Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Was Hitchcock an artist?

Sometimes the question comes up: How much did Alfred Hitchcock consider himself an "artist?" Graham Greene dismissed him as gimmicky, and Hitch himself emphasized that he was a just a technician. But, then, his movies are just too good to be lightly dismissed.

And so it's a tricky question. In most of his public statements, Hitch emphatically stated that he was a technician first and an artist second. He was usually very self-effacing when it came to any deep artistic statement. But as I've said here before, I think that Hitch's position was primarily a sop to the people or entities to which he was beholden: his finaciers.

Artists with a capital A have long had a rough row to hoe in Hollywood. Just look at Orson Welles' travails. The consensual opinion has been to go to Western Union to look for Messages with a capital M. I believed Hitch played to that, and then snuck in his grander purposes. His behavior belies his claim that he was just a humble technician. For example, his fabled conflicts with David Selznick were usually over issues of creative control. If Hitch was just a technician, he probably wouldn't have fought his boss over the latter's script revisions. Hitch's entire life course as a director was to establish and maintain creative control over his films. That's why he eschewed screenwriting credit for something he saw as much more valuable: possessory credit (i.e. "Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.") As a result, I believe that Hitch saw himself as more than an Artist.

I believe his self-perception encompassed something much more promethean. One who has mastered, and hence transcended both craft and art. As such, I suspect he saw himself as an Icarus, the Great Artificer.

Critics generally place Hitch on a pedestal. Hitchcock is regarded by many to be the gold standard for movie-making, in the way that The Beatles are considered to be the gold-standard for rock and roll bands. Yet many of these critics seem unqualified to make the distinction. That is, they often apply the label "Hitchcockian" to almost any film that has elements of suspense and, perhaps, absurdity. Use of Hitchcock's name makes for great pull-out quotes in movie ads: "A Hitchcockian thriller!" (By the way, when is the last time ANYONE saw a critic use exclamation points in a review?) Dropping Hitch's name makes critics seem smart. It's facile writing at best; lazy and ignorant at worst. That said, it could be that too much critical attention is being paid to Hitch, at the expense of the work of other directors. What with Hitch's recent centenary and all, it's sort of understandable. The question as I see it is, "What is Hitch's place in film history?" Or better yet, "What is Hitch's place in 20th century art?"

My opinion is that Hitch is the Goethe or Milton of the 20th century. My reasons are twofold:

1) The 20th Century saw a decline in the written word and the rise of motion pictures as a dominant mode of communication. Hitch, by virtue of his longevity, popularity and influence did as much as anyone to shape film dialectic. I think history will look back on Hitch's place in visual communications and compare him favorably with Shakespeare's place in the dramatic arts. Hitch and Shakespeare share two important attributes: they both enjoyed popular success, and they both delivered a prodigious output of first-rate work. Shakespeare has withstood the test of time. My prediction is that Hitchcock will likewise endure. If the current critical/academic climate is any indication, Hitch is already beginning to pass the third test.

2) Hitchcock was a true visionary. His appropriation of experimental, avant-garde, and other self-consciously artistic techniques, coupled with a unique personal voice, delivered with intelligence, wit and a thorough knowledge of film technique and of his audience is unmatched, I think, by any other director, regardless of their earnings at the box office. Yet, his popularity is itself a testament to his genius. Because he was popular (and financially successful) to a degree that, say, Bunuel or Antonioni weren't, more directors have consciously imitated Hitch than, I think, any other director. Disney comes close, but he "owned" only one category of film making:

On the other hand, critical popularity is a self-correcting, cyclic sort of thing. We might be due for a dethroning of Hitchcock. And that isn't necessarily bad. It can be sort of a spring cleaning for the academic mind.

Oh yeah, as far as Greene's dismisal of Hitch's techniques as "gimmicky" goes, the current consensus disagrees. My obervation is that Hitch's technical "gimmicks" were rarely gratuitous. They almost always served the story, or the film or a clearly defined artistic vision. From where else should "Saboteur's" bad guy --a Nazi spy -- meet his doom but from the torch of Lady Liberty? And that process- shot of his fall -- with its interspliced shot of a skull face over the Nazi's own face -- is both chilling and cathartic. Gimmicky? Sure. Effective? Hell yes!

Joel Gunz

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