and deep critical analyses, will thrill cinephiles and entertain any viewer with even a passing interest in cinema. Anyone who would binge 13 Reasons Why before lining up for the latest Wes Anderson movie should probably sit this one out.

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    May 11, 2017 at 11:58 am

    So wait – they made an entire movie about one scene in another movie? I should make a documentary about the construction of the house and how it thematically links to all the characters.

    • Patrick

      May 11, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      Make a documentary about that awkward explanation scene at the end. Strange how long it goes on, as if Hitchcock was afraid audiences wouldn’t quite get it. Luckily the last shot was such a triumph.

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