Chelsea native Phil Skerry is no psycho, but he can certainly talk about any aspect of ‘Psycho’ and the methods of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
This coming Friday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m., Skerry will discuss and sign his second Hitchcock-themed book, ‘Dark Energy: Hitchcock’s Absolute Camera and the Physics of Cinematic Space-Time.’
His most recent book follows another title he completed a few years back about Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in the movie ‘Psycho.’ That book was called, ‘Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene.’
He said his latest book is an attempt to look at the way Hitchcock uses the camera to unite art and science.
“There is a physicist who talked about the two cultures of science and the humanities,” said Skerry. “He said that those two cultures don’t talk. In this book, I’m trying to see if they can talk. I wanted to see if I could bring together art – movies – and science so that one is co-existing with the other. I rolled with that and found all kinds of interesting things, I think.”
Skerry grew up on lower Broadway in the height of the cinema age, watching movies in old Chelsea theaters like the Strand in Bellingham Square and the Olympia on lower Broadway.
That, he said, is where he grew to love the movies and wanted to know more about how they were made and the thought behind them.
“My love of movies and what drove me to write these books came about going to the movies all the time in Chelsea as a kid,” Skerry said. “We would go to family films, Saturday matinees and the B-movies. It didn’t cost anything in those days. We didn’t have money, but we could afford to go to the movies and get a popcorn.”
And so Skerry – a 1962 graduate of Chelsea High School and a retired Emeritus Professor at Lakeland Community College in Ohio – grew up on film.
He became hooked with ‘Psycho,’ watching it with his friend Ralph Spinnelli in 1960 at the old Olympia Theatre.
He said the movie changed everything.
First of all, it pushed the envelope on everything, and it also did small things like make you arrive on time.
“I have to say that watching that movie was a seminal experience in my life,” he said. “It hounded me constantly. It was dormant for a long time, but I always thought of it. Seeing Janet Lee when I was 16 in her slip and then naked in the shower and killed by a knife-wielding maniac right before your eyes – that was very shocking then. We’re immune to those shocks now, I think, but back then people were mesmerized. They screamed in the audience all around me and it really affected people to see that scene.
“It even changed how people attended movies because Hitchcock had demanded that people show up on time for ‘Psycho’ or they wouldn’t be let in,” he continued. “You had to be on time for the movie. That was unheard of.”
After attending college at UMass-Amherst and doing post-graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Skerry became an English professor and pioneered the discipline of film study in his department.
Years later, that continued professional study and his experiences in Chelsea, propelled him to write the ‘Psycho’ book – which was well received. Wanting to expand on it, he decided to look closer at Hitchcock’s camera techniques – which were innovative, mysterious and scientific.
Uniting the theory of ‘Dark Energy’ in the universe – energy that exists but is not seen – he attacked the camera work of Hitchcock, another energy that certainly existed, but was never seen by movie-goers.
After pitching the idea to his publisher, claiming he could address Hitchcock’s “absolute camera,” he didn’t hold high expectations for the project.
However, the publisher believed in the idea and Skerry was suddenly having to learn about science – that other culture that English professors don’t tend to talk with.
“I got the contract and I said, ‘Oh my, what did I just get myself into?'” he said. “I knew nothing about physics. I took an astronomy course at UMass and got a ‘C.’ So, there I am with a contract for a book where I have to go in depth about physics and Hitchcock. I spent a lot of sleepless night contemplating what to do.”
What he ended up doing was learning a great deal about physics very quickly, particularly through interviews with some of the leading physicists in the country.
That crash course turned out to uncover a wealth of information that made the 200-page book a great read.
“I found some very interesting parallels between Hitchcock and Einstein, believe it or not,” he said.
One of the more accessible parallels is the love of trains that the two had.
Einstein used trains in his theory of relativity to show the space-time relationship.
Hitchcock used trains to suspend time and limit space in some of his most popular films.
“Really, film is the perfect embodiment of that idea of space-time,” he said. “A strip of film is the perfect example of space and time together.”
Skerry will expand on that idea and many others related to Hitchcock and his filmmaking this Friday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m. in the Chelsea Public Library. Don’t miss it.