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Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Hitchcock and human nature

Re-examining the legacy of the Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock is an icon of the film world, like the Beatles are to rock and pop. Often referred to as the greatest director of all time, the English filmmaker produced art for the masses, using avant-garde techniques and character psychology with universal relevance.

"Scottie's Bedroom" (1994) by David Reed
Ingrid Bergman, in "Necrologue" (1999) by Christoph Giradet and Matthias Muller
"The Bridge" (1984) by Victor Burgin
Janet Leigh in a frame from "24-Hour Psycho" (1993) by Douglas Gordan (PHOTOS COURTESY OF TOKYO OPERA CITY ART GALLERY)

These factors ensure that his movies are now regarded as classics. But just like the hits of the Fab Four, his masterpieces suffer from being too familiar, lacking the impact they had on first release. The current exhibition at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery explores Hitchcock's legacy and refreshes it by presenting the works of several artists inspired by the "Master of Suspense."

In the field of contemporary art, any medium is acceptable, including film. Popular cinema, however, differs from the kind of art you find in galleries because it usually carries a long story to which the artistic elements are subordinated. The works in this exhibition remove this burden of narrative, allowing the other elements of Hitchcock's art to come into focus.

In "24-Hour Psycho" (1993) by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, the famous film is slowed down to the point where the narrative becomes irrelevant as each silent image is allowed to linger on a large screen suspended from the ceiling. This enables us to view each shot as a distinct work of art, including each frame of the famous shower murder scene.

Another example of this liberation from narrative are the "Phoenix Tapes" (1999), a set of six video installations by the German duo Christoph Giradet and Matthias Muller. Tapes 1 to 5 use very short clips from several of Hitchcock's movies edited together according to different themes.

This allows us to reappraise Hitchcock's cinematic language outside the context of story. Tape 2, titled "Burden of Proof," features clips of hands slowly reaching for doors, drawers being opened, guns poking between curtains, a foot stuck in a door and things being hidden or stolen.

The fact that no faces appear in this work also gives it a feeling of fetishism as objects are used to express human fears and desires. This, in turn, also hints at Hitchcock's deep understanding of human psychology.

In films like "Psycho" (1960) and "Marnie" (1964), Hitchcock explored complex psychological states, while his 1944 film "Spellbound" made use of a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali.

Hitchcock, however, was not willfully avant-garde; he wasn't interested in being regarded as an intellectual. He wanted to present each new story with a powerful impact to a mass audience. This drew him toward the darker areas of the human mind and led him to develop his cinematic language of camera angles, moods and symbolism.

Judith Barry's 28-minute film, "Casual Shopper" (1980-81), plays with this cinematic language as a Don Juan character tries to seduce a young woman in a department store. Using actors who remain largely passive, Barry echoes what the actor Bruce Dern once said about Hitchcock: "In Hitchcock's eyes, the movement was dramatic, not the acting. When he wanted the audience to be moved, he moved the camera." In a dance sequence in Barry's film the two characters stand still while the camera moves to the music.

Three photographs by Cindy Sherman reflect the play-acting aspect of movies. Photographing herself in different guises, her work mirrors the deception and artifice involved in filmmaking, but the slightly sinister atmosphere she creates suggests something more. By alienating her true personality she mimics the real psychological dislocation of such Hitchcock characters as Norman Bates, who dressed up as his own mother to murder girls he desired.

Giradet and Muller's "Necrologue," No. 6 in the "Phoenix Tapes" series, is a single clip of Ingrid Bergman from "Notorious" (1946). Projected on a large screen, it shows a giant closeup of her face in extreme slow motion as she cries into a pillow. With no room for trickery, the question it asks is: "Can this tear really be fake?"

Movies reflect reality, so, in a sense, they can be called unreal or artificial. Hitchcock was clearly aware of the other side of this equation, that is, real life reflects movies. His work has become not only part of our culture, but also part of the way we see ourselves psychologically.

"Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art" runs until June 17 at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, (03) 5353-0756, 3-20-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo. Open noon to 8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.); closed Monday. Admission is 1,000 yen for adults, 800 yen for students and 600 yen for children.

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