Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

There’s a technique surely everyone’s now familiar with in suspense or horror films: humor. Often the first part of the film is lighthearted, which serves to…well, you know, make it so that everyone in the audience is really primed to be emotionally demolished.

Hitchcock’s actors in the Man Who Knew Too Much included Peter Lorre, who worked with Brecht, and Nova Pilbeam, who  married Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who took over the post of Poet Laureate from Wordsworth, who’d assumed it after Robert Southey, totally mocked by Lord Byron, and Tennyson’s descended from Edward III, of pseudo-Shakespeare fame, and Blake pseudo-fame. Hitchcock, who considered Bunuel the greatest director, Bunuel who worked with Dali, Hitchcock who was worshiped by Truffaut, Truffaut who called Night and Fog the greatest film ever made, which was made by Resnais, who thinks Nathalie is a sweetheart, and so do I, and tomorrow I really need to call her.

I mean, when you stop and think about it, that’s all so much more fascinating than the lies we’ve been told about the good intentions of George Washington.

Hitchcock remade this film in 1956, my comments here, and the film is fairly dense both structurally and in terms of character development. It’s a gorgeous example of the director knowing more about the characters than he lets on, and because there are no explanations, we’re left believing these people are real. Is it necessary? No. Does it make the film more forceful? Yes. But what other differences are there?

Well, to start with, I’ll remind you that this is a story about a child being kidnapped and how his parents go about saving him. The 1956 version has a weaker female lead whose strength is in her musical ability, weakness in her mental fortitude, and the film is just as much about the saving of a child as the saving of a marriage. The 1934 version has a couple with a delightfully sense of love and humor, a British version of Nick and Nora Charles, though The Thin Man‘s earliest European release date is from the same month as this film’s release! So much for Nick and Nora Charles being essentially American. The mother in this story also happens to be a sharpshooter who saves the day not by singing, but by sniping the baddie off the fucking roof. Yeah. Imagine Doris Day with a rifle.

It always gives me a little chill when Brits show anything that look like real emotions. Maybe that’s why I like Lily Allen.

In the 1934 version the child is played by the 15 year old Nova Pilbeam, who’s made to seem much younger, but who, in actuality, was a total hottie, and one of the only starlets of that era with whom I still have a chance to, you know, get with. Even if she is 90. I’ve seen some pretty vibrant nonagenarians. If you have her email address, please let her know.

Compare her with the boy in the 1956 version. Both kids are talkative and walking calamities, but Nova Pilbeam is adorable and the boy is insufferable. I hate him. The kidnappers can have him, because I hate him from the very first scene. It’s also worth noting that Nova Pilbeam’s acting stands out as superb, especially considering the differences compared to other actors of the period. The final scene, when she’s a little hysterical/shell-shocked, is stunning–it’s unlike any sound I’ve ever heard uttered on film up until that point. And her pajamas, prisoners stripes, are a sickening addition for the wardrobe. I must add, though, that anything I watch from this period is with one eye toward the trenches of the Western Front, another eye toward Dunkirk, and that awful understanding that as this film was being made, even one of its stars had already fled Nazi Germany.

We only think time goes quickly because we have the capacity to suffer so horribly during short periods.

But a hundred summers ago we had no idea that the British Empire was about to collapse. King Edward died in May 1910, which means that the film Mary Poppins begins before that date (“it’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910 / King Edward’s on the throne, it is the age of men”) — Kaiser Wilhelm, his nephew, was at his funeral, and the family name was still Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Wilhelm blamed the German disillusionment with the war, and subsequent collapse of the country, on the Jews, stating that they should be wiped out as a vermin.

“And if we spoke we’d never see her again. It’s her life against this fellow, Ropa’s. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we’ve never even heard of were assasinated?”
“Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Of course you hadn’t. I doubt if you’d even heard of the Archduke Ferdinand. But in month’s time, because a man you’d never heard of killed another man you’d never heard of in a place you’d never heard of, this country was at war.”

And there you have it. That’s how the world works. That’s logic that every single person in the audience would have understood. Our ancient history hadn’t been written yet. Perhaps it reminds you of today. A man we’ve never heard of is supposedly going to open a building whose purpose we don’t know, on a street none of us can name and certainly can’t find on a map. And the whole country is in an uproar because the Republicans see it as evidence that our president is a terrorist sympathizer. We’re all slaves, every single one of us. Stupid fucking slaves whose lives, to our leaders, are worth less than the ink on our birth certificates. But god, we know how to suffer. We know how to take a bee-sting and feel it for an eternity. So it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world, easy to think the Great War happened before the invention of consciousness. But it was just yesterday. I’ve met and touched a man who fought there. There’s so much more to life than the petty shit you find important.

And here’s some recommended reading on Hitchcock’s 1930s films as anti-German: http://www.filminfocus.com/article/hitchcock_at_war/print

and lyrics and footnotes to “The Writing of Tipperary” http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/writingo.html

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film: Godard: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

pierrotDear Meg,

I really am trying to write. Actually, the truth is that I haven’t begun writing at all. I have all the materials I need to begin writing, but there’s this present lack of something in me that leads me to a persistent inability not only to finding my words, but also to having real thoughts. Letter writing has failed me, travel has failed me, adventures have failed me, digging up family ghosts have failed me, I’ve tried all these things in the past few weeks and I find myself unable to write like I once could. It’s terrifying. So now I’ve been watching Godard and some opera (I don’t mean just any ol’ opera, I mean un certain opéra) and hoping desperately that forcing myself to write about these things will bring me quickly back to my senses. If nothing else will, then that’s that, I simply am unable to write ever again and I will have to just be ilwriterishly for ever after.

In the meantime I’ve been reading a lot of old reviews regarding works I’ve been involved with—and it seems to me that critics are quite possibly the dullest bunch ever formed by god, and I can only hope that someday a new sort of criticism will emerge, in which the critic will begin under the assumption that the artist knows precisely what he or she

(must I include ‘or she’–or can I just go along with the old rules of grammar in which the masculine gender is attributed to an indeterminate subject? or am I supposed to switch back and forth, like in the science safety videos where all the kids always have names we’ve never heard before? honestly, Meg, sometimes I can’t even lift my pen because I don’t know what to do with my pronouns! How do you deal with this?)

has created, has made every decision with infinite deliberation. That’s how I always tried to approach creative writing classes, in which I’d assume typos to be artistic statements. That’s how critics should be approaching everything—with a reasonable touch of taste, but mostly with confidence in the artist. Full disclosure: I was a critic for a big newspaper for four years, so I can assuredly say that there are few critical sins I did not leave uncommitted. But I suppose the special hell for critics will look very much like a Ben Franklin arts and crafts supply store.

The thing about these films that so agonizes me is how they speak to such vast numbers of people. The memory of France I most wish to rid myself of is of that smiling idiot and his expensive camera and his  adorable ‘I make websites for a living and go camping on weekends’ outfit photographing Brassai’s old apartment building and the Bunuel/Henry Miller/etc etc etc etc cafe beneath it. I want them to speak only to me. When I saw Jules et Jim originally, in the ‘foreign language lab’ I’d sneaked into so I could borrow the film from the French department and watch it wearing rubber headphones on a tiny yellowed television. The brilliance I drew from it was the following: it was made to be a very long and boring film so that at the very end the audience could be shocked by the casual treatment of death and cremation. Last I saw it I found it unspeakably beautiful, it was a whole world. So with Godard, my introduction to him, all on the large screen, was quite similar, looking for his funny sound-effects, his references to other films, his odd usage of the camera for conveying dialogue, his breaking of the rules. I understood that he was making art for its own sake, not for the sake of beauty, not because he might be able to make things new. I once looked at art as something to only be dissected, to be treated like a vial of blood to be separated and analyzed, to eke out cell-counts and percentages and meaning, when the truth of the matter is that George Michael refuses to get himself checked for HIV because he’s afraid of what the results might be—and if we took some of his blood and scientists analyzed it for every possible measurement it could yield, those scientists would find nothing telling of his sweet singing voice. That’s a proper comparison, isn’t it? Because although George Michael’s HIV status won’t change what he’s accomplished as a singer and what he still accomplishes today, his knowing the status could be helpful in prolonging his life and whatever other good that might effect. So perhaps although treating a film like a picky child treats a chicken leg might be useless in terms of understanding its beauty, perhaps it comes in useful when determining its longevity. But I sure hope not.

My great fear is that with age, if I’m finding these films beautiful now, that I someday might end up like that proto-emo kid in American Beauty who videotapes plastic bags blowing in the wind. He can go to hell too, along with everyone who gathers in big groups and lets go of balloons. But besides that, once you reach the point of finding beauty in plastic bags you’ve probably lost all usefulness to humanity. One needs standards. Here’s a standard: Sri Lanka is actually an island, and its political boundaries are not at all shaped like Vietnam.

“You speak to me with words, and I look at you with emotions.”

This is spoken by the woman to the man in a conversation I feel central to one of Godard’s concerns here, which is the failure of communication between men and women.

Briefly: Belmondo runs off with his babysitter, Anna Karina, and the two of them do what everyone does in Godard films. But they do it while being criminals and committing many crimes it’s difficult to slight them for, also Belmondo gets water-boarded twice without the camera cutting away from him

(which, if you’re counting, means that the actor Belmondo was water-boarded at least as many times as was once claimed of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)–

but what’s most important is that the two of them run away together and there’s never really any motive established except their love for one another (ultimately questionable) and an equally fierce longing for romanticism in life. Do you know what a Carioca is? A native of Rio de Janeiro. Can you imagine how different things would be if  Columbus had thought he’d landed at Rio de Janeiro, and then he’d call everyone Cariocans. It’d be such a mess. Belmondo finds himself at peace when they live by the sea, quite romantic, he reads and writes, she says “I don’t give a damn about books” and declares herself quite bored. By the time they lose each other in a brief accident involving murder, dancing, and water-boarding, I’m led to believe that she didn’t want to stick around, and when they find each other again, I don’t entirely believe in her love anymore.

The problem is that I identify with both of them. How many times a day do I not give a damn about art before rushing and clutching its limp bodies off the floor to cover them with kisses?  I think if anyone else I know identifies, you do, because I’ve seen you take both sides. Is that everyone’s eternal struggle?  I don’t quite know what it is to be a man or to be a woman. I don’t know if I speak with words or with emotions, I don’t know if I look with words or with emotions. I’m afraid I’m quite changeable. What is certain, regardless, is that both their dreams I love instantly—and even their violent ends seem terribly merciful of Godard, because it would be much worse to led them languish in a courtroom.

But to the point: how should I be taking this film? intellectually or emotionally? All the essays in the world don’t change the fact that Brecht consistently found factory workers easily comprehending his plays while intellectuals got it wrong, and got it wrong, and got it wrong. They didn’t begin writing the screenplay for this until the day before shooting began. Yet some assert that every film of Godard’s deserves a book to dissect it. Does it? Or is that too simple and insulting? Is it supposed to be experienced and sensed, or is it supposed to be turned into words? is it supposed to be felt or reduced to concepts? is it meant for everyone or is it only for wealthy undergrads? What does it show me to be attainable in life? What’s most attractive and what’s worth sacrificing? Have I learned anything about myself? I hope so.

Could I have written this better? Absolutely? Could I have? No. I’ve totally failed.

For this I also read Review: [untitled], by Michael Klein. Film Quarterly. 1966. University of California Press, which was a bunch of shit, as most everything ever written about film is apt to be.

In the next thing I write I’ll be writing about Une Femme est une Femme—and I’ll write about the people who don’t deserve to enjoy French new wave cinema and why.

On form.

jelloI once asked James Tate what he thought of writing in form. He replied that one can’t write like a romantic anymore because it’s inapplicable. I think Paul Verlaine and Leonard Bernstein would disagree. Says Bernstein:

“Form is not a mold for Jello, into which we pour notes and expect the result automatically to be a rondo, or a minuet, or a sonata. The real function of form is to take us on a half-hour journey of continuous symphonic progress. To do this, the composer must have his inner road map. He must have the ability to know what the next destination will be–in other words, what the next note has to be to convey a sense of rightness, a sense that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can happen at that precise instant.”

Lately it’s occurred to me that there is only one aspect of Bernstein’s five (melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, arrangement) credited by most of these hipster fucks who look at me in disbelief when I mention enjoying Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton’s music (and having absolutely no tolerance for the band Television). Arrangement. And, to make matters worse, it’s only accidental arrangement as a byproduct of instrumentation. My roommate and my sister are the two highest authorities on music, as far as I’m concerned. My roommate declares, “I like this because there is a good rhythm, you have to dance, and a nice melody.” My sister declares, “my friends and I can sing along to this one.” One could say the same about even the early Gershwin. One who writes in form is considered immature, and one who plays out of form is considered immature. If art as education, I mean in a Brechtian sense, is in any way still our only hope, god save us all.