Hitchcock is watching you …

hitchcock

Last week we looked at Hitchcock’s approach to film-making. Now he seems to be everywhere. Paul Merton has made a terrific documentary on his British career, while over in Berlin, there’s a new exhibition about his most formative period: his time at UFA in Babelsburg. UFA was the most advanced studio in the world, far more innovative than Hollywood, producing masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the works of F.W.Murnau, from whom Hitchcock learned many of the Expressionist techniques that would characterise his work. Meanwhile, over at Shadowplay David Cairns is writing about one Hitchcock film every week. Here’s Hitchcock’s famous definition, in his conversations with Truffaut, of the difference between “suspense” and “surprise”:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens. And then — BOOM! There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it … the public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters! There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

What’s interesting about this is Hitchcock’s phrase “the public is participating in the scene”. These days when media executives talk about “participation” they generally mean “interaction”: red buttons, email and so on. What Hitchcock means is great drama: creating a story that’s carefully crafted to keep the audience in suspense, rather than relying on tricks and surprises. And what’s exciting about suspense is that, at best, it works even if you know the outcome: Valkyrie, for example, is an absolutely gripping thriller even though we all know from the start that the plot to kill Hitler won’t succeed., while Apollo 13, from the other perspective, is sweatily terrifying even though we know the men won’t die. Whether these films would be improved by the addition of a public vote, I leave to you to decide.

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My favourite films of 2008

The film year is a slightly stretchy one. Different release dates means that different movies qualify for BAFTAs, BIFAs and Oscars. But, with a little licence, and in alphabetical order, my favourite ten films from 2008 were —

Oh. Wait. What does favourite mean? I mean the movies that I’ve talked about, thought about, argued over and looked forward to seeing again. They’re not necessarily the most artistic, or the most significant, or the most ground-breaking, although I think there are films on this list that count as all of those. They’re the films that have had the most effect on me — and the ones I wish I’d worked on. So —

FROST / NIXON I saw this on stage and thought that Frank Langella gave a fine performance; then I saw it on screen and thought it was one of the best I’d ever seen. Langella looks very little like Nixon, but he absolutely inhabits the man and, with the help of Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction, he makes you feel deeply for him, without ever diminishing the scale of his crimes. While the play felt very much a two-hander, the film gives the whole cast room to breathe: there are terrific performances too from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, who brings a radiant, sly intelligence to her role. And Michael Sheen’s Frost is fascinating: his performance is a kind of cubism, looking at the man from every angle without ever quite seeing the whole. I’ve written elsewhere about Peter Morgan that he makes every story a thriller, and watching last week’s hushed, tense audience at the Curzon there was no doubt that he’s done it again.

HELLBOY 2 I’m not a big fan of superheroes, partly because they’re super. When you have a character who is virtually invincible — and guaranteed to win — it’s hard to create a story in which anything really feels at stake. But with Hellboy 2 Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, has created another beautiful, dark fable, in which the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Like Tim Burton, del Toro is often dismissed as a “visual” director, as if this were somehow detrimental to the craft. What matters, and what both Burton and del Toro have (as opposed to imitators like Gore Verbinski or Brad Silberling) is a deep knowledge of art and symbols, and an uncanny understanding of the emotional power of images. Del Toro, too, wears his heart on his sleeve; where Burton can drift off into irony, del Toro’s films feel intimate and heartfelt, even when he’s working on a truly epic scale. This is a Hollywood summer blockbuster that loves its villains as much as its heroes (and mourns their eventual defeat), and is confident enough in its pacing to detour, in the middle of a hundred million dollar movie, into this

MAN ON WIRE I called this “the best superhero movie of the summer,” and I still think so. You can check out my review of it here.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN I’m not an uncritical fan of the Coen brothers; I found Burn After Reading perhaps the most joyless comedy ever made. But I’ve thought a lot about No Country, which sits alongside Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There: beautiful, sombre, slightly supernatural stories that search for meaning in a brutal world. I wrote last year about the overlap between No Country and The Seventh Seal, and another look at the film only reinforces that impression. The film’s denial of a sense of closure — the murderer is never caught and the climactic killing is offscreen — is a key part of its philosophy: we search for structure, narrative and purpose, but life tends not to offer them. Does this make it irredeemably bleak? I don’t think so: what it suggests is that there’s no point in being shocked by the world’s brutality, but that equally there’s something to be won by standing up to it. It’s just that you have to find your solace in the battle, because there’s not going to be an end to the war. 

PERSEPOLIS and WALTZ WITH BASHIR Two very different movies, both reinventing animation in a brilliant and satisfying way. You can see what I wrote about them here

QUANTUM OF SOLACE The most tonally daring, most artistically innovative, most faithful to Fleming movie of the series — and the most successful Bond movie at the US box office to date. Do you think the audience might be trying to tell us something, Hollywood? Let’s hope that more producers take the same kind of risks, and with the same kind of success. My original review is here

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Check out my review above.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY Along with Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, this was one of the films last year that most felt like innovation in cinema, and made me hopeful for its future. The bold decision to trap the audience within the single eye of its hero, Jean-Do Bauby, for the full first twenty minutes of the picture was a risk that paid off brilliantly as the film developed and we got to know and love him more. It also features my single favourite performance of the year, by Max von Sydow, still mesmerising at 80, as Bauby’s father, conveying more emotion in a look than any lengthy speech could show. It’s wonderful, uplifting cinema.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Not quite so uplifting but exhilarating in its way, this is a fable torn from American soil, a monumental origin myth told on an epic scale. Propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary score, it’s a film of unstoppable momentum, from its first long silent sequence to its last, exhausted gasp; and it’s dominated by Daniel Day Lewis, whose performance comes as a reminder of a older, richer school of acting than today’s drab “realism”: you’re reminded of Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, even Gregory Peck, alongside of course John Huston and his role in Chinatown. I wouldn’t call it a date movie, and it’s certainly not an easy watch, but it’s a rare historical movie — The New World is another, even better — that feels absolutely rooted in its period, and changes how you view the time. 

I was talking to a friend the other evening who said, “I think that films are getting better”. And she’s right. Yes, there’s too much of the same old cynical product — is there anyone whose heart lifts at the poster for Bride Wars? — but there are creative people out there who are as good as any in the past. The movie business is simple: they make the movies they think will make money. So all we have to do as the audience is to turn up, pay for the good stuff — rather than downloading it for free — and send out a clear message: if you make them, we will come.