“In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”Pauline Kael
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.
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?
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
Kubric & Hitchcock: A Semiotic Puzzle