NOVEMBER 11, 2016
“ANYTHING YOU CAN DO (to me) I can do worse,” wrote Eve Sedgwick in Touching Feeling with D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (1988) in mind. He may have survived the pronounced paranoid stage that ran rampant in American literary criticism in the 1980s, but in Hidden Hitchcock he brings back the urgency and perverse inventiveness of that critical position. Sedgwick notes that “[p]aranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only by imitation.” In a duel with this most troubling of directors, Miller imitates the experience of watching a thriller, for the feature presentation of Hidden Hitchcock — its three stand-alone acts, or chapters, is preceded by a “Preview” in the guise of a preface and concludes with tail “Credits” for acknowledgments.
Why imitate Hitchcock? Because, as Miller puts it in a section of his Previews called “The Hidden Picture Game,” Hitchcock initiates a “cruel dialectic” that leads the critic to abandon the “universality” of interpretation for the “social marginality” of finding trivial but undeniably objective clues:
This is the dialectic that Hitchcock’s Too-Close Viewer, if he is to state his case at all, is fated to live with. That case entails publicizing not just the idiosyncrasy of his findings, but also, more radically, the idiosyncrasy of his critical practice as it simultaneously overreads and underinterprets these findings.
In a Preview section titled “Anachronisms,” Miller acknowledges that he watches Hitchcock’s films, and makes his Too-Close discoveries, in a manner that Hitchcock could scarcely have imagined, the VCR gaining mass-market popularity just a few years before his death. True, Raymond Bellour and others pioneered close film analysis on an editing table with a stop motion projector, but today every film student, indeed every film viewer, controls the viewing of the films they want to examine closely. Miller cites the best examples here, including Laura Mulvey, whose Death 24x a Second meditates on what it means to slow or still a film, deliciously relishing its images, but in a way never dreamed of by the director. Like Miller, Mulvey is a fetishist and perhaps a recovering paranoiac. And thanks to the DVD player, she manipulates the flow of a film through random access and by retarding and repeating image movement; yet she does so to improve the profound viewing that is threatened by the flood of image-streaming today and the kind of surface recognition it promotes in responses that appear in blogs that also flood the movie market.
Using terms she gets from Bellour, Mulvey points to the “possessive spectator,” who owns the DVD player and is determined to “own the film” by pinning it down in stills or replaying sections again and again. She prefers the “pensive spectator” who, using those same digital operations, learns to think with and through the film, experiencing it according to the pace set by the filmmaker. Mulvey’s methods owe much to Barthes, who read Balzac’s “Sarrasine” so minutely, not just for more knowledge, but for more pleasure. At the cinema, however, Barthes was less interested in what he saw on the screen than he was in the social experiences possible within the darkened theater. Equipped with Mulvey’s talent and technology but ready to deploy these in a nearly irresponsible way (something Barthes might particularly approve), Miller locates obtuse, rather than symptomatic details.
The Preview having initiated me in Too-Close-Reading, I applied it to the final credits when my eyes fell on the last name mentioned: Garrett Stewart. This proved my punctum, for, while reading the book, I had sensed Stewart hovering over Miller’s shoulder as a potentially “Even-Closer-Reader,” driving the author to look all the more deeply and more suspiciously into Hitchcock and into himself. I played a role in introducing these two hypervigilant critics to each other after talking about what they might bring to Film Quarterly with its ambitious editor at the time, Rob White. White wanted each issue to jolt readers lulled by the logorrhoea of “responses” that pour hourly, it seems, out of internet journals and blogs. He subsequently pushed these two to shock him with their ideas and their prose; and then he shocked them by pushing back on that prose. Brutally enforced deadlines raised the temperature of their writing to a fever. I still can feel the heat of Miller’s first Film Quarterly piece, a hammer blow on Brokeback Mountain, set among five other views of that film that in comparison properly debated the film’s audacity. But it was Miller who was audacious and improper. Here was a literary critic not glomming onto the movies or enjoying the chance to relax with them, but putting himself at risk in their presence, as if pinned by the screen’s reflected projection light and wriggling in his seat until he could spout something back to that screen, and to the readers of Film Quarterly.
No one makes any of us wriggle more than Alfred Hitchcock, whose own paranoia has been subjected to too many studies already. Miller will have none of that. Hidden Hitchcock deals not with the filmmaker, not even with the films, but with the drive to see those films, to see into them, to search crazily for what somehow they, more than other things we look at, intimate might be there … a secret. In each of three films, all signed by Hitchcock, he finds what you’ll not believe. Go take a look!
I predict a great many people will take this challenge, for Hidden Hitchcock is so very clever and cleverly written that it provokes the attention that is needed to probe it. Despite its frequent adoption of an effete, inimitable posture, Hidden Hitchcock stands out as an unavoidable, though debatable answer to the question of interpretation today. By design it appears idiosyncratic — a singular response to a special case in a particular art form — yet its premise is crucial to the enterprise of criticism in all of the arts. Its super-close-up look at just a few moments (call them inadvertent clues) in Strangers on a Train (1951), Rope (1948), and The Wrong Man (1956), goes to the heart of what it means to “view” and “read” any film, and by extension, any work of representational art.
Mocking even his own mock-modesty, Miller proudly advances his “defiant” sympathies: “against the Goliath-book, I take the side of the David-essay,” arguing more soberly than one might have expected for the pertinence of that genre. From Montaigne to Alain, Benjamin, and Barthes, the essay directly involves the act of writing, the moment of writing. “Unpacking my Library” is something Miller actually does, when in chapter one he takes what he unnecessarily calls a detour into the purchase, binding, and storage of two unheralded books signed by Hitchcock. His engagement with those objects is part of his engagement with the film that alerted him to them; it belongs in his meditation on what it means to be (dis)engaged when viewing too intently. Like Montaigne, he monitors his motives and looks for the general moral of a story, a story that is not a private meditation but rather a personal encounter with something in the world.
The rapport with Barthes is too obvious to need much elaboration, and comes up explicitly in the book’s “Preview.” Where Mythologies, written in the 1950s, uncovered the mechanisms whereby the masses are led along by a master’s deceptive discourse, the late Barthes is famous for private (third) meanings, and for the punctum that pierces him alone as a unique viewer of a photograph. Many continue to misunderstand this latter concept, as if photographs contain puncti that any truly perceptive viewer should discover. But Barthes’s punctum is the detail that pricks only him, thanks to his memories, his private repertoire of affective images, his mood on a particular day. Miller understands this and edges close to it when he boasts (sheepishly but actually) about being the unique viewer of the “Hidden Hitchcock.” Yet his whole “point” is to let us recognize what he has caught; he shares his puncti, makes them public for general recognition and assent. These moments or flashes will henceforth accompany the viewings of the films by me and anyone who reads this book. That’s not the case with Barthes. He tells us what it is that pricks him but we can only guess at what it means to him. As Miller notes, he won’t even show us the key photo that haunts him. In contradistinction, Miller’s experience is gleefully private only so he can expose it as utterly objective, “there, before your eyes.”
The rest of us ordinary viewers, including those extraordinary ones who have written books on Hitchcock, need Miller who learned how to let himself be punctured by stray details. After that, we may be able to dispense with him since the detail and its possible consequences are available to all. I find this more valid than Barthes’s narcissistic meditation on what stimulates him. Still the book seems insistently self-absorbed, with 22 first-person pronouns or adjectives appearing on page nine alone; and yet self-awareness trumps self-absorption when page 10 introduces a sub-heading “I/He.” The “He” refers not to Hitchcock, but to “a Narrator”:
[A] speaker who is the game’s critical exegete only insofar as his is also, more clamorously, the game’s disadvantaged other player. He is born as a grammatical and generic swerve from the first-person plural of critical commentary to the first-person singular of an extraordinary tale. For his experience is fundamentally fantastical, blurring the boundaries between subject and object, chance and design, and, most pertintently, between the inside and outside of cinema’s fourth wall.
As for his having emerged from the cave of privacy that Barthes sometimes walled himself up within, Miller more than once claims the same privilege Barthes arrogates to himself — that of being specifically and uniquely pierced by an image. In a dramatic flourish, amounting to a final twist back into that cave, Miller closes chapter one with the realization that rather than overcoming Hitchcock, seeing past his tricks, indeed he has been pricked by him, has gotten too close for comfort, has submitted to an illicit transgression from Hitchcock’s image to his own body — exactly what Barthes was out to account for.
This short book could (and should) force the question of interpretation back on the (dissection) table, displaying it naked and open to the most embarrassing examination. To change the metaphor, Miller’s Too-Close-Reading takes a magnifying glass to scrutinize the weave of (and the crumbs dropped on) a carpet that standard close reading would have examined for the design one sees while standing upon it. Miller drops to the floor, peers through the design, queers the view of the carpet. In doing so, he also dismisses by implication the opposite extreme, “Distant Reading,” employed by the rug salesman who displays on a computer screen the small icons of, let’s say, the 60 main patterns of the Turkish (or Pakistani, or Persian) style. This book sets such options starkly in contrast to one another. A liberal soul might want to maintain the viability of all three interpretive modes, and might even suggest that we exercise each mode in sequence, starting with a close reading (the norm) then stepping back to put one or more films within a huge series, before getting uncomfortably up-close to “under-mine” what makes sense. But Hidden Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under this by showing that, once its operation is underway, the norm no longer can stand (up). I’m not yet certain where I myself stand with regard to Hitchcock or the interpretation of narrative cinema overall, but Hidden Hitchcock will allow me and my students to clearly recognize the choices and the stakes.
While not obsessed with Hitchcock, I recommend D. A. Miller’s tenacity — his audacity — to everyone who cares about the value and power of fiction films. As for those many who are obsessed, they really need to take up Miller’s challenge, after devouring his discoveries, even though by design Hidden Hitchcock doesn’t really provide new interpretations of the films. Concerned only with viewing the films, it interrogates them without rolling out yet another way to understand them. So the readership for this work should be quite large, and will surely include D. A. Miller fans who want to sense his “touch” the way spectators line up to recognize Hitchcock’s. You can relish Miller without even needing to re-screen Hitchcock since everything you need — and specifically the telltale illustrations — can be found in this volume. But of course you will go back to the three movies, as I did, and to others, peering into the screen for something more to be revealed. Some will enjoy disdaining Miller’s approach, even if tacitly admiring it. They should make their objections voluble. I hope there remains the taste for arguing over what is legitimate and what illicit in our engagement with fictions that we and our culture live with and, in the case of Hitchcock, so greatly enjoy. We all need to be pricked.
Dudley Andrew, professor of film and comparative literature at Yale University, is a biographer of André Bazin, author of What Cinema Is! (2010), and co-editor of Opening Bazin (2011) and the Companion to Francois Truffaut (2013).