REVIEW: Hitchcock/Truffaut

12 12 2015

Hitchcock:TruffautThough Kent Jones’ documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” may bear the name of two deceased titans of the cinema, but make no mistake about it: this film is focused on those still living and producing vital work.

Of course, the consummate critic and historian Jones does present the the subject in more than sufficient detail. French New Wave founding father Francois Truffaut idolized the British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, whose work was popular yet not necessarily given much clout as art. Truffaut set out to prove it was just that in a series of conversations with the Master of Suspense, which he later transcribed into “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The book became a seminal text in the field of film studies and, as Martin Scorsese personally attests in the documentary, inspired the next generation of filmmakers.

In recounting the making of the book and the influence which it exerted, Jones himself crafts a documentary likely to be studied as often as “Visions of Light.” (That reference means everything to anyone who has taken an Intro to Film class and nothing to everyone else, by the way.) “Hitchcock/Truffaut” provides an excellent primer on auteurist theory while also delving into Freudian, historical and economically determinist readings of Hitchcock’s work. If any of this sounds complex, it all feels effortless to understand when explained by today’s masters David Fincher or Wes Anderson.

The most exciting moments of the documentary come from hearing these contemporary filmmakers delving into the theoretical questions raised in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation. Plenty of times, these directors have to answer questions about the influence of cinema’s giants, but it is usually only in conjunction with how it manifests in their latest film. Here, people like Richard Linklater and James Gray, two directors who rarely make films that resemble Hitchcock’s suspenseful thrillers, can talk about the surprising ways in which his work and his methods affected the way they understand their own work.

This kind of in-depth discussion gives “Hitchcock/Truffaut” a profundity far beyond the sound bites we normally get from filmmakers on a press tour. At times, Jones seems to lose sight of the original conversation in favor of letting Scorsese geek out over “Psycho,” but these joyful nuggets prove his point that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s dialogue is one still worth studying. This celebrated past has clearly exerted its influence in the present, and now, thanks somewhat in part to this documentary, it will continue doing so in the future. A-3halfstars

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s On Cinema

20 01 2015

On October 4, 2014, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a talk where Paul Thomas Anderson elaborated on his inspirations and influences.  His knowledge and love of cinema shone brightly, leaving me quite rejuvenated in the power of the medium.  Basically, he would be the best film professor EVER.  Here are some highlights from that session.

Part 1

The program unfolded largely based on discussions following clips selected by Paul Thomas Anderson and, presumptively, moderator Kent Jones.  He began with an opening from “Police Squad,” a television show from the 1980s.  Not the first thing I associated with the director of “The Master,” I’ll be honest.

I knew the team behind “Police Squad” mostly for their inane “Scary Movie” installments, but I actually explored the older Abrahams-Zucker comedy on Netflix via “The Naked Gun” films.  Now I see where Anderson comes from when he descirbed the serious “hilarious, brilliant” and that it “doesn’t get any better.”

He rediscovered the joy of the show while watching videos on YouTube during smoke breaks, reminded how much the humor was ahead of its time.  Moreover, it made him remember that anything is possible.  That kind of energy plays out clearly in “Inherent Vice,” whether its Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot Bjornsen fellating a chocolate banana or Martin Short’s Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd doing lines of cocaine.  The gags are silly, but they are always clever.

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All About “Amour” on Either Side of the “Window”

20 08 2013

The following piece was written for Dr. Mary Dalton‘s Film Theory and Criticism in spring 2013.

SPOILER ALERT: The following post discusses major plot points in both Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”

What do an American film from the 1950s about a cooped up reporter and a French film from 2012 about a woman dying slowly from a debilitating stroke have in common?  While “Rear Window” and “Amour” seem to be an extremely unlikely pair, they explore common themes of love in confined spaces.  Both films take place almost entirely within a single apartment, although Alfred Hitchcock’s classic focuses mostly on the action outside the window while Michael Haneke chooses to keep his camera focused on what happens inside the window to the outside world.  Yet in spite of their different emphases, both filmmakers come the conclusion that couples must turn their sights inward in order to fully realize their love for each other.  Through forced identification, Hitchcock and Haneke’s films powerfully convey the dangers that come along with spectatorship.

Rear Window

A line delivered at the beginning of “Rear Window by Thelma Ritter’s Stella, “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” has become a famous and often quoted passage from the film.  Most, however, tend to cut out the sentence that follows it: “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”  Taking that sentence into account as well, Stella is not only offering merely an implicit critique of the voyeurism of humanity – a flaw largely compounded by Hitchcock’s contemporaries in the cinema – but also bringing up a seldom noticed side effect.  She is taking L.B. Jeffries, known in the film as “Jeff,” to task for being so concerned with the lives of others that he lets his relationship with his girlfriend begin to rot.

Throughout the film, Jeff’s obsession with watching the world out his rear window is seen as an impediment to the love and intimacy between he and his girlfriend, Lisa.  Every time they begin to hold each other and show tenderness, his thoughts about his neighbors’ exploits distract him, often compelling him to pick up his binoculars and look in on them. Hitchcock uses forced identification with Jeff’s outward gaze by the editing style of subjective POV, making the viewer not merely a party to this denial but entirely complicit in it.  Jeff is never seen through the window, just looking out it from the shadows, a clever replication of what the audience does in the act of watching the film in a dark theater.

RearWindow5

By his casting a gaze out the window, he neglects her needs not only intimately but also on a deeper relational level; it is clear that she is seeking marriage, yet Jeff seems clueless or at least ambivalent towards her regular hints. Their love is always broken off by one of them, normally Lisa, before it can escalate.  The film’s final shot, however, hints at some sort of reconciliation between the couple, though nothing is made explicit.  While the neighbors go about their lives, Jeff sits in his wheelchair with his back turned away from the window, soaking in the sunlight rather than lurking in the shadows.  He falls asleep with a smile on his face; meanwhile, Lisa moves from reading a serious book to please him to reading a fashion magazine for her own pleasure.  Her demeanor and posture appear markedly more relaxed and comfortable, hinting at a much-improved relationship with Jeff’s gaze turned inwards towards her.

Amour

“Amour,” on the other hand, offers no such getaways for its characters or the audience watching the film.  Georges and Anne, the octogenarian couple, are trapped with each other in the apartment as she slowly succumbs to complications a series of strokes.  The two spend nearly every moment together; Georges even pays someone to go get their groceries so he can stay and monitor Anne.  Similarly, Haneke never grants the audience a single moment of escape from their lives, confining the viewer into the apartment as an objective, third unacknowledged presence in the room.  His sparse editing that chooses to leave the dull bits of life in the film as well as his predilection for long shots in deep focus provides the audience with a cold reality that they either have to accept watching or must avert their eyes from entirely.

As Anne’s condition worsens, she begins to express her great dismay with her physical state, eventually telling him, “Georges, I don’t want to carry on. You’re making such efforts to make everything easier for me. But I don’t want to go on. For my own sake. Not yours.”  Georges initially writes off her request as ridiculous because he believes she does not want to keep living to spare him pain.  Yet after she suffers a second stroke that takes away her ability to speak coherently, Georges begins to see just how miserable an existence she has come to live.  He observes as nurses give her showers, and the slightest wrong touch brings her excruciating pain.  He tries to feed her, yet she spits the water back in his face.  Her anguish leads him to slowly remove his own opinions from his view and focus all the more closely on her.

With all this attention and gaze directed solely inwards at their relationship, Georges eventually comes to do the selfless thing and put her out of her misery.  He achieves this in a respectful and loving way by putting her at ease by telling her a pleasant childhood story and then by smothering her.  Had he been aloof and turned his attention outside their apartment, he would not have noticed her lifeless life, nor would he have lovingly honored her request.  Similarly, the audience through their forced witnessing of events come to interpret his killing as an action not motivated by selfishness; rather, they see it as fulfilling the action indicated in the title: love.  It just takes the course of the movie for Georges to gain the same level of objectivity that the audience has been given since the beginning of the film.  Only when that is achieved can he realize that true love is complicated and requires tough decisions.

Amour

“Rear Window” and “Amour,” despite their different plots and tones, arrive at the same general truth within the setting of an apartment.  By casting our gaze abroad, we ignore the problems at the heart of our most treasured relationships.  Only when we look inward and give our own lives the attention they deserve can we truly find the love we need to give others.  Ironically, to liberate us from our obsession with spectatorship, Hitchcock and Haneke feel that they must first trap us in it.





HITCHCOCKED: “Vertigo” (1958)

22 08 2011

I’m fully prepared to take a lot of heat for what I’m about to say.  In fact, as I ponder making this statement in my head, I myself wonder if I’m a humongous hypocrite.  What I’m about to suggest could spark some serious outrage, perhaps on the level of suggesting “Citizen Kane” isn’t all that great (which I have gone on the record as saying is false).

I’d like to see “Vertigo,” with the same script, comparable actors, and the same Hitchcock penchant for filmmaking, be remade in the present day.

There, I said it.  It’s out there, I can’t take it back.  But while watching “Vertigo,” I was struck by the powerful and affecting portrait of a mentally disturbed policeman played by James Stewart.  I found Kim Novak’s work as the woman who claims to be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman to be frightening.  I felt Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling with the camera to be totally present.  I was totally engaged by the smart writing, which harkens to a mystery of almost mythical proportions.

Yet the visuals just felt so … outdated.  Yes, this is obvious given that the movie is over half a century old.  Obviously, it was about as good as it got back then.  But this is 2011, and when the camera is stuck in the past while the story remains timeless, it can’t help but be distracting.  In fact, it goes beyond that – it detracts.  The movie’s style now alienates us from the movie, pulling us out to remind us, “Oh, this is a movie, and this is how they could visually represent the fear of heights back then.”

So to maintain that pervasive sense of acrophobia, why not remake “Vertigo” with modern technology that would make this classic story work so much better for the audiences of today?  Isn’t that why we should be remaking movies?  Not just to be lazy or to sloppily “update” it to market to younger crowds, a remake of “Vertigo” that preserved the timeless integrity of the acting and storytelling would be perfect.  Because, perhaps with the exception of historic visual achievements, the look of a movie is something that should hold power no matter if it’s being shown in 1958 or 2011.  I’m convinced that it would have rocked me to my core had my eyes been borrowed from that era.





HITCHCOCKED: Rear Window (1954)

16 07 2011

Now I’m getting into Hitchcock’s most revered films, and I’m getting more and more excited to watch the movies.  While I had to trudge through some of his lesser known movies to get acquainted with his style so I didn’t fly blindly into the classics, now I’m starting to see why he has become such an iconic director.  “Rear Window” is definitely one that shows his unique knack for suspense.  It’s a slow (and sometimes a little tedious) build towards a frightening conclusion, told with an Old Hollywood sensibility yet still a thrill.

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Thelma Ritter’s nurse, Stella, to James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound Jeff, a photojournalist whose daring in the field has left him immobile in his apartment.  Left largely to his own devices while his socialite girlfriend, appropriately played by future princess Grace Kelly, he turns to voyeurism while looking out the titular aperture.  From afar, he watches his neighbors, imagining what their actions say about their lives and making up stories based on what he sees.  Hitchcock’s clever camerawork mimics Jeff’s eyeballs, jumping from place to place based on what’s interesting.

But one day, his intuitions tell him that by connecting some mental dots, his neighbor Thorwald has committed murder.  With nothing else to do but observe, he sneakily begins building a case against him despite the insistence of his friends and caretakers.  Hitchcock keeps the suspense held back until the very end, not giving us anything but Jeff’s hunches to be suspicious of Thorwald.

Perhaps the biggest thing I took from “Rear Window,” though, was how very seldom Hollywood makes movies like Hitchcock’s anymore.  His movies were all about using the artistic capabilities of cinema to manufacture suspense, thrills, and chills; now, filmmakers just through blood and gore at the screen, play some booming tune in the background, and call it a thriller.  While I loved “Disturbia,” the self-proclaimed modern take on this Hitchcock classic, it certainly lacks Hitchcock’s artistic flair.  I’m certainly more primed to like the Shia LaBeouf vehicle over the James Stewart starrer because of generational differences, but I recognize why one is a classic and the other is just a wannabe trying to cash in on the wizardry of one of cinema’s greatest icons.





HITCHCOCKED: “Dial M For Murder” (1954)

26 06 2011

The perfect murder is always the perfect scenario for a Hitchcock movie.  “Dial M for Murder” is then by definition a quintessential Hitchcock, and watching it would give anyone a taste of the director’s style and methods.  In fact, all it’s missing is some Jimmy Stewart.

The perfect murder here is planned by former tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), who hires the perfect stranger – or old friend – to execute it for him.  Through blackmail and clever thinking, Tony coerces a Cambridge acquaintance, C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson), to murder his cheating wife Margot (Princess Grace Kelly).  He has the perfect alibi to save him from any suspicion; while Swann commits the murder, he will be at the gentleman’s club.  Yet things go haywire thanks to a pair of scissors, and Tony has to cover his tracks to avoid being discovered.

Hitchcock makes this single-room thriller compelling and suspensful, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen “Rope.”  The only real complaint I could lodge against this one is that at times it feels a little too theatrical (the movie is based on a play) and less cinematic, almost as if he filmed it a live performance on a Broadway stage.  But I have no problem with live theater, nor do I have a problem with Hitchcock, and this elaborately plotted murder mystery ranks up there with the best of them.





HITCHCOCKED: “The 39 Steps” (1935)

31 01 2011

NOTE: The name of this 12-part series reviewing some of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest features has been changed from “Hallowed Hitchcock” to “Hitchcocked” for the sake of compactness.

Can you believe I’ve gone 18 years of living and 18 months of blogging without seeing a single movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock?  Of course I’ve heard of his mastery and know of his influence over the craft of filmmaking as we know it, but as a New Year’s resolution, I decided to stop knowing about him and finally experience him.

So here we are, at the first of a monthly series running through 2011 hitting 12 high points in the filmmaking career of Alfred Hitchcock.  Where to start?  Before he came to America and made the films that made him an icon, I decided to start with one of his smaller British movies, “The 39 Steps,” to see if I noticed him returning to his roots.

While I didn’t watch this movie and instantly proclaim Hitchcock a men among boys and a god among men, what I did see was good, precise filmmaking that sure did entertain and engage.  It’s less of a thriller, the genre most fans associate Hitchcock with, and more of a captivating mystery with none of the ridiculous bells and whistles Hollywood movies add on nowadays.

Over the course of four days, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) runs all over England and Scotland trying to escape the police after being wrongfully accused of murder and a league of spies who believe he holds dangerous knowledge about them.  The innocent Richard winds up assuming multiple identities to keep himself safe from his pursuers.  It’s an well-plotted adventure that keeps the audience on its toes for the duration of the movie.

I don’t really have any context to put “The 39 Steps” into, but it sure does make me look forward to exploring some of Hitchcock’s more famous filmography.  If something this good isn’t one of his most popular directorial ventures, then I’m expecting some real winners coming up.