By Izeth Hussain –
A work of art – a poem, play, novel, film, painting and so on – can be approached at two levels: one is as an art object that represents order wrested from the chaos outside it, and the other is as an art object in relation to the chaos outside it. A total criticism should function at both levels. The writer will illustrate his argument by examining a couple of films by two great directors, Hitchcock and Kiarostami.
Hitchcock’s film Rope appeared in the second half of the ‘forties, after he was well-established as a top Hollywood film director who specialized in thrillers, which was not a genre associated with high brow art. He was seen as belonging essentially to the world of Hollywood entertainment. That image of him changed later when Francois Truffaut, one of the most prestigious of the French New Wave directors, praised him as an exemplar of the high brow art film. Consequently he is now ranked securely with the giants of the cinema such as – to choose some names at random – Chaplin, Eisenstein, Bunuel, Pasolini, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosava, and Satyajit Ray. Now Kiarostami too tends to be mentioned along with them.
Some facts are worth mentioning about Hitchcock. In the other arts, literature, music, and painting, the act of creation takes place with the artist working alone by himself. In film the central creative figure is certainly the Director but the Producer has a say in what goes on and crucial contributions are made by the actors, the script writer, the photographer, and the composer of the background music. The film is therefore the result of a collaborative enterprise but the great Directors make their distinctive impress on every one of their films. Hitchcock was very much what the French now call the auteur, the author, of his films: he worked out every detail in his head in advance of the actual shooting of the film, which for him was a dull anti-climax compared to the lonely creative work that preceded it. As authentic creative artists usually have something odd about them, a fertile lack of balance, two facts about Hitchcock are worth noting. One was that he never went out in the evenings except when one of his films was being shot, which necessitated some amount of socializing. The other was that he never learnt to drive a car. As a boy in England he was subjected to a strict Catholic upbringing by a disciplinarian father who, over some minor misdemeanor, sent him to the police station with a note. The officer in charge after reading it told Hitchcock that if he were ever again guilty of that kind of misdemeanor he would be put behind bars for a long period. The experience was so traumatic that Hitchcock never learnt to drive because that would sooner or later put him at the mercy of the police over some traffic offense. Authentic creative artists are sensitive to the darker side of life.
The film Rope (1948) was based on the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924. They were extraordinarily brilliant Chicago University students from very wealthy backgrounds who were inspired by the writings of the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche into committing what they regarded as the perfect undetectable murder. They believed that they belonged to Nietzsche’s category of supermen to whom the social standards of right and wrong did not apply, and that they were privileged to commit any crime including murder. They were obsessed with crime and committed many acts of petty crime before they decided on the murder of 14-year old Bobby Franks who was also from a wealthy Chicago background. They were caught and the case became famous both for its gratuitous murder and for the brilliant advocacy for abandoning the death penalty argued by the defense counsel Clarence Darrow. Hitchcock based his film on a play by Patrick Hamilton which dealt only with the murder while ignoring the court case altogether, later to become the focus of another film.
The present writer saw the Hitchcock film in 1948 or a little later, and on seeing a DVD version recently has been surprised by how much of the details of the film had remained in the writer’s mind over a period of almost seven decades. That attests to the power of Hitchcock as a Director. Had the writer’s guru of that time, Professor Ludowyck, asked him to make a critique of the film, he would have done so using the standards of the New Criticism then in vogue in the US, the masterwork of which was Cleanth Brook’s The Well-wrought Urn. He would have praised it as a tour de force because it keeps the viewer’s unflagging interest while the plot is known and the action takes place, except for a single scene, within one flat, and he would have pointed out how all the elements fit together to make a coherent work of art. That would have been a critique of the art object as representing order wrested from the chaos outside it.
But today, in Sri Lanka certainly, it is impossible to keep the world outside from invading the art object. A satisfactory critique will have to note how value is given to the ordinary. The film begins with a street scene in which someone is helped to cross the street and it ends with voices outside the flat raised in concern over the shots that have been fired inside it. There is the maternal solicitude shown by the maid, and there is the altruistic concern over the sick wife of the bibliophile Professor. The value of the ordinary is a frequent theme in Hitchcock’s films, apparent for instance in the heroism shown by ordinary people in Rear Window. The value of the ordinary seems to be something that is profoundly American. Who else but one of the quintessential American poets of the last century, William Carlos Williams, could have made a memorable poem out of a piece of broken glass?
Hitchcock’s vision of evil is also noteworthy in the film. By evil the writer means the human propensity to take gratuitous joy in harming and destroying. The former teacher of the two young murderers acknowledges that he did teach them Nietzsche and that he had continued to hold Nietzsche’s views about the superman, but he found himself finally forced to recognize that there was something in him that balked at murder while there was something in the two young men that made them commit it. There was evil in the two young men that could not be explained away in terms of upbringing and background. The contrast is provided by Arthur Penn’s classic Bonny and Clyde in which the two outlaws are seen sympathetically as being largely the victims of deprivations imposed on the under-privileged. Penn’s vision is that of Whitman, a vision consistent with the American Dream of a perfectible society, while Hitchcock shares the vision of evil of Melville and Hawthorn and Henry James.
Finally, Rope which was first shown in 1948 can be seen as prophetic of the American Empire which has been ravaging a good part of the world since then. It is not accidental that the Leopold-Loeb case inspired fiction, plays, and two films, apart from articles and essays – the Wikipedia account fails to mention Andre Gide’s Caves of the Vatican. The reason is that it tells us something important about Western civilization, at least the imperialist side of it. Nietzsche was the guiding philosopher behind the Nazis, and he has been the undeclared guiding philosopher behind Western imperialism: the world seen in terms of a dichotomy between supermen and human insects whom the West has butchered by the million. Hitchcock’s Rope tells us why the Americans are so fanatically supportive of apartheid Israel.
In the remaining space the writer will make just three points about Kiarostami film Like someone in love. It is a film made in Japan with Japanese actors by an Iranian Director. It attests to his universalism. Secondly, a young Japanese awakens to reality, an important theme in western films. Thirdly in affluent Japan young women are still forced into prostitution by economic hardship: the film is a devastating indictment of contemporary capitalism.