Visual Vertigo: New Art Installation To Explore Classic Hitchcock

Last evening I was supposed to join a group of friends in seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959) on the big screen for the first time. I’ve seen the film many times on the small screen, most recently a few months ago, but any time you can see a classic movie the way it was meant to be seen, you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity. It completely changes your perspective on the art and the acting involved in the creation of something that is of lasting value and cultural importance as many of the great movies created before everything in society went to pot – literally – in the ‘60’s.

Unfortunately, not anticipating that I would need to pre-book tickets, two of us were not able to get in to see the screening, which was sold out. That’s an encouraging bit of news, I suppose, especially on a Wednesday night. Hopefully it’s a sign to more theatres that people *want* to see films from the studio era on the big screen.

As it happens, the first “old” movie that I ever saw on the big screen was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), following its restoration some years ago when it was redistributed to theatres. It was a mind-blowing experience since, although it’s not one of my favorites, the importance of the use of color in the film became far more apparent after seeing it as it was intended to be seen, where the poison apple greens and blood reds that mark certain scenes reflect off of and almost envelop the audience at different points during the screening. There are also elements to “Vertigo” which have become cultural touchstones: think of the “Simpsons” episode “Principal Charming”, for example, and the incongruous Spanish mission bell tower attached to Springfield Elementary School:

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If you know the film, you know that the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a critical location, and a painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes that Hitchcock had placed there, are important elements of the film. The portrait is something of a McGuffin, since once we uncover the mystery of what it is, it sort of falls out of the picture. But Hitchcock’s fetish-like attention to Kim Novak’s coiffure, suit, and a bouquet of flowers that she carries in imitation of that which appears in the painting, are things which come to have repercussions for both Leigh and Jimmy Stewart.

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So it’s interesting to note that American Contemporary Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson will be exploring some aspects of the film in a mixed media installation including film, in her new multi-site installation “VertiGhost”, which opens in San Francisco on December 16th. Some of the works in this installation will be shown at the Legion of Honor itself, and I particularly like Ms. Hershman Leeson’s use of the Droste effect in this piece:

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As ArtNews reported yesterday, the installation will feature references to the aforementioned McGuffin painting in the movie, along with considerations of some of the themes in both the film and in art. What do we mean when we say someone is being “haunted”? Why do we consider one thing “authentic”, and another thing, “fake”? What can psychiatry tell us about Hitchcock and the characters in this film?

I don’t plan to be in San Francisco any time soon, but if any of my readers happen to see the installation, I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

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The Pleasure Of Being “Indiscreet”

The discovery of the remains of the Palace of Greenwich – where Henry VIII. Mary I, and Elizabeth I were all born – has caused great excitement in the archaeology world over the last couple of days. I should say it’s caused a great buzz, since most news reports are focused on the discovery of an area in which it is believed that the Royal bees were kept for making honey. Originally called the Palace of Placentia, it was the primary London-area residence of the Tudors, beginning with Henry VII in the 15th century, who significantly expanded the Plantagenet palace which stood on the site. The Tudor residence was torn down by the Stuart monarch Charles II in the late 17th century, as he intended to build himself a vast new palace on the site – which, as it turned out, was never completed.

If you’ve been to London, you know that today the site is mostly occupied by a group of singular buildings: the Queen’s House, a small royal residence by the English classical architect Inigo Jones, and the grand Old Royal Naval College, a joint effort by three of England’s most important Baroque architects: Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hakwsmoor, and Sir John Vanbrugh. The most famous feature of the latter is its Painted Hall, which features a vast ceiling and wall paintings by Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill’s work celebrates the anti-Catholic effort to overthrow the Stuart Dynasty, spearheaded by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary – a repulsive, whinnying horse of a woman, who betrayed her father in order to get herself a nicer throne. As propaganda pieces ago, it really is over the top:

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Coincidentally, over the weekend I happened to catch one of my favorite films, “Indiscreet” (1958), starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, which has an interesting connection to this hall at Greenwich.

Someone once described “Indiscreet” as a “soufflé of a movie”, which is an entirely accurate description. It doesn’t have a particularly high rating on most movie rating sites, probably because it’s a piece of entertainment that is meant exclusively for grownups – and perhaps somewhat sophisticated grownups at that. If you appreciate subjects such as art, ballet, currency policy, fashion, international politics, and theatre, brought together in the form of an unsung operetta – complete with plot devices such as disguises, jealousy, mistaken identity, romantic escapades, and the tinge of social scandal, all topped off by a memorable musical score – this is the film for you.

There are two critically important scenes in the film which were shot on location in the Painted Hall. These days location shots like this would not cause us to bat an eyelid, since they have become commonplace, but at the time they enormously increased the costs of production. This is particularly the case in “Indiscreet” given that, in both scenes, the Painted Hall played host to events that required hundreds of very well-dressed extras.

The first scene at Greenwich is a sequence in the early part of the film in which Bergman, invited at the last minute to a white tie dinner lecture where Grant is to be the guest speaker, begins to become infatuated with him. As you can see here, although he is supposed to be talking about post-war currency integration, which with hindsight we realize is a distillation of some of the main talking points in favor of the creation of what is now the Euro, he is perhaps more interested in his dinner partner than in the gold standard.

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Similarly, Bergman doesn’t know a thing about international finance, and yet you would think she was listening to one of the best speeches she has ever heard.

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The second scene shot in the Painted Hall comes close to the climax of the film, when the two return to Greenwich for a formal dinner dance. It gives you the very rare cinematic sight of two of Hollywood’s most famous stars dancing together for quite a good length of time – something which Bergman herself very rarely did on film. While the two dance somewhat conventionally for part of the scene, Grant is given the opportunity to show off his slapstick skills – he trained as an acrobat before appearing in Vaudeville, something which many people forget – to great effect. Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize at this point in the film is that Bergman has discovered an important secret that he’s been hiding from her, which explains the annoyed expression on her face.

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Whether you’ve seen the Painted Hall at Greenwich or not, seeing “Indiscreet” is well-worth the effort. It captures a time in Western history in which we aspired to be something more than what we are – and something more, in fact, than what we have now become. I think you’ll find it a wonderful slice of light, enjoyable escapism for a Saturday night.

Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.