Geeking Out to “Hitchcock/Truffaut”
By Katie KilkennyDecember 5, 2015
FEW BOOKS ON FILM have inspired as much scholarship and devotion as Hitchcock/Truffaut by François Truffaut. An edited transcript of Truffaut’s eight-day interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a mainstay of film courses: the extensive conversation, which spans Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre, provides a rich entry point into auteur theory and Hitchcock scholarship. Yet the interview itself is more technical than academic. The book provides readers with 368 pages of two directors talking in frame-level detail — and apparently inexhaustibly — about each of Hitchcock’s films. At times the discussion hones in on theory and symbolism, but for the most part it is focused on craft. It leaves in its wake a lot of dialogue begging to be excerpted (Actors are “cattle”! In fiction film, the “director is God”!). Hitchcock/Truffaut is an unapologetic, prolonged geek out about the movies, published at a time before that kind of reverence was made cool by Siskel & Ebert.
That spirit of nerdy love is preserved in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the new documentary directed by Kent Jones that chronicles and celebrates Truffaut’s book. When the film screened at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles on a Sunday night in early November, it was preceded by an expressive organist performing covers of cult-classic movie themes like The Phantom of the Opera and Indiana Jones from a platform that sunk into the floor. (There was great applause when he finished his final song.) The opening act set an appropriately fannish tone: Jones’s documentary updates Truffaut’s concept for the postmodern age, wherein a person’s love for movies doesn’t derive just from the films themselves, but also from all the cultural objects, writings, and songs that those films have produced. Hitchcock/Truffaut gracefully steeps its viewers in this 21st-century film culture, whereby a viewer might come to love Hitchcock’s work through a book, a documentary, or a favorite contemporary director, even before watching the films themselves.
Fittingly, Jones opens his film with imagery of the book. The book sequences are simple — close-ups on black-and-white film stills, screen grabs of iconic quotes, a shot of a hand flipping through pages, credits in a font that mimics the rounded, Arial-esque typeface on the film’s cover — and they demonstrate the work’s graphic appeal. Truffaut, who was an editor at the Cahiers du Cinéma film magazine as well as a director in 1962, knew how to put together a book that film lovers would want to buy. Jones plays this footage over testimony from famous filmmakers who say as much. David Fincher claims he read his dad’s copy “hundreds of times,” and Wes Anderson notes that his copy isn’t a book anymore, “it’s a stack of papers.”
Following the lead of French director Olivier Assayas, who notes that the book is “an essential part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre,” Jones introduces us to the meticulous pitching and preparation process that Truffaut undertook to get it made. In the fall of 1962, Truffaut wrote a letter to Hitchcock that proposed an interview covering the entirety of the director’s oeuvre. (At the time, Hitch was in post-production on The Birds.) Truffaut called him the “world’s greatest director,” and Hitchcock, still considered primarily an entertainer rather than an artist, told Truffaut that his note brought “tears to my eyes.” Jones provides the context for just how cutting-edge this idea was. Though in the early ’60s Truffaut’s colleagues at the Cahiers du Cinéma were pioneering what Truffaut called the auteur theory of film directing — that directors were the direct “authors” of their works and that certain aspects to their films could be recognized as “signatures” — the rest of the world had yet to catch on. To most American audiences, Hitchcock was still the droll, unsmiling man in the suit who introduced each thrilling episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Jones argues Truffaut had another motive for arranging the interview. Truffaut, a film critic who had only just begun his directing career, saw a father figure in Hitchcock. More than anything, he wanted to learn from a director he had previously only studied. “This book on Hitchcock is merely a pretext for self-instruction,” he would write in a letter in 1962. Jones’s working thesis is that the two crossed paths at a moment when a didactic relationship was beneficial to both. “Truffaut was in search of a father who would liberate him,” Jones says in voiceover. Meanwhile, Truffaut “reciprocat[ed] by freeing [Hitchcock] from his reputation as an entertainer.” Ironically, a book was the thing that Hitchcock required to be respected as a film artist. And Hitchcock by Truffaut — with its stylish, black, mid-century modern cover — was just the kind of fetishistic object to anoint him a serious filmmaker.
Hitchcock/Truffaut aims, though, to capture the book’s fannish spirit rather than simply tell its story. Jones spends the majority of the film running through Hitchcock’s filmography with contemporary directors who command their own fan cultures: Fincher, Anderson, and Assayas, but also James Gray, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Arnaud Desplechin, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Like Truffaut before him, Jones elicits energetic and perceptive commentary from his interview subjects. Linklater discusses how Hitchcock was a “sculptor of time”; Assayas, more abstract in his approach to movies, speaks of Hitchcock as a “theoretician of space.” The biggest revelation of these interviews is Fincher, who has been called Hitchcock’s “true heir.” “What about Judy’s story?” he asks during the film’s prolonged episode on Vertigo. Later, he laments how Hollywood looks only at the first three weeks of box-office tallies to judge the worth of a film; Vertigo, he points out, had to wait nearly 30 years to be recognized for its merits. (It’s hard not to imagine that the directors are thinking of their own careers as they comment on Hitchcock’s. Fincher’s Zodiac, after all, was similarly overlooked — and later championed — by critics.)
Interviews bleed in with audio from the Hitchcock Truffaut tapes and sampled sequences from the Hitchcock filmography. Jones plays the scenes he excerpts for an unusually long time; some, like Scottie’s meandering car ride around San Francisco in Vertigo, are rare to glimpse in any prolonged way in a documentary. The point seems to be to envelop a viewer who may not be familiar with Hitchcock’s works in their worlds without yanking them out too soon, as documentaries about films and television often do. And there’s something artful about the way the directors’ commentary is edited between and over these clips. When Jones plays the scene in which Judy emerges from the bathroom in Vertigo, he chooses at first to accompany it with commentary from Hitchcock, who explains that he envisioned it as a necrophile’s sexual fantasy. Jones interrupts this “fantasy” to play a few quotes from directors. Finally, when he finishes the clip, it’s accompanied by a choice quote from Gray: The movie is the best film in cinema history, he says, because “Yes, it’s a fantasy. But the fantasy’s real to [Scottie].” For fans of Hitchcock or Gray, this is a great moment — Gray gets it! But for those who are unfamiliar with both, it’s not too bad, either: the combination of Scottie’s overwhelmed reaction to Kim Novak bathed in an eerie green light, Bernard Herrmann’s lush score, and Gray’s evident enthusiasm is an emotional one.
On the face of it, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a pretty niche movie. Any film premised on a single interview between a French New Wave director and one best known for works from the 1950s and 1960s would have to be. But ultimately Jones does the opposite of what Truffaut did with his book, first published in 1966: he celebrates how Hitchcock has been reclaimed for the wider audience. Though Hitchcock is an older director, Jones releases this film in the context of a reboot movie culture that has riffed on Hitchcock in contributions like Hitchcock, The Girl, and Grace of Monaco. Viewers entrenched in online fan culture may have been introduced to him through widely circulated critic polls like Sight & Sound’s (which in 2012 named Vertigo the best film of all time) or contemporary homages like Side Effects and Stoker. Like Hitchcock by Truffaut, some of these fan-created works have inspired meta-fan cultures of their own. It’s this diffuse world of cinephilia that Jones’s own adaptation — which interviews fans, rather than experts — celebrates.
And with Hitchcock/Truffaut, Jones makes an important contribution to the contemporary fan canon. Jones’s film is a tribute to a beloved 50-year-old book, yes. But it’s also a tribute to all the current directors who speak informedly about the films it commemorated. Viewers might leave the theater buzzing, as they did at El Capitan, about their sudden wish to watch films by Hitchcock — but they might be equally eager to judge for themselves how those movies might be reflected in the works of David Fincher and his contemporaries.
Katie Kilkenny is a writer based in Santa Barbara, California, where she is an editor at Pacific Standard. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Indiewire, and Hyperallergic. Follow her on Twitter: @katiekilkenny7.
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