Monday, 14 May 2012

On Hitchcock's ROPE and BLACKMAIL. Or, Technicist Dreams in Videographic Film Studies


Skipping Rope (Through Hitchcock's Joins)
A videographic assemblage by Catherine Grant of all the edits in Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948),
together with adjacent dialogue.
After completing his final film for [David] Selznick [...], [Alfred] Hitchcock filmed his first colour film, Rope (1948). Here Hitchcock experimented with marshaling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1943). Appearing to have been shot entirely in a single take, Rope (1948) was actually shot in 10 takes ranging from four and a half to 10 minutes each; a 10-minute length of film being the maximum a camera's film magazine could hold. Some transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut, and began the next take with the camera in the same place. Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was the first of four films Stewart would make with Hitchcock. It was based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s. Somehow Hitchcock's cameraman managed to move the bulky, heavy Technicolor camera quickly around the set as it followed the continuous action of the long takes. [Alfred Hitchcock Wikipedia entry, May 2012]
Unavoidably perhaps, the critical discourse on Rope has mostly dealt with the legitimacy of Hitchcock’s formal option, about which most commentators have expressed more or less serious reservations (Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, the pioneers of Hitchcockian exegesis, were among the few who did not cavil). Hitchcock himself judged it very harshly, calling it a ‘stunt’ and telling François Truffaut in 1963: ‘I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it.’ 
     Of course there would be no reason to grant any special importance to the director’s statement about a rather unloved picture were it not for the fact that it expresses the auteur’s symptomatic denial of an intense desire he had experienced fifteen years earlier – a desire all the more pressing that it appeared, to most observers, incomprehensible (and therefore perverted). ‘I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it’; ‘When I look back, I realise that it was quite nonsensical’  – what ‘victim’ of a former passion (whatever its object might have been) would not be tempted, in retrospect, to make similar remarks? But desire works in the present, and does not ‘reflect’. Nor can it be ‘explained’. It is its own, sole justification. Its subsequent denial by the desiring party (quite understandable: ‘Passion is a brief madness’) should not reflect on the effort spent to assuage it, an effort which in the present case has left an indelible trace: Rope, a film that wholly asserts itself as an act of desire. [Jean-Pierre Coursodon, 'Desire Roped In: Notes on the Fetishism of the Long Take in Rope,' Rouge, 4, 2004]
"[Serious minded criticism of Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope] may be considered almost definitively shaped by a ritual of recounting and assessing the director's desire to do the film, as he put it, 'in a single shot,' or at any rate, as nearly without the benefit of montage as the state-of-the-art allowed in 1948, when a camera held only ten minutes worth of film. [Yet this technicist bias] has hardly managed to generate a single accurate account of the technique in question. […] [For Rope's] irregularities and inconsistencies [its film critics] substitute a programmatic perfection that better supports the dream of a continuous film […] than Hitchcock's actual shooting practice." [D.A. Miller, 'Anal Rope,' in Diana Fuss [ed.] INSIDE/OUT: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (Routledge, 1991) PDF: 119]

Skipping ROPE, the new video essay above, may be considered almost definitively, and certainly perversely, shaped by its own technicist dream: that of generating an accurate account in motion pictures of the minimalistic editing technique and related shooting practices of Hitchcock's 1948 film. 

This assemblage, created through postproduction rituals of excision and transition, follows on from another videographic experiment embedded below: Garden of forking paths? Hitchcock's BLACKMAILs - a real-time comparison. 

Both works entertain the same kind of phenomenological possibility. They offer viewers the ability to experience synchronous, or even linear, moving image and sound juxtapositions in real, or near real, time. We can feel, as well as know about, the comparisons these videos make.

In other words, unlike written texts, these studies don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us.


A real-time space for comparison, for scholarly purposes, of a sequence in the silent and sound versions of Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). Read more about the above video and the films it features here. And you can find more about sound in Hitchcock's cinema here.

These video essays were produced partly to support the "For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon," May 13-18, 2012. This year, this Blogathon will raise funds to finance the online streaming of, and recording of a new score for, The White Shadow (1923), directed by Graham Cutts and with everything else done by Alfred Hitchcock:
The film was long thought to have be a lost film. In August 2011, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced that the first three reels of the six-reel picture had been found in the garden shed of Jack Murtagh in Hastings, New Zealand in 1989 and donated to the NFPF. The film cans were mislabled Two Sisters and Unidentified American Film and only later identified. The film was restored by Park Road Studios and is now in the New Zealand Film Archive [The White Shadow Wikipedia entry] 
Please consider supporting this cause by making a donation-- however small or large -- at this link. Thank you!

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