By Anthony Stoeckert
You might have seen “Psycho” before, but have you ever watched it with a psychiatrist?
Well, now you have a chance to see a great movie and gain some insight into the psychiatric theory behind it when the Princeton Garden Theatre presents a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, hosted by Dr. Anthony Tobia, a professor at Rutgers University.
The April 27 screening is part of the Garden Theatre’s “Prof Picks” series, where professors from area universities select a film to show and discuss with the audience.
In “Psycho,” Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), steals a large amount of cash from her employer, so that she can start a new life with her lover Sam (played by John Gavin). She takes a break from her long drive for a stay at the Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, and listens to him talk about his relationship with his mother. I’ll stop there in order to avoid any 56-year-old spoilers, but Dr. Tobia notes there are plenty of psychiatric-related themes to discuss in “Psycho.” He will talk about the movie beforehand, and host a Q-and-A after it’s finished.
”First, you have the theme of mental disorder, you have a discussion of a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, and (the opportunity to) discuss that in the context of what is referred to as dissociative identity disorder, which is known as multiple personality disorder,” Dr. Tobia said. “You have some potential voyeurism, because Norman Bates actually looks at Jennifer Leigh’s character through a peep hole.”
There are also some pretty fascinating family dynamic issues in regard to Norman and his mother. Dr. Tobia also wants to talk about real-life serial killer Ed Gein, the basis for Norman, and also the killers in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “Silence of the Lambs.” Gein’s case led to theories on schizophrenia and the psychological condition known as “double bind,” so there is some historical psychological theory to review as well.
Audience members also can discuss the film via Twitter as it’s being shown. People sitting in the last five rows will be allowed to contribute to a discussion of the movie via a Twitter hashtag. Dr. Tobia said Tweeting during a movie can be an adjustment, but that it starts to feel natural after about half an hour.
”You put a Tweet up there, someone answers you and all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of a discussion,” he said. “And 99.9 percent of the time, we are held up after the movie with people gathering around telling us how innovative, how interesting, how exciting, and (asking), ‘When’s the next film?’”
Mr. Tobia, who lives in South Brunswick, found out about the Prof Picks series last year when he and his wife saw “North by Northwest” at the Garden. Prior to the movie, the manager talked about some upcoming programming coming to the theater, including the Prof Picks series. Dr. Tobias was interested and told his wife that after he wanted to talk to the manager about hosting a screening when “North by Northwest” finished.
”My wife knew that I wouldn’t pay attention to the movie, and that I’d be fidgeting in my seat all night if I didn’t talk to this guy right now,” he said. “As the opening credits started, I ran out of the theater to find him.”
His program at the Garden will be similar to classes he teaches at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Mr. Tobia is a movie buff and began incorporating films into his class work in 2009 when he assigned films for his student to watch, and then the lecture would incorporate the film.
That led to a class called REDRUM. In that class, students watch a horror film together, and discuss the movie as they watch by contributing to a Twitter feed that is shown during the film. The class’ name is a nod to “The Shining” and stands for “Reviewing Mental Disorders With a Reverent Understanding of the Macabre.”
That led to another class where students watch a film, not necessarily a horror film, and conduct a live discussion via Twitter during the screening. During Dr. Tobia’s classes, the Twitter feed is projected under the movie, but that won’t be happening during the “Psycho” screening at the Garden so as not to distract viewers who don’t want to participate in the discussion.
During his classroom screening, Dr. Tobia’s students analyze characters as if they are real people, and talk about the film’s approach to psychiatry.
”They do start out approaching the movie like a fictional case study but the major focus of our course is to point out where there are discrepancies, where the movie itself derails from the medical model,” he said. “And there’s discussion as to what the correct trait or symptoms would be if, for instance, the writer-director had contacted a psychiatrist prior to making the film.”
Dr. Tobia said he got his first taste of analyzing fictional characters in his freshman year at Lehigh when he discussed “Frankenstein” according to Jungian theory in a mythology course. The real turning point came during his first year of residency training at West Virginia University, where he met a professor who was not only a doctor but had a joint appointment at the university’s school of art and drama. The professor would host movie nights with residents and medical students, and Dr. Tobia and his wife went to a screening of “Alien.” After the movie, the professor talked about how Alien was about sibling rivalry.
”I was really surprised, I didn’t know what to think,” Dr. Tobia said. “My wife and I actually disagreed, I thought he was looking way too deep into this film and was seeing things nobody else was seeing.”
But he went back and enjoyed the discussions.
”I began to know more and more about psychiatry, and that’s where it took tread and ultimately I thought to bring a curriculum like that back to my home state, and that’s what I’ve been able to do at Rutgers.”
He said his students gain real insights through these fictional images on screen.
”They point out a lot of things, defense mechanisms, different kinds of dynamics between people and groups of people and of course specific symptoms that may relate or remind of conditions like depressions, psychosis, drug use, etc.,” Dr. Tobia said. “Everything is on the table.”
He also reminds students that these Twitter feeds are open to the public, and that the discussions need to be kept professional because the students are representing Rutgers and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
”They do a tremendous job bringing up different questions helping facilitate a discussion during the two hours of the film,” he said.
When asked if, as a movie lover, he can set aside his analytical instincts when he goes out for a night at the movies, Dr. Tobia said he could, but the analysis comes naturally. And he continues to gain new insights when he goes to the movies.
”I often leave a movie, and tell my wife that she has to drive home,” he says, “because I have to put all the thoughts that I’ve conjured up during the movie into my iPhone so I can save them and put them into a Power Point presentation the very next day… There is not a movie I get out of where I can’t pull something that I believe is a teachable moment for either my residents or my medical students.”
The Princeton Garden Theatre’s Prof Picks presentation of “Psycho” will take place April 27 at 7:30 p.m. For information, go to princetongardentheatre.org, or call 609-279-1999.
By Anthony Stoeckert