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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Cinema is the art of appropriation—whether taking that which is before the camera or that which has already been filmed. We'll never know who first discovered the possibility of re-editing existent footage, but, as Jay Leyda noted in his pioneering Films Beget Films, "We can be sure that the practice is as old as the newsreel itself." These days, film history is a hall of mirrors in which not just film footage but filmmakers may be incorporated in other filmmakers' work. Johan Grimonprez's Double Take gives Alfred Hitchcock a new role; Chuck Workman's Visionaries popularizes a persona invented by Jonas Mekas.
The master of suspense who launched 10,000 master's theses, Hitchcock bestrides classic cinema and cinema studies like a portly colossus. At once ferociously pop and slyly avant-garde, a strong candidate as the cleverest man to ever direct a Hollywood movie, Hitchcock is the subject of media artist Grimonprez's appropriately clever but only intermittently successful essay-film. On one hand, Double Take plays on Hitch's uncanny sense of doubles; on the other, the movie takes the director out of Hollywood and inserts him, alongside Nixon, Khrushchev, and Kennedy, in the post-Sputnik, pre-Vietnam context of the Missile Gap and the Space Race, Cuba, Berlin, and the first televised debates in order to show him responding to, if not concocting, the Cold War.
In a sense, Grimonprez employs Hitchcock as the protagonist for a prequel to his previous study in terror, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a feature-length video compilation meditating on the 1970s golden age of airplane hijacking. Not just an image-maker, Grimonprez's Hitchcock doubles as the spirit of the age, contriving new ways to terrify his audience. Double Take addresses what's arguably the greatest period of Hitchcock's career—the years that brought Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963)—but, The Birds aside, Grimonprez is mainly interested in the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which began its decade-long run in 1955.
If Vertigo confirmed Hitchcock's stature as an artist (at least in France), Alfred Hitchcock Presents made him a TV personality, perhaps even the personification of that medium in his desire to strike fear into the heart of the American family. Thus Double Take is interspersed with the show's clownish, self-reflexive introductions as well as a number of early-'60s commercials for Folgers coffee. While these may or may not have been the spots that Hitchcock presented (and kidded) each week, Grimonprez offers them as Hitchcock parodies, suffused with free-floating anxiety and metaphysical dread: "This coffee is criminal!" a husband berates his wife.
More homage than analysis and less argument than shpritz, Double Take is essentially an associative montage. The structure is musical; key images and themes recur throughout, along with Hitchcocks. In his TV intros, the director might cast himself as a puppet on a string, manipulated by himself, a trio of identical quiz-show contestants, or, most deliciously, an analysand on his own couch. Grimonprez enriches this already-compulsive doubling by using professional Hitch look-alike Ron Burrage (who impersonated Hitchcock to great effect in Canadian director Robert LePage's fictional feature on the making of I Confess) but also undermines its power through the Borgesian conceit of Hitchcock frightened by an encounter with his older self on the set of The Birds.
Here, as in his movies, Hitchcock pops up everywhere. The world becomes his show. Double Take's most fluid montage mixes duck-and-cover footage of 1950s primary school shelter drills with the spectacular kiddie panic of The Birds. In production during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hitchcock's last triumph is easily assimilated into the Cold War's keep-watching-the-skies panic—although Grimonprez's notion of Hitchcock as iconic TV star and ironic Cold Warrior is a bit reductive. Rear Window (1954), released on the eve of Joseph McCarthy's fall and one of the first Hollywood movies to camp on Cold War paranoia, is absent; North by Northwest, the prototypical '60s comic thriller, is barely alluded to; and even Psycho, in which Hitchcock used TV production technique to produce something that could not be televised, is only a ghostly presence. (Later in the decade, Hitchcock actually addressed the Cold War directly, if with limited success, in Torn Curtain and Topaz.)
Among the other ideas floating through Double Take is the notion of the Cold War as a Soviet-American co-production conjured up to cow their respective populations, along with the rest of the world. Clips shown during the final credits portray a number of subsequent, supposedly symbiotic Russian-American odd couples—Reagan and Gorbachev, Clinton and Yeltsin, Bush and Putin—and Double Take ultimately functions most profoundly as our collective dream rather than Hitch's individual nightmare. Although it's not emphasized, by the movie's end, Nikita Khrushchev has come to seem one more Hitchcock doppelgänger—another portly, comic boogieman out to scare us to death.
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