Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Master Class
Tremble With Fear/Quiver with Love

I've done a LOT of writing about Alfred Hitchcock. I've seen all of the movies that anyone could see (the remaining ones from the silent era, if completed, may show up smoking in a warehouse somewhere) and written about them extensively.

So, I've been very much anticipating Kent Jones' documentary about one of the "bibles" of film makers and scholars, Francois Truffaut's "Hitchcock/Truffaut," which was published in 1966. It was the result of Truffaut's week-long interview with the director in 1962, and featured analyses of each film focusing on major themes and craft and was liberally illustrated with screen-shots of the films, sometimes even showing Hitchcock's elaborate cutting schemes for key sequences. At the time of the interview, Truffaut was 30 years old and had made three films. Hitchcock was 63 and would only make three more films. One was just starting his career and the other winding down, and Truffaut's intent was to do a scholarly work to rescue Hitchcock from a reputation as a brand-name creator of popular entertainment and show him to be a film artist of the highest caliber. And to shame American film critics for neglecting what they had right under their noses.

I bought my copy in 1974 at the University Book Store in Seattle, which had a good, if sparse, film section at the time—if a new book hit the shelves, it was immediately noticed. I still have it, now yellowed and a little brittle, scuffed and dog-eared. And it is one of the few books that I've carried through moves and marriages. It is indispensible. I've also listened to the interviews—they're available online—and have been amused at where the translation fails and where the measured script of the text in Truffaut's book does not show the moods of Hitchcock during the process—mostly engaged, sometimes sad, at times peeved, sometimes bored or perplexed where Truffaut was going with questions and analyses. Also, like outtakes, it's interesting (and sometimes telling) what was left out.
The book of the films is now a film of the book of the films, with film scholar Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut, which is a good primer on the book and does a nice job of collating interviews with many prominent film-makers about the influence the book had on their understanding of film (via Hitchcock) and their subsequent careers—Wes Anderson says his copy is now just a stack of pages held together with a rubber band. The film is a nice collage of remembrances by Truffaut, snippets of the interview itself, augmented by generous segments of illustrative film and a large dose of talking white guys weighing in on their own theories, some of which might be valid, but usually revealing more about the theorist than the subject.
James Gray says that there is no reverse angle on this shot, because the most
important elements from the observer's POV is the curl in the woman's hair
in real life and the painting.
As I said, I was anticipating this one and looking forward to it with great enthusiasm.

In fact, probably too much. It might be fascinating if you've never heard of the book or knew that it existed, and it's a nice little distillation of Hitchcock's career (as well as Truffaut's) and touches on the major themes that influenced The Master—his Catholicism, his exploitation of fears, use of color and architecture, the delicacy in finding the most illustrative and emotive angle (no matter what the actor was doing, acting) and matching it with the next, his dependence on film craft to the forsaking of performance and its nuances, and his focus on the audience and how they would respond in the acting of seeing and reacting.

Peter Bogdanovich says that on this shot, audiences could no longer be complacent
and "going to the cinema became dangerous,"

There's a lovely little section of tape where Hitchcock explains why "logic is dull," which is tied up with his artist's desire to surprise his audience, to one-up their sophistication of "I know what will happen next..." "My reply should be "Do you?" The puckish contempt in Hitchcock's voice at that point is lovely.

Moments like that made it worth seeing, but I found it slim. A highlights reel with extra emphasis in the later stages on Vertigo and Psycho, masterpieces of one sort or the other, as high art or manipulation—with Hitchcock, the two were part and parcel (it's just that he was so singularly GOOD at it). A digest for mass-audiences to absorb easily and without offense.
Gray considers this "the most important shot in motion picture history."
Don't get me wrong, it is good that it was made. Hitchcock, with his daughter Pat out of commission to protect his reputation, has taken quite some hits lately, mostly on the gossipy side, with attempts to tarnish and sully in broad strokes in mass entertainment (his favorite weapon). It was about time somebody came out and said "you can speculate all you want about the man, but look what he produced." There was a stringent discipline there in technique, a precision in craft. That he produced them out of his recognition of his frailties and being so attuned to them is rather amazing. For a man who exploited his own fears, he was, in many ways, quite fearless in using them.
I should face it, I wouldn't be happy unless there was a 12-part series, along the lines of "Cosmos," going over Hitchcock's career. He did, after all, create his own filmic Universe and attuned us to its idiosyncracies and peculiarities. He was a great communicator, sharing our knowledge and taking advantage of it. He was also (and this isn't mentioned in the movie except in example) just fun. Inventive to the extreme (and when some claim "typical Hitchcock" to his movies, they're not saying that it's atypically more sophisticated than most film technique), with an eye toward humor even in the worst circumstances, even a "bad" Hitchcock film is a jolly ride, even when it invites us to stare into the abyss. Even though the term "thriller" evokes a generic response, the films of Hitchcock still thrill, either by content or technique, which ever suits your fancy. 
James S. Wilson thinks this shot is emblematic of Hitchcock's innate desire
to satisfy audience's requirements in entertainment (half-jokingly)

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