What do these three have in common? They all turned fifty this year! Or, more accurately, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho turned fifty. While the Jefferson Market Library (in 1960, a defunct courthouse) was built in 1876, the clock had been frozen for years at 2:40. But in 1960, through the intense work of local Greenwich Village advocates, the clock started marking the time again.
Photo by cuttlefish on FlickrBecause of the fifty year milestone these three disparate things have been on my mind lately. Though they each have virtually nothing to do with eachother they do have a unifying theme: they illustrate how a true work of art—a book, a movie, an architectural landmark—can change meaning through time and yield previously unseen facets from its talented depths.
I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird until very recently. I could not believe how fresh, articulate and boisterous it was! I had heard so much about Scout and Atticus Finch—and I will revere the defiant, narrow-eyed clarity of Scout's narrative voice and the formal, unwavering humanity of Atticus until the day I die—but I was surprised to find a touching individual in the character of Scout's brother Jem.
Phillip Alford as Jem Finch in the movie version
At one point, Atticus crack shoots a rabid dog and Scout and Jem discover that their father is an expert marksman. Scout is rapturous and cannot wait to brag about it all over school the next day. Jem responds, “Don't say anything about it, Scout." He reckons that if Atticus had wanted them to know this fact about him, if Atticus was proud of this particular skill—he would have told his children. Through his observations of his father Jem is beginning to articulate for himself what it is to be a good person. He uniquely sees his father's consistent sense of justice as far more beguiling than his ability to shoot a gun. The book continues:
“'Naw, Scout, it's something you wouldn't understand…I wouldn't care if (Atticus) couldn't do anything—I wouldn't care if he couldn't do a blessed thing.'
Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back: 'Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!'"
The movie Psycho has always been (and will continue to be) a thrilling nightmare of slashing knives, screeching shower curtains and stuttering mummified corpses. After seeing it again recently, I found myself compassionately absorbed in the first half of the movie, before the murder. We are virtually alone with the character of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) as she impulsively steals money to try and pull herself out of a life that seems to be at a dead end. We are privy to her thoughts and see her as close-up as a family member sitting across the dinner table. Marion is a good person, we see, who has made a rash—and illegal—choice. Her flight with the money leads her to the Bates Motel and to a late night dinner with the young proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). There they talk, obliquely, of the “private traps" they are in: Marion, of her hopeful, mistaken and solitary pilgrimage to a better life and Norman, very much alone and conflicted about his mother. They are two lonely, quietly anxious people sharing things they have never shared with another before.
Janet Leigh as Marion Crane
The film critic David Thomson, in his excellent study of Psycho (The Moment of Psycho) picked up on this facet of the film, “In the last analysis, that loneliness is more interesting in Psycho, and more pioneering, than the violence, the sex or the terrific assertion of "'pure' cinema."
So it has been fifty years and these works of art continue to offer fresh surprises through the sheer artistry of their genius. Fifty years ago the Jefferson Market Courthouse was threatened with demolition. It was only through the tenacious advocacy of the community that the building was saved. The activists knew that if they started with a “small" project like getting the clock started, it was only another step to saving the building itself. And so a library was born! And the building, because of its unique beauty and its housing of all our society has to offer, will continue, hopefully—like those other works of art—to inspire and strengthen and advance all who partake of it.
@1960_Is_50 on Twitter
New York Times (1851-2007) w/ Index (1851-1993)