Archive for October 2012

My first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock’s work took place when I was only a child, back when the name “Hitchcock” didn’t yet mean anything to me. Each summer when I was young, my parents would send me to arts and crafts day camp. Although I probably tackled hundreds of projects during these summers, one stands out in my memory. It involved the erection of a model haunted-house out of various materials. For inspiration, our camp instructor had the class watch an excerpt from (what I now know to be) Psycho (1960). She warned us that this was a very scary movie she was showing us, and so she could only show us a very short scene. I remember watching the eerie image of the famed Psycho house on the small television box. Although it was safely contained within the four walls of the screen, it appeared to insidiously encroach upon the bright and fun-filled room around it. Further, whatever movie it was I was being shown, I knew it to be a grownup movie, and that made it forbidden. Yet, here I was at day camp being made to watch just a few minutes from it by adults I trusted. An uncomfortable feeling of disobedience soon settled over me—uncomfortable because it felt like I was breaking a rule, yet, at the same time, the breach appeared sanctioned somehow. (It will not surprise you to learn I was a very nervous child!) Suffice it to say, Psycho left quite an impression on me; this, before I ever got to watch it in its entirety, something that wouldn’t happen until many years later.

I can trace my passion for film back to early adolescence. During this time, I would often walk to my neighborhood library to rent videotapes of various classics. In fact, I can vividly recall me picking All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) off a rotating VHS stand. (My grandfather being an avid consumer of war films, I felt I was doing him proud by watching Milestone’s quintessential entry into the genre.) While I don’t quite remember how exactly I came to watch my very first Hitchcock film, I am fairly certain it was rented during one of those many trips to the library. In any case, my introduction to his work began with his most famous titles: Rear Window (1954), the 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), and, of course, Psycho. Thoroughly entertained (I wouldn’t begin to appreciate Hitchcock’s technical genius until I registered for an Introduction to Film Studies course in university), I eagerly moved on to his more obscure titles, including his very first, silent films. During his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed over 50 pictures. Since most of them weren’t readily available at the library or even in stores, I took to the Internet. My father’s trusty credit card in hand, I ordered more than 30 of Hitchcock’s movies on DVD. Of course, this was all done without his permission, since he would have (understandably) never agreed to it. Once my father recovered from the initial shock of what probably amounted to a 500$ charge on his credit card bill, he quickly fashioned the incident into what is now the most often told family story bearing my name. The story is particularly amusing since it embodies one of the rare instances of willful disobedience on my part. While I was rarely willing to break the rules, apparently breaking them in the name of culture was more than acceptable to teenage-me!

Having now watched most of Hitchcock’s films, I can definitively say my favorite film of his to be Rope, adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play of the same name. The story is that of Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall). They have just murdered their former classmate, David, and are getting ready to celebrate their “perfect crime” over dinner at their place. The guests: their victim’s closest friends and relatives. The evening’s most anticipated invité, however, is Phillip and Brandon’s old prep-school master, Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart (Rope marked the first of four collaborations between the actor and Hitchcock). Rupert, you see, made quite an impression on our two first-time murderers back in university: he used to argue that murder is sometimes warranted, when a superior being commits it to rid the world of an inferior one. David, Phillip and Brandon apparently came to reason, fit the “inferior being” bill. Particularly proud of his accomplishment and bent on passively gloating, Phillip decides to set dinner over the chest hiding David’s body. But minutes before the guests start arriving, Bandon’s conscience starts acting up. Although he is the one who physically caused David to expel his last breath, Phillip is evidently the mastermind behind the deed. He attempts to calm Brandon down, but Brandon cannot be comforted: Phillip’s arrogant coolness unnerves him. As the evening wears on, tensions between the two men begin to rise. Noticing the discord, Rupert starts to suspect something is awry.

Rope is pure, character-driven story. There is no sense of events happening to the characters, but of characters instigating events. Indeed, Rope represents one of the more modest Hitchcock pictures, with no elaborate set pieces or unexpected plot twists. Its scope is of personal magnitude: Rope is about a man whose life is lost on account of philosophical recklessness. (Notice how the cast credits at the end are organized: characters are named according to their relationship to David, who heads the list. Indeed, Rope is less about Phillip and Brandon than it is about their victim and those ideas that led to his premature death.) Lest we forget this, Hitchcock adopts a minimalist approach that focuses all of our attention on the characters and their actions and reactions (which for the most part centre around David, figuratively and literally). Firstly, Rope is contained in both time and place: with the exception of an opening shot from Phillip and Brandon’s balcony, the film takes place entirely over the course of one evening, inside the protagonists’ apartment. (Akira Kurosawa would adopt a similar approach for the first act of his excellent thriller Tengoku to jigoku, 1963. Although, according to Labuza, 2012, the director never formally acknowledged having been influenced by the Master of Suspense, his film remains undeniably Hitchcockian.) Secondly, Rope feels very fluid, filmed to play like one long scene: to achieve this, the film counts a grand total of ten cuts. (To put this in perspective, most modern Hollywood films outnumber 5,000 cuts; Apple, 2004.) While half of these cuts consist of traditional, overt visual breaks, half of them are masked using different panning and tracking techniques.

When editors do not want cuts to call attention to themselves, they resort to what is called “continuity editing,” which seeks to unite otherwise disparate shots in a coherent manner, thereby simulating continuity between the shots. In Rope, continuity is achieved simply by keeping cuts to a bare minimum. Researching the film for this review, I was surprised to learn that it does not fare well with movie critics, who deride its (you would think sacrilegious) lack of traditional editing. In my opinion, however, the relative absence of cuts in Rope suits the emotional purposes of its sharply written screenplay, which attempts to prop audiences on the edge of their seats by rendering Phillip and Brandon’s crime less and less perfect, and their apprehension by the authorities more and more likely, as the evening progresses. Because events escalate for the most part uninterrupted visually, it is harder to pinpoint, while watching the film, exactly when each of the nails in Phillip and Brandon’s coffins are first hammered. This is slightly disorienting, creating a palatable sense of dread in the audience, who is quite ingeniously made to root for the murderers. Rope achieves this rather unlikely psychological feat by surreptitiously appealing to our morbid sensibilities, our asocial but devilishly tantalizing desire to see a wicked plan carried through with definite success. To be fair to critics, however, Hitchcock himself came to agree with them regarding Rope’s unique visual style.

Regarding why he decided to film Rope in one fell, visual swoop, Hitchcock confesses in his famous book-length interview with fellow director François Truffaut: “I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it” (Truffaut, 1985, p. 179). He later concedes that he actually wanted to emulate the play, which plays out in real time from beginning to end, without interruptions. Hitchcock, however, eventually admits to second-guessing this decision: “When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story. On the other hand, this film was, in a sense, precut. The mobility of the camera and the movement of the players closely followed my usual cutting practice. In other words, I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” (p. 180). Despite this creative compromise, Hitchcock ultimately concludes, with Truffaut lightly nudging him in that direction, “films must be cut” (p. 184). At the same time, however, Hitchcock does not fully interpret his decision to film Rope the way he did as a mistake, stating that “[as] an experiment, Rope may be forgiven” (p. 184).

Truffaut, in agreement with Hitchcock’s conclusion that films must be cut, claims that because “the classical cutting techniques dating back to D. W. Griffith have stood the test of time and still prevail today” (1985, p. 184), there is no reason to do away with them. I am not in a position to argue with the man behind Les 400 coups (1959), but I will go ahead and disagree nonetheless. (If it makes me sound more credible, just imagine Truffaut’s best film was Fahrenheit 451, 1966!) To be sure, Rope is an experiment that has seldom been replicated. (Contemporary examples include Timecode, Figgis, 2000, and Russian Ark, Sokurov, 2003.) The fact that Rope does not respect tried-and-true filmmaking techniques, however, does not make it any less of a film. As I have argued, it appears to me to actually benefit from the absence of cuts. One may still rightfully wonder, however: if you’re not going to cut, why not just direct a play instead? Indeed, some have accused Rope of not being a film at all, but merely a film of a play. Stewart himself reportedly suggested to Hitchcock: “Since we [are] filming a play, we ought to bring bleachers into the soundstage, and sell tickets” (as cited in Ebert, 1984). This accusation, that Rope is more theatrical than it is cinematic, is, as I intend to show next, unfair. To understand why, we must first see how exactly films and plays differ from one another.

The Difference Between Cinema and Theater

Granted, the accusation Stewart (among others) levels against Rope is not that it essentially amounts to a play, but to a film of a play. Having said this, Stewart’s remark nevertheless begs the following question: had Hitchcock taken him up on his suggestion to bring a live audience into the soundstage, would that audience’s experience of Rope: Live have been any different from our experience of Rope: The Film? In order to answer this question, we must first examine what it is about plays that make them feel different from films, and vice-versa. In the following section, I identify those aspects of plays and films that render the experience of sitting in a theater or a cinema different. Through this examination, I hope to demonstrate that the experience of watching Rope has ultimately more in common with that of watching a movie than it does with that of watching a play.

To be sure, the distinction between cinema and theater is, in many ways, arbitrary (for a surprising argument in favor of this statement, see Sontag, 1966). Having said this, one cannot deny the fact that each of the two art forms possesses its own strengths, strengths that can thus, for all practical purposes, be considered defining characteristics. That is, what distinguishes films from plays isn’t that which either do the other cannot, but that which either do the other cannot as effectively.

In plays, time and space are not very flexible. (This may sound like an admonishment, but it is not. This characteristic of plays confers upon them a sense of immediacy and intimacy films struggle to replicate as effortlessly.) While different scenes in a play can certainly take place at different points in time and space, transitions between such points are not as seamless as in film, oftentimes calling attention to themselves. That is why playwrights generally tend to keep the number of temporal transitions and locations to a minimum. Conversely, films can easily, say, intercut scenes taking place at different points in both time and space. In that Rope takes place during one evening, in one apartment, without ever taking us out to other moments or places, it resembles a play.

While Rope only features one single space, it uses that space in a way I believe is distinctly cinematic. Films, you see, can do more than simply take audiences from one location to another in a matter of microseconds. They can also allow audiences to experience one single space in ways that would be physically impossible at the theater. In his seminal essay on Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures (1934/1995), art historian and film theorist Erwan Panofsky explains: in the theater, “space is static, that is, the space represented on the stage, as well as the spatial relation of the beholder to the spectacle, is unalterably fixed” (p. 96). Film Studies professor and author Richard Barsam (2004) expands on Panofsky’s description of the theater experience: in the theater, “your perspective […] is determined by the locations of your seat, and everything on the stage remains the same size in relation to the entire stage” (p. 4). To be sure, the spectator also “occupies a fixed seat” at the cinema, but he remains “in permanent motion as his eye identifies with the lens of the camera, which permanently shifts in distance and direction. And as movable as the spectator is, as movable is, for the same reason, the space presented to him. Not only bodies move in space, but space itself does, approaching, receding, turning, dissolving and re-crystallizing” (Panofsky, p. 96-98). Further, movies so manipulate space “in such a way as to distort, transform, and heighten a scene” (Barsam, p. 4).

This “repurposing” of reality is traditionally achieved through framing, by varying the distance, angle and movement of the camera relative to objects and actors within a given shot. For example, an extreme long shot (to be distinguished from a long take), distancing the space between the audience and a character, might on its own inspire a sense of isolation, whereas an extreme close-up, narrowing the space between the audience and the character, might on its own inspire a sense of intimacy (and perhaps even a feeling of “spacelessness”). Reality may also be “repurposed” through editing, by cutting from one shot to another and, most importantly, varying the spatial relationships between the different shots. For example, follow a long shot of two characters, say, on a date at a restaurant, with succeeding and increasingly tighter close-ups of each individual, and you might, collapsing the (physical and metaphorical) space between the two, create a developing sense of mutual intimacy.

While Rope hardly ever relies on cutting, it does take full (and varied) advantage of framing, as Hitchcock himself acknowledges in a previous quote. Indeed, the lens of Rope’s camera is able to perceive space very unlike the eyes of a spectator at the theater. (To complicate matters, even the camera in films of plays does not “see” like a spectator sitting in a theater! I will return to this later, however.) As a result, space is rendered and thus experienced in a uniquely cinematic fashion.

This is evident when the camera is active. Take, for example, the scene at the end of the movie when Rupert hypothesizes how he would lure David to his death without getting caught, were he to at that moment step into the apartment. As Rupert walks us along each step of his imaginary plan, the camera acts as if he were actually carrying out every one of them. Panofsky (1995) eloquently refers to such uniquely cinematic tactics as “substituting […] the eye of the beholder for the consciousness of the character” (p. 98). This could presumably be replicated in a play, say, using a dimmed stage and a beam of light, but I doubt the effect would be as powerful. Even when the camera stops moving and settles on a static shot, it offers a unique point-of-view that a pair of eyes “sitting” anywhere in a theater would be hard-pressed to replicate. Take, for example, the static shot of Phillip and Brandon’s housekeeper clearing the dinnerware, tablecloth and candlesticks off the chest hiding David’s body. This suspenseful, low-angle shot is masterfully composed for maximum effect: the chest and Rupert’s back stand on opposite sides of the foreground, while the dining room and kitchen occupy the mid- and back-grounds. As Rupert and the other dinner guests discuss what could possibly have kept David from attending the party, the housekeeper walks from the chest to the kitchen and back, each time taking a few more items off the chest, until it is completely bare and exposed.

Critics of Rope (not to mention one of its own actors) claim that because it does not contain many cuts, it basically amounts to a film of a play. A closer look at actual films of plays, however, helps undermine this argument. Indeed, films of plays (e.g., Hughes, 1986) actually often cut between differently framed shots: contrary to what you may imagine, they are not filmed in one static, extended long shot from a visual “sweet spot” somewhere in the theater’s main seating area. Does that mean films of plays should be considered full-fledged films? Not at all. The reason for that is intentionality in framing and cutting. In films of plays, shots are framed and cut together in no specific fashion. As we have seen, Rope may not (often) make use of cutting, but it does very much make use of framing; most importantly, it makes deliberate and meaningful use of it. In so doing, Rope remains a full-fledged film, while films of plays, despite the presence of framing and cutting, still cannot be considered actual films.

In his essay, Panofsky (1995) warns: “[The] imitation of a theater performance with a set stage, fixed entries and exits, and distinctly literary ambitions is the one thing the film must avoid” (p. 96). Films, he suggests, must instead take full advantage of that which only films can achieve: Panofsky dubs one such uniquely cinematic faculty the dynamization of space, or the dynamic conveyance of space to an audience. As demonstrated in the above examples, whether Rope’s camera is being active or static, it is always telling the audience, via variations in framing, how to look at the space inhabited by its characters, in the hopes that we think or feel certain intended thoughts or feelings. Thus, despite the fact that it does very well resemble theater in terms of content (i.e., limited samplings of time and space), Rope employs the camera in such a way as to convey at least part of that content (i.e., space) to its audience in a uniquely cinematic fashion, thereby providing us with a uniquely cinematic experience. And it is this very accomplishment that, in my opinion, elevates Rope beyond a mere play rendered on celluloid to the level of legitimate film.

The Difference Between Evil Movies and Bad Movies

Aside from its unique visual style, Rope also captured my attention because it obviously features two romantically attached gay characters, in the form of Phillip and Brandon. To be sure, homosexuality is never verbally acknowledged in the actual film. Despite this seeming wariness to even speak the word “homosexuality,” the fact that Rope was a “homosexual movie” was well known to everyone involved: in fact, during production, people reportedly took to calling same-sex sexual interest “it” (Bouzereau, 2001). In the fascinating documentary Celluloid in the Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1995; see also the more straightforwardly titled companion essay Homosexuality in Film, Sony Pictures Classics, 1995), Granger (who was bisexual) claims both him and Dall were very well aware they were playing gay characters. According to screenwriter Arthur Laurents (who was gay), the only ones out of the loop would have been the censors, which explains why Rope was able to get past them.

To be sure, Rope’s depiction of homosexuality isn’t particularly flattering, despite the involvement of queer talent. (In fact, it would take another 13 years before the first mainstream film depicting homosexual men in a compassionate light—the remarkable British thriller Victim, 1961, directed by Basil Dearden—would be released.) Both Phillip and Brandon are dislikeable, antisocial men caught in a pitiably asymmetrical relationship. Following in the footsteps of Mrs. Danvers—the seemingly lesbian antagonist from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), who also comes across as deranged—the couple also meets a gruesome end: however, while Mrs. Danvers’ demise evokes religious retribution (she dies engulfed in flames), Phillip and Brandon’s demise evokes legal retribution (they are presumably tried and sentenced to death). In a sense, Mrs. Danvers’ character embodies a better indictment of homosexuality, since her malevolence directly flows from her affection for another woman. Phillip and Brandon, on the other hand, are criminals deserving of punishment, who also happen to be gay.

One could certainly make the case that Rope’s portrayal of gay people is an improvement over that of previous films. Phillip and Brandon are not bad because they are gay; they are simply bad in addition to being gay. Further, they no longer represent an offense to Religious Law, but simply to Secular Law. (It has been suggested that Norman Bates, from Hitchcock’s subsequent Psycho, is a repressed homosexual. In that he ends up, following his arrest, in the hands of a forensic psychiatrist, Bates is also portrayed as an offense to Psychiatric Law. In this way, Hitchcock’s films mirror the evolution of society’s view of the homosexual: first as a sinner, then as a criminal, and finally as a madman.) But while homosexuality and malevolence are portrayed as existing separately in the persons of Phillip and Brandon, an indirect relation between the two attributes is nevertheless implicitly suggested. Phillip and Brandon each embody certain stereotypically gay character traits, which could be interpreted as causal to the crime committed by the couple. In that he is impressionable, submissive and weak, Brandon evokes stereotypically feminine qualities, which presumably caused him to fall under Phillip’s spell and be talked into murder. While Brandon is portrayed as just short of a “real” man, Phillip gives off a more masculine vibe: he is confident, independently-minded and assertive. However, he is also highly narcissistic, thinking himself and his partner to be superior beings.

The accusation that gay people are narcissistic has been leveled against us time and again, especially in psychoanalytical circles. (Incidentally, Freud and psychoanalysis are mentioned twice in Laurents’ screenplay.) Freud (1914/1991) himself hypothesized that male homosexual interest results from, among other possible causes, narcissistic object-choice. According to the theory of narcissistic object-choice, men become gay by being so self-possessed they only seek out partners who remind them entirely of themselves. To be fair, Freud (1930/2001) later conceded that even male heterosexual interest is “a problem requiring an explanation” (p. 10), although he never, to my knowledge, ended up fashioning one (for a modern attempt, see Chodorow, 1994), or at least one that also involved unflattering causes. Freud’s (1923/1960) Oedipal complex theory comes close, because men who “successfully” resolve it become straight, while those who do not become, among other possible “pathological” outcomes, gay. Still, the theory assumes, without explaining why, that all male children begin life as straight: first for their mother, then—via, for example, anaclitic object-choice—for another woman. In fact, the complex is, in a way, more about “surviving” this period of conflict without “losing” one’s heterosexuality than it is about actually laying the behavioral foundations for it.

You may think such blatant homophobia masquerading as science is a thing of the past. Well, I regret to inform you that this is unfortunately not the case. Just three years ago, my Abnormal Psychology professor—a psychoanalytic psychiatrist—claimed that cutting-edge research had finally empirically shown that homosexual men are more narcissistic than their heterosexual counterparts. Freud’s narcissistic object-choice theory was correct: gay men love themselves so much they wish to find partners who embody every bit—and I mean every bit—of their towering greatness. (The professor conveniently omitted the reference for this supposedly game-changing study.) In a valiant and well-meaning effort to carry outdated psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality into the 21rst century, author Tim Dean (2001) attempts taking the narcissism out of narcissism: homosexual narcissism, he claims, entails not only “a commitment to sameness,” as in your run-of-the-mill narcissism, but also one to “otherness” (p. 122). Suffice it to say, Dean’s essay is an exercise in linguistic manipulation: instead of simply finally dropping the narcissism hypothesis, he opts to change the very meaning of the word “narcissism.” Gays remain full of themselves, but, you know, in a good way…

Why am I such a fan of Hitchcock’s Rope given its less than ideal treatment of gay people? I rely on film critic Roger Ebert to help me explain myself. In his 2003 review of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a cinematically revolutionary film that is also steeped in overt racism—Ebert claims: “To understand The Birth of a Nation we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” Art, Ebert continues, does not only serve Beauty and Truth, and neither does it need to in order to be considered great. Of course, Hitchcock’s film is nowhere near as offensive as Griffith’s. Still, it may be helpful to view Rope from a similar perspective: while it perhaps reinforced mid-century social intolerance, it did so with undeniable style. Rope might be morally misguided, but, as I sought to convey earlier, it is right on target cinematically speaking.

What do great films with questionable values teach us about film? I believe they teach us that films can transcend whatever messages happen to permeate their narrative. You could even say that films exist beyond good and evil. Indeed, the value of a film is not based on what a film advocates, but on how it advocates it. By “how,” I do not refer to whether an argument is cogently advanced, but to whether an argument (however fallacious) is woven into a skillfully written, acted, lighted, shot, edited, and scored film. For example, while I may wholeheartedly disagree with M’s (Lang, 1931) conclusion regarding criminal responsibility in the mentally ill, I would be hard-pressed to describe the film as anything but brilliant. Likewise, while I may wholeheartedly agree with American History X’s (Kaye, 1998) conclusion regarding the fallacies and perils of racism, I nevertheless regard the film as mediocre at best. Now, what do great films with questionable values teach us about evil? Well, insofar as a film’s value is immune to evil, it follows that the reach of evil is limited. Contrary to popular belief, evil does not contaminate everything it touches. Unfortunately, the same applies to good, in that the best of philosophical intentions will never, on their own a least, prevent a film from failing to impress.


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