A school friend who used to make documentaries once told me about an unusual book he owned. That was years ago now, but he spoke about it with such reverence that I was pleasantly surprised to see another filmmaker had been inspired to make a movie about the book. Hitchcock/Truffaut, now in limited release, takes its name from that book, which was first published in 1966 in French–and the following year in English. You probably recognize the names of the two directors. Both were famous in their day. But who would have thought the great Alfred Hitchcock needed a cheerleader? Francois Truffaut, that’s who, and it turns out he was right.
The young French director, just 32 at the time, wrote to the British-born Hitchcock and proposed a series of conversations to discuss the older man’s methods. The meetings took place in 1962, back when Kennedy was President. Hitch, 63, was living in Hollywood, and he’d been famous for a long time. In the 40s it was for movies like Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious; in the 50s it was for Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest. When the two men sat down in a Beverly Hills hotel room, Hitch had recently released the film Psycho. Like me, weren’t you screaming along with Janet Leigh in that famous shower scene? Hitch was a master of suspense–but that’s genre-specific, like thriller novels–and most of the film industry thought of him as a light-weight entertainer. But not after that book came out. Over the course of a week, Truffaut took Hitch through his directing career film by film–from his silent movies, to the first British “talky” to Hollywood and ultimately Psycho. It became clear that Hitch masterminded every part of a film. While he had people to write the screenplay and soundtrack, to film and to edit, all of it was Hitch’s vision. He exacted control over everything on the set.
Part of the fun of the documentary is seeing leading directors of today talk about that book–also with great reverence. It helped them see and understand Hitchcock’s genius. Take Martin Scorcese ( The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo, Goodfellas, etc.). He calls Vertigo “cinema poetry” and tells us the greatest scene in cinema is when Kim Novak comes out of the bathroom. It’s pure fantasy, but it’s real to Jimmy Stewart’s character. And then we see the clip, and it’s a wow moment. There are many other clips: from The Birds and the famous kissing scene from Notorious. Hitch, in the documentary, calls it a “demonic shot”. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman hated doing it. The camera zoomed into their two faces, kissing. It turned the audience into voyeurs, one of Hitch’s trademarks. My favorite quote of his from the film, “There’s no such thing as a face until light hits it.” Director David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network) said his dad, a LIFE Magazine editor, owned a copy of the book. David said it taught him, “I’ve got to be me,” as a director. Hitch poured all of his obsessions and fetishes into his films, which is why he portrayed the psychological underpinnings of his characters so well. Director Richard Linklater (Beyond Midnight, Bernie, House of Rock) says Hitch was a “master at telescoping time”. He slowed down scenes that you expected to be fast and vice versa. My end-take from the documentary is that the Hitchcock/Truffaut book revolutionized the film industry. Good directors upped their game, and we movie-goers are the beneficiaries.
Jackson Pollock’s wife was a fellow artist. I didn’t mention her in my blog, American Picasso, but Lee Krasner was every bit as important to him, in her own way, as Peggy Guggenheim. Lee was serious about her art, but when she saw what JP was doing, she fell in love–with him and his genius. (It’s doubtful that his drunkenness and sometimes awful behavior were the big draw.) Focused and skilled, she helped him devise the technique that led to his “drip paintings,” and she championed his art at the expense of her own. Yet after her own death years after his, her art was good enough for the Museum of Modern Art in NY to give her a retrospective exhibition (not very common for women artists.)
You know the name Jane Austen. I mentioned her in a blog about mystery writer P.D. James. When Austen died in 1817, she’d never been acknowledged publicly as the author of Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park (all made into acclaimed films centuries later). Lucky for her (and for us) her brother Henry remained her steadfast cheerleader. He arranged to have her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published posthumously, and he included a biographical note to readers which basically said, my talented sister Jane Austen was the one who wrote all these novels that so many of you have loved. About 50 years later, Jane’s nephew performed another kind of cheer: a memoir about his Aunt Jane. Suddenly, Jane became big, bigger and huge–no longer just the darling of the literary elite.
The film Hitchcock/Truffaut was produced by HBO so TV screenings shouldn’t be far behind. In Dallas it was only playing at one location, but I happily drove the 40 minutes to step back in time. The Texas Theatre, built in 1930, is infamous. It’s where Lee Harvey Oswald tried to lay low after shooting President Kennedy. When I moved to Dallas in the late 90s, I only knew two things about the city: it’s where Kennedy was assassinated, and it was home to the Dallas Cowboys. (The Arts District of today was just a twinkle in somebody’s eye.) Not too far away from the Texas Theatre is the former School Book Depository where Oswald was standing when he shot the President and Governor Connally on 11/22/63. It’s now called The Sixth Floor Museum, and it captures the horror of that day–as well as the good, the bad and the ugly of those tumultuous times. Over the years I’ve taken a number of out-of-towners to the museum, and every one of them–regardless of their politics or religion–has been moved by it.
Filmmakers, artists, novelists, museum curators: they all need their cheerleaders. It strikes me that there’s a difference between, say, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and an artist’s pom-pom wavers. Only the latter kind can be a game-changer.