Monday, December 26, 2016

Hitchcock Truffaut

In 1962, the French New Wave director, Francois Truffaut spent eight days in Hollywood interviewing Alfred Hitchcock.  The interview was interpreted by a woman named Helen K. Scott -- you can see her at the round table where the two men sat for the extended conversation.  The proceedings were tape-recorded and, on the sound track, you can hear Ms. Scott, a heavy-set middle-aged woman, translating simultaneously -- it's the way translations are done in the law courts or at the United Nations: her whispered voice is superimposed above or beneath the words spoken in French.  Ms. Scott was an integral part of the process and you can hear her laughing heartily at times and interacting with both Hitchcock and his French interlocutor.  She appears in most of the pictures taken to document the colloquy, although most often with her back to the camera.  Hitchcock appears to have been able to write some French and, perhaps, could even speak the language -- but, I presume, that Truffaut required precision in translation and fluency, something that couldn't have been achieved without the interpreter's involvement.  It is one of the defects in Kent Jones' 2015 documentary Hitchcock Truffaut that we don't learn more about this woman and her role in the proceedings.  This omission signifies in general the limitations on Jones' documentary, produced for, and currently on display, on HBO.  On a couple of occasions, Hitchcock asks that Truffaut shut off the recording so that he can say something privately -- at one point, when asked about the role of his Roman Catholic upbringing in the films, Hitchcock asks that the recording be shut-off. (It's possibly the most important question in the whole interview.)  On another occasion, he comments that Jimmie Stewart should be imagined as having an erection when Kim Novak emerges from the green mist in his hotel room near the end of Vertigo, her transformation into the dead woman complete.  Hitchcock, presumably, has a bawdy story to tell about someone and, so, he asks that the recorder be shut off.  Certainly, audiences are most intrigued by that to which they are denied access and the viewer feels cheated that Jones (or his narrator, Bob Balaban) doesn't provide additional detail as to what was said in those interruptions in the transcription process. 

Not much new emerges from Hitchcock Truffaut.  If you know a lot about Hitchcock, there will be no surprises in the material presented in the documentary.  (And, of course, most cineasthetes have read the book produced from the famous interview.) We see stills of Hitchcock interacting with Truffaut, are treated to clips from films by both directors (although mainly Hitchcock), and, sometimes, see portions of the interview text with writing highlighted for emphasis.  The audio clips of Truffaut and Hitchcock in the interview are interspersed with talking head commentary by eminent directors including Marty Scorsese, who always has something interesting to say, Paul Schrader, Oliver Assayes, and others.  (The omission of Brian de Palma from the film is surprising: de Palma is the only Hitchcock disciple sufficiently perverse himself to successfully appropriate the Master's mannerisms to his own films.) The documentary's principal focus turns out to be on Vertigo, as you might expect, and Psycho.  Hitchcock's famous and monstrous control over both his mise-en-scene and his actors is exemplified in an anecdote that he tells about working with Montgomery Clift.  "Monty," as Hitchcock calls him, applied his method acting techniques to a scene and concluded that his character would not look up to a tower important in the action that the director was about to stage.  Hitchcock's response was scathing:  "Who was he to disrupt the geography that I had created?", an excellent description of Hitchcock's uncanny logic in constructing plausible if dreamlike locations through which his characters flee and, in which, they suffer.  Hitchcock couples this complaint with his famous observation that actors are "cattle." 

In the interview, Truffaut plays the Gallic rationalist to Hitchcock's malign entertainer.  The clash between the two men's personalities is obvious, although, cordial.  Truffaut can not exactly grasp the Gothic irrationality motivating Hitchcock's obsessions although he is fantastically well-attuned to the precise, even geometric, logic by which Hitchcock constructed his films.  Thus, Hitchcock's films present a surface that is completely and obsessively organized, imagery purged of anything non-essential and designed to embody very exact relations between things and people or people and their environment. (It must never be forgotten, someone says, that Hitchcock learned his trade from the silent films -- he thinks and narrates in pictures:  there is nothing even remotely literary about the way he imagines his films.)  Hitchcock's radically overdetermined surfaces, his way of staging action, however, screens the fundamentally morbid and perverse romanticism that motivates the director's choice of themes, his sadistic use of actresses, and his dream-like, hallucinatory plots.  Truffaut, one perceives, is the opposite of Hitchcock -- he can stir up a romantic froth on the surface of his films (for instance, the most rhapsodic of them Jules et Jim) but the underlying narrative and thematic material is moral, rigorously rational, completely humanistic in an enlightened sort of way.  Truffaut is drawn to Hitchcock's darkness precisely because he has no such darkness in himself.  (This is obvious to any viewer who watches an attempt by Truffaut to do homage to his master, for instance, The Bride wore Black).  Early in his career, Truffaut used an experimental technique, ragged and raw, to convey stories that were fundamentally optimistic, humanistic, and enlightened.  (Consider his The Wild Child).  By contrast, Hitchcock uses a geometrically lucid style to convey narratives that are fundamentally irrational nightmares as exemplified by his masterpieces Vertigo and The Birds.  It is the jovial, but real tension between the rational humanist, Truffaut, and the irrational and sadistic Hitchcock for whom reason is merely a device for torture and coercion that provides the underlying buzz of conflict in the film. 

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