Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Spider's Web

Prelude to a note on Alfred Hitchcock's film Suspicion (1941)


With the relatively recent releases of both The Girl (2012) and Hitchcock (2012) - two films that deal with the more sensationalist aspects of the director's art - it seems necessary to draw the emphasis back to Hitchcock's craft - his filmmaking - and to ponder the questions: what makes Hitchcock so great, so essential to the development of the motion picture as a legitimate art-form, and so enduring, as a cultural concern?  For many, it's his obvious ability to tell a story; to involve an audience in the intrigues of a protagonist, and in the emotional and psychological progression of his characters through the course of a film.  For others, it's his talent for creating moments of pure action, drama, mystery and suspense; the way the filmmaker so skilfully manufactures or engineers those iconic moments that seem to capture so well the emotional perspectives of his central characters (and even, in some cases, the antagonists) and to make them relatable to the viewing audience, still passive before the screen.

All of these factors are no less true, but the thing that makes Hitchcock's films stand out against the work of those that have followed in his footsteps - at least, from my own perspective - is the director's commitment to maintaining the sense of artistry and poetic grandeur explicit in the cinema of the silent age.  The stylisation of these films, where the unreality of the work - the sense of the film being liberated from the more cumbersome expectations of reality, or actuality, to instead soar with the grace of a bird from the screen - stands in stark contrast to the heavier, noisier, more overbearing bombast of contemporary directors like Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan, who assault the senses of the audience in an effort to enforce a heightened air of overdramatic reality.  Their work might focus on the implausibility of fighting robots, super spies or men in rubber costumes, but the unimaginative, often "televisual" approach to the staging and general design of these films (handheld cameras, frequent close-ups, disorganised cutting, etc) seems intent to remind the viewer that this is "real"; that the action and adventure is genuinely taking place.

For Hitchcock, the ideology is reversed.  His stories could be real - they build on the recognisable (small towns, city streets, apartment buildings, hotels, everyman characterisations, etc) - but they're presented in a way that exaggerates the theatricality; the "abstractness" of the situation.  If modern filmmakers seek to show - to put into images a story that can be followed and felt - then Hitchcock sought to adapt the psychology of his characters; to put into images a particular mindset; a sensation of fear, panic, hostility, danger and even death.  Rather than attempting to place the audience outside of the action, as objective observers, he invites us in; exploiting the tools and techniques available to him as a filmmaker versed in the developments of pioneers like F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Lev Kuleshov and Robert Wiene, so that the audience is, in a way, more cognisant of what the characters are thinking.  We see what they see, feel what they feel, and so on.

Hitchcock manipulates the viewer, but does so with the intention of making the audience identify with his protagonists. In Rear Window (1954) for instance, he traps the viewer in a single midtown apartment, with only the 1.66:1-like window-space to occupy our curiosity, as we're inevitably forced to accept our own role as the submissive voyeur as surrogate for the character on-screen. In Vertigo (1958), he has the viewer dangling from the edge of a high-rise rooftop while the trickery of the camera imposes a feeling of dizziness that will in turn overwhelm both audience and protagonist alike...

Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:
Ways of seeing: characters as viewers, the "viewer" as victim, etc.

Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:
Identification marks: audience and character (on-screen) scarred by the same experiences.

With Suspicion, every scene - every shot! - is designed to show us the "reality" as the heroine sees it.  If a character looks at a note or letter, or sees something occur and registers it as either strange or suspicious, then Hitchcock designs the scene so that the audience is naturally compelled to think the same...

Suspicion [Alfred Hitchcock, 1941]:
Hitchcock uses an artificial highlight to draw the audience's attention to a particularly 
chilling quotation as read by the film's protagonist.

It's all foreplay, here. Hitchcock as seducer, misleading, manipulating; using the film-making to skew our perception of the story, but also to add clues and commentary to the sub-text of the narrative taking place beneath the frame.

While Suspicion isn't my favourite film by Hitchcock (for reasons that I'll return to soon) it is one of the strongest examples of the director's aesthetic approach.  This is a film like many by Hitchcock where the subjectivity of his character's psyche - her way of perceiving events - overwhelms the experience; creating the impression that all aspects of the film (the music, cinematography, editing and design) are somehow interceding on behalf of this character; expressing (visually) the fraught emotions that she herself is unable to put into words.

Take this scene, for instance.  Here, the protagonist - the vulnerable Lina (as accompanied by her husband, the rakish but somewhat still threatening Johnnie Aysgarth) - is moving into an expensive and opulent new house on the edge of the village.  The characters pause in the foyer while the anxious estate agent closes the deal.  It's a perfunctory scene - intended to establish the setting and a general feeling of happiness and excitement shared by these characters before the story changes gear - but it's also a scene that creates an added depth and texture by the general approach to composition (the mise en scène) and the effect that Hitchcock and his cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. achieve with the clever lighting of the set....

Suspicion [Alfred Hitchcock, 1941]:

The art-direction by Van Nest Polglase incorporates a large skylight, which, when lit from a certain angle, creates a magnificent silhouette.  The design of the silhouette has the clear appearance of a spider's web.  As an effect, it's ornate, eye-catching and highly decorative, but it also suggests something more significant about the film's subtext.  In relation to what we've seen and to what Hitchcock wants us to think, the appearance of this web informs both the relationship between these two characters and the situation, as it unfolds.

The initial courtship between Lina and Johnnie is like a whirlwind.  We find out very little about these characters prior to their initial meeting, and before we've even had sufficient time to suss out their motivations, or the giddy feelings shared by these characters, or to see them develop and progress, the couple are already married and settling down into a life of polite domesticity.  It is at this precise moment that Hitchcock (and his writers) begin alluding to the true nature of Johnnie - his gambling addiction, foul temper and general lack of funds - and how this seems related to his relationship with Lina; this shy, largely naive young woman, with a background of wealth and privilege.

As an audience, we suspect what Hitchcock wants us to suspect; that Johnnie is using Lina for her inheritance.  Suddenly, the subconscious idea expressed by the production design and cinematography becomes clear.  Lina is now trapped.  Marriage has bound her to this potentially dangerous character, while the house itself, as a materialist object, is the thing that holds them together.

In using the cinematography and production design to suggest this particular reading - cluing the audience into the potential motivation of his character (as well as the rules of the game) - Hitchcock is showing the influence of German Expressionism; specifically a film like Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), where the stylisation of the frame frequently hints at the tortured psyche of its central character.  Hitchcock's adaptation of Wiene's technique is more subtle but no less artificial in the way that it draws our attention to the unreality of the world; the perspective of a place as distorted by the fragility of human emotions.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Robert Wiene, 1920]:
Caligari's iconic production design is intended to express the world of the protagonist 
as a reflection of his own subconscious mind.

Throughout the film, Hitchcock will have his players return to the above-mentioned skylight/veranda setting in an effort to emphasise the predicament of his central character and how the behaviour of her husband has left no other alternative than to speculate on the possibility of a dastardly deed.  The setting becomes an almost emotional leitmotif; one that again reinforces the idea of Lina as both trapped by this relationship and by the circumstances created by her less than honest husband, but also by the web of suspicion itself, and how this deadly trapping lures these characters, unsuspectingly, into a psychology quagmire of self-deception and acute/ironic misunderstanding.

This, as an idea, is suggested in a later scene, in which Lina confronts the housekeeper Ethel, and enquires about the location of her husband (already suspecting the worst).  As the two characters converse, the shadow of the spider's web once again hangs heavily behind them, reminding both the characters and the audience of Johnnie's presence (even when absent from the frame) but also as an unspoken acknowledgement of the secret thoughts and feelings (known but unstated) that seem to circulate around the house, or around the position of these various characters too afraid to confront the issue (the "real" issue) head-on...

Suspicion [Alfred Hitchcock, 1941]:

As the ensuing dialogue is struck, the camera tracks in.  The movement of the apparatus is designed to bring the audience closer to these two characters, as if we're drawn deeper into the intrigues of their conversation as well as into the web of narrative conspiracies, both as mutual witness and as a kind of co-conspirator.  However, the effect created by this dolly is also expressive of the filmmaker's as yet unacknowledged psychological reading of his central character; an understanding that only becomes blatant in the film's final scene.  As the movement of the camera further flattens the depth of field, it creates an even greater impression of the character (or characters) as being caught in this web of their conflicting suspicions, mistrust, passion and peril...

Suspicion [Alfred Hitchcock, 1941]:

This web, which we assume relates to the presence of Johnnie as expressive of his control and underhanded manipulation of events, is in fact conjured by our protagonist.  It is the web of her own suspicion; her distrust of others and her implicit snobbery that creates this feeling that changes the perception of the world.  Because we see the entire second-act of the film subjectively, through Lina's eyes, her own emotional or psychological perspective on events colours the way the audience itself reads the film, or the intentions of its narrative.  It forces us to see these scenes and interactions as part of a larger conspiracy of events that can only lead towards a murderous end, when the reality is something much more tangible, even benign.

This, as a misdirection (which will only become explicit during a last minute twist), is best expressed in that remarkable, almost dreamlike sequence, in which Lina envisions her husband as a faceless figure.   Shrouded in the silhouetted cloak of a velvety blackness, he approaches with a sinister looking glass of warm milk.  The glass itself becomes a signifier; the expressionist unreality of it (where the liquid literally glows on-screen) is like an indicator that all is not as it should be.  In this scene, Hitchcock is once again pushing the audience towards a certain realisation where Lina is continually being reinforced as a potential victim - the helpless fly caught in the sinister web of her husband's misdeeds - but also revealing something more interesting about the psychology of the heroine...

Suspicion [Alfred Hitchcock, 1941]:
Who's who?  Is Lina trapped in a web of Johnnie's malevolence 
or of her own inability to observe the truth?

All of this is part of the film's clever (but frustrating) game of misdirection, where the filmmakers strive to establish the perspective of Lina as that of the obvious victim - the frightened woman - even if the eventual outcome shows this to be a cheat.  Conversely, Johnnie is presented as mysterious, deceptive and often aggressive.  The audience, like Lina, is incapable of seeing him as anything less than a threat.  However, the stylisations - which at first play into this deception, making the audience suspect Johnnie's intentions (just as Lina does) - will in hindsight become expressive of Lina's own perception of the word, which is fuelled throughout by the sheltered life that she had led prior to her first encounter with Johnnie, to say nothing of the death of her father, or the importance of social standing and reputation as something threatened by her husband's more casual and potentially more illicit way of life.

Nonetheless, it is this approach to staging and stylisation that defines our experience of the film (or mine at least) and what for me elevated a minor Hitchcock to a greater level of technical sophistication and significance.  If nothing else, the film remains an outstanding example of the director's remarkable approach to craft.

Perhaps more than anyone, Hitchcock recognised that the language of cinema is not "text"; it's not written.  It's imagery; shots and cuts, observations and movement.  We can take any frame of this film and "read" the images.  We can perceive the fear, the concern of characters, the relationship between people, the tone of a particular scene.  The body language, the composition of the shot, the use of light (and in later films, the use of colour) are each significant; all suggestive of the emotional and psychological subtext of the film, as well as existing as a more conventional means of furthering narrative progression.

This, as a mentality, is true for the majority of the other great Hollywood filmmakers - Ford, Ray, Hawks, Tourneur - just as it's true of the director's most indebted to Hitchcock's influence; Chabrol, Rivette, Spielberg, Fincher; the more contentious but no less brilliant likes of De Palma, Argento and Shyamalan.  This sense of the image - of the filmmaking apparatus - being used as a pen to tell a story; of "motion pictures" being used to suggest or evoke specific thoughts, feelings and desires that enrich the story, or the way that we interact with the characters on-screen.  It's also the self-reflexivity of this - the "web" itself, as a recurrent visual motif - which ensnares the doubtful Lina, and likewise ensnares the viewing audience, just as easily misled by Hitchcock's clever manipulation of the form.

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Warning...

Notes on a film and its prologue:
A Warning to the Curious (1972)

The title and prologue both play, self-reflexively, to the natural inquisitiveness of the viewing audience; that unstated appetite for the forbidden; the impulse to experience the unknown; to look behind the curtain and see how things work; to go where we're not supposed to; to venture out and explore.  In the context of the genre - in this instance, the supernatural - the title becomes more than just a label of identification; it's like a challenge to the individual; acknowledging our curiosity and using it to entice us, to lure us in.  The outcome might be nasty, even unpleasant, but already the title is challenging that spirit of adventure and inquisitiveness; that compulsion to open the previously locked door into the great unknown, as a provocation, or as a test of will.

From the very beginning, director Lawrence Gordon Clark establishes the location as a central character and uses the filmmaking to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and isolation that will intensify as the drama unfolds.

Effectively, the film itself begins with two continuous panning shots.  The first starts on a bleached-out, almost desaturated image of the pallid sand dunes stretching out to meet the shining sea.  Already, the implication of the shot is obvious: we're at the end of the world.  The camera pans to the right, following the coastline until it reaches a far-away copse of trees that wind-back, creating a borderline between earth and sand.  The next shot places us inside the woodland.  We're still outside, in the midst of nature, but the cut feels like a transition between an exterior-space to an interior one.  This time the camera pans to the left, across the wall of trees that appear like a perimeter encircling or imprisoning us; again, creating the impression that there's no place left to run.

The shot comes to rest on an image of a silhouetted figure in the distance.  Glimpsed between the greying trees that stand guard atop skewed hills that give the image the feeling of something from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - all distorted expressionism; a natural location that seems as stylised and otherworldly as a studio set - we watch the distant figure digging in the dirt.  Subsequent insert shots clarify the action, as the shovel penetrates the mound of earth and the man, now in close-up, exhales exhaustedly, until abruptly... he stops.  We're not sure why (to be exact), but it's almost as if the man has suddenly sensed something unsettling; a hidden presence, perhaps lurking within the periphery...

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

Throughout this sequence, Clark uses images of the surrounding woodland as a form of visual punctuation; accentuating the scene but also adding to the growing tension; that implicit impression that something terrible is about to occur.  Automatically the stylisation creates an eerie feeling; a sense of someone (or something) being present, observing from behind the trees.  There's no one there, physically (for the time being, at least), but even so, the character has the sensation that he's being watched and the audience, knowing instinctively the insinuations of the genre, share these paranoid thoughts.

The isolation of the location and these images of the forest - all ashen trees stripped of greenery; taking on the appearance of horned creatures silhouetted by an almost colourless sky - feed into the underling fear that causes the character to react.  Already I was beginning to question the possibility of an actual danger awaiting this character - trapped within a strange and slightly distorted environment with no easy escape - or if his actions (unstated, but no less suspicious) were in some way fuelling his discomfort (his guilt?), if not genuine fear.

As an approach to technique, the use of these cut-away shots reminded me very much of another film released during the same year; The Wold Shadow (1972) by Stan Brakhage.  Unlikely to have been an influence on Clark, the Brakhage film nonetheless begins with a similar image of trees framed within a woodland environment.  Like the shots here, it's a benign image - just trees, not necessarily something unnerving or unnatural in any immediate way - but one that the audience might interpret as sinister or even threatening if forced to look at for longer than seems necessary...

The Wold Shadow [Stan Brakhage, 1972]:

As the viewer observes The Wold Shadow, the image is transformed.  The transformation is created first through an unconventional manipulation of the aperture and later by shooting the image through an obscured pane of glass (onto which the filmmaker has gradually daubed paint to create an unnatural distortion of the original frame).  While the effect of this transformation on the viewer is intended as purely sensory (a visual metamorphosis), the actual result is far more psychological.

By studying the image, our mind is free to wander.  Even before Brakhage begins his manipulation of the form there is a need to contemplate and make sense of these images.  This "need" forces the viewer to project their own thoughts and fears onto its blank canvas; inventing a narrative where no real narrative exists and, in a sense, bringing the images to life.  In doing so, we start to see things that aren't actually there; we're spooked by what we perceive as shapes between the trees; the illusion of movement created by shadow and light.

It's the impression of nature itself as somehow "possessive", or able to possess, that is the most starting idea communicated by these shared images.  The conception of nature as something, if not genuinely "evil", then as a kind of conduit for something more primitive; an elemental spirit, representing its own energy, or primordial force.  The longer we're forced to stare at these images, the more significant they seem.  To make sense of them, we invent our own nightmares through superstition and attach them to these otherwise normal scenes, so that the images become a kind of black mirror; a deep (Freudian) abyss...

The Wold Shadow [Stan Brakhage, 1972]:

The sequence by Clark works on a similar if more conventional level.  Unlike the Brakhage film, the images remain part of a clear and identifiable narrative.  They work to tell the story, as illustrations, but the presentation of the images and the atmosphere that they evoke are no less charged with that same elemental spirit; where the forest space once again becomes a genuine force, and where the act of seeing (with one's own eyes) transforms a natural and benign image into an unnatural one, loaded as it is with a genuine "supernatural" threat.

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

Convincing himself (like the audience) that it's only his mind playing tricks on him - the superstitions of local lore or the natural isolation of the location getting his imagination spinning off in strange and ridiculous directions - the character gets back to his digging.  Returning to the wide-shot, Clark reminds us that the man is still alone...

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

However, after another one of those "Wold Shadow-like" insert-shots that make us question the safety of this place and its isolation we cut back to the man, now confronted by the sight of a tall, dishevelled figure, dressed almost entirely in black...

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

The figure startles both the character and the audience by appearing, as if from nowhere.  Here I asked myself: where did he come from?  Is he a supernatural presence or a local person angry at the man's intrusion?  It's never openly explained but we can draw our own conclusions from the subsequent scenes.  Even so, the unmitigated fear is clearly defined on the countenance of the digging character; a surprised shock or indignation that soon turns to insolence, as the man's upper-class arrogance kicks in.

There is a hint of class-based commentary here consistent with Clark's later film, the previously discussed Stigma (1977), where the digger (a man of some inferred privilege and reputation) believes that he has the right to bend nature to his will and to disturb these sites of sacred interest, while the local man - earnest, possibly simple-minded and with an air of agitated lower-class physicality - is unsurprisingly appalled by the lack of respect for the land and its traditions.

A scuffle breaks out but the man is able to subdue the menacing figure, knocking him to the ground.  At this point, the more rational mind of the audience will be telling the character to flee; to use this advantage to get away.  However, as horror movie law dictates, the man's arrogance and greed has already sealed his fate.  As he returns to his digging, safe in the supercilious belief that he's bested this shabby and cadaverous intruder, the black-clad figure spies a large axe-like implement left idle among the kindling.

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

The blade seems to have appeared as mysteriously as the figure himself, but already Clark is using these metaphysical manifestations to establish, in the collective mind of the viewer, the threat of an actual, physical violence.

While hampered by awkward editorial transitions (no doubt a result of the film's limited budget), the following sequence is no less impressive in its staging; the structure of the shots and the growing momentum of dread and desperation showing an obvious debt of influence to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and in particular the infamous Bates' Motel shower sequence from the filmmaker's late masterpiece, Psycho (1960).

Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960]:

Here, as in Hitchcock's film, it is the way the rhythmical cutting between shots suggests the brutality of the violence (as opposed to the violence itself) that makes the greatest impression.  Rather than depicting the attack in explicit detail, the scene instead implies violence through montage and movement and through the facial expressions of the characters on-screen.

As the camera slowly zooms from a mid-shot to a close-up and beyond into an extreme-close-up of the back of the character's neck, we're already certain of what's about to take place.  We're being led to connect the shots in our own imagination; the man, the close-up on the back of his head, the figure with the blade, the blade itself, etc, all combined in the mind's eye of the viewer to suggest something unspeakable, but in a manner that is brilliantly done...

A Warning to the Curious [Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972]:

As an introductory sequence, the above scene is an attention-grabber.  It establishes, sufficiently and with much atmosphere, the key themes of the film - from greed and curiosity, to the isolation of the countryside and the almost primal preservation of tradition as a genuine supernatural force - as well as introducing the greater practicalities of the subsequent narrative.  Here a man driven by what we assume is greed finds himself isolated in a landscape that takes on a near-paranormal tenor when threatened by external forces.  This, as a distillation of the film in miniature, is like a prelude to everything that we're about to see; a forewarning, of history about to be repeated.

More importantly however, the scene also communicates a level of "meta" commentary that is in keeping with the here-jettisoned narrative structure of the original story by M.R. James.  There, the warning of the title was recounted by the central character, in-hindsight.  He was talking about something that had already occurred, so the character's recollection became a warning to his companions (the listeners to his tale).  As an alternative, Clark structures the film so that this opening sequence, in its entirety, can itself be considered a "warning to the curious."  The curious, in this instance, being the viewing audience (those of us watching the film), but also the soon to be introduced central character, Mr. Paxton, as played by Peter Vaughan.