Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.

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A Boy’s Life

Every great movie is a little different each time you watch it.  If there is any clear divide between good cinema and bad cinema, it’s that the former contains depth and subtlety that the latter lacks—much of which remains hidden until you’ve digested it many times over.

Watching Boyhood for, let’s say, the fifth time was, for me, distinguishable from the fourth for a very particular reason:  I was, for the first time, viewing it in the presence of an actual boy.

Over the weekend, Richard Linklater’s 2014 film debuted on cable TV, right around the time a big family get-together of ours was winding down.  A handful of us tuned in, many for the first time.  Among these was my 13-year-old cousin, who was skeptical about why a director would take 12 years to make a single movie, let alone why anyone would watch it—especially with its nearly three-hour running time.  (No doubt many grown-ups feel this way, too.)

Then the movie got underway, and he grew mildly engaged—not least by the friction between Mason, the protagonist, and his slightly older sister, Samantha.  (He has a sister, too.)

As Boyhood approached its halfway point and Mason’s age aligned with my cousin’s—leading to such vignettes as getting verbally accosted by schoolyard bullies and discovering the wonders and mysteries of women—he sat up in his chair and remarked, “That’s exactly how it is!”

I don’t think Linklater could’ve asked for higher praise than that.

If Boyhood is about anything, it is all the little joys and horrors of being a kid from first to twelfth grade in today’s America, particularly if you’re a guy.  Naturally, this makes those within that age range the movie’s target audience—or, at the very least, the people who can best judge whether what it portrays rings true.

As a 20-something American male, my own adolescence played out only a few years removed from the movie’s time frame.  And so I have felt reasonably confident, up until now, that Boyhood is as accurate and insightful as most people say, hence its magnetic effect on my psyche.

But memory is unreliable, and there are innumerable films about childhood that reflect their directors’ assumptions about the experience that, in fact, are either romanticized or traumatized beyond any sense of realism.  (Sometimes this is deliberate, but often not.)

Now I know, much more confidently than before, that Linklater nailed it.  I know because someone with much more authority on the subject than I has said so.

That means a lot to me, because it helps to calm one of my greatest cinematic fears:  That my deepest and most memorable film-going experiences somehow weren’t real.  That they were manipulated, mistaken or emotionally fraudulent.  That it was all in my head.

This fear is especially acute when it involves movies that are universally acclaimed, heaped with critical praise bordering on hysterical.  Boyhood is a classic example, with Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calling it “profound” and a “masterpiece”—terms used very sparingly in the paper of record—with the Times’ other film critic, A.O. Scott, writing, “In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can’t think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did.”

I know how he feels, but it can be dangerous to employ such gushing appraisals about works of art, since they inevitably raise viewers’ expectations to impossible levels, leading to an equally-inevitable backlash featuring contrarian critiques and the barking of words like “overrated.”  While there hasn’t yet been a ton of this with Boyhood, there has been just enough to make me nervous.

To be clear:  I don’t fear opposing views about my favorite movies.  I only fear persuasive ones.  I fear that someone will point out some fundamental flaw that I hadn’t noticed before and that I won’t be able to shake it when I see the movie again.

In general, I know better than to read things that will do nothing but upset me, and I am endlessly thankful that the overwhelming majority of Internet-based analysis is complete rubbish and not worth anyone’s time.

But then there are folks like Ross Douthat, who recently posted a New York Times blog entry titled, “The Trouble With ‘Boyhood.’”  Although Douthat is best-known as a Times op-ed columnist, he also reviews movies for National Review and, more to the point, is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually honest writers in the biz.  So when he is compelled to puncture the idea that Boyhood is perfect, I can’t just dismiss it.

As it happens, I did not ultimately find his gripes about the movie compelling.  I understand how he reached the conclusions he did, but my recent re-viewing rendered his critiques immaterial.  For instance, he says (and quotes others as saying) that by the end, Mason does not appear sufficiently affected by the various family dysfunctions in his upbringing, and that there is not nearly enough drama and conflict to get us across the finish line.

In one sense, Douthat and his co-contrarians are right:  Overall, Boyhood does not examine the long-term consequences of divorce and other familial unrest on children as thoroughly as it might have.  Nor is Mason himself an exceptionally assertive or colorful character, and he has a definite knack for deflecting would-be hardships instead of absorbing them head-on and having to nurse the resulting emotional wounds.

On the other hand, what does that have to do with anything?

Life only happens once, and we all handle it differently.  If Mason emerges from an adolescence of constant domestic turbulence with a general air of serenity, maybe it’s because that’s just the kind of person he is.  On what basis should we expect him to act any other way?  If the years of fighting and bitterness between his estranged parents give way to comity and near-reconciliation, perhaps it just demonstrates that adults, like their kids, are sometimes capable of change and personal growth.

It’s absolutely true that the players in Boyhood do not follow the conventions of similar characters in other films, nor does the film itself adhere to anything resembling a traditional plot.

Who ever said that it should?  I don’t know about you, but I prefer movies that approach their subjects differently than movies that came before.  If I wanted to watch the same thing over and over again, I would watch the same thing over and over again.

Indeed, that’s what I seem to be doing lately with Linklater’s little experiment.  Not only do I find it so very different from everything else that’s turning up in movie houses today, but also—if I may end where I began—a novel experience from one viewing to the next.  As Mason grows from a six-year-old into a college freshman, so does the movie itself assume a more confident and fully-formed identity.

I can’t explain this.  (Nor do I care to.)  All I know is that I’m still very much in the rapturous, love-at-first-sight stage in my relationship with this movie.  And like all such relationships, it contains a modicum of stone-cold dread for the moment when it all comes crashing down to Earth and I find out that Boyhood is not the greatest thing since gluten-free bread after all.

That’s the trouble with love:  It’s completely irrational, and therefore fragile—especially when reason suddenly enters into it.

I would love to think that my visceral adulation of great films is impervious to logic and to the criticisms of others.  But I am a logical being, too, and cannot depend on sheer faith to ensure that such adoration burns brightly forever.

That’s what makes it so heartening to find other people who feel that burn, too.  Or simply, in this case, someone who sees a portrayal of a young boy’s life and says, yup, that’s how it is.

Oscar Soapbox

Would it be considered a lost cause to complain about the mixing of politics and the Oscars?  Is it just too late in the game for us to do anything about it?

Probably.  But every losing issue needs somebody to argue it for the last time, and on this occasion, that person might as well be me.

From this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast a week ago Sunday, arguably the most admired moment came from Patricia Arquette, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, who devoted the final chunk of her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women.  “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” said Arquette.  “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  The remarks yielded howls of approval inside the Dolby Theatre and wide support on the interwebs in the hours and days thereafter.

Indeed, I can’t say I have any quarrel with the substance of Arquette’s remarks.  While I think the specific issue of wage equity is slightly more complicated than it appears—not every case is a matter of out-and-out discrimination by an employer—it’s just about impossible to dispute the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Here’s my question:  What does this have anything to do with the Oscars?

In theory, the Academy Awards are nothing more than the recognition of the film industry’s best work in a given year, as determined by members of the industry itself.  Acceptance speeches by the winners are meant to be exactly that:  A show of gratitude for having been singled out by one’s peers.  And—as has become the practice—an opportunity to thank everyone who helped get them there in the first place (which, as we know, tends to be everyone the honoree has ever met).

As such, Oscar speeches, at their best, are exercises in humility—ironic as that sounds, considering that the speakers are effectively being crowned kings and queens of the universe, or at least of the American culture.

To that end, my own favorite moment from last Sunday was Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Although I thought Michael Keaton slightly more deserving of the honor for his work in Birdman, I sort of hoped Redmayne would win, anyway, because I figured (from his previous wins this year) that he would react exactly as he did:  By jumping up and down like a giddy schoolgirl, completely overwhelmed.

There’s a certain feigned modesty that many British actors have turned into a shtick, but with Redmayne—33 years old, with no major starring roles until now—you sense that the gratitude is real.  That he works hard and takes his job seriously, but never in a billion years expected to wind up on the Oscar stage, and knows precisely how lucky he is.  That in a Hollywood overstuffed with jerks and prima donnas, Redmayne is one of the good ones.

That’s what the Oscars are all about:  Giving a moment in the spotlight to stars whose very existence elevates show business to something pure, noble and joyous.

And joy, it must be said, was oddly hard to come by during the balance of the Oscar telecast.  We had Best Song winners Common and John Legend lamenting the continuing racial injustices in the American legal system (and elsewhere).  We had Dana Perry, producer of the documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, invoking her son’s suicide in a plea for more public discussion of the subject.  We had Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore citing his own brush with suicide and begging today’s tortured young people not to give up hope.

Sheesh, what an unholy string of letdowns.

Surely, these are all deathly important issues that deserve a thorough public airing, as they all surely have in recent times—albeit some more visibly than others.

But is the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night really the proper setting for them?

Can’t the Oscars just be the whimsical, frivolous, bloated Hollywood orgy we all think we’re tuning in to on the last Sunday of every February—curled up, as we are, on the couch with a tub of microwave popcorn and a cosmo?

We deal with the discomforting horrors of real life at all other moments of the year.  Why can’t the Oscars, of all things, be a temporary respite?  Arguably the single central function of movies, after all, is escapism.  Shouldn’t the event that celebrates movies follow suit?

Movie stars can, and do, stake out public opinions on any issue that interests them.  But must they do so at the very moment when most of us would just as well not be reminded of the fraught and complicated real world to which we must return in the morning?

I know this is a line of reasoning with holes large enough to drive a tank through.  I know movies are not only about escape.  I know the Oscars represent the largest audience that any artist will ever have.  I know that the Academy is, itself, a highly political organization and that Oscar voting is subject to the same cynical political maneuvering as any presidential election.  I know that the gripes about sexism and racism are as germane to the film industry as to any other.

And I know that, barring a totalitarian freak-out by future Oscar producers, winners are going to continue to say whatever the hell they want when they get up on that stage, even if it means talking over that infernal orchestra and harshing the buzz of everyone at home.

There is no escape from facing the hard facts of life—not even at silly award shows, which you’d think would be immune to them.  Apparently they’re not.

So instead, we are left with the second-best option:  Awarding trophies only to artists intelligent enough to climb on their political soapboxes in an articulate and entertaining fashion, as (it must be said) nearly all of them did last week.

Or we could just give everything to Eddie Redmayne.

Roger and Me

I have just returned from a weekend trip to Washington, D.C., visiting with family and being a tourist.  Of the rather grueling museum-hopping upon which I embarked, the highlight was probably my extensive self-guided tour of the National Gallery of Art, situated along the northern edge of the Mall, custodian to an almost unfathomable trove of masterworks from all corners of the globe.

“You seem to have an appreciation for art—you ‘get’ it,” said my brother, with whom I was spending quality time.  He inquired as to my personal favorites, and as I began to tick off some examples—French impressionism, Dutch landscapes, the collected works of Salvador Dali—three thoughts occurred to me, one after the other.

First, that my tastes in fine art are disparate, having very little in common thematically.  Second, that, for all the museums I have frequented in my life, my actual knowledge and understanding of both the history and ascetics of the paintings and artists I so cherish is, despite my brother’s impressions, rudimentary and rather shallow.

And third, that I don’t terribly care about either Thought Number One or Thought Number Two.  It doesn’t matter.  I can amble through the galleries of a great art museum and appreciate its contents for their own sake.  If a particular work draws me in, it is due not to whatever its creator might have intended it to mean, but rather to what I, the vulgar audience, derives from looking at it.

Art, in all its forms, is ultimately a personal experience.

If there is an art form of which I do possess some expertise—or, at any rate, a bachelor’s degree—it is the cinema, which last week lost one of its most prolific and essential advocates and critics, Roger Ebert, at the age of 70.

While it would be hyperbolic to say that everything I know about movies I learned from Roger Ebert, I would nonetheless go as far to say that, in an alternate universe in which Ebert did not exist, I might not have pursued film as a vocation and, consequently, would have lived a very different life than I have thus far lived.

Ebert, whose knowledge of film history and technique was peerlessly encyclopedic, received no formal film schooling.  He studied English in college with the intention of being a newspaper reporter—which, for a time, he was—and wound up the best-known movie critic of his generation for no reason except that he enjoyed movies so goddamned much.

That might seem a rather flippant and facile summation of a career that spanned nearly half a century, but to me at least, it is the key to explaining the significance of Ebert’s life and his so-called legacy in the canon of film criticism.

By his own admission, Ebert’s verdict on a given movie was based predominantly on emotion rather than intellect.  “If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it’s an emotional one,” he once wrote.  “These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another.  The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience.  That’s what it does best.”

David McCullough, the biographer and historian, defined a great teacher as someone who shows what he loves to his students, enticing them to love it right back.

That was Ebert’s gift in his most ecstatic reviews:  His ability to express his affection for a particular film, and for film in general, in a fashion that inspired equal passion in his readers.

A favorite quotation of his was from Robert Warshow, a film critic from an earlier generation, who asserted, “A man goes to the movies.  The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”  In other words, don’t believe those who claim movies can be judged objectively or academically, reduced to some kind of a math problem.

No.  Their value lies in the connection they forge with an individual, no matter how misguided that individual might be.

It is curious that I, who attempts to apply cold reason to all things, would be so drawn to such a subjective approach to the cinema, but then I regard movies as a love, and love is not rational.

Of love, of movies and of writing as well, Roger Ebert, whom I never met, was as essential a teacher as any I have ever had.  I will miss him terribly.