Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Unlikely Master of Widsom

By some inexplicable measure of fate, the identity of Alfred Hitchcock eluded my awareness for much of my youth. A few of his movies had become staples at late night gatherings where family dinners were held in front of an old television set – namely, “The Birds” and “Psycho” – but somehow his notoriety as the most influential filmmaker of his generation simply did not register beyond the acknowledgment of a mere name on a credits list. And as those years progressed and the movies became more of a guiding force of interest, my enthusiasm was caught up in too many modern indulgences (animated films and blockbusters, namely) to be willing to understand the source of cinematic language he helped to craft.

But as years pass on and our interests evolve, intrigue eventually turns towards the origins of these sorts of pastimes. For me, that lightbulb flickered to life (albeit in brief flashes) in the latter years of college, when film courses saturated my curriculum. One of the most notable of those was a 10-week study of a dozen important filmmakers who assisted in shaping the trade. It was in those precious weeks that names like Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut first came to notice, and others like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese made more resonating imprints. And amidst those studies was, too, the earliest of my encounters with the notorious Hitchcock, a master manipulator who somehow outlasted all of his contemporaries to produce the most prolific and successful career of them all: one that lasted six decades and resulted in at least a dozen or so highly regarded cinematic benchmarks.

Continued education in Alfred’s expansive catalogue did not happen as abundantly. In 2002 I became a regular at local movie screenings as part of the online press, and all energy turned to new movies as a focus, with little elbow room for study of heritage; in those days, it was more prevalent amongst writers (especially in the online medium) to always focus on the now in order to maintain some level of consistent readership. That is not a quandary in the presence of results that inspire something more than momentary thrills, but more often than not newer movies are of design by committee, made simply to bait the populace into spending their money on something disposable. If it is the nature of art to reflect their eras, then how ironic it must seem to be in the time of great technological innovation when the movies themselves have become so short-sighted.

It had always been a given amongst my peers that the moviegoeing experience is one of joyous sensations, but so little of that emphasis has been placed on vision. The idea that one person standing behind the camera could coordinate such an intricate succession of camera shots, editing techniques and stylistic cues all while modulating the tone and performances made the idea seem almost supernatural. What gave them the drive? The enthusiasm? The precision of talent? The motion picture gained an entire new facet of possibility with the awareness of a singular craftsman playing all the right notes to create an experience beyond simple entertainment.

Though I knew this in my earliest years as a film writer, I didn’t walk the necessary miles until I returned to blogging about them in 2013. In the grind of mainstream cinema’s gradual descent into sensationalism, I found more interest during that initial bout with reviewing older films – namely, those by directors who I had come to recognize over time for their immense skill and passion. While the reputable critics in print and broadcast continued to measure the value of the latest pictures at the multiplex, much of my time was spent reflecting on the rich heritage of Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman, or the more recent thoughts of Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars von Trier. And in the thick of that trek came, once again, a return to the sensibilities of the great Hitchcock, who more than ever emerged as the most well-rounded of movie architects.

I had always admired Alfred, but never to the degree of considering him the greatest of his profession. To imply such an absurd honor would have been to diminish the filmmakers I always held in much higher esteem (Kubrick, Herzog and Bergman, among others). But something about the consistency and choreography of his work ages like a fine wine, and at 33 I understand more about his skill and thought than ever before. Often that results in viewings of clusters of his movies. In February of 2014 I engaged in a weekend-long marathon with a close friend who had been an avid follower of his for a long while, and we cranked our way through a dozen of his pictures while leaning forward in earnest attention, as if curious to discover the buried secrets of his success. Many of those films I wound up writing about throughout the spring, including two of my personal favorites: the droll but suspenseful “Frenzy,” and “Rear Window,” one of his most unconsciously autobiographical.

The most fascinating of details in this undertaking was not that Hitchcock finally came to the forefront of my respect, but that his movies served dual functions: firstly as reminders of our rich past, and second as precursors to some of my personal best writing about film. Perhaps there is something to the adage that suggests we pick up cues from our heroes to become better at our own professions. I was uncertain of that realization until I found myself returning to his devious patterns in these recent weeks, when another cluster of his films (some of which I had never seen) wound up in my possession. I had been plagued by an alarming sense of disinterest for writing in the month leading up to this latest trek through his filmography, and the fact that his undeniable precision could spur me from creative slumber seemed to suggest something almost magical about his influence. Was he really just a great filmmaker with perfect pitch, or was he farsighted enough to infuse his work with some level of deep psychological irony that could, in effect, stir us to great heights of personal cognizance?

I often write about these kinds of personal realizations in my blog, and with good reason: to break down the walls restricting our passions, we have to consider why they exist, and honor what gives us the energy to destroy them. Film itself isn’t always the catalyst that inspires my creative energy in times when it is depleted, but it is the medium that contains the most diverse array of inspiring examples. More often than not, I am drawn towards those established by consistent and resonating filmmakers, especially the ones that have proven dependable over the course of time. Bergman, for instance, is steadfast as a cerebral poet during times of emotional fragility. Kubrick penetrates to the core of human psychosis, and insists we respond with silent contemplation. Aronofsky reminds us of the tragic implications that come with unhealthy obsessions. Scorsese hopes we can understand the nature of the hard-boiled loner. Lang demands that we reject the infrastructure that threatens to constrict individualism. And somewhere in this crowd of prestigious cinematic prophets is the overpowering profile of one Alfred Hitchcock, whose furrowed grin and nonchalant gaze seem like devious invites into a world built on control, dedication, indomitable work ethic, and a thin trace of dark humor to keep it all in context.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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