I recently gave an hour-long Zoom presentation on the “Art of Alfred Hitchcock” for the 19th Century Charitable Foundation in Chicago. I talked about the relationship between voyeurism and film editing and showed clips from THE LODGER, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO and PSYCHO. You can now watch it on YouTube:
Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock
I wrote a new capsule review of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (the master’s first great film!) for Cine-File Chicago. A restored version screens at the Northbrook Public Library next Wednesday.
Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Silent British Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7pm (Free Admission)
One of the most important and revelatory film restoration projects of recent years has been the British Film Institute’s ambitious digital refurbishing of the “Hitchcock 9” (the nine extant films that Alfred Hitchcock made in England during the silent era), re-releases of which first toured the U.S. in 2014. The crown jewel of this series is 1927’s THE LODGER, which, in spite of being the master of suspense’s first thriller and thus arguably the first true “Hitchcock film,” still hasn’t gotten its due in many quarters for being the great movie that it is. It probably hasn’t helped matters much that Hitch himself practically dismissed it in the seminal interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut by discussing it primarily in terms of pulling off the neat technical trick of shooting through a glass floor. But THE LODGER is much more interesting than that. The narrative intertwines two of what would soon become the director’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). THE LODGER is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy (June Tripp), the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (matinee idol Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings of young blonde women. The way Hitchcock laces these elements with a potent eroticism as well as a sense of humor is impressive, notably in a scene where the lodger and Daisy play chess (the context of which gives his line “I’ll get you yet” a delicious triple meaning). When the lodger picks up a blow-poke just as Daisy bends over to pick up a chess piece that’s fallen to the floor, the viewer is left to wonder if he intends to bash her brains in. That he ends up merely stoking the fireplace nearby is both the film’s darkest and funniest joke—one that calls to mind Truffaut’s remark that Hitchcock filmed love scenes like murder scenes and vice-versa. THE LODGER was also a clear influence on Fritz Lang’s M, both in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a lynch mob-like hysteria and in terms of its visual style: Hitch used triangle shapes as a recurring visual motif in much the same way that his German counterpart would employ spirals. Even more significantly, I never realized the extent of how expressionistically lit THE LODGER was until I viewed the BFI’s restoration, which gloriously reveals many previously unseen details in the sublime, high-contrast cinematography. Live accompaniment by Dave Drazin at both shows. (1927, 92 min, Digital Projection) MGS
I wrote the following capsule reviews for Time Out Chicago. They should appear there in truncated form at some point today.
The Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 29. Here are your best bets for the festival’s second week.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is the title of the seminal book-length interview, originally published in 1966, in which Alfred Hitchcock discussed every film he had made up to that point with the neophyte critic-turned-director Francois Truffaut. It is also the title of this cracking new documentary in which critic/filmmaker Kent Jones corrals commentaries from a who’s who of contemporary cinema’s finest directors (Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, et al) into a swiftly paced but thoroughly illuminating overview of both the legacy of the book as well as the Master of Suspense’s career in general. Amply illustrated with well-chosen clips, from 1926’s The Lodger through 1976’s Family Plot, this is crucial viewing for Hitchcock — and movie — fans.
Hitchcock/Truffaut screens on Saturday, 10/24 at 5:00PM and Monday, 10/26 at 6:00PM.
Under Electric Clouds
A suicidal architect. A Kyrgyz construction worker searching for an electronics repair shop. The heirs of a wealthy landowner returning from abroad to claim their late father’s estate. A demoralized scholar who dresses up like a hussar to give tours of a 19th century mansion to Japanese tourists. All of these characters are connected through their relationship to an unfinished skyscraper in a Russia of the not-too-distant future as the world teeters on the brink of apocalypse. Under Electric Clouds was directed by Aleksey German, Jr. (whose father died not long before the release of his final masterpiece Hard to Be a God) and he proves to be a chip off the old block when it comes to grave, darkly funny and amazingly photographed political allegories.
Under Electric Clouds screens on Sunday, 10/25 at 7:45PM and Tuesday, 10/27 at 8:15PM.
For more info, including ticket info and directions, visit the Chicago International Film Festival’s official website.
I’m very pleased to announce that my feature film, Cool Apocalypse, while still in the midst of its festival run, will receive its Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center in November. The Siskel has long been my favorite local film venue and I am honored beyond my ability to express myself that they were interested in programming it. It will screen for two shows only: on Saturday, November 21, at 8pm and Monday, November 23, at 8:15pm. I will be present to introduce both screenings and participate in post-screening Q&As with producer Clare Kosinski and members of the cast. Tickets will not go on sale for another month but, because I am offering extra-credit points to the students in all five of my classes who attend, I suspect that both shows will be sell outs. I therefore strongly advise anyone interested in seeing Cool Apocalypse to purchase their tickets in advance. Tickets will be available for sale through the Siskel Center’s website and in person at the box office in October. Hope to see you at our hometown premiere!
In more recent Chicago film-screening news, I will be introducing a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at Transistor Chicago this Saturday, September 19 at 8pm. I will be showing the BFI’s recent restoration of the Master of Suspsense’s first thriller, which is not yet available on home video in North America. The screening is FREE and BYOB. Here is the description I wrote for Transistor’s website:
The British Film Institute’s recent restoration of Hitchcock’s first thriller gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the film’s luminous Expressionist-influenced photography. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the Master of Suspense’s style was this early in his career: There are a series of murders, a ‘wrong man’ plot, a beautiful ‘Hitchcockian blonde,’ and a highly memorable kissing scene. (1927, NR, 92 minutes)
Hope to see you there as well!
My wife recently traveled to San Francisco for work and I tagged along for the ride. While she had to spend the better part of two days attending conferences, I decided to embark on a self-guided tour of prominent locations from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Have smartphone with GPS, will travel!
The first Vertigo location I visited was the most impressive — the Misión San Francisco De Asis (popularly known as the “Mission Dolores”), a small church that was built in the late 18th century and whose appearance has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.
. . . and into the adjacent cemetery. This is one of the most haunting places I’ve ever been; none of the tombstones date from more recently than the 19th century and the plentiful trees, statues, rose bushes and hazy lighting give the place an ethereal quality well-suited to Hitchcock’s spellbinding aims. As Chris Marker would later put it, “Hitchcock invented nothing.” Here is a shot of the grave of Carlotta Valdes as it appears in the film:
This building is, of course, the subject of the cinema’s greatest fake time-lapse CGI shot:
When I interviewed Larry Knapp last October about the newly released book of David Fincher interviews he edited, the transcript I posted was only a small fraction of our talk. In editing the interview, I decided to focus mostly on the parts of our conversation that explicitly dealt with his book and Fincher’s career. Larry and I both lamented that our favorite parts of the discussion had ended up on the “cutting room floor” — especially digressions involving Quentin Tarantino, the decadent side of the auteur theory, cinematic postmodernism and how Fincher is and is not like Alfred Hitchcock. (This last aspect looks particularly interesting in light of the recent announcement that Fincher will remake Strangers on a Train.) So here, ladies and gentlemen, are the provocative “outtakes” of our interview:
MGS: I think of Zodiac as a corrective to Se7en in a way — even though I don’t think David Fincher necessarily thinks of Se7en as anything that needs to be corrected. But it functions that way in the sense that in the Nineties there was this whole idea that the serial killer — it was really The Silence of the Lambs that introduced this idea — that the serial killer is an almost God-like figure. You know, Hannibal Lecter almost had super-powers in a way and even though he was the “villain,” viewers were supposed to be in awe of those powers . . .
LK: But that’s because American culture has become monstrous and so we naturally begin to identify with these omnipotent, gothic figures who are like a comic inversion of Nietzche or something.
MGS: And Natural Born Killers is the apotheosis of that.
LK: Absolutely. They’re kind of just nakedly revealing what’s at the heart of the American experience, which is something very pathological and hostile and anti-social and destructive. And we’re carrying it around with us but we’re not acknowledging it. And that’s why Woody Harrelson feels the need to give that lecture to Robert Downey Jr., you know? “How many times do I have to say this before you get it?”
MGS: And Se7en is in the tradition of that in a way because Kevin Spacey is . . .
LK: Oh, no, no, no. You know what Kevin Spacey is? He’s the ultimate slacker. It’s the slacker as gothic monster. What does he do all day? He’s writing in his journal, he’s hanging’ out. That’s a slacker, man. It’s a Grand Guignol Clerks.
MGS: True, true, but we’re also supposed to think he’s a genius and he’s supposed to inspire awe, and something about that strikes me as dubious. I was glad to see Zodiac avoid all of that by not dealing with that type of character. Zodiac is mostly about decent, ordinary, hard-working people — especially the cops played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards.
LK: Yeah, but you know what? I really think that Zodiac is about the fact that it’s not serial killers that fascinate people as much as what it does to the social fabric, and how people relate to each other — so it’s the after-effect. That’s why again it’s only for the first 20 minutes (that you see the murders) because it’s really about how people process it and make sense of it — or fail to make sense of it. That matters more than the actual person or entity who’s responsible for it. And again that’s why you don’t catch him and charge him and imprison him and execute him. The damage is already done.
MGS: But, on the other hand, Fincher could’ve made a whole film out of that first 26 minutes. And that’s what he did with Se7en in a way. Zodiac is more interesting to me because it’s about what happened afterwards, for years afterwards.
LK: It’s also about rotary telephones and early fax machines . . .
MGS: Exactly! It’s a film about information, you know? It’s made from a 21st century perspective, the Information Age, and it’s about the characters’ inability to share information in the Seventies.
. . .
LK: Fincher isn’t at the same level of self-aggrandizement (as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith) . . .
MGS: Even though he’s obviously very articulate and witty and smart . . .
LK: I’m sure he can be very difficult to be around and very sure of himself — probably as egotistical as anyone else — but he doesn’t channel that into that need to be hip, that need to be the center of attention, that is one of Quentin Tarantino’s great failings. I once listened to an interview Tarantino gave on Sirius for Django Unchained, which is a really frustrating movie . . .
LK: And Jamie Foxx, he has a series, “Foxhole” or whatever, and he interviewed Quentin Tarantino. So it was already as obsequious as you can get. Because he’s like, “You’re the greatest filmmaker of your generation,” you know? “I gotta make you look good so I look good.” Tarantino, I mean, I’ve never heard someone so freaking high on the most mundane details of a film. Everything according to him was brilliantly executed. Like everything about Django Unchained was peerless. The sheer myopic self-regard, it was so overbearing I turned it off. I was like, “You are an asshole in a way that I cannot enjoy.” You know?
MGS: Oh yeah, his performance in Django Unchained was, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back. That bad Australian accent!
LK: And you being from North Carolina, which is more southern than where I’m from, in Virginia — although, again, I’m from the Commonwealth of Virginia and that’s where Robert E. Lee came from, you know, and all of the people that matter; the Civil War began and ended in Virginia, thank-you-very-much. But when you watch what Tarantino did to southern culture and folklore, it’s just disgusting. He has no clue what he’s doing. And he’s from Tennessee too. I mean, he was born there. He should know better.
MGS: Well, yeah, but it’s really a movie about movies.
LK: Yeah, but Mandingo or The Skin Game is not where you go to get a sense of how things operated! You know what? It’s no different from Inglourious Basterds.
MGS: Right, which is also a movie about movies.
LK: Which didn’t upset me as much because I’m not Jewish. I know a lot of Jewish people who were like, “What the hell is this?” But then I knew some other Jewish people who were like, “You know what? I like these macho Jews.” Because Jews wouldn’t present themselves as thugs.
MGS: Well, as Tarantino himself said, it’s a spaghetti western that uses World War II iconography. It’s meant to be a cartoon and I enjoyed it on that level. But I agree, Django is more offensive.
LK: But you can’t imagine Fincher making something like that.
MGS: No, and I think Fincher is more like a craftsman. For him, it’s all about the work. And he’s incredibly precise as a technician. For him, the mise-en-scene is everything. And whatever sense you get of his personality comes from the formal perfection you see in his work. So, in a way, when you talk about him, all there is to talk about is the work itself.
LK: But shouldn’t that be the foundation of any auteur?
MGS: Absolutely. I mean, I think Tarantino represents the “auteur theory” taken to a kind of decadent extreme. The decadence of somebody saying, “Okay, I want to be an auteur. Now what can I do to be perceived that way?” People become directors today for the same reason people have always wanted to become actors, because they want to be famous. There’s a great story: before he made Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino took some Sundance workshop to learn how to direct a movie — this was after he had written the script but before he began pre-production. And he met Terry Gilliam at this workshop and he said to Gilliam, “Every time I see one of your movies, I get that ‘Terry Gilliam feeling.’ How do you do that?”
MGS: And that tells you everything you need to know about Tarantino: in his very first film, he was already thinking about, “What can I do to create Quentin Tarantino trademarks?” And that’s why in his first three films you see all of these really gratuitous trademarks (car-trunk p.o.v. shots, “Big Kahuna” burgers, etc.).
LK: But they work really well.
MGS: They do. That’s his best work. But the desire to be regarded as a famous director is written all over those films in a way that it’s not in, say, Alien 3, Se7en and The Game.
LK: But this is also the two views of Gen-X. Because Gen-X does have this sort of Tarantino-ish quality to it, which is a total immersion in pop culture without any real profound engagement with it at the same time. It’s more superficial.
MGS: Right. Tarantino and Rodriguez, especially, are the ones who say, “Okay, I’m gonna make a film and it’s gonna be a mash-up of everything I love from when I was a kid. All of the grindhouse films of my youth — I’m gonna make a mix-tape where I just throw it all together.”
LK: A mix-tape is a perfect analogy for that. Kevin Smith does the same thing too.
MGS: And that can be clever and enjoyable but it’s also kind of a dead end after you’ve seen it so many times.
LK: Well, that’s the whole problem with postmodernism. When it’s just a surface reflection of another surface reflection of something else in front of a mirror, eventually, yes, there is a dislocation. There is a decentered-ness that prevents you from being significant or poignant or anything. And I feel like with Fincher, he has Gen-X qualities in terms of quoting some things occasionally. Wasn’t it Brad Pitt who came up with the “Run, Forrest, run” that’s in Fight Club?
MGS: Oh, I don’t know.
LK: For some reason I remember it was Brad Pitt who came up with that. But then Fincher said, “Do it.” So there’s your little postmodern toss — but it’s appropriate. It’s staged properly. You always feel like with Fincher that he knows just as much as Tarantino knows about pop culture. But he is still a narrative filmmaker, a very traditional filmmaker, who feels that he must create not a — as you say — mix-tape with highs and lows and just a lot of scattered business here and there. But rather a very whole and complete, aesthetically rich, narrative film that does not require that you have this Simpsons-like knowledge of pop culture. So it goes back to very traditional Hollywood storytelling values. And that’s why I think he’s going back to that tradition of using novels as source material for a lot of his work.
MGS: Well, you know what’s interesting to me? Zodiac is based on two non-fiction books by Robert Graysmith. I’ve read the first one and it is poorly written. It’s like yellow journalism. I mean, it is not good. And I’ve never read The Accidental Billionaires, the source of The Social Network, but I would be surprised if that were any better, and I thought perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that my two favorite Fincher films were based on non-fiction . . .
LK: But again this goes into that idea that — Eastwood is like this too, by the way. Eastwood never wrote a script. Sometimes the best filmmaker knows, “You know what? I’ve got enough to contend with casting it, building the sets, figuring out the look of it, and how the film comes together.” If you have the right set up and you have the right performers — and Fincher really intuitively understands what he’s doing — you don’t have to be the quote-unquote author of the script at all. Some of the material I’ve read about Gone Girl, I mean he really got inside that book. He inhabited that book. He understood it. But then he understood it for what he could do with film, film form. How he could condense it and reproduce it as a film regardless of its status as a novel. So maybe this is how it works: his aesthetic instincts — you know, his temperament, his eye, his immersion in it — need that outside narrative material to focus. That he doesn’t need to create it, all he needs is something to create from.
MGS: But he needs to feel some kind of connection to it, I agree with you. I didn’t like Gone Girl, the book. It reminded me of what Godard said about Contempt: “It’s a nice vulgar novel for a train journey.” But when I read it I thought, “This could make a great movie.” Because it’s full of interesting sociological insights into men and women in the 21st century, in the internet age . . .
LK: And it’s post-recession . . .
MGS: Yeah, that’s a huge part of it.
LK: Which is a Gen-X thing.
MGS: The whole closed-down mall thing, and the fact that it’s taking place over the 4th of July weekend, it’s clearly meant to be a statement about America. And I hope he’s emphasizing that aspect of it. Because where I had a problem with it was on the level of character. The character psychology I thought was a little unbelievable.
MGS: Yeah, especially after the twist is revealed. The first half of it I thought was incredibly suspenseful and then, after the twist, I thought this is getting so far-fetched and so ridiculous that I got annoyed with it — in a way that I don’t think I will with the film. In a 300-page book if I find something implausible, it’s hard-to-swallow but in a two-hour movie, it’s not.
LK: But it may make a huge difference to see it represented and performed as opposed to narrated.
MGS: That’s true.
LK: Ben Affleck’s expressions may be more expressive than even her writing.
MGS: And I think that’s good casting, by the way.
LK: Yeah, it is. I thought he was older. Then I looked it up. He’s only about 40. So he’s only about four or five years away from the character’s age and he can play a little younger.
MGS: Early on, she describes the character of Nick as being like a “rich-kid villain in an 80s movie.” And as soon as I read that I thought, “Man, did he cast Ben Affleck based on that phrase?” Because that phrase sounds like Ben Affleck.
LK: This is really wonderful when you have a director where you can anticipate his instincts and you know that it’s a good project for him. And it’s just fun to anticipate it for a change. “What’s he gonna do?”
MGS: How is he going to approach the diary chapters? How’s he gonna translate that?
LK: Those are flashbacks. And by the way, I think she wants you annoyed with the “literary” Amy for half the book.
MGS: When I say “implausible,” here’s what I mean: Amy was a genius to pull off this perfect crime. But I think she acted really stupid afterwards by allowing herself to talk to those people . . .
LK: Oh, come on, bro. You’re not getting it! This is the whole problem with her — that she executes it and that’s all she has. And once that’s done, that’s why she goes right back to Nick. Because it’s kind of like, “Well, I did it. Now I need to . . . torture him some more.” It seems like her character — from the way it’s described with her encounters with all the people she met throughout her life — she seems to go from one act of pathological betrayal and control to another. So that’s like the only thing that seems to allow her to function. So it almost makes sense that she would suddenly find herself penniless, robbed, because then she has to connive her way out of another situation with the wealthy ex-boyfriend of hers. In a sense, she executes her murder so well that she cannot come up with anything close to that ever again. So it’s the weirdest love story because she realizes, “Well, I’ll just stay with Nick because I’m never going to do this like this again. I’ll just enjoy torturing him.” And meanwhile he’s like, “I just have to keep leading her on until I can . . .” Right? Which is a really evil, wicked Gen-X view of marriage.
MGS: Oh, I fully get that it’s a twisted love story with an ironic “happy ending.” I just don’t like the way the character psychology is tailored to fit the plot. I wish it had been the other way around — that the plot served the characters. I also don’t buy that they could’ve been married for five years and he could have been so oblivious to the fact that she had been not just pathological but psychotic for practically her whole life. But, like I said, I think the problems I have with it are problems that I won’t have when I see it on the screen. The director that Fincher reminds me of the most is Hitchcock and I think Hitchcock’s films are also implausible . . .
LK: I don’t see Hitchcock as much. In terms of the aesthetics and the immersion in it, yeah, but I don’t feel like Fincher’s as interested in manipulation as much. He can manipulate, and he does it quite often but I feel like there’s more of an inquisitive spirit in Fincher — discovering things — that is not in Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a very fixed view of things by the time he’s making those great films in the early Fifties.
MGS: You don’t think Vertigo is an inquisitive film?
LK: I think Vertigo is a confession by Hitchcock that he is one fucked up dude, okay? And he’s being very honest with us. That’s where he reminds me of Tarantino. That’s one of the things I like about Tarantino. Tarantino is not ashamed to confess: “I am a mess.” He’s not married, he doesn’t have any kids. He’s a complete misogynist, he’s got racist issues. And you know what? He does not give a shit.
MGS: He throws it all up there on the screen.
LK: And I actually admire him for it. I think that Death Proof is brilliant with the rape-as-car-crash collision — where body parts are flying all over the place. No man has ever exposed himself like this. Man, I mean, I wouldn’t be willing to let myself be displayed like that. And he plays a grungy, pretty despicable guy in that movie. It’s like, “Wow, good for you. This level of honesty redeems you. This makes you more interesting.”
MGS: He’s honest about his obsessions.
LK: Even Hitchcock wasn’t as honest. I mean Vertigo? And then he makes Marnie?
MGS: Which is more twisted.
LK: Well, kind of equally fucked up. And then he gets to — what is that one in the early Seventies with the necktie killings?
LK: Frenzy. Oh my God, Frenzy is like a dirty-old-man movie! This guy never got laid enough or never got the chance to lash out at a woman. Hitchcock was one repressed, frustrated, demented guy and I just don’t get that with Fincher. I get the feeling that Fincher is much more comfortable with himself and that what Fincher is fascinated by is how American culture is not willing to look the abyss in the eye — or not willing to own up to any phobias, fears, or anxieties that define our daily existence. I feel like with Fincher, that’s his task. It’s like, “I’m gonna expose this because I feel like no one is even going near it.” Fight Club for me was such an important film about being a young professional in America — as a white male — and how American culture seemed to have given up on anything other than consumption. And that’s how I felt when I saw the film. As I wrote in the introduction, I saw the film with my wife and she loved the film because Brad Pitt was in it and he had his shirt off, so she was happy. But I’m like, “Oh my God, this is that bottomless rage I had when I had that job working for a software company.” This is it. Office Space gets it right too.
MGS: Oh, totally. (laughs)
LK: They work well together, those films. And that’s not what a Tarantino or a Hitchcock would do. They’re into more personal psycho-pathology, you know? I think that Fincher is more like De Palma. Because Brian De Palma borrowed from Hitchcock and he introduced the idea of the cinematic set-piece quotation but it’s a modernist quotation. Whenever De Palma does it, it’s to make you more aware of film language. I think if you watch a De Palma and don’t get excited by it then you really don’t understand form. Because I don’t think anyone got form as well as De Palma did — even Scorsese. Because Scorsese is like the Raging Bull of form: I don’t think he’s ever fully conscious of what he’s doing.
MGS: Right. De Palma takes a much more intellectual . . .
LK: Cerebral . . .
MGS: . . . approach whereas Scorsese is more instinctive . . .
LK: Right, which is fine too. But with De Palma, I feel like he’s using film to work his way through actual film language and how film operates: voyeurism, continuity, you name it, he messes with it. And then he’s thinking about how to use films to expose parts of American culture and society that are neglected or rejected. And that to me is more like Fincher.
MGS: When I say that Fincher reminds me of Hitchcock, I mean in the sense that Hitchcock took novels that he could connect to in some way — and he didn’t take great literature. Truffaut asked him if he would ever adapt Crime and Punishment and he said he wouldn’t because it’s a masterpiece and you can’t improve up on someone else’s masterpiece . . .
LK: Can I quibble with you here?
MGS: Yeah, go right ahead (laughs).
LK: I think that Hitchcock did not film Crime and Punishment because deep down he felt inferior to it.
MGS: Oh! (laughs)
LK: It makes him feel grandiose to take schlock — detective novels and thrillers — and then redeem them. Because that’s safer than taking Crime and Punishment and turning it into a movie because then there’ll be more scrutiny. Where like a Von Sternberg made Crime and Punishment — Von Sternberg was, I don’t think, very insecure — as far as we know about that guy. (laughs) I mean, he was like a Fincher with the studios. He was like, “Fuck you. I’m gonna film this with Marlene Dietrich using all these curtains and gauze and camels . . . and screw you.”
MGS: (laughs) But regardless of the intention, Hitchcock took potboilers and he turned them into masterpieces.
LK: He did but he’s very insincere about these things when he talks about them . . .
MGS: Psycho is not a good book! I’ve read it. It’s terrible.
LK: That’s fine . . .
MGS: The film is great. I’ve never read the book Vertigo is based on but I’m sure it’s the same thing. With Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve never read it, I’m sure it’s not good.
LK: It’s okay.
MGS: Right, but I don’t think he transcended the source material.
LK: It made no sense, when they (already) made a Swedish version, to set it in Sweden. I mean, right away, there are, as you say, implausibilities that make it just pointless. It’s like “You shot it in Sweden but nobody’s Swedish!” Except for . . . what’s his name?
MGS: Stellan Skarsgard.
LK: Yeah, he is, but he’s speaking English. There’s a Swedish one! I watched it — with the subtitles! It’s set there. I don’t understand why you’re reenacting it. And Noomi Rapace is so much more compelling than Mara. As much as I like Rooney Mara and her approach, there are so many other things to do. This doesn’t make since to redo this quickly.
MGS: It doesn’t need to exist.
LK: No, and that was the problem. Particularly as you get near the end. I’m like, “Oh, here we go. I know what’s gonna happen.” And I even mention in the introduction of David Fincher: Interviews you could argue that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about the global 1% preying on the rest of us but the film isn’t as engaged as all the other films he’s made.
MGS: Right, he’s just fulfilling an assignment. On the level of mise-en-scene, it’s pleasurable to watch because he’s never going to half-ass anything. But my hope for Gone Girl is that he’ll find a way to connect with it that will reveal some of these disturbing truths about American life in the 21st century.
LK: Fair enough. Now let me ask you something: don’t you find it peculiar how much press it’s getting?
MGS: I do, yeah.
LK: What is going on? Is now the time when some people are awakening to Fincher’s status? Because I write in the introduction I already consider him the preeminent Gen-X filmmaker period. I have no problem saying that. I put him together with Tarantino. You know who Tarantino is? That dude you just love to hang out with but at the same time it’s like, “God, you need to get a life. You are a funny motherfucker but, damn, your life is a mess!”
MGS: Right. You have a love/hate relationship with his films.
LK: Right. I cannot dismiss him but at the same time it’s like, “Damn, couldn’t you do something other than this? You have talent! What the fuck is this? Why don’t you make a movie about a marriage? Oh, that’s right, you’re not married. I don’t think you understand what women even are.” But Fincher . . . I feel like maybe people are finally like, “Oh, we never really considered his work before.” I didn’t expect this much attention and this much of a groundswell of anticipation. I don’t remember this for any other Fincher film. You know, it’s odd in that way. But it feels almost old-fashioned, the amount of auteurist attention Fincher is getting. We haven’t seen this in a while. It’s refreshing. It’s like they’re privileging Fincher as an artist, as a filmmaker of merit, who deserves this much coverage and warrants this much anticipation and interest. It’s odd how these things play out, and now I’m perplexed and curious why now this is Fincher’s time, instead of the late 1990s.
MGS: Right. Well, hopefully, the film will live up to our expectations. (laughs)
David Fincher: Interviews can be ordered from amazon.com here.
Mike at the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Legacy of Suspense
On Wednesday, June 25, at 7:00 pm I will be giving a special Alfred Hitchcock-themed talk at the Wilmette Public Library to coincide with their “Booked on Crime” Summer Reading Club. The students in my current classes are eligible to earn up to twenty points extra credit towards their final grades if they attend this event. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more information. Below is a synopsis of the presentation I wrote for the library’s website:
Alfred Hitchcock was known as the “master of suspense” but his mystery/thrillers were also highly personal in nature; his films were studies of obsession that tended to emphasize the duality of man. This program will highlight Hitchcock’s greatest hits (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop-dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds), scenes so well executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.
Non-students interested in attending can find more information in the Wilmette Public Library’s “Off the Shelf” newsletter:
Hope to see you there!
This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.
Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)
This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”
The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)
“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.
The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)
One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.
Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)
My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)
One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous Blu-ray package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.
Underground (Asquith, 1928)
In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.
Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)
Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)
This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.
Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)
Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.
Last night’s Halloween costume: Rosemary Woodhouse and the devil who impregnated her (please note the tiny devil-baby claw-hand poking through Rosemary’s dress) at the Chicago History Museum:
And, as a special “bonus feature,” my costume from two years ago (me-as-Norman-as-Mother):