Genius or Lifeboat?


Comedian Paul Merton’s show about early Hitchcock airs tonight, at 9, on BBC4, which is terrific timing in terms of what I’m doing with Hitchcock Year, finishing up his silent output this week.

Merton’s previous film show, dealing with the great silent clowns, featured some great clips, some amusing lines, and some nice stories. My only problem was the lack of real critical analysis — because the episodes were structured as critiques, not as biographies or histories. I have a suspicion that the Hitchcock show will have some of the same issues — in an article for The Times, here, Merton makes some good jokes, (‘One newspaper wrote a headline: “Hitchcock — Psycho or Genius?” Why not say: “Hitchcock — Lifeboat or Genius?”’) and partially explains his interest in Hitch; but doesn’t seem able to describe the films or express much about what’s interesting in them. The idea of Hitch as master manipulator of audiences only goes a short way towards evoking his artistry, and it’s even less relevant to why his earliest films are interesting.

But I think it’ll be good fun as far as it goes. My only other complaint is that, as far as I know, the show is really looking at Hitch’s silents, but the accompanying mini-season of films are all talkies, the earliest of them from 1935 — a case of BBC4 not quite having the courage to be a genuinely highbrow channel that respects its audience’s intelligence and interest.

33 Responses to “Genius or Lifeboat?”

  1. Really stupid joke, Lifeboat or Genius…in point of fact, Hitchcock although he loved gourmet actively maintained physical fitness so that he could have a long directing career and his weight tended to fluctuate, he was very fat towards the end but he was also comparatively thinner when he made TOPAZ.

    His cameo in LIFEBOAT is a famous self-record of this. He was at his thinnest in the late 40s early 50s probably after LIFEBOAT.

  2. Brian DePalma once observed, “Hitchcock made Psycho when he was 60. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to WALK when I’m 60!” DePalma is now 69, and can still walk (although he decidedly does not like to walk, as Fiona can tell you) but has yet to make Psycho.

    It’s not for lack of trying though!

  3. Actually, to clarify the context — Merton isn’t comparing Hitchcock to a lifeboat in size, he’s attacking the tendency of critics to view Hitchcock as dark and twisted, based on his films. To imagine Hitchcock as a psycho because he made Psycho is as absurd as imagining him as a lifeboat, a rope, a torn curtain or a rear window.

  4. Yes. It’s an excellent joke. I have to say, and it perhaps reflects very badly on me, that Merton’s programme on Chaplin was the first successful argument I encountered for his genius… I shouldn’t have been comparing him to Keaton, I should have been comparing him to Griffiths… and the shots comparing the sets for Easy Street with East Street just down the road were eye-opening. Also, while these programmes are one-offs he really is taking these lectures on the road and spreading the word the way television once did. I love him for this.

  5. Yes, I liked his live show better than his TV show. Merton’s an engaging presenter, and the biographical facts, anecdotes and making-of details are compelling. And anything that breaks the Chaplin-Keaton comparison up is helpful.

    Lots of people seem to struggle with Chaplin (Fiona does) and I don’t know why. I think if you encounter him in childhood, he’s just funny in an uncomplicated way that stays with you, but most people now don’t see his films as kids (and, I recently discovered, there are even people in the western world who’ve never heard of him). Eddie Izzard says he didn’t “get” Chaplin until he saw the stuff on the big screen, which may also be a factor.

    Chaplin and Griffith are both Victorians in the manner of Dickens, and Keaton is a modernist in the manner of Beckett, one might say. There’s an overlap in places, but also a gulf. Since nobody wastes time trying to concoct a universal argument for why Beckett is better than Dickens, it would be good if we could stop beating Chaplin over the head with Keaton.

    And yeah, the Easy Street thing was superb. I wonder if, as a fellow Londoner, Merton can come up with something similar for Hitch?

  6. ——-
    Chaplin and Griffith are both Victorians in the manner of Dickens, and Keaton is a modernist in the manner of Beckett, one might say.
    Excellent point. Chaplin is very like Dickens in his sentimentality, pathos and melodrama.
    It was only after I was lucky enough to see City Lights on the big screen that I really came to appreciate Chaplin. Seeing Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. on the big screen likewise allowed me to understand his modernist approach to comedy. Buster actually made a film with Samuel Beckett, called FILM:

  7. Chaplin is terrbly unfashionable these days. Keaton revisionism has totally overwhelmed him. But the plain fact of the matter is they are in no way alike. Keaton is an abstract expressionist. Chaplin is Giotto.

    The Straubs always claimed that Chapln was the greatst of ll film editors because he knew where and how and physical action began and where and how it ended. That’s how he worked. Brownlow’s reconstruction of the outtakes of City Lights reveals what Chaplin is about — though not in ways that interest Brownlow very much.

    Whe sound came in Chaplin because Brechtian — altering his style because of a new context for content. City Lights is his masterpiece IMO, closely followed by Monsieur Verdoux.

    Fiona’s problem is that she thinks of Chaplin s a comedian. That’s not who he is or what he does at all.

    Chaplin is the primary tragedian of the common man.

  8. Re-The Keaton/Chaplin Divide. I remember an interview with Howard Hawks where he talks of his admiration for Chaplin’s work, and the interviewer gets very over-excited and says ‘but surely you prefer Keaton, you’re both share so much, both so unsentimental, both focus on machines etc etc and Hawks just goes “Yeah, but Chaplin can do all that other stuff-So I like him better”
    I’m paraphrasing there but I thiink it shows there’s a place for both of them without this ‘who’s better’ stuff

    I was watching the Skolismowski’s Deep End again and I kept thinking of Chaplin for some reason, maybe it’s the same kind of narrative style, loosely connected sketches on a theme. I don’t know, Maybe someone else could explain

  9. The hawks thing is great. It’s a mistake to think an artist will necessarily prefer the filmmaker who’s most like himself.

    I’m sure Skolimowski admires Chaplin — Polanski clearly does: look at all the references in his films. Everyone from Fellini to Forman to Ken Russell has felt the influence.

    Chaplin certainly had a genius for capturing action, something that Kubrick apparently couldn’t see when he observed that Chaplin was all content and no form. Although the performance predominates in Chaplin, the way he follows it with framing and editing is supremely skillful.

    Time I watched City Lights again. At the moment I’d probably name Modern Times as my favourite. The one I want to try Fiona on is A Dog’s Life.

  10. Deep End is indeed wonderful. Saw Skolimowski’s latest, Four Nights With Anna. DEEPLY strange. The same dynamic of a man in thrall to a woman who’s not all that aware fo him, with much fetishistic voyeurism throughout. The difference is both parties are middle-aged.

    This is Skolimowski’s first Polish film since Hands-Up. He’s lived here in L.A. for years. Wish he were given more oportunities to work as a director rather than an actor (though he’s quite wonderful in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! )

  11. I think Skol is underrated because he’s worked in so many different countries, it’s quite hard to piece his career together. But more of his films are gradually becoming available, which is a definite help. Just got three more yesterday.

    Hands Up is mind-blowing. Keep meaning to write something about the end credits…

  12. I have to rewatch Skolimowski’s Moonlighting soon. Shown in the early days of Channel 4, it made a massive impact on me. It’s still probably the best thing Jeremy Irons has ever done. Skolimowski’s London was very like the cold and alienating city I first found as a young lad visiting the place, penniless and foreign. Deep End is also epochal, and also has this tremendous use of colour (the repainting of the swimming baths plays such a massive part in the film without having anything to do with the plot).

  13. And let’s not forget The Shout. I sometimes marvel that, although I hate all forms of sport, two of my favourite films are about cricket: The Shout and How I Won the War.

    Deep End needs to be made available in a pristine version ASAP.

  14. I was going to say the same thing re. BBC4 bottling it. They’re showing the same films that BBC1 usually gives the Saturday matinee treatment every few months. What’s the point really? I’m surprised at BBC4 though as they often show whole evenings of programming with a much more niche appeal than Hitchcock’s early films.

    Have you noticed the new channel Cinemoi on Sky channel 839. It’s quite good, though I needn’t have rented so many dvds these last few years had I known.

  15. Ah, I don’t have Sky, only cable, for a rather crappy cable provider, and I have the cheapest package there is… but I’ll have a look in case this one has escaped me.

    The trouble might be with BBC4 that, while certain things (folk music, curling) are inherently somewhat niche, cinema CAN be populist, so despite their remit, whenever they see the chance to grab a bigger audience share, they do it. And with cinema, that’s always possible. It’s nice that they occasionally show modern foreign films, for instance, but we’re left with no BBC channel showing OLD foreign films.

    Merton’s show was OK — some obscure facts came out as well as the usual stuff. It was great to see Gil Taylor and Roy Ward Baker. But his dismissal of the lesser films was unhelpful. My memory tells me that No 17 is better than The Man Who Knew Too Much, for instance, and that the train chase is the least interesting bit. We shall see.

  16. Since I find watching a good game of rugby exciting and fascinating, I may as well mention Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life.

  17. That’s probably the only great film about rugby. Not sure why, it’s such a violent sport, you’d think there would be lots. This Sporting Life… and Up ‘n’ Under.

  18. Arthur S. Says:

    The sport that’s best been represented on film, artistically speaking, is of course Boxing, but ironically all the best films are about the offstage antics of boxing being more interesting than what’s on-screen. And that’s the same for all sport films at least the ones that are most interesting. And then the ones that are about the sport are compromised because they do a lot of faking and liberties with the rules of the game and conditions and plain insanity(the football scene at the end of MASH). Even with RAGING BULL, all the boxing scenes are stylized fantasias based more on musical numbers from MGM than actual boxing reportage. Then THE HUSTLER cares so little about pool that the final combat between Newman and Gleason is done with Lightning Montage.

    I suppose sport being a form of theatre, the essential improvisational theatre I suppose, means that it poses challenge for cinematic adaptation.

    But the most dramatic representation and one that’s fairly close to reality is CALIFORNIA SPLIT which deals with gambling.

  19. Sometime the best films about sport are documentaries. In terms of footbball, two interesting doc films are Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before), directed by
    Hellmuth Costard, in which eight 16mm cameras followed George Best as he played in a match:

    The Hustler is one of my favourite films. It was also one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite films. Beckett was also a fan of rugby.

  20. I like The Hustler a lot. It may be what Billy Wilder was talking about when he told a friend, “Terrible news! Bob Rossen made a good film.”

    As Scorsese said, there was only one camera angle in boxing on TV, so he could never get into it. I think that’s part of my dislike of sport. It’s ironic that football is rarely a hit in movies, since getting onto the pitch with a steadicam could give you a player’s-eye-view that would surely be a revelation to sports fans.

    California Split is exceptional because gambling movies also are generally very bad, inaccurate and unbelievable.

  21. Rossen’s Lilith is quite interesting too.

  22. A good boxing film is Robert Wise’s The Set-Up.

  23. Lilith has a unique, dreamy vibe (shattered, quite entertainingly, when Gene Hackman blunders in). I enjoyed it. The Set-Up is great, and Rossen’s boxing film, Body and Soul, is a winner also. I think Scorsese acknowledges it as an influence — along with Keaton’s Battling Butler.

  24. Arthur S. Says:

    A far bigger influence than THE SET-UP was, of course, Luchino Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS.

  25. And Vincente Minnelli’s musical numbers, as you say. The nightmarish soundscapes for the fight are almost unprecedented. The use of slow motion sound might possibly have been influenced by Eraserhead, although I’ve never heard anyone admit it. I do know the sound man retired after this film, and burned his tapes because he didn’t want to hear those FX turn up in other films.

  26. Sound men are a strange breed. There is, or used to be, an American sound guy who specialised in getting thunder and lightning sound effects. He just travelled around the midwest in a van with a lot of microphones, following storms. It’s like a great unmade ’70s Wim Wenders film.

  27. I have a theory on sports as acceptable television. I notice that people who, like me, haven’t been indoctrinated into loving football, rugby etc. often take to tennis and snooker coverage. I’m sure its because it all fits on the TV screen and you only have two people to watch. Also the rules/jargon are not too many like in golf, nor too few like in football. The fact that the BBC has managed to keep showing them all these years while losing all the other sports bears this out. When golf and cricket were on TV when I was a child it was like a living death.

  28. I regard all sports coverage as essentially aberrant. It should all be on a special premium channel that I don’t have to look at. And it certainly shouldn’t be on the news. A man kicking a ball is not news.

    DePalma’s the only guy to really try and make a film about a sound man. I don’t much like Blow Out, but the idea is nice.

    I agree with Scorsese’s sound man though: when an effect becomes familiar, it loses its power. Maybe that’s why gun-shot soundss get totally redesigned every ten or twenty years: compare the guns in a Ford western with a Leone, and then with Scorsese…

    There’s a BBC thunder-flash sound that always makes me cringe, you hear it in EVERYTHING. Library FX are a real menace.

    What with looking at Blackmail this week, sound is much on my mind…

  29. Arthur S. Says:

    I think in RAGING BULL, every fight scene, every punch and footstep and swivel was done differently and recorded differently. According to legend, they commissioned handmade lightbulbs made of a special tungsten that was designed so as to sonically disintegrate in only one special way.

    I was very impressed with THE DEPARTED because the gunshots in that film sounded vastly different from any other cop film and of course the inferior Hong Kong film that is it’s source. It has a very harsh effect to it. I felt the same with MUNICH, which has to be seen in the theatre to really get the full force of the sudden thunder of those gunshots.

    The use of sound in cinema was for decades highly neglected because people didn’t pay too much attention to how carefully crafted these tracks are. I think with Bresson, Tati and Godard people realized that they were re-inventing the way sound could be used and then it’s impossible to write a word about Altman without talking about his revolutionary soundscapes, CALIFORNIA SPLIT above all being the first film to be recorded on a 8track.

    One film whose soundtrack impressed me and which I had recently seen is a Fassbinder film made near the end of the 70s called THE THIRD GENERATION, in that film in every room you could overhear sounds of the room next door and the overlap is confusing as hell.

  30. Prior to Welles, I think the most inventive filmmaker with sound was Sternberg. Guys like Lang, Clair and Hitchcock innovated a lot, but Sternberg saw film as an audio-visual painting, so he kept experimenting whenever he could.

    An interesting case is Powell, who started aiming for the ideal “composed film” in which music would precede image, and everything would be choreographed — performance, camera, editing, design, colour…

  31. Actually I’m glad for BBC4s non-silent Hitchcock’s accompanying the Merton doc, if only because I’ll finally get to see Stage Fright for the first time in…(checks watch) about an hour!

    And BBC4 are showing the three hour Egyptian film The Yacoubian Building on Wednesday night, which isn’t exactly being populist. Alright so they tip the balance back towards dumb populism with the Abbott and Costello flick Buck Privates on Friday but still….!

  32. But Stage Fright is a lot easier to see than, say, Downhill.

    I like Stage Fright. I know Arthur hates it, but I get a blast out of Sim, Marlene, Pat…

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