Thursday, 14 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: The Trouble with Hitch

[I had written this article in 2013, when I was in the second year of my undergraduate course, for the souvenir of the 40th Reunion of the Physics Department of my university. This was written in haste  at my seniors' insistence – and I think it shows. I hope I will be able write much longer articles on Hitch.]

The Trouble with Hitch

August 2012 was a very important month for film enthusiasts all over the world – the prestigious British film magazine, Sight & Sound, published the results of its worldwide poll (nearly 1400 critics and director were polled) for the “Greatest Films of All Time”. The list sprung a surprise for many:  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), considered for decades the best among the best, was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But Hitchcock’s ascent to the top spot was quickly digested. Everyone accepted that the artistry of Hitchcock is beyond the shadow of a doubt.

But should we accept that so easily? If I have learned something from my study of physics so far, it’s the important of asking questions. Physics has taught me to reject numinous vagueness, strangely appealing as it may be, in favour of clarity and precision. Before we get into the question of whether or not Hitchcock is a great artist, it’s essential to ask who a great artist is or what great art is. Let alone “art”, we are not even sure what “great” is. It’s a very subjective idea which is susceptible to wild misinterpretations. For example, the S&S poll is a survey of the personal favourites of the people polled. But to call the results the “List of Greatest Films of All Time” does an enormous disservice to great films, and to lists. We’ll not debate the problematic nature of such lists here. The curious thing is most of us take it for granted that such lists truly represent the greatest films. We like them or not, we are forced to acknowledge that, yes, the films are truly great.

The problem stems from our concept of art as a sacred entity the value of which must never be questioned. That is why today we find an ever-increasing distinction between mainstream films and art films. (The sooner we shed this distinction the better.) The real artistic films, it is widely believed today, are the ones that have long unbroken shots, meditations on metaphysics, no background music and certainly no humour. I’m not demeaning films with such attributes – indeed, many of my favourite films are filled with these – all I’m saying is: these cannot be qualifiers of great art and can only add to the confusion. At this point, I must assert that I don’t claim to know what great art is. I doubt whether this question can ever be validly answered. But I think it is possible to identify some aspects of art without entirely stripping it of its essence.  For one, I think life and art are not mutually independent. As a logical consequence, art must say something about our lives, even if it cannot be expected to do anything.  But as in science, any solution of the problem (i.e. doing) must begin with identifying it (i.e. saying). In this respect, the genre of horror/suspense films, usually considered lowbrow, reveals to me deeper truths of life than do “Great Films”.

This brings us to Hitchcock. He was a popular genre filmmaker and was unashamed of it.  The contemporary reception of his films was mostly dismissive. His films were popular but he never bowed to popular conventions, which sets him apart from today’s popular filmmakers who insist on reinforcing everything we already know and accept without doubt. They offer nothing more than mindless, time-killing “entertainment”. Hitch (as the Master preferred to be called), on the other hand, shows great concern with the world he inhabits and, most important of all, tries to make his audience aware of these concerns in a simultaneously subtle and entertaining way. And this is what, in my opinion, elevates him to the level of a great artist.

Let’s consider his thriller Rear Window (1954), for example. It is a simple and engrossing murder mystery which perfectly satisfies the hunger of a thrill-seeking audience. But then, it’s something more. Hitch never pleases the audience without winking at them. (Do you expect to see the Hero confined to a wheelchair through the length of a mainstream film even today?) Hitchcock took great pride in playing his audience “like an organ”.  The film raises important questions on how far art and life are connected.  The apartments in Rear Window are a brilliant microcosm of the modern world. Like the audience in a movie theatre, we savour the happenings in the world as exciting scenes, but never really care about it. That’s what he seems to be saying in this film. I won’t spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it, but like all of Hitchcock’s films, it’s immensely rewarding.

Let’s now come to his most popular work, Psycho (1960). Described as a lowbrow horror film upon release, it gained unparalleled acclaim from its audience. It’s a powerful statement on sin, punishment and loneliness but all in the guise of a murder mystery! It retains its nail-biting suspense even after you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Hitchcock once compared himself to Shakespeare, in terms of communicating to the audience. He was right. It should not be forgotten that Shakespeare’s plays were very popular in his day. But his talent was not considered special then. Today we celebrate him as an important artist but no longer remember the purpose his plays were intended for. (Shakespeare is not exactly “popular” today, in the usual sense, no?) Hitchcock is one of greatest innovators of all time; let’s not reduce him to just another Important Artist!

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