Hitchcock: The Hidden Power

Hitchcock et l’Art: Coïncidences Fatales (Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences)

catalog of the exhibition edited by Dominique Païniand Guy Cogeval
an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, June 6–September 24, 2001. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Milan: Mazzotta,498 pp., CAN$39.95 (paper)

Hitchcock et l’Art, an exhibition devoted to teasing out connections between the films of Alfred Hitchcock and a wide range of art from the 1850s to the 1990s, has just closed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and it is a pity that there are apparently no plans to bring it to the United States. (It has been shown in North America, having originated in a more condensed form in Montreal.) Since Hitchcock is already everywhere in American culture—in video stores and on cable TV, in film courses and in a stream of critical studies and biographies that shows no sign of letting up, in remakes and reworkings and allusions that mine the oeuvre as a kind of folklore—it would have been fitting if more of us could have had a look at an assemblage that opens up the work in unpredictable and fascinating ways. Hitchcock et l’Art amounts to a form of film criticism relying not on verbal analysis but on the deployment of images and objects. It talks about Hitchcock by speaking in his own language, and in the process raises haunting questions about the potential of what that language might convey.

I saw the exhibit under circumstances which may have heightened its emotional effects in ways not foreseen by its creators. It was only a few days after the attacks of September 11, at a point when I didn’t yet know the fate of friends and neighbors or indeed whether my apartment in the shadow of the twin towers was intact, an uncertainty that at least helped to deflect attention from more horrible certainties. To attempt to escape for a few hours from the shock of real terror in a gallery devoted to imaginary terrors made as much sense as anything in a Paris made unfamiliar precisely by its air of untroubled calm, by a sky where for the time being no airplanes flew. At that moment not only the pop-industrial façade of the Centre Pompidou but the city around it seemed flat and insubstantial, like one of those rear projections of which Hitchcock was so inordinately fond: a movie set, that might be junked without warning.

If the purpose of the exhibit had been to impart a sense of timeless solidity to works that had once been perceived as ephemera of cinematic commerce, in this new context the materials on display seemed marked by a new kind of fragility. Rather than objects securely fixed in space—brought finally for safekeeping into an unbreachable museum—they seemed messages that had been transmitted, in a twentieth century now suddenly ancient, only as far as this point in time: messages whose purport would continue to be transfigured by unimaginable circumstances, and whose perpetuation could scarcely be guaranteed. It was open to question whether we would still want to look at them, and what they would convey to us.

An issue of TV Guide from the late Fifties, a 1945 lobby card for Spellbound, a …

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