Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hitchcock’s Genius for Restraint Epitomizes the Essence of Great Art ...

Art gives form to expression, and getting the balance right is the greatest challenge facing the creator in any medium. Messy undisciplined expressions fall as short of the mark as do those that are a slave to an overly abstract form. A song, a play, a circus act, a painting — all manifest degrees of my offered axiom.

The other night watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, I was reminded of the director’s subtle genius for understatement and for shaping feelings and actions into tautly controlled stage pictures -- so unlike what I encounter in many of today’s horror flicks or serious “adult dramas” weighted down with pervasive violence. Of late, our movie houses on darker days are virtual blood bath sit-throughs.

Hitchcock holds his hand so skillfully and tight, we are made to feel many of the hidden emotions and speculations that swim through our subconscious — what did that gesture mean, why did she say what she said? Most of life is intrigue — most of it fear and desire rarely consummated. To watch a thriller today, you are likely assaulted by an unrealistic onslaught of high tech gore and low tech “quality drama” mayhem, gratuitously planted to placate a nation’s insatiable thirst for gore and revenge. If you want the monster unleashed (all expression, dubiously little form) go watch Sweeney Todd or There Will Be Blood. I can tell you this, there will not be Hitchcock there.

Expression and form. Let it all hang out, a mantra unleashed by sixties rock and roll culture, has left in its wake a scrapheap of half-baked songs. Artistically, can anybody out there make a case for the Grateful Dead? Of course, the same troubling decade also gave us lasting art in rock music, from the Beetles to the Doors. In a lesser league, I did not rue the demise of either Janis Joplin or Jimmy Hendricks, too singers who wailed on like distempered dogs abandoned to an endless night in a junkyard from hell.

Be it a juggler in motion, a dancer in tandem with others, an actor facing a soliloquy — all come close every time to breaking recklessly free of restraint and losing it. To watch Burt Lancaster in the 1981 film masterpiece Atlantic City (directed with intrepid restraint by French director, Louis Malle, who is said to have argued and prevailed against the actor's hyper theatrics) is to see Lancaster at his prime, magnificently contained and constrained in a role, rather than his jumping it, as was often his pattern, to indulge himself in his signature cliche oratory. Over the top screen icons like Lancaster and Bette Davis could get away with it, their fans allowed them, almost goaded them on.

Not so the juggler or the tumbler, the equestrian or wire walker. Over the top and they’re out of the ring, out of the tent, soon out of the show. Restraint and control are the well-honed attributes by which they live or die. But then again, they are not pretending to be someone they are not. Each time they enter the ring, they potentially create a living work of art. No second takes. No back to the drawing board. Now or never.

In the shadows of Hitchcock’s greatness, today’s film makers look a little inept. Although I was glad to see the enthralling No Country for Old Men win many Academy Awards, its inconclusive ending left me unconvinced. Left it a flawed work — unless, which is more than possible, I simply missed something. A director opting for a messy exit (arguing in his defense, well, that’s life) settled on formless expression. So, too, the over-the-top ending to Blood, like a runaway dump truck spilling garbage out for shock effect.

I can watch many of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies (like Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho) and marvel at his subtle flair for escalating suspense and the quick sudden payoff. True art knows what to put in and what to leave out. Of course, true art, I suppose, is not what most ticket buyers pay to see. We live in the age of rampant unchecked free expression. Society could use a little more restraint.

[photos: May Whitty and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes; Burt Lancaster, Hubert Castle.]

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