About 25 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960), Janet Leigh - in an effort to escape her fate which we know will ultimately be fruitless - stops at a used car dealership. She has the idea of replacing her car to help cover her tracks.
A laid-back salesman emerges and they have a chat in front of his office, a building which appears to be made from painted brick. He shows her a car, one of those heavy 50's models we know so well from the boom years of American consumerism, all steel and chrome, leather seats and perhaps a wooden dashboard. In her anxiety she instantly agrees to buy it at the opening price he proposes, a response he's not used to and which immediately makes him suspicious. She goes into the small toilet and gets $700 from her handbag to pay for the car.
She drives away, her mind feverish with a combination of memories from the last 24 hours and scenes she is creating in her rising panic. In the background, strings repeat a simple, chilling refrain as day slips into evening and finally into a filthy black night. The poorly lit road becomes almost invisible beneath exaggerated washes of heavy rain. With relief she sees a neon sign advertising a motel, and she pulls off the road.
We don't see much of this motel until later in the film, when the now-deceased woman's sister has come with her boyfriend to try and discover what has happened to her. In daylight we can see the motel for what it is: a handmade building, perhaps made from white or yellow pine, with a shingle roof.
Watching this extraordinary film for the first time in 30 years, what struck me as much as the wonderful imagery and dark, brooding menace which pervades every frame is the know-ability of the surfaces and materials we encounter in every scene. Janet Leigh's woollen dress and heavy leather suitcase, the steel and brick, stone and concrete and wood from which the buildings and cars are made. Despite this era seeing the emergence of plastics and the modern chemistry that will inevitably lead, like Norman Bates to the shower curtain, to the proliferation of modern materials, I imagine that an educated person of the time would have a pretty good idea of the nature of almost everything that he or she would encounter in an average day. It is the last time that this will be the case.
I can't even name the stuff from which so much is made today. The stuff that touchscreens and electronics are made from. Whatever that stuff is that clads modern commercial buildings. That smooth shiny brightly coloured laminate that petrol stations and coffee chains use to create a brand identity. The grey stuff from which my van's dashboard is made. What's that? Exactly what is making the light when I turn on my new bike light? When I bought the light, I put a debit card into a slot in a grey box and entered four numbers. Although I could have done, I didn't take cloth banknotes from a leather wallet to make the transaction. Instead I accessed a bank's servers via a wireless modem. Or something. Don't press me on it. Modern materials are amazing, but part of that amazement is a product of their inscrutability.
One of the last common materials we still encounter in the modern world which we can truly know is wood. We may not know its species or even the continent from which it emerged, but we can, with little effort, imagine the environment from which the wood came. Until it became your chopping board or your chair (or your motel), the entire lifetime of the tree it was made from was spent in a large, quiet forest, surrounded by other trees and besieged on all sides by birds, insects, mammals and other vegetation. We know this, even if we don't consider it very often. I think this knowledge makes the presence of that wooden object in our lives calming and comforting, and I think it makes its presence more important than ever.
Have you ever walked into a house with more than the usual amount of solid timber in its fixtures and fittings - perhaps solid wooden floors, the furniture all made from solid wood, pictures in wooden frames on the walls - and felt something like an immediate inner sigh of pleasure and peace? I have, and I look for that feeling more and more as I move through the modern world. As we are besieged on all sides by the unknowable stuff of modern life, we must work harder to find the truly knowable, and to bring it into our lives.