Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hitchcock's Films Revisited

A few months ago, a seven-minute ad for Freixenet Wine, directed by Martin Scorsese, turned up on the web in which Scorsese filmed a fragment of an unrealized Hitchcock script from the late 1940s, titled The Key to Reserva--in fact, an idiotic pastiche that attempts to squeeze in references to as many of Hitchcock's American films as possible (if there are any references to his British films, which I don't know as well, I've either forgotten them or never got them in the first place). As irritated as I was by it, and in particular the dopey final shot that attempts to reconcile the phoney Hitchcock fragment with a pseudo-documentary of Scorsese talking about the project (a droll send-up of his public persona that's the ad's only redeeming facet) by tossing in another gratuitous reference to The Birds (1963), my initial reaction was to forget I'd ever seen the ad and move on with my life rather than thinking about it too much. After all, if nobody involved in its making did, why should I?

I didn't think about it again until I saw Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue, which features stills of contemporary stars in imaginary remakes of several of Hitchcock's American films, with apparently little or no thought put into finding plausible casting choices. One might claim that the disparity between Seth Rogan and Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959) is the whole point, but I can't think of any rationale to explain, much less defend, the picture of Javier Berdem and Scarlet Johansson dressed up as L.B. Jeffries/Jimmy Stewart and Lisa Fremont/Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954), which makes me wonder if the people making the decisions had even seen the film. Hitchcock famously preferred to use stars with firmly established personas, like Stewart, Kelly and Thelma Ritter, often subtly tweaking them, but unlike Stewart, Bardem has--to his credit--played a much wider range of characters, from macho hunks (Jamón, jamón [1992]) to persecuted gay writers (Before Night Falls [2000]) to psycho looneys (No Country for Old Men [2007]), so seeing him as L.B. Jeffries doesn't mean the same thing as seeing Stewart in the same role. Similarly, is there any actress less like Grace Kelly--less elegant, less glamourous, less sexy--than Scarlet Johansson? Admittedly, Kelly wasn't a great actress like Joan Fontaine (Suspicion [1941]) or Ingrid Bergman (Notorious [1946]), but given the right script, she was perfectly capable of holding her own along side a pro like Ritter. By comparison, watching Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), one almost feels embarassed for Johansson, she's so clearly out-matched by her co-stars.

I could sit here picking apart these mangled tributes all the live long day, but I'm more interested in what's behind these imitations. What, exactly, are they trying to convince us of? In the case of The Key to Reserva, the answer is fairly straightforward: the point is to persuade us to drink Freixenet wine. However, since we never see Scorsese (or Hitchcock, for that matter) drinking the wine, he endorses it only implicitly by agreeing to appear in the ad. Compare this to the ads for Gillette razors featuring Roger Federer, in which we actually see him shaving. There the message is: if you want to be like Roger Federer, you should use this razor. Of course, no one really thinks that, if they use a particular razor, it'll make them a great tennis player, but that's not really what the ad promises. As with any celebrity endorsement, it begins with the agreed upon value that Roger Federer is the top-seated tennis player in the world right now, and therefore, successful. By having him endorse a particular brand of razors, that brand in turn becomes a signifier of a successful person. The Freixenent ad isn't positioning their product as the wine of successful movie directors, but rather, by placing it within the phoney Hitchcock fragment, positions it within another set of agreed upon values--specifically, the glamour of Hollywood's golden age. In other words, the ad is saying: if you want to feel glamourous, you'll buy this wine. It doesn't matter whether the film being referenced is one of Hitchcock's best (Rear Window) or one of his worst (The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956]) so long as the milieu denotes an expensive lifestyle; if memory serves, the two prinicpal locations are the opera and a hotel.

Still, Scorsese's implicit endorsement of Freixenet wine is just as important, not because it makes the product seem more appealing, but because he lends to it a certain respectability. In an earlier entry I wrote about the New Zealand-born animator Len Lye, whose The Birth of the Robot (1936) was made as a prestige ad for Shell Oil; the point of the ad wasn't to get people to buy more gas per se, but to boost the company's image by associating it with an artist like Lye. As precedents to The Key to Reserva, one might point to Scorsese's own video for Michael Jackson's "Bad" from 1986, which was also purposefully too long for regular TV rotation, and "The Hire," a series of eight short films commissioned by BMW and directed by big-name filmmakers like Ang Lee, Tony Scott and Wong Kar-wai. From the way the directors' names are advertised in the Michael Jackson video and the BMW shorts, unlike most three-minute music videos and thirty-second TV spots where the directors remain anonymous, Jackson and BMW almost seems to be whispering in your ear: And you just know they got a huge paycheck for this. Here, the only thing more prestigious than having Martin Scorsese direct an ad for your company (and after winning an Oscar for The Departed [2006], one would assume he's charging a little more for his services these days) is to have him do it in the style of an even more famous filmmaker.

In contrast with The Key to Reserva, which employs anoymous commercial actors rather than stars, the Vanity Fair spread requires celebrities to justify its own existence; presumably, no one would want to see just anyone in a recreation of the shower scene from Psycho (1960), but if it's Marion Cotillard, well, that's another matter. One is reminded of Annie Leibowitz's photographs of celebrities, in which the only reason she's photographing them at all is because they're celebrities. Obviously there's a sense of humor running through her work (I'm amused by her picture of Cristo, wrapped, partly because we can't be sure it's really him), but most of what she does strikes me as utterly inane. There's nothing inherently interesting about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' offspring that would make it a more worthy subject for a picture than any other child on the face of the earth, but once again, our knowledge of how much Cruise and Holmes were payed for allowing themselves to be photographed with the child (if it were just the child in the photographs, I doubt they wouldn't have sold a single magazine), and how much Leibowitz was payed to take the pictures, is what made the photos worthy of a magazine cover. Nevermind that it was the ugliest baby in the history of the world. I didn't recognize the names of any of the photographers who worked on the Vanity Fair spread, but the high level of technical craft suggests a similar level of time, care and money went into their making. My only question is whether they needed to be made in the first place. I can't help but think of a lighting course I took in my last semester of art school where the students had to take an existing picture and recreate the lighting. I think I'm on safe ground in assuming that none of the photos in Vanity Fair were made for a second-year photography class so that the artist (who was actually a film major) could graduate in the spring rather than doing another semester, but then, if the point is to take a picture of Naomi Watts, why go the extra distance of making her up to look like Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964)? For the prestige, of course. That Watts is, after all, an Oscar-nominated actress, and therefore a rare commodity, and the technical challenge of reproducing the exact look of a film made forty years ago signal to the viewer that this photo required a great deal of planning, expertise and, above all, cash. Even if the magazine were to, hypothetically, take a loss on the issue--unlikely since it has like a billion advertisements--it would still be worth the cost because of what it does for the esteem of the magazine.

The Key to Reserva and the Vanity Fair spread are both ostensibly tributes to the greatness of Hitchcock's cinema, although the fact that neither bothers to make a distinction between major and minor works should at least raise doubt about this. (I know To Catch a Thief [1955] and North by Northwest were intended as light entertainment, but where does one draw the line between light and inconsequential?) In fact, what both really do is lend respectability to different products--a wine company and a magazine, respectively--by shelling out lots of dough for the most respected (read: best paid) directors, the biggest celebs and decent production values. If anything, Hitchcock is a curious choice since his films weren't especially prestigious when he was alive; Psycho was famously shot on a shoestring budget with a small crew, and he never won a best director prize from the MPAAS. Then again, the quintessential Oscar movie, Gone With the Wind (1939), spends so much time trying to convince us of its importance (acquiring the rights to a then-prestigious novel, craft services for the hundreds of extras, lab costs for a nearly four hour film), as if subconsciously aware that it's utterly without interest on the level of storytelling, that there isn't enough reflected glory left over for anyone else to bask in.

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