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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Truffaut: The 400 Blows (1959)

“You take him from here. I’m going home.”

It’s those three little words. “I’m going home.” They really strike me as getting to the heart of things in this film. Not in some silly metaphorical sense, I mean, but literally: this guy has finished up at work, though he’s not finished with this particular job, he’s just handing off the boy to another officer, and he’s going home, where he lives, where he’s likely in charge. Maria Montessori said that children are the most oppressed group of people in the world, and that’s partially what this film is about. The boy barely speaks, and when he does it’s of the lowliest parts of the adult canon, yet somehow we know that he’s good, and know what he’s trying to do, to just get by, to follow his little heart! He doesn’t know where he’s going, that’s obvious, but the same could be said of most of us anyway.

One of the puzzling things to me about this film is how Paris is a character. Is it that Paris is just so beautiful that we can’t take our eyes off her? No…Paris could be ignored, she’s just another city. Yet these lovely cuts of Paris adorn the film every few minutes. And I’ve thought about this for years until it occurred to me today, when the boys get off the metro in Pigalle, why it matters. This is a French film, made for the French and for speakers of French. Films in New York? The Empire State Building looks like any other from the street level. None of the bridges are so remarkable, one from the next, Carnegie Hall is fairly chaste, Central Park might mean you’re near Harlem or midtown, Union Square and Columbus Circle aren’t particularly special…there’s a reason why films in New York show us the cityscape and then plant us on some anonymous street, which is that the physiognomy of New York isn’t ubiquitous in our hearts. What’s the difference between SoHo and Tribeca? But Paris? We don’t need to be told what to think when we see its streets, because it isn’t so fond of novelty as we are here. Vuillard was painting the cafe Wepler more than a century ago, it survived both wars and more than another sixty years. Pigalle means something, and it doesn’t change. Like the pyramids. Part of the charm of Paris is that it knows precisely what it is, and it doesn’t have to be, nor does it try to be, everything…it just has to be Paris. So Truffaut doesn’t have to tell us where he’s filming, he doesn’t have to describe the parts of town, because we already know them, they’re heavy with meaning.

The only other examples that I know of offhand are Blake’s cosmology being symbolically London-centric, and maybe even the Wizard of Oz being a metaphorical representation of the United States. The US doesn’t have any city that the world ‘knows’ but the country as a whole is subject to a fair number of stereotypes we’re all pretty comfortable with. And I continually return to the uncomfortable notion of London and Paris being important places…where else are we supposed to know? Didn’t the rest of the world have history too? That’s what I’ve heard. Yet looking at a map of the world’s major powers in the early 1500s, China’s stuck with ancestor worship, Japan’s essentially an eternal Sparta, Muscovy fairly isolated and otherwise interested in eastward expansion…I don’t know enough about the Ottoman empire to characterize it at all, but Western Europe has all its powers fragmented. But there’s London. And there’s Paris. England and France are the only two countries still recognizable on that map (and Spain and Portugal…but…um…)–it’s not just that those cities were there, as plenty were, but it’s the meaning that each of those cities held at the time, and that remains in our consciousnesses today, it’s their calm longevity in an otherwise frenetic western world.

essay: Huxley – The Doors of Perception (1954)

This is one I’ve been putting off reading for years, ever since I reached the conclusion that I’m not really so much a fan of the Doors, maybe one or two albums are alright, but generally, I don’t care. And that book touted as scholarly but sold in every Barnes and Noble discussing Jim Morrison as compared to Rimbaud, I think it’s just a way to stir up some controversy, and make some money by cashing in on the significantly large population of young people who fancy themselves intellectuals because they listen to the Doors and really, really get it. The problem I’d had was that I kept running into these idiots who were convinced that after reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, they had firmly digested the oeuvre of Blake also, maybe they’d read one of Blake’s early works and contented themselves that this was representative of the whole. And worse yet, the only thing they were able to squeeze out of Huxley was that, well, there’s a smart argument for using drugs, and if you don’t get it, just read this fucking book, okay? He’ll explain it. And essentially, by using drugs, you don’t even need the Doors, or Huxley, or Blake, because you’ve reached the world of the sensual already, through the most powerful medium of all, man, your…I don’t know, eyeballs or something.

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that this is more like William James showing up to one his lectures a bit in love, and the most fascinating bits are that there was a time when someone took drugs and didn’t just play video games, stand around in 7-11, or hang out with their equally fucked up friends. Instead, he contemplates flowers, and then art, and then classical music. Thankfully he doesn’t do any of this for much more than a few pages, and the rest of the essay is historical, scientific, and when religious or philosophical, hardly different than what Emerson said a hundred years prior at Harvard’s commencement, hardly different than what the wise have known since the beginning of time.

Am I bitter? Yes. Because Huxley notes multiple times that mescaline (see the liner notes in James Taylor’s One Man Dog, in which his song whose only lyrics are ‘mescalito has opened up my mind’ includes a comment that the musicians don’t really agree) offers no negative effects, it brings all users to heaven…except those who have an anxious or depressed disposition, and instead, they will be in absolute hell.

In conclusion: Huxley will always hold a place in my heart since when I was 18 I read Island and, further, believed in it and its condemnation of male orgasm. But I cannot forget his godawful Crome Yellow origins that are perhaps only comparable to Jane Austen as a comedy of manners (no wonder that he was a screenwriter for the 1940 film Pride and Prejudice). I wonder if Huxley is entirely irrelevant? In short, I don’t care, and I’m not going to read the accompanying essay ‘Heaven and Hell’ because I can die contentedly without it.

Jeanne d’Arc, part 1.

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I’ve always been highly conscious of lingering energy, though part of it may be my imagination, I’ve been to where Martin Luther King was shot, and it made me shiver a little, even at age 8, not because of what had occurred there, but because I knew without a doubt that he had been there himself. When I walked up the Statue of Liberty, despite the terror at the way it swayed in the storm, with every step I thought of all the great footsteps that were beneath mine. At Versailles, it was not the princes I identified with anymore, it was the poor running through the palace seeking the king and queen. For ten years I dreamed of the Hall of Mirrors, I pictured the gardens outside, it was a feat of unmatched la gloire! and at this age when very little surprises me anymore, I found that the Hall had been greatly enhanced by my imagination, I almost vomited in a London bathroom that looked similar.
What caught my eye was something behind the mirrors: my face. Would it only take one change of clothes, perhaps a haircut, to let me see what these mirrors must still remember? I think of young men and ladies looking at themselves in these mirrors, and I think of the revolutionaries running, always running in my imagination, through that hall, did they stop and stare? Did they know what to expect? Did it infuriate them to see the excesses, or were they awed by its magnificence? When I step inside any cathedral I have the same argument with myself–how many people could this cathedral have fed if it had never been built? Will Durant suggests that over-control of the population, leaving the failures in charge of procreation, is the downfall of some civilizations. If they stalled, is that what gave Marie Antoinette enough time to escape? And when they found the rooms empty, did they walk or did they run back out? Did they touch
anything? They tore down weather-cocks from the houses of the wealthy. The chambers below the Hall of Mirrors are pathetic, whitewashed, dark, low-ceilinged, even depressing when the windows are open, the library of men destined to never be great, to be filled with knowledge but fail to outlive the king. The bed where the queen would insist the entire court watch her give birth, how does a queen spread her legs? how does she scream? does somebody consume the afterbirth of the sun-king’s descendants? I can’t even clip my fingernails without thinking of Sir James Fraiser’s list of peoples who consume fingernail clippings and earwax in the endless battle against bad magic. I take a particular pleasure when in large cities of clipping my nails out the window, here’s something that won’t kill anyone it lands on, isn’t as immediately disgusting as spit, and gives the recipient the opportunity to retaliate. I suppose the only thing better than that would be to just slit your wrists out the window. I’ve heard that defenestration isn’t nearly as funny as it sometimes seems.
When I stand at the windows, I don’t care for what I see, but I care for what has been seen, and by whom. I care that this view once meant something. I care about the ways that stone steps are so weathered by footsteps in the Louvre as I trot to the top floor with one hand prepared to cover my teeth if I fall. I send out little prayers to the dead, even the dead who don’t deserve it, for what we’ve taken from them. And that’s the point I’m trying to reach, which is that I feel like going someplace allows us to take a little bit of it away with us, we don’t need to take photographs because we’re taking something of the essence in our hearts.
But…can it run out? I think so. But isn’t there more to it that I feel? Yes–it’s that I only take away what I’m seeking, or what I feel or know is there. I never take away ghosts I do not know. Which is why I feel nothing of kings and queens–for Marie Antoinette’s toilet, I only wonder what that second little hole is for? Céline says tampons and smiles. I wonder about the revolutionaries, not as revolutionaries but as people, because I identify with them as people, I identify with standing in the houses of the wealthy and poking my head around and gasping. I take a little bit of the revolution away with me, god knows there’s none of it left at the place de la bastille. Between the revolution and napoleon, the messiah comes and history gives way to modernity somehow, it’s not the Champs-Élysées of Joni Mitchell (or David Geffin, if you’re going to get picky) I walk down, no, because on one hand I’m trying to figure out where I can possibly throw a clementine peel since there’s no goddamn trashcans, and on the other I’m trying to figure out how
long I have before that quiche and its burnt chevre explode from my ass and how many years I’ll be put away for manslaughter afterwards, sorry Paris, is this still Paris? no public toilets or trashcans? That’s just fine. Because I’m crying softly for the Champs-Élysées of Watteau, and if forced, of Degas, and all I can feel are the goose-steps of Nazis, I can’t even feel Napoleon. Modern, modern is when you order all your soldiers confirmed infected with plague to be shot in the name of mobility. Do you remember what happened to your car-phone? Some would call that cruel, and some would call it merciful. I’m not afraid of death, so I call it kind. I can’t bear to walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, mostly because of the diarrhea, but also, let’s be serious, why do I care to see a testament to ultimate failure? It breaks my heart that Napoleon broke up with Josephine, and that’s why I hate him. That’s the only reason I hate him. Because I’ve read his love letters to her. Monogamy, the one thing princes cannot overcome, even Leonard Bernstein had to marry against his sexuality to assure himself a job conducting the NY Philharmonic. Life is rough. I don’t have enough money to see Blake’s illuminated manuscripts at the
British Library, and I don’t have enough to see the uncensored copy of Nin’s Winter of Artifice at the Biblioteque Nationale. Life is rough. Four different people have told me in the past 24 hours that they’re the only person who truly understands me. Life is rough! I nod weakly. The whole family is worried that I’m drinking too much and not eating enough. My first reaction to returning to Ameriker was to lose fifteen pounds. My mother says my belt isn’t tight enough, and to think these pants made my package look huge just last November!
Unlikely as it may seem, Jeanne d’Arc has always been one of my heroes. I remember where I was sitting precisely when I first saw Bill and Ted’s something-something Adventure, and two characters jumped out at me: Billy the Kid and Joan of Arc. I was better situated to pursue Billy the Kid’s footsteps, so I’ve trekked through deserts, cemeteries, ghost towns, I’ve stood on cliffs, been in the dirt houses of those people we still called Indians, I’ve seen the bullet holes in the walls, my skin has cracked in the dry heat, I’ve been blinded by the dust, I’ve been thirsty, I’ve been tired, I’ve held guns, I’ve felt my skin burnt by trucks on fire, I’ve been cold at night. And always that one foggy image of Billy the Kid, the idea of him hiding in bedrooms, his youthfulness and sharpness, his inherent greatness. One night at a bar Scott and I decided a new rule was in effect: wedding rings meant nothing, we would chase married women if they dared to look us in the eyes. In a way, murder is okay when it comes to legends. Daedalus is an object of pity, but I become uncomfortable to think of him as the murderer of his nephew. But Jeanne d’Arc…what has she meant to me that has lasted for so long, what does she mean to me now? How is it that I continue to feel attached to her? It has something to
do with all three of the things that have obsessed my aching mind since first my eyes were opened and I was ashamed, many years before I could even spell my own name: death, sexuality, and god. Since then it’s been Dreyer’s portrayal of her, and Shakespeare’s, and it’s been the way she’s haunted my memories of my future, the way I’ve always felt like a sacrifice, the way I’ve presented myself as the goat destined for Azazel, the way they tested me for scoliosis twice every year until I was 16 because they couldn’t understand that every time a butterfly died the muscles in my back would grow a little bit weaker. I haven’t quite learned to lift with my legs yet, though I’ve seen the signs a thousand times, I just never paid attention.