The Savage id

Camille Paglia talks about why Hitchcock has more to do with Madonna than he does with pomo theorists.

Topics: Camille Paglia, Movies,

I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups,” said Alfred
Hitchcock. “Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we
cannot experience sufficient thrills firsthand. Therefore, to prevent our
becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially.”

Seen in this light, his oeuvre constitutes a blast at gentility. So
does the work of Camille Paglia, whose love of Hitchcock informed her
controversial book “Sexual Personae” and prompted her to write a study of
“The Birds” for the British Film Institute. On the occasion of Hitchcock’s
centennial, I asked Paglia about
the daring art and astounding influence of the man once known simply as the
Master of Suspense.

I wonder if you agree that Hitchcock is the only director who is as great an
inspiration to the avant-garde as to the mainstream?

I think it’s very true. Hitchcock was viewed as merely an entertainer until
the French New Wave directors of the late 1950s and ’60s began to hail him as
the ultimate auteur. In the last three decades, Hitchcock’s critical esteem
has swelled and swelled in the film studies departments of universities. The
staying power of the actual films themselves has been proved by their
omnipresence on American television — which is really unique in the world.
There’s no country that has that kind of advantage of almost wall-to-wall
movie broadcasts. By the ’90s, something I would not have believed in the
’60s has become pretty clear — that Hitchcock has displaced practically all
of the major European art directors that I myself thought in college and
graduate school would be the ones who would be considered the equals of great
masters in painting and music and the novel of the 20th century.

It’s not a big surprise to me. As a teacher now for almost 30 years,
I’ve tried to show my classes the movies that I took very seriously by
Antonioni or Bergman or even Fellini, and there is little in these films that
contemporary American students seem to connect with. I’ve begun to conclude,
to my regret, that the high point of European art film was in fact rather
parochial. That is, it had to do with the negative backwash from two world
wars. The sensibility of catastrophe and bleak nihilism that came out of
that period was, it turns out, not universal.



I certainly thought that Bergman, at least, would always have general
appeal. But on the contrary, it’s only Hitchcock whose films have bridged the
generations. Many contemporary students are as fascinated by those films as
we were. If I had been asked to rank the great directors in the late ’60s,
when I entered grad school, I would never have put Hitchcock in the top five;
I’d have put him in the top 10, not the top five. Now, as a culture critic,
I say at the end of the 20th century that because of his technical
innovations and massive influence, Hitchcock for me is the equal of Picasso,
Stravinsky, Proust and Joyce.

In writing my study of “The Birds” for the British Film Institute, I had the
opportunity to review all kinds of films from Hitchcock’s past that were not
available when I was young — films from the silent era and the 1930s that
are now on video. I was just stunned by what I discovered: the blatant
continuity of Hitchcock’s sensibility, down to tiny little details in the
earliest films in matters of decor or geographical setting or the plot. It’s
clear that what we have in the works of Hitchcock really is, despite the ups
and downs of the quality of the films, a giant oeuvre — one huge imaginative
projection. I feel also that Hitchcock’s vision is so extensive, so broad,
that it takes in everything, from architecture to politics to sexuality —
but sexuality in particular, with its weird mixture of beauty and desire and
horror and the macabre. There’s an emotional depth to Hitchcock’s films that
I find almost completely lacking in some of the European art films that I
once so adored and now regard as rather affected and very partial statements
about human life.

Are you saying that at this point he is the only movie director you would
put on a level with Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust and Joyce?

With Bergman. Ingmar Bergman has produced an enormous body of very important
work. But oddly enough, if I were to try to choose a Bergman film to show to
my undergraduates, I would be hard-pressed to know what it would be. I end up
showing “Persona” simply because it’s my favorite film and it devastated me
when I saw it in my senior year of college at its American release. It’s a
film that I continue to draw from. I just toured in England with it for the
National Film Theatre and was very pleased to see the audience that came to
that film — an audience that was not simply young but of several generations
and seemed very responsive to it. I feel I’ve lived that film and know every
detail of it, but I still find new things in it — and I laugh through it. People think it’s a
very grotesque and traumatic film, but actually Bergman, at his best, has that same mixture
of comedy and horror that Hitchcock has.

As far as I’m concerned, Bergman is the greatest living artist in any genre
in the world right now. He is drawing, of course, on his great knowledge of
theater and opera and all kinds of things that flow into him. I don’t think
we’ll ever have a Bergman again because today’s filmmakers get right into
film early on, and they just don’t have the kind of cultivation that Bergman
has. But I feel that the major artworks in world history are self-evident at
a certain level and that they appeal to general and universal emotions.
Therefore I think that it can be argued that Hitchcock is certainly of the
rank of Bergman and that he may be the one who survives this century in terms
of the canon that eventually emerges.

When I was starting out as a critic and interviewer and first began talking
to directors, I was always shocked when someone you wouldn’t automatically
associate with Hitchcock — like, say, Jonathan Demme — would immediately come
out with “Well, of course the director who most influenced me was Hitchcock.”
It was because Hitchcock, through his lucidity, was able to teach by example
the grammar of film and the expressive potential of film.

I think every young filmmaker should be studying Hitchcock because of the
editing alone, that is, the economy with which an enormous amount is
compressed into three seconds of an image. Today I can barely stand to watch
most new films that are released, even the ones that are critically praised,
because they run on and on and on. The people who make them have no sense at
all of subtlety and suggestion and how to think about a shot, to set it up
months in advance in your head and not just fall to the lowest common
denominator of the audience.

Hitchcock had such a keen sense of the popular audience — which I think he
got from his lower-middle-class background and from watching the crowds in
London. He’s able to go directly to the mass audience and yet never insult
that audience. He plays tricks on us, but with the most incredible kind of
sculptured cinema. It’s pictorial insofar as he imagines the screen as if
it’s a painting and fills up the rectangle, but it’s also sculptural in the
way that he photographs the human figure. The great stars of Hitchcock look
like monumental objets d’art; they are just wonderful to look at. Filmmakers
today don’t realize the craving of the audience simply to look and to admire and to
savor the beauty of a sexy man or woman on the screen before you. They don’t
realize you can simply let the camera linger on the person. The director
should give himself or herself over to the energy of the story or to the
charisma and craft of the performers themselves — and never mind about showing
how clever and cool you are.

That accounts for one link between your affection for Bergman and your
affection for Hitchcock. Wasn’t it Bergman who said there was no more
interesting subject than the human face?

Oh yes, this is why I adore “Persona” — the camera comes in so
intimately to the complex faces of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman. I always
say about that film that it is the ultimate low-budget picture. This is one
of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, and yet it was produced
not just with a low budget but with no discernible budget at all. As far as
I can see, they bought one hospital bed, one nurse’s uniform and two straw
hats. I think that was it! Even the summer house where most of the movie
takes place is a loaner from somebody associated with the production.

So in a sense, it’s Bergman’s “Psycho.” But I wonder where you find the
emotional depth in Hitchcock that’s commensurate with Bergman’s?

Well, there’s emotional depth of several kinds. I think there’s Hitchcock’s
ability to show men’s inner lives even when the male face is fairly
phlegmatic. Most men’s faces in the modern Northern European tradition are
fairly non-expressive — obviously Greeks and Italians and Spaniards enjoy a
wider range of permissible emotions. So one of the most wonderful things
about Hitchcock is his use of Cary Grant and of James Stewart. I mean they
just look like men, but the way you’re pulled into “North by Northwest,”
into the anxiety and paranoia of Grant’s distinguished and urbane character, Roger
Thornhill, is absolutely amazing. Cary Grant’s brilliance of body language is partly coming from his own athleticism and history as an acrobat, his instinctive dancelike moves, but
it also owes a lot to Hitchcock’s keen sense of choreography. The theater of
this film is in the body language. In the academy these days, there’s way
too much gamesmanship in trying to deconstruct the plots and the narrative
and the abstract semiotics. As someone who has taught and worked among
artists for most of my career, I’m interested in characters and emotion and
the physicality of gestures.

Another example is James Stewart in “Vertigo,” where his agony, his sense of
loss of the apparitional character of the first Madeleine turns into
fetishism and obsession when he re-creates the shop-girl Judy as the
nonexistent Madeleine — all of that is just so astonishing and intense.
Some of my favorite moments in that film are simply when James Stewart is
looking, just looking, staring. That includes the first time he actually sees
Madeleine, when of course the whole
thing is a show put on to dupe him. He’s sitting in that fancy San Francisco
restaurant as Kim Novak floats by in this magnificent floor-length cape and
opera gown. I’m so transfixed when she arrives: It’s this long, slow pan as
she comes into the restaurant and moves by him. He just sits and stares, and
it’s the fascinated staring of all men — all heterosexual men but even gay
men — through history as they watch a beautiful woman walk into a room. I
mean it’s absolutely primal to me; it’s that kind of deep, mythological
emotion, the kind of awed emotion that almost can’t be expressed.

Hitchcock’s style is not just the extreme emotion, or rather
emotionalism, of Marion Crane screaming as she gets knifed to death in a
shower. That’s obviously the horror element in his films. But actually he’s
very operatic, as is Bergman. Both Bergman, over the whole of his films, and
Hitchcock, in each of the major films, try to play the full piano keyboard of
emotion. And I think that’s what brings me back to Hitchcock again and again
and again. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen some of these films.

Of course, for us Americans, Hitchcock’s films have been this constant
presence in our homes for practically the entire time since Hitchcock made
them. In other countries, “The Birds,” for example, is not that well-known
outside of film fans. But like “Psycho,” “The Birds” became instantly
canonical in American culture. I’ll be watching the local TV news in Chicago
or California or Florida, and inevitably there’ll be something that
happened — like pigeons getting in the way of an airplane — and the
newscasters intone, “It was a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds.’”
It’s extraordinary how that film has passed into the collective consciousness
of the culture.

We also have to remember that Hitchcock himself as a personality has a
very strong presence for us because of his TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock
Presents,” which was on for so long and helped him become a kind of popular
archetype that he hasn’t been in the rest of the world.

In the opening pages of your book on “The Birds,” you talk about your
response to Hitchcock from his TV show, and you talk about how seeing “The
Birds” and “Marnie” in fresh prints in first-run theaters gave you your most
intense Hitchcock experiences. I was wondering how that “first love” kind of
feeling fanned out and informed the rest of your view of Hitchcock, working
back to things that are very different, like “The Lady Vanishes” or “Shadow
of a Doubt” or any of those other types of films that he did.

Well, my favorite Hitchcock is the Technicolor Hitchcock, so there’s no doubt
I’m less fond of the earlier black-and-white films. I do admire them. I’ll
always watch “Notorious” if it’s on.

“Notorious” for me is the one that has a wonderful, dream-like, yet very
psychologically real portrayal of grown-up sexuality, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

That film is a masterpiece, and we’re very lucky to have excellent prints of
it frequently on television now on the cable channels. Again, when it’s on,
of course I’m going to watch it. But I’m too aware of myself admiring it.
I’m not drawn completely into it in the way that I am, say, by “North by
Northwest,” which takes me into its world — and the same thing for “The Birds”
and “Marnie.”

“Psycho” I tend to watch for the first 40 minutes — that is, the part with
Janet Leigh. As long as she’s in it, I love it. I adore that long, stately
prelude and breathlessly watch every single microsecond of it, especially her
flight in the car. But from the moment the car pulls up to the motel, I tend
to tune out. I let the film play on, but I’m less interested. It becomes
pathetic or revolting, even though I enormously admire Anthony Perkins’
performance.

Indeed, Perkins is so superb as the crazed Norman Bates that it’s made it
very difficult for young actors in horror films since. A performance like
that just takes everything away from all subsequent actors — the way Marlon
Brando did in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It becomes so overwhelming that
young actors in that kind of film have to either define themselves against it
or find themselves simply repeating the gestures in it. It’s such a powerful
film that people often forget how wonderful Perkins is in it.

What else I’ve learned from Hitchcock, as from Edgar Allen Poe — one of
Hitchcock’s precursors, whom he certainly drew from — is the life of the id,
the unconscious, the basic criminality of mankind. It’s one of the premises
of my own work: We’re not born good, as Rousseau claimed, but with a
propensity toward violence and aggression. For me as for Hitchcock,
civilization, law and order are imposed on us — but that’s what makes life
possible. When the structure of law dissolves or breaks, you have an
eruption of the natural impulse toward rabid sex and violence — the basic
animal drive in us.

What is enormously profound in Hitchcock is the way he shows both the id and
the superego as equally powerful. How many of his films deal with his
fascination with the law, and yet his fear of the law and then the slow
working out of the law. But I think that approaching him from the
post-structuralist angle, using Foucault or Lacan, is just absurd. The only
way to understand Hitchcock is to look at him as a Catholic coming out of a
conservative religious tradition. So he has more in common with Madonna than
he does with Foucault, for heaven’s sake! There’s always that transgressive
sense of taunting the rules that formed you. Probably I feel so much at home
with Hitchcock partly because of my own Catholic background.

Hitchcock’s view of women in particular had a tremendous influence on me. Of
course, he’s in the main line of the Hollywood view of the divinity and yet
ultimately secret malice of woman. In the academy over the past 30 years,
we’ve seen endlesssly repeated the standard PC position that our sexual
identities are socially constructed and that there’s nothing at all
essentially “male” or “female.” I think that’s plain silly. The whole of
Hollywood history and the international mass audience’s response to the great
films show what nonsense such theories are. There is something mysterious
about femaleness — coming from the facts of
woman’s physical nature, the endless mysteries of the shadowy womb, and the
power of procreation that even she doesn’t understand. Part of what I got
from Hitchcock is his vision of woman’s un-knowability, her un-reachability,
her enormous beauty — the glamorous artifice with which she cloaks herself but
ultimately her incredible, natural sexual power.

From the moment feminism began to solidify its ideology in the early ’70s,
Hitchcock became a whipping boy for feminist theory. I’ve been very vocal
about my opposition to the simplistic theory of “the male gaze” that is
associated with Laura Mulvey (and that she herself has moved somewhat away
from) and that has taken over feminist film studies to a vampiric degree in
the last 25 years. The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a
beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze
which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into “meat”
– I think this was utter nonsense from the start. It was formulated by
people who knew nothing about the history of painting or sculpture, the
history of the fine arts. It was an a priori theory: First there was
feminist ideology, asserting that history is nothing but male oppression and
female victimization, and then came this theory — the “victim” model of
feminism applied wholesale to works of culture.

Hitchcock obviously had a complex and ambivalent attitude toward women. He
was controlled by his mother when he was young, and part of that comes out in
the horror fantasy of “Psycho,” where you have the mother being preserved in
a fruit cellar and the man not being able to make the transition between
boyhood and manhood and becoming her in a
wig and dress and killing women in order to kill his own sexual impulses.
Hitchcock didn’t “hate” women; he was caught between hate and fear.

Any artist is driven by strange forces. The whole impulse in art-making is
to untangle your dark emotions. There’s always some strange drive in the
work of any major artist. The idea that “people make art because they are
happy people who want to share their thoughts” — ridiculous. No happy
person has ever had a major career in the arts. The only example I can find
is Raphael, who appeared to have a sunny temperament to most people. But he
died young of a fever — before his real character might have emerged! And it
could be that he was deliberately defining himself in opposition to the big
troublemakers, Michelangelo and Leonardo, who were pains in the ass to
everybody. So maybe this was Raphael’s form of aggression: “I’m not like
them.” There’s no example of major art coming from a nice person or from
purely positive or altruistic emotions. There is some huge conflict and
inner war in every major artist.

And yes, the sexual battlefield is where those things were going on in
Hitchcock. But look at his own life: From what people have been able to
conclude, his actual sexual practice was fairly limited. He remained a virgin
until he was 27, when he married, and he did produce a daughter. There’s some
suggestion that perhaps his marriage was not particularly physical. He was
almost a kind of priest or monk. The Jesuit-trained Catholic impulse in him
was very strong. And if his film eroticism was voyeuristic, well, that’s what
we want, for heaven’s sake, in a painter or a
filmmaker! We want someone who lives through the eye.

What was your reaction to Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho”?

My one public remark was that the only reason to see the new “Psycho” was to
see Anne Heche being assassinated! But it should have been a much more
important work and event than it was.

A late designer friend of mine, Jeff Griswold (he did the cover to Pauline
Kael’s “Reeling”), told me he was hanging around with Gus Van Sant in 1991
and ’92, and came up with this idea for Van Sant to remake Carl Dreyer’s “Day
of Wrath” frame by frame, in color (and in English). It was such an
art-school idea that I never thought about it again until Van Sant did the
same thing for “Psycho.”

In general, the attempted remakes of the great classics of the ’40s and ’50s
and early ’60s are not succeeding because the directors themselves don’t
understand the pressure of social convention in that period. They don’t
understand how to compress the action, compress the language, compress the
thought processes. And they sure don’t know how to do decor. There’s a
kind of stupidity on the part of many contemporary directors, an inability to
understand just how repressive culture was before my generation of the 1960s
revolted — and brought everything down in pieces and created our present
chaos. And that’s what’s unconvincing about most of these films. They don’t
understand how tensely minimalist the acting was in a lot of those films. The
great example to me is not just Janet Leigh’s brilliant performance in
“Psycho” but Vivien Leigh in “Anna Karenina” — that film should be seen by
anyone who’s trying to do an historical re-creation of any kind.

“Gone With the Wind” is a magnificent example of historical re-creation, and
part of it is that people of the late 1930s still had some sense of what 19th
century characters acted like because they saw the formal body language of
their own grandparents. As a scholar, I feel that filmmakers have a
responsibility to make historical films as accurate as possible. For
example, in “Titanic” — which I was expecting to hate and, to my surprise,
enjoyed — one of the most hilarious examples of tutoring gone wrong is the way
Kate Winslet was taught what she was told was an authentic genteel
Philadelphia accent of 1912 but which was in fact completely wrong. The smart
set in the Philadelphia of that period were aping a British accent! So
here’s Kate Winslet (who deserved the Oscar over Helen Hunt) trying to show
she’s of a much higher social class than Leonardo DiCaprio in steerage — and
meanwhile she’s talking as casually as an American girl of today. I mean it’s
just so maddening to me — this inability to show the past.

While you’re on this, I was just curious. “Marnie” is not one of my favorite
Hitchcock films and I haven’t researched that one, but I wonder if there is
any explanation for why Sean Connery speaks the way he does in Philadelphia
in the mid-’60s?

Of course that makes no sense either! I loved “Marnie” from the moment it
came out. It was a big flop at the time and has been seen as the beginning of
Hitchcock’s decline. But the film was taken up immediately by the French
critics and moviemakers, who also loved it, probably because of the haunting
theme of the mysterious, elusive woman. That film is not particularly
well-made, but somehow it has this power to it, an emotional power. Part of
it is the wonderful music.

My favorite Hitchcock period really is the Bernard Herrmann period.
Herrmann’s music is just magnificent to hear even apart from the films, and
I’ve collected as many of his recordings as I could. Most people now
acknowledge that Herrmann is a major American composer who never received the
honor he should have in his own life because his work was regarded as
utilitarian — as contiguous to film rather than free-standing. But at the big
Hitchcock conference at NYU in October (where I’ll be introducing “The
Birds”), there’s going to be a major performance of Herrmann’s Hitchcock music
at Carnegie Hall.

If you feel as intensely as this about Hitchcock, and you’ve come to believe
that he is possibly the premier filmmaker of all, when you say that the
quality of his films has ups and downs, where are the downs for you then?

Well, films like “Topaz.” And by the time we get to “Family Plot,” there’s a
kind of slackness, because he was ill. There are a number of misfires early
on, like “Under Capricorn.” He made a lot of films throughout the Hollywood
period, like “Stage Fright,” which don’t always rivet me, though there are
great moments in them. But he made enough masterpieces of the highest level
that just transform the brain. For me — as I’m sure for most admirers of
great films — they become your life. Hitchcock’s films have restructured
the way I see the world. It’s at the level of my experiences of great artists like Emily Dickinson or
Michelangelo. Hitchcock re-created the world I live in.

And I just love it when there’s a multi-generational response to any artwork,
as there plainly is with Hitchcock. I think that’s enormously significant
about any work or artist. I knew that the Beatles were going to be a lasting
phenomenon when I saw my then 3-year-old sister playing with Beatles
images and talking to them as if they were real. The same thing with Madonna:
When I saw that young children loved Madonna, I knew that she was a true world phenomenon.

I’m very interested in the question of universality — which criticism, of
course, has thrown out the window for the last 30 years, denying that there’s
anything universal or “normal” at all. Everything is niche, everything is
coterie, everything is lying around in postmodernist pieces and
fragmentation. And I’m just not interested in that — the fake hipster
attitude that the best art is what only the cognoscenti can understand.

But some would say — and I would say — that “Marnie” is a coterie movie,
in that perhaps only someone as involved in Hitchcock as you are or in the
same vein at least, would appreciate it the way you do and give it the kind
of esteem that you do.

Well “Marnie” is a personal favorite of mine. I love it, but if I were to
rank Hitchcock’s films, I wouldn’t put it at the very top, and neither would
I necessarily name it if I had to choose two or three films for a general
audience or for my students.

Which two or three would you put there?

If “North by Northwest” were being run back to back for a 24-hour period, I
would keep the television on for the entire time. I mean, I’d be trying to
do other things, too, like eating or sleeping. But in terms of the
sophistication and quality of its production, acting and script and the
universality of its appeal, “North by Northwest” is at the very top level of
works produced in any art form or genre in the 20th century. I would
certainly put “Notorious” on that list simply because of its achieving the
optimal level of filmmaking of that Hollywood studio era. “Notorious” is very
representative not just of Hitchcock’s genius but of the technical expertise
of the studio system that would, of course, slowly disintegrate in the 1950s.
And I like its international milieu, its background of politics, and the
vague menace coming from a particular historical moment. But “North by
Northwest” is for me the great example of Hitchcock at his height. “Psycho” I
would definitely expect every educated person to know. “Psycho” has entered
into the popular psyche, and it also, in retrospect, was clearly prefiguring
the disasters of the 1960s: the assassinations, the bombings, the random
murders. It was ahead of its time and therefore has ultimately become
representative of its time.

How do you feel about the directors who have followed Hitchcock most
explicitly — like De Palma and Polanski? I love a lot of their films and
they too have been raked over the coals.

I’ve always liked Polanski, but the only imitator of Hitchcock that I think
truly caught the elegant Hitchcockian spirit was Claude Chabrol. I’ve always
been a fan of Chabrol, but he’s oddly fallen from view in America. There’s a
Chabrol retrospective going on right now in Lincoln Center in New York. But
Brian De Palma seems to me to have vulgarized Hitchcock by reducing the
master to blood and gore. Hitchcock was actually very economical in his use
of both violence and blood. For me, the scale is tipped way too much in De
Palma toward sensationalistic, stomach-churning, “go-for-the-jugular” plot
motifs.

It’s important to study De Palma in order to appreciate how great Hitchcock
was. In De Palma, everything is pushed toward the blatant and the obvious,
whereas in Hitchcock there’s a sense of suspension and ambiguity and
delicacy, a contemplativeness coming from Hitchcock’s own background in fine
art. He began as a draftsman, an artist working in silent films in London.
And he knew art and later collected it. He learned from looking at painting.

The savage id comes across powerfully in Hitchcock, but it doesn’t deform the
entire film. Instead, you get in Hitchcock a sense of the organizing
structures of human life — not only the law codes but the actual physical
edifices that we inhabit and that he often associates with either woman,
identified with the house, or the father figure, represented by the great
public buildings, like the United Nations tower in “North By Northwest.”

But if you feel that way about De Palma, who has studied Hitchcock, does
that make you worry about Hitchcock as an influence?

Well, we shouldn’t blame the artist, but we can
blame the imitators! Part of the problem is a historical one: Hitchcock was
born a century ago, and therefore his worldview was actually pre-World War
II or even [World War] I in some ways. The directors who are imitating him matured
after World War II, and they were very influenced by the ’60s type of
irrational violence that exploded onto the national stage beginning with the
assassination of JFK and the Vietnamese War. So automatically they see
things with a cynical, jaded eye. There’s a lack of faith in the old order
of culture. For them the norm really is the chaos and violence.

But that’s not actually what you’re getting in Hitchcock. Hitchcock is a true
surrealist. That is, he knows how to be a realist first.
He knows how to set up the norm, and then he distorts and deforms it with
eruptions of anarchy or brutality. But then we return to the orderly
structure again. The Hitchcock imitators are too hip — they wouldn’t be caught
dead affirming the old order, the old norms that in fact are going to survive
them and will always return. There’s a cycle in human history: You have
order, then disorder, then reaction — which can be fascism. Then it’s back to
the old order, which leads to rebellion all over again, followed by disorder.
It’s an endless series, which in my own work I’ve described as the Apollonian and Dionysian
principles in history.

The Hitchcock imitators have never really understood that you need a rigorous
sense of order to get the highest sizzle of sex or violence. You remember
the much-hyped “Caligula”? That was the stupidest movie because it showed
imperial Rome as nothing but orgies and decadence, so there was nothing truly
hot or pornographic or interesting at all about the sex or violence. In
order to get really steamy sex and violence, you’ve got to have a very strict
sense of decorum. The decorum must be set up in order to violate it. It’s
the violation of the already established structure that produces the thrill
in Hitchcock. He was obsessed with that pattern. He grew up in a very
orderly world, so he’s constantly playing the game of roguish or prankish
Dionysus undermining Apollonian structure — but then at the end the Apollonian
structure is always re-invoked. That’s the classic pattern of most great
stories, actually, in the whole history of literature and drama.

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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