My Year in Film Studies (part 6)
If you missed part 5, you can find it here.
Stanley Kubrick Meets Alfred Hitchcock As We Stay Immersed in the Auteur Theory
And so now came the decision of whether or not the study of the auteur theory could be put to rest solely on the evidence of the ouevre of Kubrick. Much as I love SK, it felt like I would be short changing the students if his feature film work was the only evidence we had to go on. So the next decision had to be: Who's Next? And Why?
For a number of reasons, of which I will state the three most salient, I settled upon Alfred Hitchcock. One, there is a wealth of scholarship to draw on, including a lot of horse's mouth stuff as Hitch never seemed to tire of talking about his work. Two, he's very accessible, and after the challenges presented by some of Kubrick's work, I figured that might be welcome. And three, Psycho had been pretty well received, so his work had already been "broken in." Furthermore, there is something of a natural bridge between these two seemingly very different filmmakers. That is, both Hitch and Kubrick have been described as "cold" directors whose meticulous attention to detail is the stuff of renown. However, while their overlapping cool-ness relates almost entirely to the relative asexuality of each man's work, I will argue that there is much more that separates them than unites them.
While the two men's films share a common attention of detail borne out of type A need for complete control, that hardly distinguishes them from hundreds of other filmmakers. Furthermore, as I will show, there are ways that their approaches differ in this regard as well. For example, Hitchcock considered his work pretty much done by the time he set foot on a film set. He had worked the film out so thoroughly, from script to set and production design, from
storyboarding to casting, that the process of turning the film in his head into actual celluloid was almost tedious--an afterthought, if you will. Kubrick, on the other hand, while equally dedicated to the preparation process, being a notorious researcher who would spend years, if not decades, digging into subject matter that fascinated him, was not so rigid when it came to the making of film. Kubrick believed that the real art of film was in the editing process. Scriptwriting was borrowed from other arts (theatre, fiction writing), acting predated cinema by thousands of years, and even cinematography was a direct descendant of photography, whereas editing was the one are unique to film, and the one realm where filmmakers could exercise their artistic vision in unique and memorable ways. In order to give himself as many options as possible in this phase of the creative process, Kubrick would film scenes many different times, sometimes using multiple camera angles, and other times varying the instructions he gave to the actors.
Likewise, these two director's bloodlessness hints at types and levels of WASP-y repression that would be familiar to students of the work of many directors from this era. And even in this, they are not entirely alike. Hitchcock's coolness reflects his own behaviouralist approach to film, whereas the chill that falls upon Kubrick has much more to do with the sort of intellectual detachment that distinguishes his work. Put bluntly, for Hitchcock film is a Skinnerian box, wherein the audience is to be entertained through sensory manipulation. Rather than challenging us intellectually, Hitch is satisfied with pushing our metaphorical emotional buttons. Kubrick, on the other hand, is a product of an Enlightenment era-style rational curiousity about the universe and man's place in it. To state it perhaps a bit over simplistically, Kubrick ascribed "human" emotions to and applied "human" motivations a computer, whereas Hitchcock treated people like mice. Whereas Kubrick was interested in the social, political and ethical implications of a government employing the the Lodovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange, Hitchcock was simply interested in how the damned thing would work.
Stanley Kubrick aimed for relevance and insight in his films; sometimes his reach exceeded his grasp (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut), but he would have never been content with merely entertaining his audience. Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, rarely strayed outside of his self-made Skinner's box, giving the audience exactly what they wanted on most occassions. This became a prison of sorts, as we will see, for when he did attempt to say something more personal, to challenge his audience's preconceptions, as he did in Vertigo, the films were not box office successes.
Vertigo (1958, USA, Alfred Hitchcock) and Rear Window (1954, USA, Hitchcock)
So, with all that as a weird kind of caveat, the Hitchcock movie I chose to study next as we wandered further down auteur lane was the nearly surreal psychological thriller Vertigo, which was followed immediately on the heels by the taut murder mystery/thriller Rear Window. Vertigo is probably Hitch's most personal and in many ways most psychologically disturbing film, but as we will see, there appear to be early hints of Vertigo's obsessions in Rear Window. Stylistically Vertigo and Rear Window are both very similar to most of Hitch's Hollywood-era films (which makes them a good choice for auteur study), while also continuing many of the themes that those familiar with Hitch's films will immediately recognize.
There is something startling and distinctive about Vertigo (in particular.) It is a film that makes many of Hitch's fans, who are legion, very uncomfortable. The protagonist, police detective John "Scotty" Ferguson, played by Hitch favourite Jimmy Stewart, is not terrible heroic (he fails to catch the bad guy in the opening scene, and his slip up costs the life of a colleague), and in the end not even terribly competent (he is easily duped by a former college buddy into becoming an unwitting accessory to murder, a crime made possible by his deep psychological and physiological defects.) Furthermore, by film's end, he's not even particularly likeable, as his obsession with the entirely fictional and self-made Madeleine (Kim Novak) leads him to slip into near-psychotic behaviour.
No, this man Scotty is certainly not your standard Hitchcockian hero, in either thought or action. So, what is he doing at the centre of this Hitchcock film? The answer must lie somewhere in the notion that this is a deeply personal film for Hitchcock, and that Scotty's neuroses and obsessions are intended to stand in for those of the master of suspense himself. Scotty becomes smitten with the sort of woman who can be seen in so many Hitchcock films. In keeping with the focus of this essay upon Vertigo and Rear Window, look at the similarities between the female leads in both films. The icy blonde. Cool. Distant. Detached. Aloof. Unattainable. Troubled. Sexy without being necessarily sexual. Further, add to this how both films provide evidence of Hitchcock's familiar obsessions with voyeurism (Rear Window, Psycho) and the male gaze (see: Laura Mulvey) as well as the attendant (Catholic) guilt and drive to violence and/or control that attends the resultant arousal. Also jumping to the fore, in the form of the character(s) of Madeleine/Judy are the topics of mistaken identity and the doppelganger effect, previously seen in The Wrong Man. They are also lurking around the edges of Rear Window in the film's casual examination of the dual nature of men and women (can Grace Kelly's Lisa, a bon vivant New York sophisticate, be at home in the rough and tumble world of photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, again played by Hitch favourite Jimmy Stewart?)
Both films also consider the impossibility of the male-female relationship, though Rear Window is considerably lighter in that regard, ending as it does on an ambiguously optimistic note. People, and women in particular, are not who they seem to be, and all that mask wearing makes permanent happiness between the sexes extremely unlikely. Further, the leads in both films are seen as emasculated in this brave new world. Jeff (broken leg) and Scotty (vertigo) are damaged goods, reliant upon and yet intimidated and confused by women. Here Hitch seems to be tapping into a familiar theme of the day, one which runs throughout most of the best noir of the period, gender confusion surrounding the role of men and women in this post-war era, which helped to create one of noir's most distinctive attributes, the femme fatale. The similarities between the treatment of women in these two films ends there, however, as Rear Window's Lisa finds a way to bridge the gap between genders as the film aims towards happy ending where the status quo in the form of the lead's coupling is affirmed, whereas Vertigo's tragic, open-ended finale refuses to allow the possibility of rapprochement of the sexes, and points to the male lead's desolation, not to mention permanent isolation and alientation. And it precisely in this that Vertigo distinguishes itself (in much the same way as Psycho would two years later) in Hitchcock's canon. In Hitch's estimation, there is no real hope for a happy solution to the gender question in a world where men are losing their masculinity to women.
First off, I seem to have argued against myself here a bit, in that it appears that Hitchcock does have something to say about the world, however cynical and despairing it may be. But it is precisely because Vertigo is unique in the Hitchcock canon that I made the original argument. The film is an anomaly in a career primarily dedicated to entertaining the audience, rather than challenging them. There is little doubt that Hitchcock is a master technician, and we spent significant time over the course of the viewing of these two films examining the man's virtuosity with camera. His effortless manipulation of both montage and the extended take alone is worth significant study. And his films have an undeniable familiarity, and similarity of style and substance, that provides a ready entry into the study of the auteur theory. So, reasons aplenty to view the study of Hitchcock's films as a success.
And yet, I am unsatisfied with this choice. As much as I enjoy his films in a theme park ride kind of way, I feel Hitch's work lacks depth and significance. The students liked these films well enough, scoring a little below 4/5, they also sensed a lack of seriousness in the man, and given we had just watched two films by Kubrick this is not terribly surprising. The films rated in the lower quarter of the twenty films we watched over the course of the school year.
What I would do differently:
I will have to look closely at this unit next year to determine who might take the large man's place, for while I want to challenge students, I don't want to baffle them either (so, alas, Tarkovsky is unlikely to rear his head at this point.) Perhaps some crowd pleasing Kurosawa (some of his samurai films?) will do the trick. I'm happy to take suggestions.
Overall Grade: B minus
Next up in Part 7: Kurosawa's Rashomon and Truffault's 400 Blows