Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’
Exactly seven years ago, on August 6, 2005, on the blog that I used to maintain with several of my college friends, I wrote the following:
In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics’ poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It’s always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.
I’ll need to wait until next week, when Sight & Sound publishes the full results of its critics’ poll, to verify my second prediction—although at this stage In the Mood for Love is clearly the Wong Kar-Wai film to beat. And while my prediction about Vertigo, which did indeed top the latest list, may seem impressive, it isn’t quite as smart as it seems: last time, Vertigo came in second to Kane by only five votes. All the same, I’m almost never right about this sort of thing, so you’ll excuse me if I take some satisfaction in this rare display of prescience.
Still, in some ways, it’s a shame, because Vertigo deserves better than the crushing weight of expectation that such an honor inevitably confers. It’s undeniably a great movie, certainly one of the best of all time, but it’s also a film that gradually imbeds itself in your subconscious, growing in your imagination over the course of many years, with levels of meaning that can’t be fully appreciated after an initial viewing. I have the sinking feeling that a lot of people are going to watch Vertigo for the first time because of this poll and come away wondering what the big deal is about. It took me years to sort through my own feelings about Kane, a cheeky, flashy, shallow masterpiece that has been unfairly suffocated by its own reputation. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to watch Vertigo again in the way it deserves. But probably not for a while.
I’ve written about Vertigo numerous times on this site, so for my full thoughts on this extraordinary movie, please see here and here. It missed my recent rundown of my own top ten films, but only by the narrowest of margins, and while it may not be my favorite film overall, its greatest moments soar higher than those of any other movie I can name. In particular, as I’ve said before, the hotel room scene culminates in the greatest shot in the history of cinema, and its third act is among the most emotionally overwhelming. For the moment, then, let’s give the obligatory nod to Hitchcock while also acknowledging the film’s other makers, especially the screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, who adapted the novel D’entre les morts and added the crucial shift in point of view that lends the movie much of its impact, and the composer Bernard Herrmann, who delivered a score that contributes, more than any other I know, to the movie’s hypnotic spell.
As for the rest of the poll, it’s exactly what it should be: an endless source of surprise, argument, and inspiration. Everyone will have their own list of omissions—mine is that there’s nothing by Powell and Pressburger and no sign of Casablanca—but overall, these are fascinating movies that provide enough imaginative fuel for a lifetime. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to watch more Tarkovsky (I hadn’t even heard of Mirror, which made the top ten on the directors’ list) and finally finish Metropolis, which has remained paused halfway through in my Netflix queue for years. But more than anything else, the list is a reminder of how inexhaustible the world of great movies really is, even for those of us who care about it deeply. As I’ve written before, when I discovered the 1982 edition of the Sight & Sound poll sometime in the third grade, it changed my life forever. Thirty years down the line, it hasn’t lost any of its power.
For the second time this week, I find myself reviewing a movie based on a beloved work of art about which I know practically nothing. Yesterday, it was the novels of John le Carré; today, it’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. And while I’ve always found le Carré dauntingly formidable, if anything, Hergé has the opposite problem—there’s almost too much good stuff here, and it’s all very enticing. (The A.V. Club has a nice Gateways to Geekery on the subject that seems like a good place to start.) Steven Spielberg’s earnest adaptation, while far from perfect, is enough to make me want to take the leap into the comics at last: as a character, Tintin is paper-thin, but winning, and I probably would have been obsessed by the movie that surrounds him if I’d seen it at the age of eight. As it stands, for all its energy, wit, and visual invention, it never takes hold in the way it constantly seems on the point of doing, and the problem, I think, lies in the secret of the Unicorn itself. In short, it lies in the MacGuffin.
A MacGuffin, of course, is the object or plot element that drives a work of fiction. The term was coined by Hitchcock, but Spielberg knows it as well as anyone, having structured the Indiana Jones series around three unforgettable objects: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, and the Holy Grail. (We’ll just pretend that the crystal skull never happened, as Spielberg himself seems increasingly inclined to do.) Tintin takes its cues from Indy in more ways than one—although this may simply be a case of inspiration returning at last to its original source—so obviously the story is structured around a similar quest: three parchments, hidden within three model ships, leading to a legendary treasure. And what is the treasure, you ask? Well, it’s…treasure. Four hundredweight of pirate gold, as we’re repeatedly reminded, sunk at the bottom of the sea. That’s a lot of gold. Yet even as the movie worked its sometimes exhausting magic, I felt a bit of a sinking feeling myself, once I realized that the object of Tintin’s quest was going to be nothing but a convenient haul of pirate booty.
Conventional wisdom holds that the MacGuffin itself doesn’t matter; the important thing, we’re told, is the desire and conflict it arouses in the characters. Every few years, then, someone has the fashionable idea to construct a MacGuffin around nothing at all: the “government secrets” of North by Northwest, the mysterious briefcases of Ronin and Pulp Fiction, the Rabbit’s Foot of Mission: Impossible III. To a point, the conventional wisdom is right: we aren’t going to care about any object, no matter how shrouded in importance, if we don’t care about the characters, too. Yet part of me insists that a storyteller should at least pretend to find the MacGuffin interesting, and worth taking seriously, especially if the characters will be wholly defined by their quest. It would be one thing if Tintin had an emotional stake in the chase, or even, like Indy, an inner life, but he’s characterized solely by his pluck in pursuit of that pirate treasure. And I’m past the point where I’m intrigued by pirate treasure for its own sake.
And that’s the real problem. An interesting MacGuffin doesn’t guarantee interesting characters, but a boring one will make the characters boring, too, if the MacGuffin is all they want. A director with great stars and superb confidence in his craft, like Hitchcock or the John Huston of The Maltese Falcon, can get away with a MacGuffin spun out of thin air, but for most works of art, it’s probably safer to go with something less arbitrary. This lesson is lost, unfortunately, on writers and directors who have been told that MacGuffins don’t matter, but still haven’t figured out why. Tintin is the third movie in less than two months built around a MacGuffin that the movie barely bothers to develop, after the nuclear codes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and the unspoken secrets of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Both films get away with it because of the level of skill involved, as does Tintin, to a point. But then I think of Indy at the Well of Souls, and I’m reminded that a MacGuffin can be far more. It can be something that gets in your dreams.
No other work of art is so central to my love of movies as the last forty minutes of Vertigo. There are movies I admire more, but none I find as emotionally devastating, or as endless in its implications. It’s full of classic moments and images, some of which take several viewings to fully understand, but I may as well start with the most famous: the scene at the Hotel Empire, which you can watch here if you must, culminates in what is simply the greatest shot in the history of cinema. As the camera pans around Stewart and Novak, with Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score swelling in the background, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to the reasons we watch movies in the first place, in a sort of gorgeous rhapsody on love, art, and death. As Roger Ebert writes: “This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.”
Not surprisingly, I’ve been obsessed with this movie for a long time. After hearing about it for years, I finally saw it in college, in a study carrel at Lamont Library, watching it on videocassette with headphones on a tiny television set. Later that evening, I came down with some kind of fever, and spent most of the night tossing and turning, convinced that the events of the movie had somehow been part of my own life. The second time I saw it was on the big screen, at the late lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, and the experience there was equally wrenching. And I’m not the only one who responds to it this way: when I showed it to one of my college roommates, he ended up in a fetal position. Vertigo tells us things about art and life, and how we’re driven to transform ourselves and others, that few other works have managed to express. As David Thomson notes, it’s a movie that grabs and haunts the viewer, especially for certain sensibilities:
It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.
Watching it again with my wife last night, the implausibility, the hysteria, and the cruelty were all on clear display. It isn’t a perfect movie, although it has long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful, and painful. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that no other American film is so staggeringly complex in its final emotional resonance.
It’s no accident, then, that I’ve been revising and rewriting Vertigo in my head for much of my life. After seeing it in college, I spent the better part of that summer working on a story that would fuse Vertigo with another great American film of startling depths: John Ford’s The Searchers. The project, to put it mildly, was more than I could handle, and I never came close to finishing it, but the vestiges can still be seen in the names of two important characters in The Icon Thief: Maddy and Ethan. Since then, Vertigo has remained a personal and professional touchstone, a movie that I’m constantly revisiting and engaging, for reasons that I can’t always explain. All I know is no matter how many times I see it, ninety minutes into this remarkable movie, when Novak turns to the camera and the screen goes red, I’m sucked in and can’t escape—not any more than she can.
Over the past few days, I’ve invoked the example of Hitchcock more than once, and for good reason. As the likes of Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma understood in the fifties, and audiences across the world knew much earlier than that, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are central to our experience of the movies. His goal was as simple as possible—to play the audience like a piano—but his methods were endlessly complex. As a result, the great Hitchcock thrillers are like laboratories for the investigation of storytelling, in everything from plot construction to art direction to cinematography and editing, not to mention iconic performances from the actors he sometimes claimed to despise. And if the machinery is more visible here than it is in, say, Bergman, it’s because of the genre that Hitchcock perfected. Suspense is the most basic emotion that narrative cinema can evoke, and Hitchcock, as we all know, was its master.
What isn’t always acknowledged is how central suspense is to other forms of art, especially fiction. Years ago, in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, John Updike spoke of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and suspense remains, in some ways, the most fundamental of all genres: nine times out of ten, any good novel is, at heart, a novel of suspense, even if the suspense centers on emotion rather than external action. In his classic book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz observes that of all genres, suspense has the fewest overt requirements—simply the need to keep the reader intensely interested in what happens next—which implies that other genres can be understood as overlays on the suspense form. Science fiction is suspense in the future; mystery is suspense where the emphasis is less on stopping the killer than on figuring out who it is. And without a solid foundation of suspense, readers in any genre aren’t likely to keep turning the pages.
This is one reason why I turned to suspense when I began to write for a living, and currently find myself writing something close to pure thrillers. These weren’t necessarily the novels I read the most growing up, but for a relatively young writer still learning the tricks of the trade, it seemed like a good idea to begin with storytelling in its most general form. The lessons you learn from writing suspense—anticipation, momentum, converging structure, and especially clarity of action and motivation—can be applied to any sort of fiction you later choose to tackle. There’s simply no way to forget these things once you’ve internalized them. And while it’s often necessary to set them aside—one of the weaknesses of the suspense form, along with its underlying coldness, is the constant need for things to always be happening—they’re still the ultimate safety net, a sort of writer’s insurance policy when other tools fall short.
And they can lead you to surprising places. Back in the seventies, Koontz noted that most books marketed as mainstream fiction are really suspense novels in disguise, and that remains true today. A novelist like Ian McEwan is essentially an author of suspense, but one whose work has been elevated by intelligence and taste to the point where he can contend for a Booker Prize. Elsewhere, competition with other media has forced serious novelists to pace even ambitious literary novels like page-turners, as Jonathan Franzen says to Time: “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist.” I’d much rather read a big literary novel written by an author who understands suspense than one who hasn’t served the same apprenticeship, and for my part, I think it’s all but inevitable that I’ll try to make that leap one day. But not yet. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing suspense, it’s that there are always more lessons to come.
In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:
Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.
Hitchcock concludes: “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
This advice, as simple as it sounds, should tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.
But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.
The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of unforgettable images, but two of the greatest are often overlooked. The first is that oddly melancholy moment when, from over Janet Leigh’s shoulder, we see the bathroom door open through the translucent shower curtain, the camera silently holding for a few seconds on the silhouette of the figure beyond, before the curtain is drawn aside and all hell breaks loose. The second, from the great staircase scene, is the shot of the door opening at the top of the steps, also in silence, shortly before Martin Balsam’s detective meets his startling end. Neither shot draws attention to itself, but both are utterly essential: for a few agonizing seconds, we know exactly what’s going to happen next, and that sense of dread heightens our terror and horror at what immediately follows.
Dread, terror, and horror: these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re very different things, and all writers of horror or suspense should understand the distinction. The definitive explanation is Orson Scott Card’s, in the introduction to his collection Maps in a Mirror, and if you’ve never read it, please check it out here. Dread, he explains, is the fear you feel when you know that something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what it is—the strange sound in the house, the creaking floorboard, the light under the closed door. Terror is when the killer or monster is coming at you at last. And horror is the aftermath: the body, the blood, Janet Leigh’s staring eye. Of the three, horror is the weakest, while dread is the strongest, because it preys on our fears and imagination. As Card writes:
True, bad things happen to my characters. Sometimes terrible things. But I don’t show it to you in living color. I don’t have to. I don’t want to. Because, caught up in dread, you’ll imagine far worse things happening than I could ever think up to show you myself.
At their most effective, the tools of dread seem so simple that it’s easy to underestimate the craft required. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King observes that the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door. Very true—but only if the pieces of the story have been properly assembled in advance, so that we’re afraid to find out what might be on the other side. I’ve rarely had as hair-raising an experience at the movies as the first time I saw No Country For Old Men, but its greatest image, like those in Psycho, is one of the simplest: a closed hotel room door, seen from inside, with light visible underneath, which is suddenly blocked off by the shadow of a man in the hallway. Nothing could be simpler—except that film has already established the characters of the men both inside and outside the room, and without that essential groundwork, the tension wouldn’t be nearly as unbearable.
And the tools of dread, like all fictional devices, can be misused when taken out of context. Ti West’s ’80s horror pastiche The House of the Devil has a lot of fans, but for all its cleverness, I think it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of true horror. It repeatedly shows its heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of this terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. The mounting sense of dread turns out to be just another tease, even if more skillfully executed than most. Because the ultimate lesson of dread is that, to justify itself, it must turn to terror. The shower curtain draws back. The figure appears on the stairs. And sooner or later, something comes out of that door.
Let’s make a list of things we like.
With these eight words, director Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. The story of how he cobbled together elements of five different screenplay drafts to come up with the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in twelve days is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and I’ve already told it here, so I won’t repeat it again. What strikes me about this story today, though, is the fact that it began in the simplest way possible: with a list. In particular, it was a list of story elements and plot devices—Khan, the Genesis project, a certain character’s death scene—that were already there, but hadn’t been combined into a coherent shape. And the fact that the result paid off so handsomely is a lesson for all writers about the power of lists.
Because lists are incredibly useful. Most novels start as a list of some kind—of characters, of moments, of plot points—but it’s also smart to keep making lists as the project develops, especially when you’re stuck for inspiration. These can be lists of locations, of objects in a scene, of possible props, of the contents of someone’s pockets, or even of material you’ve written and discarded along the way, any one of which might solve a problem or spark an idea. Such lists are especially useful in writing comedy or action, in which the best material is organically generated by the natural aspects of a setting or situation. As Alfred Hitchcock says:
For example, Cary Grant in North by Northwest gets trapped in an auction room. He can’t get out because there are men in front of him or men behind him. The only way out is to do what you’d do in an auction room. Bid. He bid crazily and got himself thrown out. Similarly, when he was chased by a crop duster, he ran and hid in a cornfield. There was one thing that crop duster could do—dust some crops. That drove him out…I don’t believe in going into an unusual setting and not using it dramatically.
One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.
Ultimately, lists are useful because they remind you of what you already have. The process often resembles what David Mamet says about the slate piece, in bringing out the hidden information already inherent in the story. At other times, it’s more like figuring out how to use a standing set. While writing, I’m amused by how often a prop or location that I mentioned in passing early in a novel ends up playing an important role twenty chapters later. Similarly, the great silent comedians could walk onto a set and immediately start planning gags and bits of business, simply based on what was already lying around.
The trouble, of course, is that I don’t have a roomful of props to stare at. A novelist’s mind can resemble the storeroom at the end of Citizen Kane, a jumble of material acquired over a lifetime, none of which useful if we can’t remember what is there. A list is the first step toward making a catalog. It distills a mine of existing information into a form that you can process more easily, so you won’t be tempted, as many writers are, to fix plot problems with additional research. Nine times out of ten, when you have a problem to solve, the answer is probably already there, implicit in what you’ve already written or imagined. And all you need to get started is a list.
Oh, I get it, it’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?
Earlier this week, I finally finished London Fields by Martin Amis, a novel that I grudgingly respected and intensely disliked. Amis is undoubtedly a genius, and the level of craft on display here is often stunning, but the deliberate flatness of its lovingly caricatured characters and its endless hammering away at a handful of themes makes it feel like reading the same smug, acerbic, glitteringly intelligent page five hundred times in a row. By the end, I was almost physically exhausted by the relentless progression of setup, punchline, setup, punchline, and the result, like Amis’s The Information, strikes me as a work of great misdirected talent. For all its ambition, it ultimately exemplifies, more than anything else, what Amis’s father Kingsley once called the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style…that constant demonstrating of his command of English.” And, I might add, of his cleverness.
Cleverness for its own sake, I’ve become increasingly convinced, is a pitfall for all gifted artists, especially novelists and filmmakers. It’s hard to say what cleverness means, at least in its negative sense, but I’d describe it as any artistic decision or flourish that doesn’t serve to advance the story, but only to be admired in isolation. Its defining characteristic is that it can be easily detached from the underlying narrative and inserted elsewhere in the story—or another story altogether—with minimal changes. At its worst, it feels less like ingenuity in service of narrative than a laundry list of interchangeable ideas. Watching a movie like Fight Club or reading a book like London Fields, I have the same feeling that the music critic Anthony Tommasini recently described in his review of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production of Das Rheingold: “I wish she had made a complete list of her ideas and eliminated a third of them.”
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for an occasional isolated flourish, like the moment in Citizen Kane when the photograph of the Inquirer staff comes to life. And there are some great films, like Casino, that aspire to be nothing but those flourishes. But the best sort of cleverness, like every other aspect of craft, is for the sake of story, which means that it’s almost invisible. Hitchcock is a fine example of both extremes. We remember the obvious effects of his style, like the distorting optical process in Vertigo, but far more clever is the structure of Vertigo itself, which takes place entirely from the perspective of the lead character until the last half hour, when it breaks from his point of view at a decisive moment. (This is a departure, incidentally, from the original novel, which, with its surprise ending, is clever in a more conventional way.)
The real trouble with cleverness is that it can easily be mistaken for the deeper qualities it can only superficially imitate: narrative ingenuity, humor, and organic inventiveness. In literature, it leads to novels that imitate the postmodern tools of Barth or Borges without ever having really engaged the earlier works on which they were founded. In film, you get a style like that of Tony Scott at his worst, in which every shot is tilted or saturated for no particular reason. And in comedy, it results in a mode of humor in which pop cultural references and winks to the audience have replaced real comedic situations. For this last manifestation, which is probably the saddest of all, I can do no better than quote George Meyer, the legendary writer and producer for the best years of The Simpsons: “Clever,” Meyer notes, “is the eunuch version of funny.”
François Truffaut: Jean Douchet, a French film critic, made a witty comment on that scene [at the beginning of Psycho]. He wrote that since John Gavin is stripped to the waist, but Janet Leigh wears a brassiere, the scene is only satisfying to one half of the audience.
Alfred Hitchcock: In truth, Janet Leigh should not have been wearing a brassiere. I can see nothing immoral about that scene and I get no special kick out of it. But the scene would have been more interesting if the girl’s bare breasts had been rubbing against the man’s chest.
Because I left for London halfway through the Super Bowl, and was away from my desk for the rest of the week, I’ve only just now seen the latest trailer for Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams clearly stakes his claim to be the next Steven Spielberg. Whether Abrams can pull it off remains unknown: he’s tremendously gifted, but his talents, even on the big screen, are those of a brilliant writer and television producer, while Spielberg—who is credited as a producer on Super 8—has nothing less than the greatest eye in movies. Still, this trailer, which includes more references to Spielberg’s early work than I thought were possible in less than thirty seconds, gives me an excuse to talk about one of the most unexpectedly fascinating careers in American film. And there’s no better place to start than with the trailer’s final shot, that of a child staring at something unimaginable offscreen, which remains the central image in all of Spielberg’s work.
The first thing to realize about Spielberg, whose work is thematically richer than many of his critics like to admit, is that his films fall into two categories: that of real life shading imperceptibly into the unknown, and that in which the unknown—which includes the historical, the futuristic, and the fantastic—takes center stage. The first category, with its elements of the director’s own autobiography, is the dominant mode in Spielberg’s early work, most notably in Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the producer’s sidelights of Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies. Those early films display an interest in the lives of small towns, and of children, that Spielberg seems to have lost in recent years, perhaps as an inevitable result of fame and incredible wealth. Even his most impressive later work, from Schindler’s List to Munich, lacks the urgency of those suburban stories, which may be why the evocation of that period in the Super 8 trailer fills me with such fierce nostalgia.
Of course, this raises the question of where to put the Indiana Jones series, still a trilogy in my own heart, which is both Spielberg’s least personal work and his greatest achievement. Watching those films now, they seem increasingly outside the main line of Spielberg’s development, and much more the work of George Lucas, which goes a long way toward explaining why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was so disappointing. And the almost complete absence of children is especially striking. As much as I love Short Round, he’s more of a tiny adult than a real boy, and none of Temple of Doom takes place through his eyes, much less those of the child slaves in the background. In Spielberg’s early work, by contrast, many of the greatest moments of awe and terror are filtered through a child’s perspective: the abducted boy in Close Encounters, the girl who vanishes in Poltergeist, even the little boy devoured in Jaws.
And yet the Indiana Jones trilogy remains a child’s dream of what it means to be a man—whether an archaeologist, a professor, or even a writer of thrilling stories. Despite the lack of children, the child’s point of view isn’t gone: it disappears from the movie, but embeds itself in the audience. With a nod to the impeccable taste of Carey Mulligan, who calls it her favorite film, no work of art takes me back to my boyhood like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which remains the movie that cuts closest to the reasons why I want to tell stories for a living. Of Hitchcock, David Thomson says, “His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them.” The same is true, in a way, of Indy, but it has nothing to do with interpretation. Pull back from the screen, and the missing children are there, in the audience, relishing a boy wonder’s vision of what it means to be a grownup. If Super 8 can generate even a fraction of that wonder, Abrams can begin to set himself against Spielberg. Until then, he can only get in line.
Essential films: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window.
Although it’s fashionable, in certain critical circles, to prefer Hitchcock’s British period to the later American films, I find the earlier movies to be much less interesting—narratively simplistic, schematic in both camerawork and suspense, and with a lack of atmosphere that becomes all the more obvious when you compare them to, say, the films of Michael Curtiz, or Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband. Hitchcock needed Hollywood as much as Hollywood needed him, and it was only with the advent of color, widescreen, and American movie stars—and starlets—that our greatest director of suspense found himself in his true element. One needs only to compare Psycho to The Lady Vanishes to see how much Hitchcock had learned in the intervening twenty years.
His masterpiece is Vertigo, which is still the purest example of a film whose formal design—in visuals, writing, and above all in music—is inseparable from its overwhelming emotional impact. The final scene, in which James Stewart is abruptly confronted with the consequences of his own folly, is cruel, capricious, and perfect. And that was only the beginning: the run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho in three successive years is the most astonishing hat trick by any director in film, moving seamlessly from psychological depth to perfect escapism to unforgettable terror. It’s a reminder of Hitchcock’s true range, and the fact that a director who knows how to generate suspense with images can get away with almost anything. If every novel, at its heart, is a mystery story, then every movie is fundamentally a work of suspense—which is why the Master of Suspense is also the most influential director of all time.
Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.
As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:
1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)
11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)
21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)
31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)
41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)
Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.
Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.
Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):
I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”
Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.
Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.
So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.
Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.