Art is such a broad term, and includes all types of mediums – yet all I’ve talked about here is paintings and sculpture! This is the beginning of a series where I’ll delve a little deeper into mediums that are less talked about in the art sphere, but certainly no less important.
I’m starting with a peek into cinema, but not any old cinema: the long-lasting genius of Alfred Hitchcock.
(Note: this post contains spoilers..of movies from the 50s and 60s)
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a British director and producer who became a wonderfully celebrated figure throughout his career, which spanned over six decades and culminated in more than 50 feature films (and a TV show!). Known as the ‘Master of Suspense’, he effectively invented, dominated, and perfected the thriller genre.
He also pioneered many elements of film that viewers often take for granted today. His distinctive directing style and extensive control over all aspects of his films were part of his drive to create ‘Pure Cinema’. Hitchcock’s idea of this was a story told predominantly through visual means rather than dialogue – the use of camera movement, framing, editing – the visual composition. (The ART of the film!!!!) He aimed to create a cinematic experience that could not be translated into other mediums (like novels or stage theatre), communicating through picture in a way that only cinema can.
Hitchcock drew inspiration from the silent films of the 1920’s, and was concerned that the introduction of sound would corrupt the art. He worried sound would turn film from a communicative moving picture to merely photographs of people talking. In his films, he combats this by using techniques that would come to be known as “Hitchcockian” – unconventional styles that express emotion without describing it literally; letting the images do the talking.
His movies often have long stretches without dialogue, using various camera shots and sequences to propel the story along. This can be seen in Psycho (1960) – the movie that Hitchcock himself labelled as the best example of Pure Cinema. Much of this movie involves the story unfolding without relying on dialogue, such as when Marion leaves from her work. Through roaming close-ups on the money, her suitcase, and her personal documents, the viewer deducts she is about to do a runner. This is confirmed with her in the car, and anxious music underscoring the travel. Alternating shots between oncoming traffic and close-ups of Marion’s tired face indicate she has been driving for hours – this thief is eager to escape! Even in the exchange between her and the police officer, we can understand the dynamic without hearing dialogue, through lingering low angle close-ups on the officers’ shrouded, inexpressive face, and high angle views of the victimised Marion as she tries to defer. In this way, Hitchcock is using all tools available to him to communicate not only story but emotion.
The choice of shots in that scene is another of Hitchcock’s directorial traits: point of view shots. He believed the subjective camera was more important than the acting in terms of producing effects and empathy. These shots put us in the place of the actor, making us a participant of the story and inciting active viewing. This is best utilised in Rear Window (1954), where the entire movie is shown from Jeff’s apartment. High shots looking down at the courtyard, action obscured by walls, blinds, or trees – we see what he sees, miss what he misses, and respond as he responds. Only once he gets out his camera and binoculars to see closer do we get close-ups, and always in a sphere shot: as if we are looking directly through the lens he holds. Hitchcock purposely doesn’t let us get any closer than Jeff gets, giving a sense of inviting us into his world and becoming directly involved. He planned every shot thoroughly and every detail mattered.
The concept or Pure Cinema can be encapsulated in another Hitchcock trait, the use of montage: putting together bits and pieces to express and invoke feeling. Montages are a string of shots where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: seeing a single shot may be inconsequential, but many combined in quick bursts produces a powerful effect. This is seen in The Birds (1963) where Melanie is attacked by birds in the upstairs bedroom. The shots flick between her, the birds, her injuries, and her trying the door. Similarly, in the famous shower scene in Psycho the shots rapidly switch between Marion, the kife, she shower floor, and her injuries. The rapid shots, combined with the violins and her screams, invoke a heightened emotional state in the viewer- at the time, shock and terror! But these days, it’s more like nostalgia. This scene had such an impact on media that everybody knows it, even though some people may not even know of the movie!
In essence Pure Cinema is, in a way, subtle. It shuns the laziness of explanatory dialogue and sneaks the story into the viewer’s mind, so that your heart races without you even knowing why.