Vertigo

This paper was presented at the Alfred Hitchcock conference For the Love of Fear convened by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, held from 31 March to 2 April 2000. A shorter version of it appeared in Art Monthly.

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Cinema and art have always had a complex, problematic relationship with each other. During the last decade, this became abundantly clear with the various curatorial, theoretical and cultural interests in the uneasy dialectic existing between cinema and the visual arts especially as represented by painting and sculpture. For example, the current interest in this crucially important (but often) overlooked question as evinced by contemporary French filmmakers and artists is, according to film theorist/historian Thomas Elssaeser, vividly foregrounded in Jacques Rivette’s 1991 film The Beautiful Troublemaker (1). Elsaesser’s argument that this film is preoccupied with cinema’s attempt to align itself with an “authentic” art form like painting in its present cultural debate with the digital image, makes a lot of empirical sense in the light of the rapid hybrid developments that are taking place between cinema, photography, video, TV and the new media arts. Today many established and young artists are seriously engaged in film and video installations, single-channel works and multimedia projects. Everyone, it seems, has fallen under the spell of cinema. The century that has just passed us is, as Gore Vidal and Cabrera Infante, amongst others, have testified, “the cinema century”.

To remind us of this, the Museum of Contemporary Art, from 16 December 1999 to 25 April 2000, held two fine and thoughtful exhibitions concerned with Alfred Hitchcock and contemporary art under the generic title of Hitchcock: Art, Cinema and.Suspense. The first exhibition, Notorious, curated by Kerry Brougher, Michael Tarintino and Astrid Bowron, for Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art in 1996, is an enticing and informative exhibition marking the centenary of Hitchcock’s birth. The second exhibition, Moral Hallucination, curated by Edward Colless, operates like an atmospheric seance or a dream where its selected Australian exhibits act like a medium to channel, in the words of the curator, “a force I call Hitchcock” (2). Both exhibitions in their respective critical and curatorial ways ricochet off each other, giving the gallery spectator, a highly expressionist (and surreal) collage of aesthetic, cultural, and historical possibilities centred around Hitchcock, modernism and postmodernist art. Hitchcock’s complex popular figure, as the exiled British auteur director in post-war America, casting a huge shadow over contemporary artists, filmmakers, writers, and the public alike, looms over these two exhibitions.

Paging Mr. Hitchcock

Given the vast expanding literature on Hitchcock, the many different constructed Hitchcocks – Hitchcock the moralist, Hitchcock the modernist-formalist, Hitchcock the aesthete, Hitchcock the postmodernist etc; – how do we locate him, to echo Slavoj Zizek, with reference to Frederic Jameson’s triadic formulation of realism, modernism, and postmodernism apropos of cinema history? (3) If cinema is twentieth century’s paradigmatic art form, is Hitchcock one of its greatest exemplary enigmatic artists? For Zizek, Hitchcock paradoxically incarnates all three categories of the Jameson triad, and for Deleuze, Hitchcock, through framing, camera movement and montage, represents, in the tradition of English empiricism, “the filmmaker of relations” par excellence, the last of the classic movement – image directors (paraphrasing Deleuze) and “the first of the moderns” (4).

In any attempt to assess Hitchcock’s achievement as a filmmaker, the intricate relationship between the artist and the meticulously self-staged persona (the droll, dead-pan English observer of human foibles), and his oeuvre and its legacy to contemporary visual arts, we need to contextualise Hitchcock’s art in terms of the larger cultural, economic and political forces that shaped it. Hitchcock’s American films not only testify to the filmmaker’s own resonant ironic encounter with American cultural life and its diverse public spaces, popular cultural and literary narratives, and its cultural and ideological tensions and textures, as Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington have recently argued, they also clearly suggest that the filmmaker had a supple, adroit understanding of cinema as a major modernist cultural form of visual representation and its key role in reconfiguring the cultural, social and emotional life within the American public sphere (5). Hitchcock’s playful and self-reflexive awareness of cinema’s mutating imbrication in the entertainment industry (á la Horkheimer and Adorno) suggests that he instinctively understood Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz’s following observation that:

Cinema…must not be conceived as simply an outgrowth of such forms as melodramatic theater, social narrative, and the nineteenth-century realistic novel…Nor can technological histories sufficiently explain the emergence of cinema. Rather, cinema must be understood as a vital component of a broader culture of modern life which encompassed political, social, economic, and cultural transformations. (6)

Like Luis Buñuel and Fritz Lang, Hitchcock’s career was closely tied up with the history of the cinema. Hitchcock’s birth coincided with the birth of cinema as a mass medium of audio-visual entertainment. Hitchcock and his canon fascinated generations of film spectators because they came to signify the innovative aesthetic and technical possibilities of the cinema medium itself. No one like Hitchcock had such a profound reputation for high-art filmmaking coupled with a huge mass media popularity. To be sure, Hitchcock became a household celebrity, his name transformed into an adjective – we speak of a “Hitchcockian” cinema, or, life itself having its absurd and suspenseful “Hitchcockian” moments, etc..His witty cameo appearances in his own films (“Hitchcock’s signature system” as Raymond Bellour once called it), the reflexive ironic commentaries that he conferred on their advertising campaigns, and the waggish introductions to his own television programs all contributed to Hitchcock’s own inventive commodification as one of cinema’s most recognisable popular figures (7). The François Truffaut interview book (in collaboration with Helen G. Scott) with Hitchcock in 1966 also played its vital role in promoting the director’s public authorial identity (8). Hitchcock as the canny insider/outsider, the chameleon trickster, who knew how to cultivate himself as the exiled Englishman serving tea in Hollywood, amongst the many displaced émigré European filmmakers, writers and intellectuals, playing the game with calculated precision and delight as the detached dandy aesthete observer of American mass culture.

Elsaesser’s persuasive view of Hitchcock as a conservative dandy surrealist, whose own little known life and highly visible public persona influenced his cinema – notable for its form for form’s sake quality and no concessions to chance and nature – should also be mentioned in this context. (9) Hitchcock’s cinema expresses a paradoxical form of “dandyism of sobriety” that values, at the same time, professional perfectionism and effortless ease. Hitchcock’s inordinately controlled art of surface, irony, wit and metonymy is predicated on the filmmaker’s post-Symbolist desire to make life imitate art. Hitchcock as the roguish aesthete-dandy whose films and persona are preoccupied with dizzying formal structure, repetition and rhymes (the Magritte-looking suited Hitchcock always booked the same hotel room whenever travelling, year in, year out) shaped character identity and relationships as an expression of effect and surface. Hitchcock’s cult of artifice, surface and unseriousness and its attendant clever self-definition of the filmmaker as a unique combination of the dandy, the rogue and the mountebank, Elssaeser eloquently argues, emanates from a deep-seated working-class English Catholic moral stance and an intimate familiarity with the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde (10). Moreover, Hitchcock’s realisation that the profundity of cinema resides in its surface means, as Bellour’s insightful analyses of Hitchcock’s cinema attest, that by looking at segmentation, the subtle interplay that arises from the musical precision in which Hitchcock obsessively controlled the direction of the gaze, the camera’s mobility and the size of the shot, Hitchcock saw himself as a composer of cinema (11).

Hitchcock acts as an indispensable totemic figure in the popular imagination as someone who straddled both art and film in so many dynamic and interesting ways. Notwithstanding Hitchcock’s dramaturgical and sophisticated visual understanding of cinema as an art form of popular storytelling, an understanding that embraces avant- garde cinema including expressionist and surreal cinema, painting, photography, literature, and theatre, he also possessed a life-long innovative grasp of the film apparatus as an interactive dream machine that has shaped the seminal contours of our lives. Hitchcock’s profound expressionist visual and absurdist verbal wit reside in his early training as a graphic artist and his masterly self-conscious exploration of narrative structure as a source of generating meaning. The director’s path-breaking experimentation with the form of narrative is evident in his influence over filmmakers like Antonioni, De Palma, Truffaut, Chabrol, Cronenberg, Kubrick, and Resnais. Hitchcock is one of the artists of the twentieth century: he showed us that mainstream films could also be highly individual works of art. In a word, Hitchcock’s deftly crafted parables about love, death, loss and obsession are predicated on Eisensteinian montage as much as they are on surrealism, expressionism and existential black humour (Kafka/Sartre).

The filmmaker’s quest for “pure cinema” (photogenie) (Louis Delluc /Jean Epstein), in radical contrast to drama, to literature, meant for him the painstaking creative adventure of constructing the architecture of a movie – frame by frame – as expression of producing the desired emotional response from an audience. In other words, producing cinematic meaning through the purely visual rather than the literary. Hitchcock, in collaboration with his screenwriters, always “wrote” his movies with the camera in mind. Not that Hitchcock actually wrote his scripts, as Larry Gross reminds us, but rather through intervention, dialogue, instruction and invention, Hitchcock knew exactly where to place his “self-conscious, self-mocking” camera (Freedman and Millington). (12) “My camera is absolute”, Hitchcock informed Janet Leigh during the shooting of Psycho. In this unique sense, in the context of Alexandre Astruc’s idea of a highly personal “camero-stylo” cinema, Hitchcock was one of the seminal auteurs of modern cinema. By the time Hitchcock arrived on a movie set, his movie was meticulously storyboarded and visualised, and film directing became automatic to him. Yet, Hitchcock claimed that screenwriting was the most significant part of filmmaking for him. He had an organic notion of filmmaking which relied on the visual and literary elements of a movie being designed as a total dynamic interactive system.

I Look Up, I Look Down

Some commentators, Camille Paglia, Chris Marker and Peter Wollen, among others, have described Hitchcock as a surrealist and it is this important (but not sufficiently examined) facet of his cinema which I will now look at in terms of Vertigo (1958) and its characteristic “vertigo of time” aesthetic of self-referentiality (13). Vertigo as a detective/ghost story of the fantastic and the uncanny epitomises Hitchcock’s “closet” surrealism. Based on Boileau-Narcejac’s amou fou novella, aptly named “The Living and the Dead” (which was written with Hitchcock in mind and features the author’s own interests in Edgar Allen Poe and the Surrealists), Vertigo, as an enigmatic “limit text” of delirium, psychosis and perversion, incorporates Hitchcock’s considerable similar interests in Poe, surrealism and tales of the uncanny (14). Vertigo, which is arguably Hitchcock’s most personal film, is, as Wollen reminds us, not only the director’s own visual encyclopedia of psychopathology but also a film that transcends its detective/suspense generic configurations to become a haunting mystery tale of the fantastic. In other words, Hitchcock, despite his household reputation as a “master of suspense”, was, more accurately, a master of the fantastic. Hitchcock’s cinema is therefore close (temperamentally speaking) to Buñuel’s, in that both oeuvres (despite their more superficial differences) share, as Robert Stam once pointed out, similar “subterranean analogies” located in their mutual surreal concern for authority and revolt, desire and the law, the rational and the irrational (15).

Hitchcock’s films – the best of them – belong to the cinema of the fantastic: films endorsed by the Surrealists like William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1949), Henry Hathway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935), Albert Levin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) and Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).

In a 1961 essay entitled “Why I am Afraid of the Dark”, Hitchcock described how he encountered Poe’s works (particularly his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque) when he was sixteen years of age and started to express a life-long interest in him and the Surrealists. Hitchcock’s cinema – its images, themes, and settings – is largely indebted to Poe’s tales of obsession, mystery and the uncanny. This is clearly evident in both of the exhibitions on show at the MCA. For Hitchcock, Poe was an important link between E.T. A Hoffman and Baudelaire on one hand, and on the other, the Surrealists. In fact, as James Naremore astutely delineates, Hitchcock, who had a substantial affinity with Hollywood’s noir directors, was a significant transitional figure in the overall French-influenced tradition of the roman noir as instigated by Poe (16). There are certain similarities between Poe and Hitchcock that, as Naremore succinctly suggests, deserve mentioning: like Poe, Hitchcock had a pronounced interest in the irrational and horror, like Poe, he also was an aesthete whose work appeals to a large popular audience, and like Poe, he also had a quasi-scientific orientation to his work (17).

The roots of “Hitchcock’s universe” are located in the ur-surrealist romantics and the early films of D.W. Griffith, and this exemplifies the filmmaker’s critical links between Hollywood and Poe, aestheticism and modernism. Further, Hitchcock demonstrates in his essay not only that Surrealism was spawned from the works of Poe (“Wasn’t it too born from the work of Poe as much as from Lautreaumont?”), he also speaks of his formative years between 1925 and 1930 when he was a keen cinephile at the London Film Society. Hitchcock cites such seminal avant-garde films as Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’or (1930), Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Rene Clair’s Entr’Acte (1924) and Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930) as having a decisive influence on his work. (18) As Hitchcock puts it, “I was influenced by all of this, as you can tell by certain dream and fantasy sequences in some of my films.” But it is more than simply deploying Salvador Dali to do the dream sequence in Spellbound (1945) or John Ferren to design a dream episode in Vertigo. Critically it is Hitchcock’s project (like Buñuel’s) to construct a disorientating dreamworld within his films not just through dream sequences or special effects but through, as Wollen emphasises, the anti-logic of cinematic narration itself. (19) Yet, paradoxically, at the kernel of the Hitchcockian fantasy is the director’s obsessive formalist use of documentary naturalism (for Paglia this is “the necessary first term of Surrealism”) that structures the surreal anti-logic quality of his film narratives (20).

Crucially then, according to Zizek’s fertile Lacanian approach to Hitchcock, the director’s surrealism of ambiguity, cruelty, fear and humour pivots on his exacting drive to position the spectator to only see fragments, to be oscillating in a dialectic between seen and unseen, enticing us to see what is not visible, by reminding us that the real is always present in a film and Hitchcock accomplishes this by the introduction on the horizon of a “phallic”” anamorphic blot-stain which reveals the uncanny (21). Hitchcock’s heroes , including the anti-hero detective Scottie in Vertigo, once having encountered their own blot-stain, face the abyss in search of meaning, “denaturing” the transparency of vision and the social fabric of everyday culture. In other words, the Hitchcockian blot, for his characters as well as for us, places us vulnerable in a realm of multiplying ambiguity where things are not what they seem. Where does reality end, and where does hallucination begin? We are, like Scottie, propelled to find new “hidden” meanings. The stain becomes, in Zizek’s phrase, “a source of endless compulsion” (22).

In a timely article on Hitchcock, Poe and flanerie, Dana Brand posits the view that Poe’s work shadows the Hitchcock canon in so many intricate and telling ways (23). Brand sees Hitchcock’s interaction with Poe, as it particularly applies to Rear Window (1954), as a lucid self-reflexive allegory of the cinema – “cinema within cinema” as Jean Douchet once described Hitckcockian cinema – and like Psycho (1960), concerned with the director’s absolute inflected aim of creating an “art of pure film” (24). Moreover, Brand is concerned with Rear Window’s main dynamics of a type of urban spectatorship that was germane to the essays and fictions of Poe’s time. Hitchcock typically undermines L.B. Jeffries’s confident flaneur’s paternalistic sense of his field of vision: the “city film” genre inspired courtyard outside his window and its dioramic qualities where he can read his neighbours at a single glance. Jeffries, whose spectatorship constitutes a form of dismemberment, exemplifies the lonely, callous and narcissistic male figures from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Vertigo, and in this critical sense he is indicative of the idealised personality of the American male. (Zizek’s ’50s Hitchcockian hero as “the pathological narcissist” whose subjectivity represents the so-called “society of the spectacle”).

The seductive cubist-inflected spiralling title sequence to Vertigo, designed by Saul Bass and assisted by abstract filmmaker John Whitney, and accompanied by Bernard Herrman’s peerless magnetic haunting score, is one of the high moments in the art of cinema titling as it symbolically presages Hitchcock’s narrative itself. Bass has deftly encapsulated the internal emotional worlds of Surrealism and the utopian iconography of abstraction. The geometric oval shaped spirals called Lissajous waves, named after the French scientist who invented them, was created by Whitney who used a special pendulum that forms sine waves. These mathematically precise waves signal, as we are reminded by Kerry Brougher, a logic spinning out of control, gone mad by vertigo, evoking the pun-encrusted rotating disks in Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema suggesting a “vertigo of delay” (Paz) (25). These waves were initially interpreted by contemporary spectators as being representative of “modern art in motion” (26). Critically, the combination of Surrealist-inspired dream imagery and abstraction in the title sequence of Vertigo and in certain sequences in the film itself is emblematic of Hitchcock’s innovative use of avant-garde film ideas in mainstream narrative cinema. Hitchcock, who was influenced by Surrealism as much as by German silent cinema (Lang, Murnau, Pabst and Wiene), was in constant conflict between seeing himself as a commercial filmmaker (the public showman) and as an avant-garde art film director (the private aesthete) (27).

Inside the White Cube Space

Before we proceed to discuss these two exhibitions, it is apt at this point to say a few words about the relatively unexamined rich terrain between art and cinema. The recent proliferation of moving analog and digital images in the museum is a highly elaborate phenomenon whose genealogy goes back over a hundred years or so. To think that art’s embrace of cinema is a very new thing is to be mistaken. For both forms of cultural reproduction have been highly intertwined with each other since the 1920s when Max Reinhardt’s expressionist theatre influenced the films of Fritz Lang, F.W.Murnau, and other prominent Weimar filmmakers. This is not to overlook the important German abstract filmmakers like Vikor Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter and Walter Ruttmann whose abstract films drew upon painting, graphics, drawing, music and the synaesthetic ideas manifested in Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art.

Since the historical avant-garde and the Balhaus, art and cinema have been interacting with each other in many different historical contexts (Hollywood cinema, Joseph Cornell Weegee, Black Mountain College, Fluxus, French New Wave, Warhol, ’60s experimental cinema, Richard Hamilton) and with different blurring cross-over concerns and effects for filmmakers and artists. This meandering complex history of the transgeneric fusion taking place between art and cinema is comprehensively documented in Los Angeles’s The Museum of Contemporary Art’s aptly named 1996 show Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film. This important (but flawed) thematic benchmark exhibition, like other similar minded exhibitions staged in England in the same year including Spellbound and Scream and Scream Again, attests to the diverse interactions of art and cinema and how artists and filmmakers are concerned with the critical question: What is – or was – cinema? This is particularly evident in the Hall of Mirrors exhibition (with its accompanying impressive catalogue) where diverse artists such as Warhol, Cindy Sherman (who features in the Notorious show), Weegee and Salvador Dali mingle with filmmakers like Godard, Welles, Hitchcock and Antonioni in today’s expanding enterprise of colliding the cinema’s dynamic images and sounds with the meditative character of art’s static imagery (28). All these figures, who are rapidly becoming canonised in these art/cinema exhibitions and related symposia, are fundamentally posing questions concerning cinema’s colossal hold on twentieth century culture and cinema’s “death” and its subsequent fragmentation.

It should be noted that with the Hall of Mirrors exhibition, despite its numerous positive features – including its overall one of presenting some of the most important film- shaped art of the last 50 odd years to a new audience, and a rare opportunity to see the works by major film artists who have been inaccessible since the 1970s (e.g. Michael Snow, Robert Conrad, Carolee Schneeman, Joseph Cornell, Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller, among others) – it makes large unwielding critical and curatorial claims, displays an arbitrary periodicity and many crucial oversights (for instance, important transitional 1940s avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren and Marie Menken are overlooked, and absent from the exhibition is the entire European, primarily British, formalist avant-garde film movement).

Further, these recent exhibitions (including the often overlooked 1990 Paris-based show Vertigo curated by Christian Leigh) persuasively point to how the contemporary media explosion impacting on the gallery space in the last twenty years is compelling artists to not only use installations, video projection and multimedia art to go beyond the more fundamental pursuit of using film, video and electronic media as an expansion of painting and sculpture (echoing one of the more essential objectives of avant-garde cinema) but also to explore these media in their own right and thereby encounter the many fascinating complexities of the uncharted mobile intersections between art and cinema.

Let us now return to our two exhibitions and examine their relative aesthetic, cultural and thematic merits. Both exhibitions focus on how Hitchcock’s art and its prevailing uncanny worldly virtual effect of seeing the world through his camera. Hitchcock’s supple ability to generate landscape as real and unreal at the same time has dramatically altered our basic perception of reality. This is vividly registered in Chris Marker’s extraordinary 1982 essay film Sunless, which is on show in Notorious, and figures sequences of San Francisco through Hitchcock’s eyes. It is a city, according to Marker’s fictional narrator defined according to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, converted into an unsettling dreamscape and then recouped by Marker as fact. This approach to excavating Hitchcock’s surreal poetry of transforming cityscapes into dreamscapes and using cinema to delve deep into the film/gallery spectator’s own voyeurism and obsessions is markedly evident in a number of works throughout the Notorious exhibition.

Cindy Bernard’s luminous installation Location Proposal No 2 (1997-99) has digitised the redwood forest sequence in Vertigo. This moving moment in Hitchcock’s film, which looks at an ancient redwood tree stump and its rings as an index of time, memory and measurement, evokes Cabrera Infante’s description of Vertigo as “the first great surrealist film” (29). As we circumnavigate Bernard’s three suspended digitised screens consisting of carefully recreated shots from this specific sequence in the film, we are taking a new “walk through” perspective of Hitchcock’s forest. The artificial aura of Bernard’s digitised forest images allude to the highly artificial other-worldly spaces and travels of Hitchcock’s cinema, and its attendant multifaceted representation of the disturbed vertiginous state of mind of his obsessive characters.

Walking through the Notorious exhibition is a fairly enthralling experience if you are especially concerned with art, cinema, flanerie, neurosis and spectatorship, and its central relevance to Hitchcock’s incandescent modernist cinema. This has a double significance when you enter David Reed’s eerie installation Scottie’s Bedroom (1994) and discover Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo character Scottie’s bedroom with its rumpled bedsheets, bathrobe, lamp and a TV set playing Vertigo. Reed has carefully replaced the film’s generic painting that stood over the bed in which Judy (Kim Novak) slept in, after she was rescued by Scottie from the cold waters of San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, with one of his own paintings. Although bedroom installations by the ’80s became a familiar international art phenomenon, Reed’s installation is refreshingly evocative.

As is Victor Burgin’s iconographic black and white photo-installation The Bridge (1984) with its non-didactic Freudian reading of Vertigo as an expression of Hitchcock’s characteristic treatment of objects, inhibitions, symbols and obsessions and the open-ended way the film about love and obsession is constructed as narrative. Burgin’s work, which neatly shares certain pictorial elements with John Baldessari’s 1999 deconstructive narrative-based works Telrad Series: To Be A and Telrad Series: What was Seen, shadows the San Francisco of the ghostly roaming figure of Madeline (Kim Novak), with its allusions to Dante and Pre-Raphaelite art, and is a gentle surprise when encountered in the flesh (so to speak) in the wake of our “textbook” familiarity with it.

Several exhibits were specifically commissioned for the show (a growing curatorial trend abroad, but lamentably absent locally) and displayed one of the prevailing tropes of the hybrid experimentation that is occurring today between art and cinema and can be traced back to structural cinema: the idea of art looped for exhibition thanks to film and computer/video technology. Christoph Giradet and Matthias Muller’s The Phoenix Tapes No 1-6 (1999) is a subtle series of videotapes that meticulously examine Hitchcock’s art and life by locating certain echoes and contrasts in particular shots and sequences from his movies. Hitchcock’s problematic characterisation of women, the mother as an evil villain, the fragmentary depiction of the body, objects, architecture and space related to paranoia are all looked at in these videotapes. In their arresting Necrologue video, we encounter a strange hybrid slowed down image of Ingrid Bergman’s face from the film Under Capricorn (1949) illustrating the barely visible journey of a tear rolling down her face. This image, evokes a certain moment in Marker’s sublime sci-fi meditation La Jeteé (1964), where we encounter the only moving film part in a work made entirely of black and white photographs: namely, the reflexive act of a female winking at the spectator.

Another notable loop work is Stan Douglas’s immersive black and white film installation Subject to a Film: Marnie (1989), which atmospherically reconstructs a sequence featuring Marnie (Tippi Hedren) committing a robbery in an abandoned office building, and is installed in a dark cavernous room. Douglas has recreated the original Hitchcock sequence, but this time it is in silence, with different camera movements and all we hear is the sound of the film being fed through the film projector.

Atom Egoyan’s chilling coloured video Evidence (1999) is an edited tape of scenes from his recent Hitchcockian thriller Felicia’s Journey (1999) which shows a serial killer filming his intended female victims in his car talking about their lives. In a critical sense, it is a mobile homage to Michael Powell’s film maudit classic Peeping Tom (1960). Whilst Pierre Huyghe’s photo and film installation Remake (1995), is a low- budget reconstructed look at Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and how we account for the past and try to visually describe it. Finally, Douglas Gordon’s suspended video screen slow motion riff 24-Hour Psycho, a work which has visited our shores before, replays a video copy of Hitchcock’s film down to two frames per second. Its “yBa” (Young British Art) aesthetics focussing on image and event by obsessively caressing objects, glances, facial tics, and shadows in Norman Bates’ disturbed world provides a stark contrast to Gordon’s two playful conceptual “stamp art” pieces Airmail White Portrait and Surface Mail White Portrait, both made last year and feature US stamps of Hitchcock, released in that year.

Notorious, like any other art/cinema exhibition, poses numerous questions about the difficulties of showing cinema (a kinetic light-time-space art form) in an art museum where static art is the curatorial norm and, as Peter Wollen has observed, there is a substantial essentialising tendency to believe that if cinema (in all of its forms) is exhibited in a museum as a sculptural object or as an installation then, ipso facto, cinema has become a serious art because visual art is assumed to be “the touchstone of aesthetic authenticity” (30).

Colless’ Moral Hallucination mercifully does not suggest any of the more familiar shortcomings of such recent museological endeavors. The eleven Australian artists, including Dale Frank, Bill Henson, Rosemary Laing, and Robyn Stacy, amongst others, are represented by works that – according to Colless – are susceptible under the right circumstances of being possessed by Hitchcock as a hallucinatory after-image. In a critical sense, Colless’ curatorial rationale is to select certain exhibits that allude in their own specific way to Hitchcockian evil as aesthetics of psychosis. Hence, artists’ perennial complicit interests in sadism, evil, voyeurism and necrophilia in Hitchcock’s movies and their many references to art, photography, painting and theatre. If art is, as Colless cogently argues, including cinema, a perfect crime, a hallucinatory lie, a fabulation, then Hitchcock seduces us in immersing ourselves in his evil beauty.

So as we walk through the relevant gallery rooms of the exhibition, like the different time-capsule rooms in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948) designed to produce certain psychotic reactions in humans, so too Colless has arranged the various exhibits in a seance setting in order to channel Hitchcock’s phantasmatic presence. Consequently, there are three rooms that classify the exhibition: Jack Ruby, a surreal shadowy zone, Syrup, a garish neon-lit atmosphere, and finally, Vogue, the noir flare of a camera flash. Hitchcock’s presence, his evil, is therefore “felt” everywhere in the world’s banal materiality seducing us in so many deep and ambiguous ways.

Anne Wallace’s mesmerising tableau vivant styled paintings The Next Room 1 1999, The Next Room 2 1999 and One Second 1999 suggest a pervasive menacing atmosphere of sexual intrigue and domestic masochism embedded in the ordinary everyday spaces of our lives which Hitchcock so cleverly represents in his dark comedic oeuvre. Louise Hearman’s powerfully intense exhibits, especially Untitled # 586 1997, representing a white cat’s head suspended in the void, clearly projects a supernatural dread worthy of Poe’s pen. Sean Bacon’s cage-like interactive installation CU-SeeME 1998 with its rhizomatic ability to manipulate Jeffries’ scopic wheelchair from Rear Window and catapult it into the webcam aesthetics of the Internet is one of the exhibition’s more compelling works.

The low-budget sampled “grunge” video installation of movie background noise and video footage by Matt Warren, Residual Memory 1999, conjures a “conspiratorial” Pynchonian collage of John Kennedy’s and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinations and Jack Ruby’s role in this seemingly endless narrative of paranoia with its Hitchcockian undertones. Laing’s Virilio – inspired enigmatic photograph greenwork TL#8 1995 with its hovering flying saucer-like apparition above an empty aerodrome runaway contrasts quite effectively with Henson’s cinematic photo-narrative of twilight desire and despair amongst fated young suburban youngsters in his series Untitled, 1997-98. And Stacy’s appealing spectral photograph The Spot 1996 with its abstract human figure looking like a crossover between an 18th century costumed fancy party participant and a stylised cyborg suggests poetic mystery.

In conclusion, Colless’ elliptical approach to curating a show around Hitchcock and contemporary Australian art has been critically successful in opening up new stimulating non-categorical perspectives on a difficult curatorial theme. Art and cinema and their complex interactions, concerns, and effects, since the last century, is a highly fecund area for curatorial and critical investigation. It is a subject that, despite the several exhibitions held to date and their relative merits and limits, deserves substantial long-term and self-critical attention. MCA’s Hitchcock: Art, Cinema and.Suspense exhibition is a rewarding starting-point in this creative aesthetic and cultural adventure. The catalogue for the Notorious show has Hitchcock holding a torch in a movie theatre on its title page – he is presented to the reader side-on – it is a surreal image that alludes to Hitchcock’s enduring canon and his self-reflexive authorial identity evoking the eeriness of Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie depicting a solitary movie usher and, most importantly, suggesting to us that art and cinema are best discussed in an oblique self-questioning manner.

Endnotes

  1. See Thomas Elsaesser, “Rivette and the End of Cinema”, Sight and Sound 1 (1992): 20-23.
  2. Edward Colless, “Moral Hallucination: Channeling Hitchcock” in Hitchcock: Art, Cinema and.Suspense, Visitors Guide, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999, page unnumbered.
  3. Slovaj Zizek, Everything You Thought You Wanted to know about Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask, London, Verso, 1992, p.2.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, New York, Columbia University Press, 1990, p.155.
  5. Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington (eds.), Hitchcock’s America, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, p5.
  6. Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz are cited in Freedman and Millington, ibid., p.8
  7. Raymond Bellour is quoted in Katie Trumpener, ‘Fragments of the Mirror, ” in Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (eds.) Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films, Detroit, Wayne State university press, 1991, p176.
  8. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.
  9. See Thomas Elsaesser, “The Dandy in Hitchcock,” in Richard Allen and S..Ishi Gonzales (eds.) Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, London, BFI Publishing, 1999, p.5.
  10. Ibid., p.10.
  11. Cf. Wollen, “Rope: Three Hypotheses,” in Allen and Gonzales (eds.), Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, op. cit., p.79.
  12. Larry Gross, ” Parallel Lines”, in Hitchcock Sight and Sound booklet, London, BFI 1999, pp.39-40, and Freedman and Millington, op, cit., p.3.
  13. See Camille Paglia, The Birds, London, BFI Publishing, 1998; Chris Marker, “A Free Replay”, in John Boorman and Walter Donohue, Projections 41/2, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, pp123-130; and Peter Wollen, “Compulsion”, Sight and Sound, New Series 7 April 1997, pp14-18. For a useful summary of the view that cinema itself is ontologically surreal in its defamiliarising imperative capacity to penetrate the surface of the world see Leo Charney, Empty Moments, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp.124-128.
  14. For the idea of Vertigo as a “limit text” see Trumpener, op.cit., p.187.
  15. Robert Stam, “Hitchcock and Buñuel,” in Raubichcheck and Srebnick, op.cit., pp.116-145.
  16. See James Naremore, “Hitchcock at the Margins of Noir,” in Allen and Gonzales, op.cit., p.276.
  17. Ibid.
  18. For Infante’s quote see Marker, op.cit., p.125.
  19. See Wollen, op.cit., p.17.
  20. Paglia, op.cit., p.12.
  21. See Slavoj Zizek, “The Hitchcockian Blot,” in Allen and Gonzales (eds.) Alfred Hitchcock, op.cit., p.125.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Dana Brand, ” Rear-View Mirror Hitchcock, Poe and the Flaneur in America,” in Freedman and Millington, op.cit., pp.123-134.
  24. Jean Douchet, “Hitch and his Audience,’ in Jim Hiller (ed.), Cahiers Du Cinéma 1960s, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986, p.150.
  25. Kerry Brougher, “Prelude to A Dream”, in Christian Leigh (ed.) Vertigo, Paris, Editions Thaddaeus, 1990, pp114-116.
  26. Pat Kirkham, “The Jeweller’s Eye”, Sight and Sound, New Series 7 1996, p18.
  27. See Wollen in Allen and Gonzales (eds.), op.cit., p.79.
  28. Russell Ferguson (ed.), Hall of Mirrors, Los Angeles, Museum Of Contemporary Art, 1995.
  29. Cabrera is quoted in Chris Marker, “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo)”, in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds.) Projections 41/2, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, p.125. (In association with Positif)
  30. Peter Wollen, “Together”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, no 1 (1996): 30-34.

About The Author

John Conomos is an Associate Professor at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He is an artist, critic and writer and his books include Mutant Media(2008) and two co-edited anthologies (with Professor Brad Buckley), Republics of Ideas (2001) and Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: the PhD, the Academy and the Artist (2010). He is currently working on a new collection of essays called "The Cinema Century."