Those were the words Stephen King wrote way back in 1998, in his novel Bag of Bones. These days I can't help wondering if he's changed his tune on that score. At the time, the prospects for writers and publishers was a lot more rose colored than it is now. CDs, TV, and the movies haven't fair much better, for that matter. We've lost both Herman Wouk and Harlan Ellison, and I'm not sure most folk even know they're gone. It's an open question in my mind whether or not things will reach a point when people cease to realize that they ever existed. As time goes on, it seems like W.H. Auden was more on point when he observed: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”
That's a harsh truth that's getting more noticeable as the 21st century continues it's implacable march. If anyone mentions The Haunting of Hill House, most will immediately think about that HBO series that just finished it's run. Very few will consider the possibility that it's also the title of a novel. The truth is reading always seems to have been something of a minority practice, rather than the normative order of things. That's not too much of a wild statement when you consider that about half of one percent of the population of medieval Europe could ever learn to read and write their own names. The numbers have climbed since then, yet, anything like a true and full sense of literacy has always been evaded through the passage of time. It's an unfortunate truth for a lot of great names. For instance, does anyone know of Ramsey Campbell? How about Alexander Dumas, Greta Garbo, Richard Matheson, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Manly Wade Wellmann or Charles Beaumont? Who wrote The Haunting of Hill House? Who's David Soul? Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up?
The trick to being a giant is learning how to keep your longevity going well past your time. It's something of an inevitable shame to see the names and works of great artists fade into obscurity. The biggest irony I can imagine is that moment when a text that was considered groundbreaking on it's release becomes something that's barely remembered years later. That's the sad fate of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a series of published interviews between French director Francois Truffaut, and an English-American filmmaker who used to be known as the Master of Suspense. At the time the book was released it was considered a shot across the bows of the old establishment of Hollywood. Today it seems like barely a ripple in the ocean.
That's why it' gratifying to know that director Kent Jones not only remembers the book, he seems to be one of it's biggest fans. In 2015 Jones made a concerted effort to interview as many of the current and former biggest names in showbiz while they can still remember and remain to tell their stories of how this one simple book, made and released by a pair of eager cinema enthusiasts, left an impact on them.
It's one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. A woman (played by Janet Leigh), on the run from the law, finds a temporary safe haven in an off-ramp rest stop known as the Bates Motel. While taking a shower this woman becomes the victim of an anonymous serial killer who draws back the curtain to knife her, over and over again, until at last the woman lies dead.
The infamous Shower Scene in Psycho is one of those moments in film that manages to dig a space for itself in the minds of a lucky few viewers. That film was directed by British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, and its impact on audiences in 1960 was almost immediate. The film's release was one of the first instances where record crowds would line an entire block in their eagerness over a new release. The fact that the film succeeded on word of mouth alone is a testament to its quality. Hitchcock made the controversial decision to let the film promote itself, refusing to let the cast do the usual round of promotional interviews and TV appearances that are still part of the Hollywood marketing machine. Psycho proved it was able to hold its own, and one member of the audiences was more than thrilled at what he saw. He was inspired.
In 1962 French New Wave director Francois Truffaut wrote to Hitchcock, suggesting a series of book-length interviews to be held over a number of days. He would be given the time and space needed to both explain and defend his career and make a case for the "Art" of movie-making in general. Hitchcock agreed, and the book was published in 1966 under the title Hitchcock/Truffaut. "Truffaut,"the narration explains, "began as a critic in the early 50s. He started at the great French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. For the writers at Cahiers, soon to become the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, Hitchcock's greatness as an artist was self-evident."
One of the things to admire about the New Wave critics and directors was their seeming willingness to break some of the rules in terms of what was regarded as proper art. They seem to have been the first to treat film as art with a capital A, something that could be shown in a museum right next to Van Gogh or Paul Cezanne. However, if they were willing to make this claim, then they did so without any of the pretension that has since crawled into the art of making movies, and its criticism. Instead, back then, it was considered okay to say you were familiar with the poetry of Andre Gide, while also admitting a fondness for Donald Duck comic books, or old pulp detective novels.
This seems to have been a departure from the accepted practice of the majority of American critics who treated it all as a disposable diversion. This what I find enjoyable about the Wave as an aesthetic movement. They were one of the few groups of artists and critics who were willing to treat Westerns, Horror films, and Noir with no standard separation between Art and Popular Entertainment.
Much like Psycho, Truffaut's interviews left an impact on the industry, however this one was more subtle and unnoticed, except by a few. The handful of directors that made up the Movie Brats generation of filmmaking, such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, were able to rally around the book as a kind of Cri de Coeur.
The interviews of Hitchcock/Truffaut are the subject of Kent Jones' new documentary of the same name. That idea of a rallying cry, and how it has changed over the decade is crucial to an understanding of the material Jones is working with. Over the length of its 80-minute running time, directors like Scorsese, Peter Bogdonavich and Wes Anderson sing the praises of both filmmakers and their interviews as a kind of gold standard to which artists should aspire. It is through the interviews that the viewer is given a set of key insights into the themes and ideas that fascinated Hitchcock, and to which he returned to time and again in his films.
Surprise and Suspense.
"Is it possible, now, for us, to define suspense," Truffaut asks through a translator at one point. That is to say, are there many forms of of suspense?" "The word "suspense", Truffaut continues, "can be interpreted in several ways. In your interviews you have frequently pointed out the differences between "surprise" and "suspense." But many people are under the impression that suspense is related to fear". Hitchcock agrees that this is a kind of logical fallacy. "Suspense doesn't always have fear involved". It's a legitimate distinction, yet I wonder how often that comes into play with the kind of work he's most remembered for. This is a topic that we'll have to come back to. For the moment, it is suspense taken in isolation that is the main subject under consideration.
One of the ways that Hitchcock utilizes suspense in his films is through a method Truffaut notes as "the expansion of time". This warping and shaping of time in the narrative is ironically very simple. It's merely the case of the artist asking himself, what do I need to do in order to make this scene work? How do I get you, the viewer, as a part of the audience, on the edge of your seat? The answer is that you must see if you can find whether or not the narrative proper has any material that will lend itself toward moments, ideas, and details that will grip the audience on the necessary psychological level, and keep them in the appropriate level of suspense required for each particular story.
Hitchcock's methods of going about this are enlightening from a 21st century perspective. He never goes for the cheap approach that's common today, where everything is a series of fast cuttings, pans, and loud noises. Instead he is very deliberate as a storyteller. He was never afraid to take his time introducing his audiences to the cast of characters, and the situations they find themselves in. He was willing to adjust his pacing of these moments to however long it took to get the audiences up to speed.
The curious part is whether or not this counts as holding the viewer's hand? Hitchcock stated that was never his intention. Instead, he was more interested in leading you to a place where you expect one thing to happen, and then something else transpires which puts a different perspective on the whole proceedings. This is evident in a lot of his work, however this stated intention and approach does little to shake the impression that Hitchcock is still something of a rule-breaker in terms of what a contemporary audience defines as suspense.
Hitchcock had a metaphor for how he handled suspense. Two people are in a room, each are seated at a desk, and holding a conversation. All of sudden a bomb goes off, and maybe one or both characters are killed as a result. That leaves the audience in surprise and shock. It can be effective to an extent, and it does perhaps have it's own place in the craft of telling a story. However, Hitchcock seemed less interested in shocks as a director. He was by no means above using shock value when it suited his purpose. The difference was that he always held a concern with giving the shock a certain added amount of narrative weight whenever it did occur.
The way he did this was also very simple. He went back to the same metaphor. We have two characters in room, at the same desk, holding the same conversation. However, at some point, the audience is shown that there is a bomb under the table, while the characters remain oblivious to a certain degree. Now, instead of just a sudden moment of shock, the audience is made aware that the same moment is coming before it even arrives. This leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat while they wait for the bomb to tick away toward a final countdown. This is one of those scenarios were a slower sense of narrative timing can come in real handy. The longer we are left in that room with the bomb ticking toward doomsday, the greater amount of suspense is generated that nudges our emotions up to a more heightened level of narrative investment.
That is a perfect example of suspense as opposed to just a fleeting moment of surprise. The key difference is all in the setup. If you can find the right way to introduce a certain amount of threat into the narrative, then director is able to plant an equally metaphorical hook in the audience that is able to draw them along down winding paths of the story's unfolding. It still remains a distinct approach in the annals of film history. Aside from an invariable confidence in a slower sense of pacing, the other reason comes back to the idea of narrative weight.
Hitchcock seems to have been the kind of storyteller with the ability to realize that a lot of the best stories have a certain thematic resonance that is able to make them click with audiences, even as you're turning the thumbscrews on them. It is this awareness that appears to account for the surprising levels of narrative sophistication on display in most of his films. Hitch was an artist capable of giving a impressive level of thought to the ideas in his films, even if those thoughts are expressed on a subconscious level. So far as I can tell, those thoughts center around two concepts.
A Collective Sense of Guilt.
It's easy to make a leap from that story to the conclusion that this accounts for the constant, distrustful portrayal of authority in Hitchcock's films, especially when it comes to the portrayal of the police. The question no one bothers to ask, however, is whether Hitchcock was the kind of child whose exploits would make him fear discovery by any kind of authority figure? It's think it's a mistake to label Hitch a problem child. Perhaps a phrase like prankster or trickster better describes the kind of boy he was growing up. A the very least, it grants a better explanation than just some random form of punishment on the part of his parents.
It has to be noted, though, that if Hitchcock film's bear an anti-authority stamp to them, based off of their director's nature, then it still isn't enough to erase the concomitant theme to which this sense of rebellion and taboo breaking seems to be forever joined at the hip. "I'm reluctant to give any examples," Truffaut exclaims, "but I really feel the sense of guilt in your work. Everyone has something to feel guilty about". In this sense one could describe Hitchcock in terms similar to Nathaniel Hawthorn, both are artists whose value rests, at least in part, on the discovery (or perhaps the re-discovery) of guilt, and the potential torments of conscience.
Of course, sometimes this sense of social decay can also act as the catalyst for the catastrophe. The opening moments of Psycho is a series of acts that build one upon another. In each act, the characters transgress on a microcosmic level. It is a moment that grows from a small, isolated seed to envelope the entire macrocosm of the film as events spiral out of control in a manhunt across America. First it starts with the greed and inconsiderateness of a single man, from there it moves to theft, and finally to a total moment of outright horror in the Shower Scene. In this case, the series of transgressions are what allow the moment of horror to take place. These occasional outbreaks of horror bring us to the second and final level of meaning of Hitch's work.
The Use and Evolution of Fear.
It is true that you can draw a distinction between Suspense and Horror. However, while it's true that a film such as North by Northwest qualifies as a solid espionage thriller, by and large, Hitchcock is always at his best when he decides to make the audience scream bloody murder. In this regard, I suppose it makes the best sense to view the director as an artist in the Gothic tradition.
This aspect is best on display in films like Rebecca, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. The skill and dexterity Hitchcock displays in handling the moments of terror or fear place him in the genre of Horror as much as Suspense. At some point, Hitchcock reaches a moment in his work where any boundaries between the two genres dissolves, and they collapse into each other. In this regard, Hitchcock proves to be of unintentional help for the viewer. Those generic boundary breaks can act as a sort of marker or lesson in the history of the Gothic tradition.
"There is an interzone," according to critic Paul Meehan, "A twilight realm that exists somewhere between mystery and imagination, murder and fate, flesh and fantasy. This nightmare world is inhabited by criminals, murderers, and monsters of many kinds, human and inhuman: phantom ladies, brute men, wolfen, cannibals, vampires, magicians, and serial killers. It is a world of shadows and depravity, madness and obsession, cloaked perpetually in the gloom of night.
"The macabre has been an element of the mystery story since the inception of the genre. Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," first published in 1841, is considered the first example of detective fiction. Poe's eccentric sleuth M. Auguste Dupin cracks a multiple murder case in which the perpetrator turns out to be a homicidal ape. Conan-Doyle's most memorable Sherlock Holmes adventure is surely his 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes squares off against a phantom hound and a ghostly family curse. The Victorian writer Wilkie Collins incorporated the trappings of the supernatural into his seminal detective novels The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). All of these writers (and Poe in particular) are also known for their horror fiction.
"Morbidity has always been a prime feature of...mystery fiction, where ghastly murder and dire plans constitute the soul of the plot. The noir fiction of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, although realistic in nature, is populated with characters who are monstrous grotesques (3)". In Hitchcock's case, the Gothic grotesque is, once again, summed up in the title character of Psycho. While not supernatural by any means, Norman Bates nonetheless remains a figure of horror straight from the folktale world of the Brothers Grimm. As brought to life by Anthony Perkins, Norman is the quintessential wolf in sheep's clothing, whose sickness compels him to lure his victims into a false sense of security before yanking the mask of civilization off to reveal the troll that's been hiding in the dark corners under the bridge the whole time. It is this Gothic fairy tale note that Hitchcock played so well when he'd reached the proper time for it.
Hitchcock's place in this tradition seems to be one that takes a great deal after Poe and Conan-Doyle. It might help in a sense to treat the two authors as poles between which the pendulum of Hitch's imagination swung in a constant back and forth dialogue. The start of his career seems to have been more in line with the straightforward approach of Doyle. In films like The 39 Steps, and The Man who Knew Too Much, the suspense element is at the front of the action. If horror has any place in these films, then it is limited to those moments where the narrative tension is allowed a brief peak through the curtain now and then, often when an exchange of violence occurs. However, even then, the element of terror is in service to a more daytime oriented romantic thriller. As time went on, the pendulum began to edge ever closer to the more Gothic trappings of Poe. This seems to have a gradual process. It's earliest manifestation comes with 1940's Rebecca, where Joan Fontaine's character seems to undergo a continuous, slow-building assault from a woman beyond the grave. Hitch comes back to it again at certain moments in Vertigo. There we see the director at a stylistic crossroads, where he seems uncertain of which direction to go. It's almost as if he's presented with the option of telling a straight up murder mystery, or else tilting things into the full-on supernatural. In the end, it seems the director couldn't decide which he liked best, and settled for a compromise that was a bit unhappy for the film to be as effective as it could have been.
With Psycho and The Birds, Hitch has decided to take the fateful plunge and dive straight into the deepest, darkest, depths of human imagining. If Meehan is right in claiming that an element of horror has been implicit from the start of the modern thriller, then Hitchcock's major contribution to this tradition is that he took the tropes and trappings of Poe and gave them a dress and form of expression that was thoroughly modern in a way that allowed these narrative elements to pave the way for the future genre artists that would come after him.
The horror that Hitch excelled at was the kind that plumbs the depths in the inner world of his protagonists, and how they chose to externalize it. It is only with Birds that an outside horror is suggested as the mechanism for the terror, and even then we are never really shown what that horror is, or may be. Perhaps the most interesting question is how far Hitch could have taken things if he'd had a longer time to develop all these new directions? That is one of history's great unanswered questions, I'm afraid. I think it's enough to be grateful for what we have.
I said a bit earlier that when Truffaut released his book of interviews that it was treated as a kind of rallying cry by a group of artists who used to be the future of the movies. That was a whole generation, and a great many beers ago. The cinema has moved on since then. The pictures got smaller. The irony is how it doesn't seem to change the fact that a single book could leave such an impact, even if it was just on a handful of artists. That idea of a rallying cry, and how it has changed over the decades, is crucial to an understanding of the material Jones is working with. Over the length of its 80 minute runtime, directors like Scorsese, Peter Bogdonavich and Anderson sing the praises of both filmmakers, and their interviews, as a kind of gold standard to which they aspire.
It must be kept in mind that the likes of Truffaut, Scorsese, and Spielberg were the first to make these claims way back in the Vietnam Era. Here, the same claims are made, and yet the passage of time has created a literal world of difference. During the establishment of Cahiers du Cinema the argument was all about the validity of film as an artistic medium. In today's post-Pixar age, those claims have shifted. Before the claim of film as art was considered reactionary. Now the claims carry a more preservationist slant. The spokesmen of the Cahiers age seem less concerned now with film as Art than with the type of stories films can tell.
At the heart of Jones' documentary lies an implicit plea that modern audiences not forget where their favorite movies have come from. Nor should they forget the different kinds of stories film can tell. In an Age of Blockbusters where the comic book dictates the public tastes, Hitchcock/Truffaut suggests that there were always alternative choices for the kind of stories that can be told.
Early on in the film, Truffaut observes that Hitchcock's particular type of cinema "irritates the critics because of your casual approach to plausibility". To which Hitchcock sums up with the reply, "Logic is dull". What's curious is that he doesn't seem to be discussing the implausibility of a film like The Avengers, but something much more complex. Later on, Truffaut asks, "Are dreams important to your work?" Hitchcock's response is telling, "I'm never satisfied with the ordinary. I can't do well with the ordinary". It is the logic of dreams, not a simple blockbuster mentality that drives his work. It is an aesthetic that does not fit any of the current film categories. It suggests that the key to the kind of enchantment that stories provide is not to be found by hitting the audience over the head with explosions, but in tapping into the kind of poetry that can best be discovered in dreams.
For this reason, Hitchcock's oeuvre is an unintentional anomaly. He didn't set out to be an outsider artist. By the standards of his day, he was a popular entertainer along the lines of how Spielberg was regarded back in the 80s. Today, however, with the shifting tastes of audiences over time, we have turned a mainstream artists into a kind of freak. Something like that is hard to grasp or understand. A way to help come to grips with it is to give some idea of what the mass idea of entertainment was back in Hitch's day. It was something more measured and low-key compared to the kind of expectations most audiences bring to the cinema (when we can be bothered to indulge in it anymore in the smart-screen era).
I think a fair enough timeline for this kind artistic expectation lasted more or less from Hitch's time to more or less right until or around the start of the 1990s. Right around 95 or 96 is the moment I can recall were it felt like a cutoff point had been reached. Something had changed in the kind of shows and films everyone was putting out. Everything was being homogenized into a one size fits all kind of perspective, and a lot of the real talent was becoming more and more the reserve of a few lone wolf artists, along with a handful of some of the old guys whom Hitchcock inspired. The real point, however, is to consider the possibility that a lot of persons born after those two years have grown up with an idea of entertainment that is is different enough to be at odds with those born as early as 1982. To young people like the kind I'm thinking about, Hitchcock's work must sound like the transmission of some strange, indecipherable foreign language.
The good news in all this is that Hitch speaks in a language that can be mastered, it's just that it might a take a little time for the current millenial audience to acclimate itself to this older sort of atmosphere. In the end, most movie-goers are doing themselves a disservice by depriving themselves of the kind of alternative cinema offered by a genuine classic artist. The imagination is multifaceted, and those who care about it, and the telling of stories, owe it to themselves to check out the work of one of Hollywood's great pioneers. All that is needed is something that can serve as a proper, first introduction. From that perspective, Hitchcock/Truffaut is probably one of the best gateway drugs out there.