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Key Films #32

Stage Fright [Alfred Hitchcock, 1950]:

The curtain goes up.  Not on a stage or theatrical setting, but on a London vista; a genuine street scene documentation (no studio interiors, for now, at least) that is alive with action and adventure. As a visual sleight of hand, it establishes, upfront, the intentions of the film and the way Hitchcock works to subvert the implications of the title, which, without the benefit of a plot-synopsis, might suggest something more predictable; the story of a young ingénue, perhaps terrorised by a masked avenger; one who stalks the theatre - Phantom of the Opera-like - killing anyone who stands in their way. Of course, this isn't what the film is about - although it does come somewhat close to such expectations in the final third (by which point the audience is well up on the joke) - but another example of Hitchcock taking something that could have been very generic and mundane and elevating it through his usual games of theatricality, deconstruction and narrative misdirection.

With this opening shot, Hitchcock is effectively taking his movie out of the theatre and into the streets; into the soon to be studio-recreated reality of life and the everyday. What this does is the opposite of what we might expect.  Rather than give the film a gritty authenticity – the pretence becoming a reality as the fourth wall is broken; allowing "the play" to spill out into the aisles and seats – the machinations of Hitchcock are instead intended to give the film a self-aware, self-reflexive quality; where "real life" becomes as shadowy, exciting and intriguing as a work of living theatre. Like the viewing audience sitting down to watch the film, these characters, at first spectators, are eventually co-opted by the filmmaker (and his various creative deceptions) and coerced into becoming amateur sleuths; investigating the details of a story and in the process solving the crime.  Once these characters have become caught-up in the intrigues of the situation - the murder and the innocent accused - they find themselves having to take on and embody the additional roles that they've been chosen to play (from detective, to seductress, to blackmailer, respectively). This again seems intended to further evoke the very "Hitchcockian" idea of life as an intricate and self-aware system of performances, facades and representations (c.f. Alicia in Notorious, 1946, or Norman in Psycho, 1960).

Although a lighter film in comparison to many of Hitchcock's more acclaimed works, such as Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Vertigo (1958), the ensuing narrative (with its emphasis on role-playing and the presentation of the world itself as a vast and limitless stage) is tailored to the filmmaker's fondness for self-reflection; where the story, or the journey of its central character - an actress, studying at RADA - becomes almost something of a conceptual prelude to the director's later film; the more intelligent and fully formed "meta"-themed deliberation, Rear Window (1954). Stage Fright doesn't quite succeed on the same level as that particular film - too often sidetracked by comical interludes, bizarre contrivances and bare-faced manipulations - but what it does achieve (and achieve well) is an illustration of what Hitchcock's conception of cinema might have been; his interest in the artificialities of the motion picture, and how this process of manipulation (or illusion) can be reflected, self-consciously or not, in the dramatic elements of the film.

When the protagonist (played here by a young Jane Wyman) attempts to infiltrate the household of a wealthy widow, her methodology is not that of a concerned citizen but of an actress preparing for a role. She adopts a character, a voice, a look, and tries to fool those closest to her as a form of elaborate rehearsal. That her own mother sees through the ruse almost immediately says a lot about Hitchcock's need to revel in the obvious way filmmakers engage in these games of deception. The audience, like the mother, can see through the facade of these shenanigans, but we accept them, nonetheless, because they facilitate drama, mystery, action, humour and suspense. This, as an ideology, is something that continues right the way through the film; from the flashback that follows the raising of the curtain, to the stage-bound finale, which concludes, fittingly enough, with the same curtain falling, like a guillotine (the idea of death as the ultimate climax). Hitchcock knows that his audience will accept these absurdities because we're looking for that rush of excitement, the thrill of the chase and the anticipation of great spectacle; as such, the presentation, as ever with the filmmaker, becomes a playful punishment for the intrinsic voyeurism of both the audience and the characters on screen.


The Second Circle [Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990]:

There was a struggle with this one. In fact it would be a cheat to even consider this a key film were it not for at least two significant elements that elevate it above the immediate level of refined tedium.  Firstly, the stylisation of the film is clever and compelling. The juxtaposition, between supposed "art house" tropes - as defined by a filmmaker like Tarkovsky; for instance, mechanical tracking shots, long takes, an emphasis on the elements (harsh landscapes, dripping water, howling winds, etc) - and the less conventional influence of the silent cinema - trick shots, miniatures; an inter-cutting between black & white and saturated colour - created, in my mind, a rather strange and at times almost abstract reading of what initially seems to be a fairly straightforward series of events.  This approach forces the audience to think more intensely about the drama being depicted and the possible reason as to why Sokurov might have approached this story in such a way as to deliberately call attention to the artificiality of the filmmaking form.

This divide, between the content (which is social-realist in nature) and the form (which is more affected and theatrical), seems intended to act as a barrier between the audience and the work itself. While the majority of directors will actively invite the audience into the experience of the film by having the viewer identify with the central character(s) and the minutiae of the plot - creating a sense of connection, through close-ups, the use of music, or the emotions suggested by the actors on-screen - Sokurov instead seems almost intent to push his audience away. His compositions are not conventionally beautiful, but are often cluttered, incoherent and defiantly careless. Wide angle lenses distort the natural perspective of rooms, making those in the foreground look like giants, while those in the background shrink into the vanishing point. Muddied filters obscure parts of the frame, giving us only the impression of characters and their actions.  Bodies and furniture are placed haphazardly; a hanging light bulb, the corner of a table or a character's bare foot each seem to cut aggressively into the edges of the frame.

The second point of interest is the film's central metaphor (at least as far as I understood it); the relationship between the son and his deceased father, and how this - in its self - refers back to film's political subtext; specifically, a kind of commentary on the once contemporary position of the Soviet Union. Made directly before the state's dissolution in 1991, Sokurov's film uses the father as a surrogate for everything the Soviet Union represents; his death - in both the literal and symbolic sense - signals the end of a particular tradition.  It brings forth a sign of great change and possibility; a chance to adapt and progress.  Through this, the son becomes an obvious stand-in for the next generation. He is left to clean up, to pick up the pieces, but also to fend for himself. How is this possible when one's life and identity have been so rigorously defined and fashioned by all that came before? This is the question that Sokurov poses and one that seems manifest in many of the film's longest and most laborious scenes.

By adopting a visual style that creates distance and artificiality, Sokurov seems to be making a concentrated effort to take the film out of the recognisable reality; to say "this is not the truth", but something else. As with the director's later film, Whispering Pages (1994), it is this emphasis on stylisation - the obvious artifice of the film-world - that intercedes on behalf of these characters, unable to express. The film's distorted framing, the slow drifting between colour and black & white (where the colour will literally bleed into an image, mid-scene, as if to suggest life slowly returning to the flesh of a pallid corpse) and the aerial views of the village, which present it as a miniature facade, all seem - on one level - to be entirely "Brechtian"; alienation techniques intended to take the audience out of the reality of the film, reminding us throughout that what we are seeing is a motion picture. However, such stylisations are also necessary to depict, visually, the subconscious perspective of the central character. His loneliness, the disorder of his own mind, both reflected in the murky chaos of Sokurov's frame.


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