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Thoughts On Alfred Hitchcock And Auteur Theory

“In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

Pauline Kael
Photo by Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash

Alfred Hitchcock: The Auteur

I would not be the first to remark on Alfred Hitchcock as “the Auteur.” I doubt I will be the last.

If you have seen a Hitchcock film, you know some of his signature motifs. You could even compare these with the signature motifs noted as those of “the auteur” as described by Andrew Serris in 1962. In early German cinema Walter Julius Bloem insisted that the director of a film, by nature, is the artist that conveys the message of a film to the audience. All of this is fascinating because Hitchcock produced films in Germany and was highly influenced by the impressionist styles of early Twentieth century German cinema.

Historically, Auteurs were white men. In 2013, Maria Giese pointed out this disparity. Upon further examination, it has been upheld, with only approximately 7% of directors in English speaking cinema being women. With Alfred Hitchcock Day taking place in National Women’s Month in the United States, there’s a joke to be found somewhere.

What Makes An Auteur

Being a man does not make one an Auteur though. Nor does being a male director. So what does? Film critic Pauline Kael ruthlessly pointed out that Hitchcock used repeating themes throughout his movies.

In fact, these signature elements are part of the definition of the Auteur. We can see the artist in their work. With Alfred Hitchcock we can see him in his repetition of avian metaphors throughout his films, even if we exclude The Birds. Examining this particular element of this work makes The Birds, the timing of its creation during his career, and how it’s a joke with himself on the accumulation of birds in his films.

From his experiences in German cinema, Hitchcock brought a recurring element of Chiaro Scuro. This use of light and dark preceding or following characters as a way of conveying information is a European cinematic trope that Hitchcock helped to popularize in Hollywood.

His other signature elements include his regular appearances in his own movies. This is one of the specific features of the Auteur. In some way, as the artist creating a film in some way the film ends up being about the Auteur to some extent. By appearing in his own films, Hitchcock chooses to make the films self insertion.

As part of this narcissistic self insertion, he also chooses to use limited perspective as a repeated thematic element of his films. This tight information control manipulates his audiences. While I would normally not call the use of limited perspective and information control narcissistic on the part of the creator, this is the same man who called the people acting for him cattle.

The other feature of an Auteur and this self insertion is the manifestation of their own underlying sexual fantasies, confusions, tensions, prejudices and disturbances. Hitchcock was particularly cruel in this regard to men. Multiple of his horror and suspense films included messaging against homosexual and gender nonconforming audiences. He also objectified female characters, often stripping literary characters of any attempt at depth arduously crafted for them by the books’ authors only to present them on screen as a flat cinematic device, such as in his horror and espionage films.

Trash

Pauline Kael called Hitchcock “Trash.”

I’d argue that he’s cinematic junk food. Hitchcock movies are cinematic candy created for mid century mass consumption made by a man who rose to a place of power in Hollywood. Repetition as a means of brainwashing a national mid century audience obsessed with their own discomfort isn’t original, but it is a powerful tool.

Pauline Kael’s primary ruthless criticism pointed out that Hitchcock’s use of repeated themes, even if he created them, made him unoriginal.

This poses the question: does self plagiarism or the repetition of old tropes make one unoriginal? What about “stealing” ideas from other artists? 

Yes. Unequivocally.

As artists we should always strive to be better people and better versions of ourselves. As we create, we should not accept our old works at face value. There are benefits to being our own worst critics and to criticizing the people once held up as heroes of artistic fields.

We can admire Hitchcock. We can study his works and we can learn from him if we also accept criticism of him and grow. 

And you, reader, can be so much more. You can be better than Hitchcock in this new century. I and others can’t wait to see what you can do.


For those interested into delving into some of the themes mentioned

Reading:

Kubric & Hitchcock: A Semiotic Puzzle

Watching:

Spain And The Art of Bringing In Tourism Dollars By Ruining Irreplaceable Art

From the country that brought you Monkey Christ now comes what I will call with absolutely no affection, “Gumby in a dress with sheep.”

This is only the most recent example of a decades long issues that has plagued Spain. So much so that a tourism industry has popped up around badly restored art. They’re doing this on purpose. As of June some were even calling for regulations to be put in place to try and stop the destruction of priceless works of art.

The restored face on a building in Valencia, Spain – The before and after courtesy of The Guardian

People are starting to take notice at the progressively more extreme botched art restorations. Art News’s Claire Selvin couldn’t help remarking on how significant the changes to the original face by the “restoration” team had been and brought up the same question that was brought up last June.

Restoration projects that leave artworks looking drastically changed have become something of a pattern in Spain in recent years.  When the Virgin Mary painting was altered twice by a furniture restorer in Valencia in June, experts revived calls for increased regulation of efforts related to the restoration of artworks.

https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/restoration-spanish-sculpture-botched-1234576275/

But just how much money did the “Monkey Christ” bring in? Is it really enough to incentivize purposeful botched art restorations?

Well, quite a lot. So much so that I’m not the only one suggesting that this has become a new art movement in Spain to draw in tourism dollars. And it is threatening the survival of priceless works of historic art for the sake of social media attention. In 2012 alone the “Monkey Christ” brought in 40,000 guests and more than €50,000 for charity. The restoration artist also wanted cuts of royalties that she then went on to be partially donated to Muscular Dystrophy. While that is nice, the story gets more complicated.

A familiar face, now known to the world as Monkey Christ, greets visitors to the Santuario de Misericordia, its blurred and startled features staring down from bottles, thimbles, bookmarks, teddy bears, pens, mugs, T-shirts, mousepads, badges, fridge magnets and keyrings.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/28/how-monkey-christ-brought-new-life-to-a-quiet-spanish-town

By 2016 the town was seeing hundreds of thousands of visitors per year and receiving single donations topping the total brought in that first year. While it can be argued that this injection of money was bringing some much needed funds to the area, the question that arises is: Is Sacrificing Irreplaceable Historic Art Worth It?

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The Before, After Restoration, and After Fixing The Botched Restoration From: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spanish-statue-st-george-undergoes-unrestoration-remove-botched-paint-job-180972481/

In 2018, Spain had a different statue botching of St. George – a saint that I only barely recall because I’m fairly certain he is one of those that may have “slain a dragon.” And that is in fact what the statue that was being restored was of – St. George Slaying A Dragon.

Now, as much as I would love to believe St. George proudly presented the head of some noble beast to his lady love and saved a village, I call bullshit. That said, there have been efforts to repair the situation. These costly “repairs” stripped off the materials used on the statue, resulting in loss of the original paint and overall worsening of the condition. The Smithsonian article explained ACRE‘s description of the egregious errors made in the restoration process:

According to a statement by ACRE, Spain’s national organization of professional art restorers, the artist applied several layers of plaster, repainted the figure, and sanded its surface, effectively erasing the entirety of its “historical footprint.” The original artist had used a unique polychrome technique. According to London’s National Gallery, Spanish sculptors of the 16th and 17th centuries carved their statues and covered them in white gesso but were prohibited from actually painting the figurines, which were later gilded and refined by specially trained artisans.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spanish-statue-st-george-undergoes-unrestoration-remove-botched-paint-job-180972481/

One of the fascinating things to note is that the Smithsonian found out from ACRE that these pieces of art are being restored without authorization from the region’s heritage foundations and that they are technically protected artifacts. The costs to fix these botched restorations fall onto the levels of Spanish government, and thus taxpayers, if the funds exist. Sometimes there aren’t the funds for the repair. Fixing the restoration of the statue of St. George cost approximately 34,000 USD of government funds intended for Art and Culture.

While we keep laughing at these botched art restorations and making them “go viral” online, the true victims are the future generations that will never see the original works that are being destroyed for the sake of generating money from publicity to line someone’s pockets.

With Spain reopening for tourism and given how dependent their economy is on this influx of cash this is a real threat for cultural and historical preservation. So, before you decide you want to travel to see one of these pieces please think. Each time you pay to see any botched art or buy memorabilia with “bad restorations” from Spain, you’re supporting an illegal industry meant to take your money all while destroying priceless art and artifacts. The trouble with those is that once something like that is gone it really is gone forever and future generations will never be able to experience it or learn any more of the secrets it may have had to tell.


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