June 20, 2012

"Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today."

"Besides making previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna,’ ‘Psycho’ is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain."

Wrote Andrew Sarris in 1960, beginning what were to be his lessons in the "auteur theory." He died this morning, at the age of 83.


ricpic said...

Actually, what comes through in every Hitchcock film I've ever seen is what a sadistic bastard he was.

Michael K said...

The comment about watching 2001 on marijuana is sure true. It was about 1/3 into the film and you couldn't go into the bathroom of the theater without being overcome.

bagoh20 said...

There is a distinction between auteurs and 'metteurs en scene', the latter not being described as inferior directors making inherently poor films, just lacking the authorial signature.

And she said "cock" heheheheh.

yashu said...

If there's film critic heaven, I like to think of Sarris and Kael going for many more rounds. Of smackdowns and drinks. With great seats at the heavenly movie theater.

Are there any great film critics today? Critics who are great essayists and not just reviewers? The kind you love to read because they're great writers (or thinkers), even when you disagree with them?

rhhardin said...

Stanley Cavell has lots of film analysis that's good, chiefly the classic remarriage comedies, but some Hitchcock too I think.

Pursuits of Happiness
The World Viewed

Robert Cook said...

"Actually, what comes through in every Hitchcock film I've ever seen is what a sadistic bastard he was."

Perhaps. Or perhaps he just found the endless sadism, vanity, and foolishness of human beings fascinating and amusing.

Scott said...

The article noted that Sarris "eschewed the computer" in favor of the typewriter.

It figures that such a bull headed throwback would cling to the "auteur theory" for his entire career in spite of its stupidity. Feature filmmaking is an insanely complex collaborative art, and any director who declares his film to be his personal vision is delusional. As was Andrew Sarris.

But hey, he made a living at it, and some people loved his work. RIP

yashu said...

I thought of Cavell, love his work, including his work on film. So perhaps the best writing on film nowadays is not done by "film critics," but others-- e.g. philosophers.

I guess Zizek would count too (as a philosopher who writes on film). I don't love Zizek and find a lot to disagree with and even despise in him, especially politically, but I can't deny that he's thought-provoking and often great fun to read. If you're into that crazy Lacanian kind of thing. He's also into Hitchcock.

Chip S. said...

@yashu--Dave Kehr?

Robert Cook said...

"Feature filmmaking is an insanely complex collaborative art, and any director who declares his film to be his personal vision is delusional."

And yet, the bodies of work by many individual directors do consistently reflect unique visions of the world.

Sure, there are hacks who have no voices of their own and they produce work without distinction, but the auteur theory is pretty well vindicated in any review of film history.

yashu said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Chip. Not too familiar with Kehr's work (beyond sometimes reading his NYT DVD column, which I like). Might spring for his book.

Scott said...

"... the auteur theory is pretty well vindicated in any review of film history."

Hell no. Kael exploded that canard. Read "Circles and Squares" and report back.

Tacitus2 said...

In one of my fave movies, Galaxy Quest, the villain was named Sarris. Evidently he had panned a previous film by the director!

Saint Croix said...

Are there any great film critics today? Critics who are great essayists and not just reviewers? The kind you love to read because they're great writers (or thinkers), even when you disagree with them?

Yes! Although I'm biased.

A. Shmendrik said...

R.I.P. Bro!

yashu said...

Saint Croix, you are (or your alter ego is) indeed insane-- in a good way. That book seems like a really inviting conversation; makes me want to knock back some drinks and talk/ argue movies movies movies (which of course is also to talk/ argue life the universe and everything).

Saint Croix said...

yeah, that was a top 10 list that got out of hand

Saint Croix said...

Actually, what comes through in every Hitchcock film I've ever seen is what a sadistic bastard he was.

Rear Window (1954) Grace Kelly is almost like a sexual predator in this movie. If she was scary and ugly, we’d all be freaking out. But since she’s Grace Kelly, we like her. Of course, Jimmy Stewart’s freaking out. “She keeps coming and coming and I’m trapped with this broken leg and I can’t get away, normally I run away to Africa, but I got this damn broken leg, and she keeps coming and coming and what am I going to do?” And the masseuse is like, “Marry her, you big ape. Knock out some babies.”

Why doesn’t Jimmy Stewart want Grace Kelly? This is one of the all-time great MacGuffins. Drives all the film critics crazy. Cause he’s impotent. Cause he’s gay. Cause he’s got a secret. You can tell it bothers the crap out of Grace Kelly. “Why doesn’t he want me? I’m so beautiful!” And Jimmy Stewart’s spying on all the people across the street. He’s got Miss Torso, who’s juggling wolves. Is that what Grace Kelly is doing, juggling wolves? And then Miss Lonelyhearts, who doesn’t have anybody. Maybe Grace Kelly doesn’t have anybody. Is that possible? And then the married couple on their honeymoon. Maybe Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly will be happy together. (By the end of the movie, the honeymooners are fighting. So Hitchcock is like, no way. No happiness for you!) We see all of these people through the prism of Stewart’s issues with Grace Kelly. And then, across the street, there’s the really unhappy couple. And Jimmy Stewart hears a scream. Murder!

Jimmy Stewart’s still got Grace Kelly on the brain. So this killer is like his doppelganger, his bad side come to life. This guy is trapped in a loveless marriage and he kills his wife. And Jimmy Stewart’s watching. And we’re watching him watching. Why does he like murder? Why do we like it? Could that be my life? Could I hate Grace Kelly? Could I kill Grace Kelly? And Jimmy Stewart’s like, no! Now he’s like, I love you, I love you so much! And Grace Kelly starts stalking the murderer. And then she’s wearing the wedding ring of the dead woman. And he’s like, don’t die! Don’t die like that dead woman! Cause I don’t want to be a killer. I want to be a hero. And then he’s got two broken legs. And Grace Kelly is like a cat who just found the cream. “I got him now. He’s mine.”

Saint Croix said...

Notorious (1946)

Hitchcock's darkest and most powerful work. Cary Grant is the most amazing actor in the 20th century. You know that comic genius in His Girl Friday? Hey, it's the same guy. What a dark performance from a master comedian. Here Grant is so contained, so cold, so wary of women. This movie is James Bond for grown-ups. He's a good guy, but he's also a bad guy. What makes this movie so amazing is that Claude Rains, the Nazi, is nicer to Ingrid Berman than Cary Grant is. Way nicer. He's a better man. For most of the movie Cary Grant is like the Nazi mom. He and she are both wary of emotions and love and how vulnerable your heart can make you. And love makes you vulnerable. It's true. Nazi mom is going to die because she loves her son, and her son is going to die because he fell in love with Ingrid Bergman.

Notorious is a movie about the dangers of love and sex. It's dangerous to be vulnerable and open, like Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. When you're a nice, open person, you can end up a whore, or murdered by Nazis for sexual indiscretions. Repress! Close yourself off from your own emotions, like Cary Grant or Nazi mom do. Be mean and controlling and strong. And then you find out that you're cold and evil. This is a movie about restraining your passion, hiding it away. You need to do this if you want power and authority, but you lose your humanity when you do this. You become an ideological tool and a bad person. What a great film. What an amazing artist Hitch was.

Saint Croix said...

To Catch a Thief (1955)

It's a film that I liked okay the first time I saw it, and then years later I would watch it again, and then I would watch it again. And again and again. With some movies, repeat viewings actually increase my joy and appreciation. This has happened to me with several Howard Hawks films (Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo) as well as John Ford (Donovan's Reef, My Darling Clementine) and even with my favorite filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and To Catch a Thief).

I think I underrated this film on first viewing because I saw it only as a suspense yarn. Ostensibly that's what it is, of course, but the police chase is a MacGuffin for what is really driving this movie, the romantic chase. The real fun in this movie is not whether the police will catch Cary Grant , but whether Grace Kelly will. For most of the movie, he treats her as an annoying distraction, as he's focused on trying to stay out of jail. But she is determined to capture him. She is at her most beautiful in this film, I think, and her wardrobe is spectacular. She's a hard woman to miss.

This film has more sexual innuendo than any film I’ve ever seen. Cary Grant is a cat burglar. He's like a vampire who sneaks into your room at night and gives the ladies a bite. Only he's reformed and good now, or so he says. Grace Kelly keeps trying to seduce him. "You want a leg or a breast?"

Her dialog is subtle and funny. "I don't like cold things touching my skin." And yet Hitchcock manages to distract us (and Grant) from the charms of Grace Kelly by constantly shifting our attention back to crime. We go from sex to crime to sex to crime. "You're leaving fingerprints on my arm." Crime becomes a metaphor for their cat-and-mouse love affair.

"He's a low, worthless thief."

"Just what did he steal from you?"

"Oh, mother!"

Saint Croix said...

Vertigo (1958)

When I was a kid I didn't like Vertigo at all. It's not one of the fun Hitchcocks. Maybe the least suspenseful movie from the master of suspense. Just not a lot of danger in the film. Or maybe there is but it's very internal. And it's got the slowest frickin' car chase I've ever seen in my life. So I avoided watching it again for years and years. I was too young to appreciate it, really.

The second time I saw it, I was like, "This is awesome, this is so cool, oh my God!" His obsession is so desperate. And unhappy. In love with a dead woman, cripes. This movie messes with your head. And that ending is so sad. One of the best endings in cinema.

You know that nun feels bad for scaring Kim Novak. Nuns really can freak you out, though. I remember when I had my appendix taken out in a hospital. And they drugged me and shaved off all my pubic hair. So I'm feeling kinda freaky anyway. And I wake up at 2:00 in the morning and there's a nun standing over my bed. Scared the crap out of me. I thought, "Oh my God, am I dying? Why is there a nun?" I didn't fall out of bed or anything, but they are kinda scary when you're not expecting them.

Maybe the Vertigo nun is Hitchcock's Catholic side judging his impulses and finding them bad. I had that reaction the first time I saw the movie. It was kind of like the movie was making a really harsh judgment on one of the characters. But that's too obvious, maybe. It's an accident. And the nun's innocent. She doesn't know anything about anything. We project our subconscious fears and guilts onto nuns, maybe.

This whole film is like a fevered dream, and you really want to wake up. But you can't. I like the blonde hair style, how it twists and turns like a captured cyclone. And Jimmy Stewart's all caught up in it. And how he's unhappy when her hair is loose. He wants her to put her hair up in a cyclone and he wants to be caught up in it, spinning around, lost in his vertigo. He wants to be helpless. Which is funny because he's so damn bossy. What an unhappy love affair.

Vertigo is like Marnie in that a lot of the film works on a subconscious level. Symbolic and dream-like. Hitchcock uses pure color in both films. Marnie is red, Vertigo is green. And both times I think he's using color from a woman's point of view. Marnie is stop, stop, stop. Vertigo is go, go, go. And also jealousy. Green's kind of a freaky color. It's an unsettling damn movie, really. The sort of art that stays with you.

The next time I saw Vertigo, I was fast-forwarding through that slow ass car chase. That is a slow frickin' car chase, man.

Saint Croix said...

Marnie (1964)

Hitchcock's second and last movie with Tippi Hedren. By Marnie his passion for his actress became oppressive and freaked her out. After they had their falling out, Tippi Hedren dropped off the map and Hitchcock went into permanent artistic decline.

I think Marnie is an underrated classic, the last great Hitchcock movie. It's the flipside of To Catch a Thief. Tippi is the thief and Sean Connery wants to catch her. But this film is far darker than To Catch a Thief. It's one of the darkest movies Hitchcock has made. Tippi is sexually repressed and can't stand being touched by men. Connery wants what he can't have. He's excited by her bad side. He catches her being bad and proposes marriage. Or she can go to jail, her choice.

It's an oppressive movie, and a provocative one. This and Vertigo are Hitchcock's two great movies about sexual obsession. Vertigo has one of the great endings in art and this has one of the worst. It's such a non-ending. I'm like, "Huh? That's it? You're kidding." Reshoot! Marnie is definitely a flawed masterpiece. But the characters are unforgettable.

Watch how Hitchcock shoots Marnie's handbag. It's how we're introduced to Marnie. I think it's a metaphor for her sex. What's in your handbag? You just want to get in there. She's very protective of her handbag. It contains her secrets. When she steals, she puts it in her handbag. To Catch a Thief is so much lighter than this. That movie is awash in sex, too, but it's fun. Here sex is dark and Freudian; it's scary and dangerous and bad.

William said...

@St Croix: I enjoyed your reviews. They were fresh and perceptive.....Hitchcock's artistry becomes more apparent as time goes by. What sticks with you about his movies, though, is their entertainment value. They're really fun to watch. I've seen them all many times.....I think Bergman was the great genius of cinema, but I'm in no great hurry to see any of his films again. You couldn't pay me to watch an Antonioni or Godard movie. In the right mood, I could possibly watch a Fellini movie, but Hichcock is the only one whose stories get better upon retelling. Hitchcock definitely wins the posterity prize.....I'm not sure, but I think a re-reading of Sarris vs Kael would give the posterity prize to Sarris. The only thing I remember about Kael's reviews is how silly her judgements were: Love Story was fascist, Last Tango in Paris was the greatest movie ever, Clinton Eastwood was a wooden mannequin. I read Sarris's reviews. They were quite good, but I can't remember anything at all about them. Maybe Kael will be remembered longer for her idiocy than Sarris will be for his sagacity. Posterity is a bitch.

yashu said...

St. Croix, really like & mostly agree with your takes here. My personal favorite Hitchcock films are Notorious and Vertigo-- especially Vertigo, I'm always drawn in and haunted by it. And oh yeah, both the content of these love stories and their pleasures for the viewer (not to mention for their maker) are indeed dark and perverse.

Drew W said...

I took Andrew Sarris's film class in college; an undergrad course that was held in a grad school auditorium because it was the biggest room they could get. On Mondays they'd show the movie and on Wednesdays Sarris would lecture on it. There were always about 50% fewer people on Wednesdays, since so many collegiate cineastes thought they knew more about movies than he did. I never claimed such expertise, and got a lot out of his lectures. (Except for the one or two times when, rather than talk, he simply read about the film from one of his books, which was deadly dull.)

He didn't call himself a film critic, but rather a film historian, saying something like, "If they stopped making movies tomorrow I'd still have a job."

The couple of times I spoke to him personally, I found him to be a smart, charming, old-school-professorial kind of guy. I'm pretty sure that at one point, I reached over and straightened his tie for him. I may have take such a liberty right before he was to make an appearance on the campus TV station, where I sometimes worked, but I can't remember for sure. He was just the kind of rumpled guy whose tie you'd want to straighten for them.

Saint Croix said...

You couldn't pay me to watch an Antonioni or Godard movie.

Godard has been a stinker for forty years, but in his early days he did some amazing stuff.

Breathless (1960)

Okay, for starters, it's not an art movie. It's a lovers on the lam movie. You've got car stealing, a murder, a mugging, romance, sex, the New York Herald Tribune. And a Bogart fixation. It's awesome, man. It's got the best score in any picture, ever. This amazing jazz score. And let me tell ya, I love fast-paced movies. Like His Girl Friday or One, Two, Three? The faster the better, I say. And that's what this is. You think foreign films are slow? Ha! Dude, he took out all the boring bits. The movie was running long, so instead of cutting out a few scenes like a normal person, Godard says, hey, take out all the boring bits. So that's what he did. And the jump cut was born. No boring bits, they're all gone. Breathless is just pure cool.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Also not an art movie. Tarantino named his production company after this cool ass flick. So how bad could it be? Robbery, murder, accidental death. And they take time out to dance the Madison. Snap! Tarantino wishes he was this cool. When Godard went political, art lost a genius and politics got a moron. What a sad thing to happen.

Weekend (1968) No one is bad like bad Godard. I swear, I think he's bad on purpose. I think it's political.

People who love this movie rave about the scene with a huge traffic jam. What they fail to mention is that all the people in this traffic jam are honking their horns. And they keep honking, and keep honking, and keep honking. I don't know about you, but I find the car honk to be an incredibly annoying sound. One ninth of this movie is car honks. It's a cacophony of car honks. It's ten minutes of clock time and a hell of a lot longer in real time. You think I'm kidding. Oh my God. And when you realize that this movie is made by some damn intellectual who is pontificating, yes pontificating, about how car honking traffic jams represent the snarl of capitalism and you stop and think about this--except you can't frickin' think because of all the idiotic car honking that's going on--you're even more annoyed. It's like paying money to a clown to urinate on you while he honks and honks and honks.

Saint Croix said...

Thanks for the kind words, by the way.

The only thing I remember about Kael's reviews is how silly her judgements were.

I don't think her judgments are important, actually. What's so awesome about Kael is how she approached film criticism. She did it like an artist.

What I love about Kael is how opinionated she is. She's not dry and intellectual. She engages with art. She feels strongly, and she tries to figure out why she's feeling a certain way. In her reviews Kael does her own little riff off the movie. She approaches film criticism like she's an artist attempting to make her own work of art. I got the vibe from Kael that she was really putting herself into her reviews. There was no attempt to be objective or impersonal. It was all about her and her reaction to the work of art. Which, in my opinion, is the only way to respond to art.

So it's not a question of agreeing with her. I often disagree with Kael. But I admire her approach. She sees a movie and responds to it, honestly and openly (and intelligently).

I haven't read Sarris. He's well known for fighting with Kael over auteur theory. (He was right).

The thing about Sarris is that the French were arguing auteur theory and defending Hitchcock for years and years. So while Sarris was right, he didn't strive to have original arguments. One can argue Sarris was really translating French opinion for American audiences.

Kael was wrong (often), but she's highly original.

yashu said...

St. Croix, totally agree re Kael. Love reading her reviews, even though half the time I disagree. I've learned from her to engage more fully, more intelligently, more passionately, more complexly, more authentically, more idiosyncratically with movies, even though half the time her judgments and mine conflict.

And yeah, Godard-- I'm trying to think of another artist who inspires such mixed feelings. I love early to mid-60s Godard. Though even the later stuff (that I've seen) is cinematically interesting, with occasional 100 proof shots of cinematic pleasure-- even when politically idiotic.

(The great funny thing about Godard though is, the tendentious Marxism in his movies works as a wonderfully clever parody of Marxism, and at least half the time I think that's intentional.)

And original Godard movie trailers are the best, wittiest, most "meta" trailers ever. For example:

A bout de souffle trailer

Une femme est une femme trailer

Vivre sa vie trailer

Le Mépris trailer

Pierrot le fou trailer

And yes, also love a lot of Antoniennui. But stuff like Zabriskie Point is eyes-rollingly WTF.

yashu said...

One of the links doesn't work, let me try again:

Une femme est une femme trailer

Iapetus said...

The plots of most of Hitchcock's movies are so contrived they are scarcely believable. He manipulates his characters, having them do things few rational people would do in real life.

One example: In Vertigo, Hitchcock has Kim Novak, playing the role of a sales clerk who originally comes from a small Western town, turn sophisticated in order to play a role in the murder of a man's wife. After the wife is killed, Novak for no apparent reason reverts back to her unsophisticated self. In addition, she remains in San Francisco where part of the murder plot took place instead of hightailing it out of town...which is what any real conspirator in a murder would do. Why stay around and take a chance of getting caught? Apparently AH didn't see any problem with the absurdity of Novak hanging around until she DID get caught. Oh, and by the way, at the beginning of the movie, how did Jimmie Stewart ever manage to hang on so long to the gutter on the roof of the building where he had slipped? It wasn't as if there was a crowd around to witness his dilemma and call for help to rescue him. Ridiculous.

When I first saw the movie in the theater as a kid, I loved it. But when I watched it again as part of the Masterpiece Collection of Hitchcock's movies, I realized how much he manipulated his actors to do things people wouldn't do in real life and how much I had overrated all of his movies.

Saint Croix said...

But stuff like Zabriskie Point is eyes-rollingly WTF.

LOL. Here's my review!

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Bunch of damn Marxists sit in a room discussing, I don’t know, shooting the peasants. Or the bourgeoisie. They definitely want to shoot somebody. And the black revolutionaries want to shoot whitey. And the white hippies are like, “I dunno.” And our hero stands up and walks out. Cause he’s finished talking. It’s time for action! And he shoots some cops off-camera. And then our movie’s on the run. And we see a bunch of billboards. Because capitalism is everywhere. And I’m fast-forwarding, looking for sex. There’s got to be sex, right? Finally, I find sex. There’s a hippie sex orgy in the desert. And all the hippies are covered with sand. Sand, sand, sand. I felt so sorry for those damn hippies.

“Can I get a towel?”

“No. We are not finished with my cinema.”

“Some water, maybe?”


“I wanna wash. I got sand in places where sand’s not supposed to go.”

“Back to the orgy!”

Now, sand does look cool on naked people. Cool to watch. Glad it wasn’t me in there. This movie and Lawrence of Arabia are two movies where I had to get a drink of water. I just had to. At least this sand movie has women in it. I might have rated it higher if I had known to mute the damn thing. Mute it, take an hour out, put music in, we have a winner.

Saint Croix said...

The plots of most of Hitchcock's movies are so contrived they are scarcely believable.

Truffaut and Hitchcock discuss this in their book (which remains the finest book on filmmaking ever written).

Truffaut: "It's the kind of cinema that's extremely satisfying to audiences and yet often irritates the critics...they will single out as weaknesses those aspects that are the very essence of the film genre, as, for instance, a thoroughly casual approach to the plausible."

Hitch: "I'm not concerned with plausibility, that's the easist part of it, so why bother? Aside from the waste of time, they make for gaps or flaws in the picture. Let's be logical, if you're going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility or credibility, then no fiction script can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary."

Truffaut: "As a matter of fact, the only kind of film that are, as a rule, unanimously endorsed by all the critics are such documentaries as Naked Island--pictures that require craftsmanship but no imagination."

Hitch: "To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately. What's the ultimate in represnetative painting? Color photography."

More Hitch: "In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow."

Robert Cook said...

"When I first saw (VERTIGO) in the theater as a kid, I loved it. But when I watched it again as part of the Masterpiece Collection of Hitchcock's movies, I realized how much he manipulated his actors to do things people wouldn't do in real life and how much I had overrated all of his movies."

Without intending to defend VERTIGO, per se, (I've only seen it once and that was years ago and can't recall it in detail), a work of narrative is not required to adhere to "real life" in order to be a successful and even brilliant work of art. Art, by definition, is not real life, and no rules apply other than the prerogatives of the artist's vision. A narrative that is unrealistic, where the characters do not behave as they might in "real life," succeeds or fails according to the power of the artist to create a consistent and compelling "controlled dream."

The films of David Lynch and Luis Bunuel, for example, are not "realistic," but the best of their works are art. There are writers whose stories and novels are similarly inscrutable if considered only by their correlation to "real life," (Kafka springs to mind).

VERTIGO is primarily a film about the sexual obsessions and fetishes of the Jimmy Stewart character. As such, it is about what is going on inside him, not a depiction of the "real" exterior world.