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.

The Courtier Reviews: The Light Between Oceans

This weekend I made one of my rare visits to the cinema to see the new film by Derek Cianfrance, “The Light Between Oceans”, starring Michael Fassbinder, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Although I will avoid spoilers in this review, both the trailer and even the most basic of reviews give away the plot, so the reader will forgive me if I make certain references to it. Overall, while I was captivated and drawn in by what seemed to be an Oscar-worthy movie at first, by the end I was more interested in how much longer it was going to take to reach the inevitable conclusion of what had turned into a high-quality TV soap opera.

The first half of the film, which is set in Post-WWI Australia, is unquestionably a visual and cinematic masterpiece. Director and Screenwriter Derek Cianfrance is clearly well-versed in the work of two Swedes, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and artist Anders Zorn. Much of the cinematography reminded me of Bergman’s films and Zorn’s paintings, and the end result is absolutely stunning to watch on the big screen. The script, based on the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, recalls the work of François Mauriac and Thomas Hardy, who often explored themes of people who are good at heart becoming overwhelmed by bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. Over the course of the first hour or so, not only do we fall in love with the people and the places on screen, but we really come to feel for them when personal tragedies begin to cloud their otherwise picture-perfect lives.

Both Tom and Isabel, played by Fassbinder and Vikander, respectively, are wonderfully realized characters in this part of the movie. Perhaps because the two began their real-life relationship while working on the film, their emotional attachment is clearly visible. Clichéd though it may be, the story of actors falling in love with each other while playing lovers on screen exists for a reason. Fassbinder is wonderfully rigid and reserved as Tom, and Vikander is a perfect foil with her sunny, girl-next-door quality, which helps to bring the war-hardened Tom out of his shell.

One of the great strengths of the film is its significant reliance on Christian imagery and themes, although it is not an explicitly Christian movie. For example, we see Tom engaged in silent prayer at the end of a hard day, using a cold and heavy anvil as a prie-dieu. It is also a symbol of the hardness of heart which Tom is praying to get over after the horrors of war, for he has been wounded spiritually, rather than physically. In one of the most haunting moments of the film, the inconsolable Isabel goes to mourn over her dead children at their graves, and puts her head to the ground to see if she can hear them crying. I was immediately reminded of Jeremiah 31:15 – “This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

The title of the film refers to the lighthouse where much of the first part of the movie takes place, and the island where the lighthouse stands clearly represents a kind of Eden. Like the first man, Tom is initially there alone with his thoughts, but makes the place a kind of peaceful haven. Later, when Isabel becomes his wife, it becomes a true paradise for them both. They have little contact with the world beyond the oceans which surround them, other than the visit every few weeks from an ancient, bearded fisherman, who bring supplies and messages. Yet once they make a decision that will alter the course of their lives, the two are expelled from their Eden, and neither they nor the audience will ever see it again.

Their sinful choice, and the subsequent expulsion of this particular Adam and Eve from Paradise, serve as a powerful metaphor for the Fall from Grace. As in Genesis, we see Eve persuade Adam to do something that they both know is wrong, and to ignore the consequences of their actions. It is their conscious, mutual choice to do wrong, and then to try to cover themselves up, which like the original Adam and Eve causes them to be cast out of Eden. If you are trying to wrap your head around the concept of Original Sin, the film does a magnificent job of putting that concept into reality.

Unfortunately, for all the fine acting and beautiful seascapes up to this point, the second half of the film does not live up to the promise of the first. Perhaps this is intentional, because once you are thrown out of Paradise, everything else is going to seem a petty disappointment. Yet after Tom and Isabel’s sin is discovered, I kept waiting for a payoff that never came. Part of this seems to be the director’s inability to figure out what to do with all of the characters he has to introduce for the remainder of the movie.

The character of Hannah (Rachel Weisz) dominates much of the latter half of the film. Yet for most of her time on screen I felt as though Weisz was dialing it in; she seemed more like the guest star on a decent BBC drama, rather than an Oscar-winning actress. Equally unfortunate is the limited amount of screen time given to Hannah’s father, played by legendary Australian actor Bryan Brown, the star of classics such as “F/X”, “The Thorn Birds”, and “Gorillas in the Mist”. One gets the sense that his character originally had more involvement in the film, but that many of his lines and scenes got tossed onto the editing room floor.

Perhaps most fatal of all, for all of their captivating qualities early on, was that by the end I did not much care what happened to Tom and Isabel. A plot twist that a studio-era director like George Cukor or Joseph Mankiewicz would have used to provide Vikander with the opportunity to really show her range (and secure herself an Oscar nomination) is utterly lost. I kept thinking of how Golden Age actresses like Ingrid Bergman or Bette Davis would have handled the shift in attitude between Tom and Isabel, and finding that Vikander just comes up short. And Tom, who ultimately has brought them both low, does not seem to handle the lines given to him in this situation as well as would, for example, a Gary Cooper or James Stewart in the same role.

In the end, mine is a mixed review. The first hour or so of the film is wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, and given the vastness of the seascapes I doubt that the better half of the film will play as well streaming on the small screen. Fassbinder and Vikander are wonderful together, and remind the viewer at times of actors in Classic Hollywood and Art House love stories. That being said, because of the average melodrama which makes up the remainder of the movie, I would suggest that this film is more appropriately seen at an afternoon matinee, rather than for a night out.