Q & A: JOHAN GRIMONPREZ

This entry was posted on July 8th, 2013


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Hitchcock and Televisión*

By Pascale Cassagnau
English translation by Mina Blumenfeld.

“His brain will be the subjective point of view of his successive occupants”
(Baptiste Piegay, about Being John Malkovitch.) (1)

 The images of the world, of reality, that televison returns, report of an indirect echo, of a real taken for second degree: the immediate history is mediated through the reflection of the image of reality, as a fiction of reality. The cinema of Johan Grimonprez demonstrates this loop, asking in its recent projects what Hitchcock’s cinema offered to television.

“The death of cinema, symbolised by the the Hitchcock television appearance (…) from 1895 to 1955, film makers made shows, told stories; they invented gags, pursuits, rides, fights, love stories, betrayals, conspiracies, dance steps, songs, circus acts, feats, sufferings, injustice, settled of scores, they made the public laugh, they amazed them, moved them to pity, surprised it, gave it thrills, showed new landscapes, singular characters. From 1955, they all do post-cinema, except the one who, obviously, moved on to television, as Hitchcock did.” (2)

The cinema of Johan Grimonprez aims to reconstitute an archeology of cinema, from the field of television, from (after) post-cinema.

Pascale Cassagnau: Your Project Double Take (2007 – 2009) focuses on a certain number of issues broached by your work: through the portrait of Alfred Hitchcock you outline, you put back in perspective some questions already present in your previous works relating to representation, to the place of media in the cinema area and contemporary art, of identity, of representations of history. In that, Double Take is a junction box that contains, accepts, and moves these topics beyond the film. Don’t the “Hitchcock- subject”, the “Hitchcock-system” at the begining of a working platform, of creation that poses all your projects?

Johan Grimonprez: One could also say it’s a kind of “archeology of medias”. This also allows me to evoke other points of reference, such as the interpretation made by Slavoj  Žižek of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as a live version of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). For Žižek, 9/11 represents the ultimate Hitchcockian threat, which suddenly shows up from nowhere. He refers to the sequence where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) comes closer to the Bodega Bay in a small boat and a seagull, at first perceived as an impreceptible black spot, suddenly dives on her and hurts her to the forehead ; an image which stunningly looks likethe one of the plane crashing into the second tower of the World Trade Center.

Our world is overloaded with images that constantly bombard us. The inevitable result is that much of our reality is now filtered through cinema and media images. In this sense, 9/11 brought us to fiction, which then, therefore haunts us as reality – like a terrible sensation of déjà vu, that things are multiple. This echoes what Thomas Elsaesser describes in his essay as an “ontological change” in which Hollywood seems to precede the reality of facts. It is a direction I want to explore in detail in Double Take.

Double Take concentrates on the figure of Hitchcock as being representative of cinema, at the moment of the making of The Birds and of a moment of history when Hollywood had to re-think its future, as it was losing its audience to television and a lot of theatres were closing. At the same time, this project is an overall reflection on the change brought by the emergence of digital technologies, making more and more different images available, in very varied ways. You have to remember that today, cinema is subjected to another mutation due to digitalisation, especially with a young generation who didn’t discover Hitchcock directly in theatres but through clones and body doubles on DVD and video. Our generation grew up a lot more with television than cinema. DVD makes all the more accessible Hitchcock than you don’t even have to visit the theatre. Our way to access the world through its double, its representation, have changed our connection to reality. We can find in it an echo to the theme I broached in Dial H_I_S_T_O_R_Y (1997) : the conscience to be born at a moment, in 1962 (the year that The Birds went into production) when the transition of cinema to television was in its climax and Hollywood had to redefine itself.

As for Hitchcock’s movies, I didn’t discover them in the theatre. We are a generation who accedded to a second hand Hitchcock legacy, either through its (re)broadcast on television, either on videos and DVD (the “representation” of his movies). The first time i went to the cinema to watch Vertigo, they mixed up reels two and three by mistake, which means I saw the moment where Madeleine had changed her identity to Judy before I was supposed to see it, which gave the plot a strange and disconcerted point of view. It’s however very close to a DVD player with which you can skip the sequences, move forward and rewind the narration.

Double Take (2009)

Double Take (2009)

PC: The main subject of Looking for Alfred (2005) was the organisation of casting a double: its the duration and the scenography of the casting that are scenarized, but also its off screen. However, this off screen space designates an empty space, impossible, the one of the main subject/character. Do these kind of tears in space play a role in your stage plays ?

JG: The casting was to find a double of Hitchcock, who would not only look like him, physically, but also sound like him. While the casting replayed the famous explanation of the MacGuffin, the story of the meeting of two men on the train, told by Hitchcock in an interview with François Truffaut. One of the men asked the other: “What is this thing that you bring with you in your luggage?” “This is a MacGuffin.” “What’s a MacGuffin?” “This serves to trap lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “Okay, this is not a MacGuffin.” In the series of interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock provides extensive explanations on the qualities of nonsense and inherent void to the MacGuffin. For Hitchcock, what feeds into the wheel of suspense is the MacGuffin that sets the plot in motion. It’s an element that gives impetus to the process of narration, or that attracts the viewer’s attention, but is not important by itself. With Looking for Alfred, it was the same. Even if we never find the Alfred were looking for, it’s through this research that we have been directed to other things. Despite the fact of not being able to identify what a MacGuffin is, we are finally  led to another plot, as if Hitchcock himself had become our MacGuffin.

PC : Through his many appearances in his films, Hitchcock, we know, multiplied dialogic relationship with the spectators by multiplying itself, even showing him meeting himself! Then, you replay these appearances using doubles. Looking for Alfred and Double Take expose in a precise way the double issue of double and duplication, a question fairly problematized by scholars of Hitchcock.

JG: Hitchcock had fun playing hide and seek, as much with himself than with his audience. “Catch / highlight the director”, as described by Thomas Leitch or with the words of Raymond Bellour, Hitchcock, with cameos, “was himself a part of the” chain of fancy “of his own films.” In a more literary style, it’s a classic reflection of the narrator in his own plot. Hitchcock started cameos because of a lack of walk-on actors in his early movie, The Lodger (1927) and, to save a little money, he decided to play the role himself. From then on, he made of it a kind of superstitious ritual that he never failed to comply with in each of his films. Often it is an ordinary pedestrian or another passenger who appears in an airport, a train, a street or a hotel halwayl. His appearance often heralds a fateful decision or a turn of the plot. In Strangers on a Train (1951), for example, Hitchcock boards the train in which the two strangers conclude, as we know, an exchange of murders. However, the more his audience became wider and more loyal, the more it got used to the image of Hitchcock and the regularity of its stealthy appearance. This is the reason why cameos risked to be perceived as a running gag which distracted from the plot itself. Therefore, Hitchcock decided to get rid of it as soon as possible in his films. For example in North by Northwest (1959), the sequence when he misses the bus just before his name appears in the credits (we actually replayed the cameo at the moment of the casting in Los Angeles, trying to miss a bus with three of Hitchcock’s doubles at the Wilshire Boulevard in front of the building which hosted the casting).

It’s interesting to note that when Hitchcock chooses to go on TV with Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), he certainly means to mock television, pointing how the medium is contaminated by advertising and taken in hostage by advertising breaks. As in Alfred Hitchcock Presents series and in its sequel, Suspicion (Translator’s note : A TV series running from 1962 to 1964, Not to be confused with the 1941 film) Hitchcock became?, although he is known for his films, a “household name” with his belly, protruding lip, double chin…

For almost ten years, Hitchcock introduced about 370 episodes of the series. He introduced them all, without exception, in the same way “to lay his usual egg a minute” gesture of disapproval of the sponsors, while announcing the advertising breaks with a large dose of sardonic humor. In total this is about 360 minutes of Hitchcock’s performance, which so far have never been discussed in film studies, although they are an essential part of Hitchcock: the biggest prankster on TV.

The fact that Hitchcock, for example, always wore suits, was nothing else than a disguise to hide his shyness and his bad behavior in regard to his own body. As a “knight of the macabre” as he was nicknamed, he transformed all of this into a character he then integrated into his jokes. Then, later, in his television apparitions, he was openly laughing and with a lot of “ruses”of his body double doll ; turned around with, under his arm, this wax doll of his own head, which however ended as a joke in the freezer of his wife ; or also dressed as a woman or wearing a dog suit. He saw himself mixed up with himself, met his double ; he pretended to be his own brother complaining that Alfred had gone missing. However, the funniest exemple is probably the one where Hitchcock is disqualified in the first round of an Alfred Hitchcock body doubles contest! Three other doubles play with him and it’s them who will introduce his show!

Double Take (2009)

Double Take (2009)

PC: “Each of Hitchcock’s movies is a contract” writes Jean-André Fieschi in a 1981 text. (3) This assertion shows a method, an imaginary, an obsessionnal structure : are your films, in their turn, some methodes (patterns?), some systems ? Some writting protocoles ? A patterns that comes again ? Besides, the term contract has a criminal meaning : doesn’t Double Take have the story of a criminal plot : make Hitchcock kill by himself ?

JG : What you mentioned joins with the first sentence the film: “They say that if you meet your double you would kill him, or he would kill you.” It is the business of the existential fear that we find in all the classic double stories. Seeing his own doppelgänger is actually depicted as a bad omen and interpreted as a premonition of death. It’s also surprising that one believed that the double cannot be reflected in a mirror. Given that it’s the last one who performs in advance the action of the protagonist, the double is the mirror who can take control of the situation at any time. That sounds like the plot around the brothers Bart and Hugo Simpson: the twin plays the same role as the hero, but in his evil version. The sketch of the film I’m working on right now, called Double Take, is based on a similar plot, in which a double of Hitchcock takes the role of presenter to introduce the episode “The Case of Mr. Pelham”, which is itself a reminiscent of the text of Edgar Allen Poe on confusion of identity, William Wilson, in which the latter is driven out by his alter ego. The narrative of Double Take is inspired by “The Other”, a story by Borges in which the author encounters himself older. This idea, for its part, refers to The Double by Dostoevsky. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are two versions of this text. The text has its own double! Borges wrote a later version of the text, dated from August 25th, 1983. It is this latest version which is included in the Double Take draft and is also presented in a book where the writer Tom McCarthy has reworked the latest version. However, it turns out that, in Double Take Hitchcock himself runs into Hitchcock, an allusion to his cameo appearances in his own films in which Hitchcock, as a narrator, doubles himself.

It’s like the famous double’s couple Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond in French), two bowler-hatted Belgian detectives in the Tintin books. Thomson and Thompson are typically Belgian. Their dual nature is something so true in a country steeped in cultural schizophrenia of two languages esisting one next to another and constantly interpreting or copying each other. Everything must be duplicated or translated. We always have to do things twice, as Thomson and Thompson, in the same way that our government institutions that are both Flemish and Walloon. Even before you start to speak, you have to make a choice, the choice of the language. Therefore, the misunderstanding becomes the culture, the poetry of misunderstandings begins. And the words and the things start to seperate.

Belgian reality comes subtitled. The simple act of buying milk or reading the labels of the different brands leads us into an immediate process of translation into another language. Being constantly faced with the other side of things increases the feeling of irony. Most TV shows and movies here are subtitled (Many of our television programs have always been imported). It’s second nature. As a child, we believe the world is subtitled. We grow  translating the world. This is also a large part of the Magritte’s paintings language. He subtitles his pipe “pipe” and “not pipe”. This one is always already something else. It’s maybe this kind of irony that leads to a specific variation of Surrealism. “Today there were two Mondays” wrote Magritte. “To speak is to fall into tautology” as Borges said.

Magritte was born only one year before Hitchcock. Both came to the world in the late 1890s, which matches with the first projections by the Lumiere brothers. The idea of dissolving the boundaries between an overall ressemblance and what almost looks the same (even if it’s not completely) is a reccuring theme in their own works. It’s a narrative artifice in many of Hitchcock’s films, like Madeleine in Vertigo or the many doppelgängers in Magritte’s work. I interrested in exploring mistaken identity. I was interested in it so I could explore the dimensions of mistaken identity.. This feeling of disturbing eeriness, which makes that in a situation, something or someone perfectly looks like another while being different and, consequently, gets totally off-the-wall. This situation creates an awkwardness and a feeling of anguish, which, one as the other, prefigures the near disaster, but it’s also precisely because of it that is revealed a glimpse of the sublime. Both were lovers of De Chirico and Poe, ,masters of what Freud called Das Unheimliche.

As all the wreckers, Hitchcock and Magritte avoided being discovered, by getting discreetly dressed in everyday suits, as a bourgeois disguise. However, in their work, they were more interested by the deconstruction of the device of the bourgeois reality -as Magritte’s favourite anti-hero, Fantômas, a man in infinite disguise who always deludes the police. For Magritte, as for hitchcock, the bowler hat is an accessory to hide identity through the everyday code, just as Hitchcock using an infinity of getups in his tv shows (usually with an oversized accesory, such as in Magritte’s paintings) Being a double agent is a (very dear) idea to Hitchcock and Magritte.

PC : The whole history of cinema tells about stories of communication, stories of telephone, of radio, of televison. The Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George Romero, Poltergeist (1982) by Tobe Hooper, especially, dramatize means of communication as vector of contamination, as a passing to hereafter, as a language interface. Regarding which, Hitchcock’s The Birds takes up an important place : The whole film seems worked from the inside by its double, the television. Somehow, is television not the best place for the implementation of the double, of the duplication, in a different way than cinema? If the cinema is the place of projection, of identification, understood in all its meanings, does television not split in two places, of the scattering, of the leverage?  If cinema implements the look, the performance, the vision device, does television not proffer more devices like speech, observation, monitoring?

JG : Double Take enlightens this particular moment in the history of cinema, when it was faced with television. Hitchcock questionned the challenge of television in various ways: by the very sardonic confrontation of his television series episodes, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as by adopting production methods employed by television (short retro-planning, small crew, black & white) to achieve particular psychosis. It is in is the peak of his career in the mid-fifties, that he became aware of the enormous challenge of television… that’s also why the film The Birds is a crucial point. This film reflects the ideology of this so particular time, when television – like the birds themselves – are preparing to invade the private sphere of home. At a moment where cinema needed to re-define itself and was losing its audience, who preferred television, which is, as one might say, the cinema double.

PC: What place does television take up for Hitchcock?

JG : In the community of Hitchcock’s disciples, The Birds provoked the most conflicting interpretations  possible, according to which the birds themselves  would be the embodiment of the tension between the characters; that they would be a metaphor for Melanie’s sexuality, or also the repressed anxiety of the mother… But as the MacGuffin, the birds seem to reject any interpretation. The aim in The Birds was, for me, to refer to the ambivalent relationship Hitchcock maintained with television to be able, through a bend, to return to the theme of the double, and more specifically on television as double of cinema. I came across an Angelo Restivo’s essay in which he mentions a very interesting question: “How is it that no one turns on a television in The Birds?”. For me the first thing I’d do, if I was stuck in a house with a disaster pending at the door, would be to turn on the TV!  The implication is such that the model (ideal?) town of Bodega Bay is invaded by birds in the same way that television invades the suburbs while transforming the traditional American nuclear family into happy consumers. The process was to change / transform the relationship people had with cinema which was the concern of directors like Hitchcock. In the words of Hitchcock: “Television has brought homicide into American homes, where it always had its place. “

The writer of The Birds, Evan Hunter, wanted to develop “something” in the relationship between Melanie and her mother with the intention to libidinise the plot. Thus this is how he nested some underlying tension in the urban scenario, a love story through the ritual of tea. Remember how the birds focus on the cups… Hitchcock treats coffee cups with a lot of suspicion. Often, his strong female lead roles sign the portraits of a dangerous sexuality, posed against a figure of male hysteria, a man who is involved in a double or a case of mistaken identity. His fear of intimacy (or death) is projected onto the female character as a means to possess and poison her, as in Notorious (1946) and Suspicion.

In The Birds, the Bodega Bay scenario works just like this new utopia of suburban domesticity. In his essay on the film, Angelo Restivo suggests that the world is built in some way around this ritual of drinking tea and coffee… Restivo explains how cafes were an integral part of the beginnings of democratic culture and how these places  of conversation and discussion ad been substituted by the television providing a commercial break instead of a coffee break. It is interesting how the characters in The Birds fail to create social links, and in a more global perspective, to notice that a public space gets lost in the consumer culture (and its hidden side that is repressed: the disaster). But here, of course, the birds, as omens of the disaster, break the coffee cups and invade the bliss of domestic life! This is maybe no coincidence that 1963, the year of shooting The Birds, is also the year where the Federal Communications Commission decided to limit the number of advertisements for radio and television!

I have not fully developed yet how I will integrate it all in Double Take, but it will definitely matter to connect the idea of the commercial break to the one of the happy ending. Although the popularity of television increased in the sixties, it has not meant the end of the cinema, but it was indeed the end of The End. I mean that words themselves became unfashionable, vanished in endless credits. The Birds is the first Hitchcock’s movie not to display “The End”. He deliberately left an opening, and finally abolished “The End” in all of his subsequent films. To a certain extent one could say that television has redefined what is the end in itself. This is television which has led to endless television series, with a fine constantly postponed. It was it which, in fact, learned us an obsessive behavior for TV News, live and 24/7, not to mention channel hopping during the commercial breaks. So what do we have at the end? Essentially, an endless image… and isn’t it interesting to notice that it is Hitchcock at the beginning(s) of television, who prompted us to zap to avoid those boring to death advertisements.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998)

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998)

PC: Your works D.I.A.L. H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and well, you can’t go to California, in particular, make of television and media a recurring problematic. From this point of view, might one says that your projects are some essays, between fiction and documentary? In an interview with Catherine Bernard published in Parkett in 1998, you mentioned the notion of “Supermarket History” where space-saving of media were supermarket of history. If the records are numerous and available, within easy reach, where then is history for the television supermarket?

JG : It is also a way to interrogate myself as an artist. This idea is present in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y through the reusing of the Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II. In this book, the author discusses with a terrorist, who took the role of the writer, by his influence on what DeLillo calls “the inner life of culture”. What is then the position held, in this case, by the author? There is a possibility of opening the borders and of asking how, as an artist, we are politically positioned and that, in relation to the trend (the mainstream). It is a way to extend the agenda instead of trying to reduce it.

There is a metaphor of “birds-seen-as-planes” which links Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and my ongoing work on Hitchcock. But, actually, it takes its roots in a much older work, such Kobarweng, or Where is Your Helicopter? (1992), which traces the consequences of a first meeting between a group of New Guinean villagers and the first scientists comming through the airways to this uncharted land (in its literal meaning, “Kobarweng” means “the language of the plane”).

But at the same time these works takes position where we define reality by placing it precisely between fact and fiction, what we do not consider only in its representation; but it’s reality itself that plays with its own representation, and this is what Elsaesser calls “the ontological changeing”.

*(NB. This text is excerpted from the book  Un pays supplémentaire : la création contemporaine dans l’architecture des médias (Beaux-arts de Paris éditions, 2010) by Pascale Cassagnau. English translation by Mina Blumenfeld.)

 Notes :

1-Baptiste Piegay, Beeing John Malkovitch, in Cahiers du cinéma, décembre 1999, n° 541, p. 78. In the Spike Jonze film, various characters come to take the body and brain of the main hero, changing then, turn to turn, the right perspective on reality and fiction unfolding.

2-Alain Bourges, Contre la télévision, tout contre, Cité du Design Editions, Paris, 2008, p 99.

3-Jean-André Fieschi, Le maître de.., in Camera /Stylo, n°2, novembre 1981, p.6.