Issue 07 Contributors
Essay Issue 07: by Nicholas Haeffnern
Hitchcock, Fear and the Built Environment
William Edward Head
Fear and Self-promotion in Leytonstone
Michael Upton ponders Hitchcock’s birthplace
Shadow of doubt
Shadow of doubt
In another place: olivia
Both my parents grew up on small farms in rural Ireland and moved to England in the 1950s to find employment. My dad got work as a labourer with the gas board for a long period, digging trenches to lay gas mains. Thoughts on various relationships to land inform this work.
In 1979, when I was around the same age they were when they came to this country, I was lucky enough to get a place on the three year photographic diploma course at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, headed by Euan Duff. Visiting intellectuals and artists included Victor Burgin, Jo Spence and Lewis Baltz. Their contrasting approaches have to an extent begun to coalesce in my recent image-making.
Gender dysphoria only became an aspect of identity for me in my mid-40s when its impact was experienced as an unexpected liberation while simultaneously a seeming precursor to rapid descent into madness, rejection and perhaps untimely death – such is the fear of failing to conform at a fundamental level with social norms and expectations.
Photographically I tried to make sense of it by exploring a new feminised self firstly through montage into appropriated Topographic landscape images and then through placing in context with ‘found’ masculine signifiers
– industrial buildings, quarries and construction sites located around my home town.
In this submission of non-aligned diptychs I present small internal studies accompanied by depiction of ground surface as it exhibits the impact of radical transformation.
William Edward Head
Mental illness has been treated with suspicion throughout history. With asylums often built on the outskirts of society, as if to deter visitors, the strategic placing of mental institutions was certainly intentional. With many people often abandoned in these institutes, for reasons often non-related to mental health. The understanding of mental health has changed dramatically in the last hundred years, however many of the structures have not. Talgarth mental institution opened in 1903 and was home to many patients for just under one hundred years. In the year 2000 it was closed, the buildings were locked up and the remaining patients sent elsewhere. The windows have been broken, not by rocks, but by the ivy bursting through. The carpets have grown mould and the roof leaks constantly, echoing the sound of dripping around the vast maze of corridors and rooms.
Each ward has its own selection of wallpapers, almost always representative of the outside world. They suggest a great deal of optimism, but they hide a terrifying reality. The repetition of pattern reflects the uniformity of the institution. Inside Talgarth lay the remains of many dead birds. Before the windows were bolted up and the doors screwed shut they entered the vacant buildings. The birds tender a different narrative to the wallpapers. They offer us a more accurate perception of Talgarths history.
The Bird carcasses are evidence of the last living thing within Talgarth, by embellishing these birds in my photographs, my intention is to talk about a part of its history. The work is also an attempt to talk about experience and, through this, I hope to convey a sense of empathy for the residences that were enclosed within Talgarths wards. By placing the birds next to the wallpapers I intend to create a space in which the clinical positioning and treatment of mentally unstable patients, can meet the harsh reality of life in a mental institution throughout the 20th century.
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Fear and Self-promotion in Leytonstone
Michael Upton ponders Hitchcock’s birthplace
“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other”. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
‘Lenny’s Documentary’, Ian Bourn (1978)
My colleague Nicholas Haeffner related an account of a group of film students from the United States who wanted to explore the area of East London where Hitchcock spent his formative years. They unanimously both by what they discovered – a shabby petrol station where there should be a Victorian greengrocers – and by what they did not discover: any fitting monument or museum for the Master of Suspense.
I thought of Frenzy (1972) and the conversation about tourists between the Doctor and Lawyer in the pub.
“Foreigners somehow expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs and littered with ripped whores, don’t you think?”
I am not sure what the Hitchcock academics expected to find. I lived in Leytonstone for five years. For me the place always exuded an ambiguous combination of suburban charm and urban threat. When Uncertain States approached me for some words, I decided to revisit Leytonstone by way of a Hitchcock pilgrimage.
I board a 56 from Islington Green bound for Whipps Cross. It’s a cautious approach, deliberately circum-navigating the East End realm of Hitchcock’s later childhood; Poplar, Stepney, Limehouse. Before he was ‘Cocky’ (loathed school nickname) or ‘Hitch’ (preferred abbreviation), Hitchcock was plain Fred from Leytonstone.
East from Islington the repetitive DNA of the urban high road chromosome repeats itself: Takeaway – Newsagent – Off Licence -Laundrette /Hairdresser), a pattern familiar from any of the city’s outer arterial spokes. I’m on the front seat of the upper deck, a high angle voyeur on the shifting terrain. The huge curved window affords a tracking shot in a widescreen aspect ratio. I keep the frame tight, tilted low, eschewing the contemporary mesas in glass above the horizon, conjecturing a late Victorian East.
The City and its East are difficult to view with any aesthetic distance, so endlessly have they been re – read, re – described, re-imagined and re – packaged by a legacy of historians, poets, flaneurs, artists, visionaries, romantics. A place of poverty, disappearances, honest cockneys, gangsters, Jacks (spring heeled and ripping), creativity, pleasure, depravity, family and solitude, of successive immigration and exodus. The East London Diaspora has spread Eastwards and outwards along the A13 and the coast to carrying its myths with it, but leaving physical evidence at the mercy of the developers and planners rewriting the fringes.
Hitchcock appropriated the ‘East End’ in his films to a limited extent. The Ripper plots and allusions of ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Frenzy’ bookend his career, violent murder pervades many of the texts in between. The siege of Sidney Street (1911) inspired and is reproduced in the 1934 version of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. Cockney ‘salt of the earth’ characters feature in his British works. The hecklers in ‘The 39 Steps’, The droll neighbour in ’Blackmail’: ‘A good, clean, honest whack over the head with a brick… There’s something British about that.’ Though hailing from Kent, Frenzy’s rotten apple, murderous Bob Rusk is the cheeky costermonger gone wrong. The zone further East is absent from his texts in any literal sense.
The sense of a departure from De Quincey’s ‘Labyrinth of London’ is re-asserted. The arteries widen, squat terraced houses and successive parks and marshes expose more of the grey sky. Towards and beyond the River Lea, small businesses give way to commercial premises exiled to the periphery. Breakers yards, white van hire, trade outlets for furniture and interiors. Early sightings of Drive Thrus and superstores herald my entry to the brandscape of the outer city. I alight at the roundabout where Whipps Cross Road veers right towards Leytonstone. The sense of spaciousness and release, remind me that Hitchcock’s life started in an outer enclave still reeling from rapid transition to an urban economy.
The Alfred Hitchcock Hotel
The Alfred Hitchcock is an imposing Victorian country hotel overlooking the ragged fringes of Epping Forest a little way past Whipps Cross Hospital. The dirty green horizon it faces is interrupted only by a cameo from a rotund folly- one of the domed towers of Snaresbrook Crown Court. Now sentencing place for many lesser East End ‘faces’, in Hitchcock’s day an infant orphan asylum for the fatherless middle class. In the scrub foreground a clamour of huge rooks loiter in the long grass. In my mental cinema, Fred tiptoes through this field of avian assailants on his way for a peek at the bathers at Hollow Pond Bathing Pool.
This is the place where suburbs kiss the pastoral. I rented a second floor flat not for from the hotel. I recall it as a place of low flying helicopters, police searches and chases, lurkers by dusk and nocturnal screams.
Two detectives once called to eliminate my girlfriend and me from a murder enquiry. We were interviewed in separate rooms. I perched with the rain-coated constable on the end of the bed opposite a mirrored wardrobe. It was hard to avoid eye contact.
Epping Forest is the burial place par excellence for murder victims real and invented. Saskia dispatched by ashtray by villainous Steve Owen; accountant Terry Gooderham who crossed the Adams‘ family discovered alongside girlfriend Maxine Arnold; Kingpin Jack Dalton, a hit by Dennis Watts; the ‘Babes In The Wood’ victims of Ronald Jebson. A montage of the historical and the fictional East End in a shallow grave. The Trouble With Harry, without the laughs.
Turning my back on the killing fields I look at the hotel. It is not the grand affair it first appears. A series of Victorian terraces knocked together in eighties, though the scale of housing along this stretch emphasise this was once a prosperous borough. A small collection of Hitchcock relics and curios hangs in the lugubrious bar area; promotional materials, a copy of his birth and marriage certificates, faded newspaper clippings and images of the locale in Edwardian times. The hidey holes and mis-matched furniture including a church pew hint at dark eccentricity.
A rectangular block called ‘Alfred’s Rock’ acts as serving area in the adjoining restaurant. The gaudy fairground stencilling is more ‘Hitchcock’ than the wall of official detritus. Before his canonisation as auteur by The Cahiers Du Cinema critics, Hitch was a huckster, one of the early vanguard of directors in establishing himself as a sort of human hallmark. His very involvement in a film lent it-before the title or plot or image was revealed- expectations of pleasurable, vicarious thrills. He deliberately situated himself as a key part of his films broader ‘Narrative image’ as John Ellis described it.
Taking the corner from Whipps Cross Road to Leytonstone high road requires navigating the vast green man roundabout. I make the mistake of attempting a short cut but end up in a dismal oubliette where a series of concrete steps offer an escape but vanish into the undergrowth. Another Red Herring. I retrace my steps and use the underpass system. A huge monolith bearing a Tesco logo acts as my beacon.
Leytonstone Tube Station Mosaics
I veer right, rounding St Patricks Church and its verdant yard. Here Leytonstone looks like a village. Inside the Twenties Tube station building, an official commemoration. 17 Mosaics Commissioned in 1999 for the centenary of Hitchcock’s birth and completed in 2001. The location is apt as Fred was passionate about – and had a technical interest in – trains and timetables, and trains feature famously in the films – Strangers On A Train, the chases in Number Seventeen and The Lady Vanishes, as sexual metaphor in North By Northwest. His interest is transport is not surprising; horse drawn trams were replaced by electric ones during the period Fred would have travelled this road on his father’s greengrocer’s cart.
Several of the mosaic works incorporate Leytonstone landmarks in to reproductions of stills from the films as if to literally cement the locale to the texts and author. For me this paradoxically re asserts his absence and the lack of any genuine connection. The photograph of young Fred on horseback, taken outside the greengrocers on Empire Day is replicated in tesserae. The original image may not be of Hitchcock at all but his brother – a false clue, the wrong boy immortalised.
Leytonstone Police Station
Returning to the High Road I nearly miss the red brick municipal slab of a police station. There is no blue lamp. The place is being renovated for commercial purposes – the same trajectory as nearby Leyton Town Hall where Fred would have watched his sister dance – now The Legacy Centre.
It was in the cells at this site that the most famous of Hitchcock’s defining childhood experiences took (or didn’t take) place. Sent by his father to the police station with a note for the duty sergeant, the six year old Fred was incarcerated for five or more minutes. On his release he was told that was what happens to ‘naughty little boys’ though had no idea what crime had had committed. Rather than some traumatic experience repressed and buried in what Freud called “Infant Amnesia” this was a recurring stock tale in Hitch’s repertoire. It sat well in his ‘Biographical Legend’ segueing the director with the wrongly accused in his texts; Drew, Hannay, Thornhill, Blaney Manny and the rest.
East London has long been linked with crime; the association originating in the abject poverty of the region following the enforced relocation of the City’s poorest from the central slums and rookeries. the most infamous Victorian Crime, the Ripper murders has been revisited endlessly in print in films including Hitchcock’s. Not far from Leytonstone past Wanstead Flats is The City of London Cemetery. Two of the Ripper’s victims Mary Ann Nichols his first and Catherine Eddowes are buried there. I ponder the idea that Fred visited the site on secret jaunts.
While Hitchcock was in Hollywood cementing his reputation for fictional crime, a crop of new ‘real’ East End villains bound for mythic status emerged. The Krays and associated and rival criminal fraternities played gangland out as spectacle, both feared and revered. Their stories concluded in these eastern margins: Reggie, Ronnie and Charlie are buried at Chingford Mount stones throw from Leytonstone. And of course, like Norman Bates, they loved their Mum.
I visited Leytonstone police station once to report a crime. Someone had used my credit card details to top up a mobile phone. The desk sergeant said no one stole £50 these days, called me a liar and threatened to arrest me. I didn’t own a mobile phone.
the Jet Garage
The quiet shudder of discovering the Jet Petrol Station on the site of Hitchcock’s birth place and childhood home is undiminished with a repeat viewing. Fuck 24 Hour Psycho, try the 24 Hour Garage. It’s an absence beyond the physical– an author concerned with the mother figure and matriarch, symbolically un-homed and un-birthed through urban montage. In a coincidental development all traces of Hitchcock’s belly button were removed in his later life as a side effect of surgical procedures. He cheekily flashed his umbilicus-less paunch to Karen Black on the set of Family Plot.
The outer carapace of the station houses a ‘Best-one Express’ shop and ‘Chicks’ fast food takeaway. To the left is a car wash where bored workers loiter. Walking on the busy forecourt towards the obligatory blue plaque feels as transgressive as a toilet bowl in the frame or an unreliable flashback. What’s he doing there without a car? The plaque is to the right of the attendant’s window on a dirty red brick wall. Above and to the left of the plaque, a pair of jutting CCTV cameras gaze across the site; the voyeuristic peccadilloes of Hitchcock’s protagonists are now mundane reality, even national pastime.
The contrast between the wall plate and its situation suggests history (hitch-story) as a commodity or cultural capital came too late to the good burghers of Waltham Forrest. The purpose is ostensibly to commemorate but the tacit intention of these plaques is to fulfil the broader aegis of tourism ‘heritage’ marketing. There is no independent sense of ‘genius loci’- the relationship to Hitchcock must be consciously forced.
I re-imagine the Jet Garage as a conscious reference by knowing town planners seeking to monumentalize the gas station attack in The Birds. Channelling Tippi Hedren’s reaction to the spreading fire intercut with the fire and resulting explosion, I repose my head three times at appropriate angles, offering a quiet reaction shot to the cheerless petro-temple. This year the late JG Ballard’s Shepperton Semi went on the market and fans are attempting to buy it to create a shrine to all things Ballardian. Given his lack of interest in London and its speculative housing -“I’d like to see the whole thing leveled. Or chrome-plated”-and his interests in the auto-defined new urban, he would probably have appreciated a Petrol Station.
The smell of oil, the very blood and lubricant of capitalism (Hitchcock invested some of his wealth in those barrels!) trigger thoughts of contradiction between art and capitalism, author and business man which Hitchcock, his critics and academics have negotiated. Hitchcock’s very market and audience -led approach (and specific titles like Psycho and The Birds) could be seen as precursors to high concept or ‘event ‘movies of the seventies, eighties and beyond. Yet his themes, concerns and way of seeing have been endlessly appropriated, explored and reinterpreted in films (sometimes in homage) by other artists: Lynch, Chabrol, Truffaut, Rohmer, De Palma, Scorsese, Spielberg, Carpenter and many more. John Orr (in his essay Hitchcock as Matrix Figure) described this as ‘transition of vision’. Perhaps the plaques of Hitchcock’s ‘transistors’ could be erected here too – celebrating a Hitch as visionary filling station where auteurs pump reserves of dark inspiration.
Finally I try to picture William Hitchcock’s store (the precise location is not identified), the life in the rooms beyond and above the business. We cannot know what Hitchcock’s childhood was really like. Donald Spoto’s influential biography ‘The Dark Side of Genius’ sets up his childhood as back-story a series of establishing scenes preparing the reader of biographical for him to become the dirty old man who steered Frenzy. ‘Privacy was even rarer than silence or sustained sunshine’. Hitchcock of course carefully timed his biographical revelations: long bedtime talks with mother (‘something too intimate’ as Spoto puts it) were first described in 1960, the year Psycho was released.
I resolve to continue back stream to Stratford. ‘For Sale’ and ‘To Let’ hoardings and plywood boarding sing the familiar refrain of a dwindling retail economy in the shadow of the encroaching superstores.
the Chruch of St Francis of Assisi
I chance upon this final shrine, having elected to complete the full High Road to Stratford. It is a well preserved narrow nineteenth century church in brown brick and white stone. Pointed railings curve upwards and inwards up to an imposing arched doorway. This is the church where Fred was once an altar server-though he confessed to Truffaut he took the role because he was ‘interested in ceremony’ and with no idea of ‘the script’. Hitchcock’s relationship with Catholicism was ambiguous. Asked in later life whether he was a Catholic he replied ‘yes and no’. While themes of both private and public guilt permeate his work, most explicitly in I Confess( 1953) but implicitly in repeated narratives of sin, guilt and retribution, the more morbid trappings of Catholicism suited Hitch’s brand image. He employed their minority religion to cast his family as eccentrics in his back-story.
The doors are locked and I contemplate returning for Mass, but quickly discard the idea. There’s something satisfying and final about the impenetrability. While there is a vicarious pleasure in conjuring Hitchcock’s childhood, tugging at strands of biographical tapestry, any objective ‘truth’ is impossible. Hans Georg Gadamer contended that the individual possesses a ‘historically effected consciousness’, embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. I am not an objective viewer, I am anchored in a specific historical and cultural moment where the ‘Hitchcock’, his texts and the ‘Hitchcockian’ are inexorably embedded in my shared popular consciousness.
I later read that in June 2011 new plans were announced for ‘improvements ‘to Leytonstone High Road. Municipal surgery to tactically widen and constrict the urethra, following the major ‘A’ Road bypass operation of ten years ago. These plans make reference to ‘a board detailing Alfred Hitchcock’s links with Leytonstone close to the site of his birth’. The developments are funded as part of Olympic ’improvement‘works across the public realm of east London. The puff is optimistic, but Leytonstone High Roads shop frontages are less so. The larger scale disappearances and banal homogenisation engendered by the Olympic makeover of the adjoining Lea Valley and Stratford areas will send waves of temporary advantage (accommodation, employment, tourists eager to see a the newly information boarded petrol station) but the long term prospects and sustainability of this regenerative investment beyond the main event are unclear.
Its destiny may be uncertain but Leytonstone High Road is not a urethra. It offers the walker on a Hitchcock derive a series of shrines or suburban ‘rosary’. Come here seeking empirical Hitchcock and you will not find him. Accept you carry Hitchcock with you; take an open- minded pilgrimage along this grimy chain and free the mind to unexpected associations, connections, and contemplation. I departed musing more about the fate of East London’s suburbs than Hitchcock. Fred was a Mcguffins: I invite those disgruntled US scholars to revisit, join me, and chase him again.
“At the finish, even the cabinet of curiosities will betray us; all we can ever know is the shape the missing object leaves in the dust- and the stories, the lies we assemble to disguise the pain of an absence we cannot define.”
Iain Sinclair, Introduction to London City of
/ 07 Article by Michael Upton 2011
Michael Upton is Academic Leader at The Cass (The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design, London Metropolitan University). He teaches on the BA (Hons) Film and Broadcast Production course
Shadow of Doubt
Did Hitchcock offer us an insight into his internal world through his films?
Were they a way of showing us his own internal conflicts, of creating a life’s work of scripted realisations of his early life experiences?
‘You must know’ Hitchcock is reported in saying, ‘that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story.’ Psychodynamic analytical theory would have us believe that the telling of any story, within a certain frame, is indeed, an insight into early life experiences.
Hitchcock was raised a strict Catholic and within an authoritarian matriarchal family, the influential males in his life where either priests or policemen. His preoccupation with guilt may have been further developed by his evangelisation and education, from 1908 onwards, at St. Ignatius College, Stamford Hill, London (pictured), where it is said, that the Jesuit fathers dispensed corporal punishment with pious rigor. In the words of Hitchcock, ‘It wasn’t done casually, you know. It was rather like the execution of a sentence… You spent the whole day waiting for the sentence to be carried out.’
There is a sense that there is a search for spiritual redemption in his work; most of his films display some sense of sin, guilt, atonement and redemption, perhaps this is a response to his Catholic sensibilities.
This interim project looks at my curiosity of how it may have been for him as a child, a highly subjective and contemporary view of his earliest influences, an understanding of how, psychologically, Hitchcock’s ability to respond to these complex and emotional influences, may have surfaced as sublimation and humour, two mature defenses mechanisms, where socially unacceptable impulses or idealisations may have been consciously transformed through work; a way of diversion, of modification into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity.
Were these defenses really concealing a deeper trauma in order to avoid any unpleasant consequences of confronting inner conflicts?
Of course, we will never know. Hitchcock’s most able talent was to create illusions. This ability to create suspense and of us questioning his (and our) motives, is what he did best.
Shadows of Doubt
Educators and psychologists have long known that childhood environment informs adult behaviour so it is pertinent to argue that the same environment would mould personal aesthetic and artistic sensibilities. Look at George Shaw’s paintings done in Airfix paint palette of the mundane and melancholic housing estates of his childhood or Ridley Scott’s nightmarish opening shots in “Bladerunner” of a city of the future squarely based on the night time industrial landscapes on the mouth of the River Tees where Scott grew up to see evidence of childhood geography feeding into adult creativity.
The idea of the “Shadows of Doubt” project was to try to photographically capture Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood East End as one of the elements that shaped his filmmaking. This was not an easy task as most of the information about Hitchcock’s childhood is at best sketchy, and at worst unreliable. This is coupled with the relentless way London has been knocked down or blitzed and rebuilt in the intervening 100 years destroying large areas of London relevant to his early years. I decided the best way to revisit Hitchcock’s childhood London was to walk the areas I knew he inhabited (Wapping, Wanstead Flats, Whipps Cross, Limehouse and Leyton) and photograph elements of these urban landscapes that I understood were contemporary and therefore familiar to him, places that he would still recognise if he were alive today. The resulting photographs are hopefully a small vignette of the psycho-topographical backdrop to Alfred Hitchcock’s formative years in London’s East End.
She is lead into a room; pitch black. A burst of light swallows her, devastates her; she is sent into a state of turmoil; catalepsy. Her body is propelled from a conscious to an unconscious state; it contracts. Her trauma is re-lived, re-staged; she is reduced to a corpse and click, the shutter opens and closes. The camera captures an experience for which she was absent.
In the image of hysteria the boundary between representation and reality became blurred; real photographs transform into fiction; echoing the psyche of the hysteric. The women did not own their image or experience. The audience are asked to empathise with a reality that transcended the grasp of the women themselves as hysteria is indicative of the mind-not of the womb-as Charcot (and then Freud) understood.
The feminised body is something as an artist I need to react to. I am drawn to how photography’s ability to control and categorise was employed in order to invade these women’s identities on every level imaginable; they are reduced to archetypes: idealistic specimens of bodies. I want to transform the hysterical body; reduce it to its stature, to its pose; its act.Hysteria is defined as emotional excess, a loss of self control; as having uncontrollable emotional outbursts. I see the hysteric as comparable to the women I see on television talk show, they both perform their trauma, their bodies and their femininity. They are a model of representation I want to deconstruct. The series Iconography shows me adopting the role; the role of the traditional hysteric and her modern day counterpart; the institutionalised and the product of popular culture. I act as them, mimic their gestures and wear clothes they would have worn. I appear to be them; I become the stereotype to better understand it, to highlight the relentless typecast.
Jocasta is a series of performances enacted on a scanner plate, serving for this purpose as a stage. In these performances the main character, the mother, performs her maternal subjectivity using the child’s body as a prop. The mother performs her fear, desire and need. She performs her deep passion towards her male child and a joyous immersion in the sensual pleasure and physicality of her son’s body.
The Jocasta series, presents the mother as an omnipotent, multi headed hydra, engulfing the child from all directions, suffocating and overpowering him. Alternatively, considered compassionately, we might think of her as desperately attempting to become all for the child, expressing a response to imminent loss. The mother, performing abjection, confronts the inevitability of the imminent maternal loss and rehearses the emotions that will follow.
Maternity in art is deeply ingrained throughout western history. Celebrated and channeled through the male genius, numerous painters representing the sacred mother have set up a context within which most subsequent imagery is understood. Maternity, as lived experience, being uniquely female, is ubiquitous and marginalised simultaneously. Cultural and social discourse expressing dominant ideologies inhibit personal experience, leaving individual women to repress any improper feelings such as shame, confusion, desperation, self reproach and anger.
As a mother of three boys aged 17, 11 and 2 I work with and through maternity to subvert dominant ideology and open up space to express a subjective maternal position. In my practice I think of my children’s bodies as the canvas on to which I project my complex and culturally invisible maternal subjectivity. Inverting the psychoanalytic objectification of the mother and it’s subservience to the child’s subjectivity I create a space in which taboo and repressed ideas about maternity are exposed.
In Another Place: Olivia
The instantaneous event of taking this photograph did not allow even for our eyes to meet. It is an unguarded gaze frozen in time. The moment is captured, regardless of the experience we have both shared at that moment, or the history of having known Olivia since she was a toddler. There is none of the artistic intentions typically involved in taking a person’s portrait, yet the traces left by the chemical processes used, support an uncanny feeling of getting to know Olivia in person. Nevertheless, her identity remains illusive as her form emerges from this sinister manipulation of the photographic material. It turns her image into an impersonal mural of innocence and fear – a metaphor, rather than a portrait.
Hitchcock, Fear and the Built Environment
Essay Issue 07: by Nicholas Haeffner
This issue of Uncertain States features work by David George and Spencer Rowell relating to the East End of Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood, Hitchcock’s films and the broader theme of childhood memories. The built environments that form the basis for this work are rendered in a fearful way which is appropriate to Hitchcock who once stated that his mission in life was ‘to scare the hell out of people’. The director complained that ‘civilisation has become so screened and sheltered that it isn’t possible to experience sufficient thrills at first hand’. (in Gottlieb 1997: 249) Hitchcock’s name is now synonymous with the suspense thriller.
The word ‘thrill’ comes from a middle-English word, meaning ‘to pierce’. The word ‘thrill’ is also related to the word ‘thrall’, meaning to be held captive or slave. Yet thrillers are among the most popular film genres so we are talking here of a certain sadomasochism whereby we willingly subject ourselves to a certain measure of pain with the expectation of subsequent pleasure.
A reporter once asked Hitchcock, ‘what is the deepest logic of your films?’, his answer was ‘to put the audience through it’. What is ‘it’, if not a long journey of fear and uncertainty? This journey begins in the midst of modern life, and, for Hitchcock it involves much strange beauty. This walk on the wild side turns out to be full of unexpected aesthetic pleasure (as well as fearful significance) found in the everyday objects of experience.
The English detective writer, G K Chesterton, whose books Hitchcock admired, once called the thriller ‘a rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the modern city’. (1901: 158) Chesterton argued that the beauty which once was found in nature was being rediscovered in the city through this new form of fiction. As Jerry Rubin writes, ‘in the thriller it is as if this modern, mundane, metropolitan context has become filled with the spirit of older, larger, wilder, more marvelous, and more adventurous realms.’ (1999:16) But if this is so, it is not because the city normally has much poetry for its inhabitants. The dark, perverse beauty to be found in the thriller is rather a romantic protest at the disenchantment of the world in modernity. Nevertheless, it is a spectacle much sought after by the public as a relief from the humdrum and predictable.
Fear may be considered a positive emotion from many perspectives but perhaps one of the most important involves the acknowledgement that fear can give us so much pleasure. The thriller form grew up with new forms of entertainment such as the amusement park which offered the public fear inducing rides on ferris wheels, bumper cars, water slides and other unsettling delights. It is in the amusement park that the link between screaming and laughter is most obviously seen. Hitchcock found the opportunity to exploit fun fairs on many occasions, perhaps most memorably in his 1950 film Strangers on a Train, where the killer stalks his prey through the dark tunnel of love and murders her on Love Island, filmed in the reflection of her fallen glasses, one of the director’s most perversely beautiful cinematic moments.
The German word ‘angstlust’, pleasure in fear, perfectly expresses the dynamic that Hitchcock exploits in his cinema, one which he owes considerably to the work of German film makers. Hitchcock took many of his ideas from the German and Russian cinemas. From the German cinema, he learned about Expressionism through the films of Murnau and especially, Fritz Lang. Expressionism is commonly considered an outgrowth of the longer and broader German gothic tradition. Gothicism was fascinated with the pre-modern, pre-scientific worldview of the middle ages. Gothic art depicted a world of fear, foreboding and irrational superstition, which was nevertheless shown by artists as somehow more interesting and exciting than the common sense world.
Always a prime candidate for gothic treatment, Hitchcock was fascinated by the story of Jack the Ripper and understood the way in which the media had told and re-told the story in order to create fear among the public and capitalise on this. He experienced the drive to explain the murders in the public sphere. (Allen 2002) He also understood the way in which history and geography can be used to create what the Russian literary critic Bakhtin called a chronotope, the place where ‘the knots of the narrative are tied and untied’ (1981: 250), creating in the case of his 1926 film The Lodger a vague tale of ‘the London fog’ which nevertheless is situated in concrete social and historical circumstances. With typical narrative economy, Hitchcock has made us share the fear of the public in this film (through German expressionist visual images, showing fog drenched streets and a string of fearful visages) as well as laying bare the ways in which fear is amplified, distorted and capitalised upon by the mass media (using the methods of Russian montage).
London locations were often central to Hitchcock’s work. The producers of Sabotage (1936) proudly claimed that it would feature ‘more of the real London than any film yet made’. (Krohn 2000: 24) In his book The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Jacobs makes a persuasive case that Hitchcock’s films need to be understood more from the point of view of the role played by built environments. Noting that Hitchcock was meticulous in his attention to locations, Jacobs shows us how important locations, monuments, houses and their interiors were to his films:
‘Hitchcock presented the physical world as a dark, frightening, violent, unstable place, which is often a projection of a disturbed person shown through striking set designs and lighting effects as well as subjective camera shots.’ (Jacobs 2007: 16) In addition, ‘Hitchcock […] often usednarratives with characters that are determined, frightenened, or suppressed by their architectural environments.’ (ibid. p21) The gothic is given a new architctural location in Hitchcock’s films: ‘instead of haunted castles, gruesome events take place in a suburban house, a sanitary motel bathroom, or a farm kitchen.’ (ibid. p19)
It is not only everyday dwellings that come to be the repository of gothic fears, however. Hitchcock had something of a still photographer’s eye for objects, which also represented anxiety. As Godard observed, what we remember in many Hitchcock films is an object rather than a scene: ‘a handbag, a glass of milk, wings of a mill, a curl of hair, a row of bottles, a pair of glasses, a score of music, a cigarette lighter, and so forth.’ In addition, ‘Hitchcock’s cinema is permeated with fetish objects, many of which have highly architectural or domestic connotations such as a bunch of keys, a doorknob, a closed door, a darkened window, or the top of a staircase.’ (ibid. p26) Of course, what imbues these objects with fear is largely cinematic: the alternation of closeups of anxious faces with closeups of otherwise meaningless objects has the effect of charging the keys, doorknobs, doors, windows etc. with intense emotion even where the setting might otherwise be ‘homely’. In fact, as Jacobs notes, ‘virtually all of Hitchcock’s films deal with the idea of the home’ (p32). But in Hitchcock’s work ‘the house [is] a place of secrets and concealment.’ (p34)
Where did these anxious imaginings come from?
Hitchcock frequently repeated the story that he had been imprisoned as a young boy on the instructions of his father as a joke. The story was that the boy had been sent to a local police station at the age of 6 with a sealed note to give to the officer on duty. On reading the note, the officer promptly locked the little boy up in cell until his father came to collect him. Both the officer and the father apparently found this amusing while Hitchcock recalls the event as a traumatic moment which might offer some explanation for the omnipresent atmosphere of fear in his later films. However, if Hitchcock was actually 6 years old at the time of the event and if he was incarcerated at the police station on Leytonstone High Street, as is widely believed, there is a problem: the police station on Leytonstone High Street was not built until some four years after the event was supposed to have taken place. Now, there are many possible explanations for this conundrum. Perhaps it was another police station in the area at the time that the event took place. Perhaps the event took place later than Hitchcock remembers. Or perhaps it never happened at all and the story was concocted by Hitchcock as a convenient answer the incessant questioning of journalists, all wanting to know the key to Hitchcock’s work. So how should the rather photogenic old police station be presented as a photograph? If it is presented as a document, what is it documenting? Hitchcock’s unreliable memory, our own lack of knowledge or his overactive imagination? One route through this territory is to take the idea of the photograph as a document and give it an expressionistic spin.
Expressionism can be characterized as an emotional (as opposed to a strictly representational) landscape. Often this is seen as a ‘fantasy’ landscape, as opposed to a ‘real one’. Yet this opposition is plainly inadequate to the complexity of human experience in which the present is always already mediated by our memories of the past which are partly imagined and always coloured by our emotional states. Recent developments in contemporary photographic practice which have seen photographers move away from documentary representations of the sufferings of distant others (through images of war, famine and political oppression). Instead, apparently known and familiar subjects, such as oneself, one’s friends, lovers and immediate environment are shown as suddenly problematic and strange (we could cite, for example, photographers as diverse as Sally Mann, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston and Gregory Crewdson). The experience that photography once set out to encapsulate has now come to be seen as no longer immediate in the first place, but rather mediated by memory, fantasy, history, culture and desire well before the camera intervened between the photographer and the world.
Some of this understanding of experience has come from psychoanalysis. Like Hitchcock’s films, photography has been studied by psychoanalytic critics who look for Oedipal narratives, sexual symbolism and fear of the feminine. In psychoanalysis, the concept of fear has is replaced by the terminology of phobia, the cause of which is a repressed memory or wish.
Although we are often predisposed to understand fear in Freudian terms, other traditions have had much to say on the subject, influencing not only our understanding of cinema and photography but also its practioners, including Hitchcock. Anxiety is a key theme of existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Kierkegaard argued that fear is a corollary to freedom while Heidegger treats anxiety as a response to the dizzying recognition that existence is groundless and that we are thrown into a hostile and inhospitable world in which we have to make our home. The insights of existential philosophy have been profitably applied to the thriller in Ralph Harper’s study, The World of the Thriller (1969).
Chemistry and biology also offer competing explanations for fear. Neuroscience provides one of the most interesting new fields of enquiry for the understanding of art and culture. Blow Up, a recent book by Warren Neidich (2003), offers a radical new paradigm for the study of film and photography drawing on critical theory and neuroscience.
Some of the photographs in this issue of Uncertain States may be understood through Freud’s central ideas. Most people now believe, as Freud urged us to, that childhood contains the key to the understanding of adult life and of artistic expression. Hitchcock’s biographers have done much to encourage the belief that his childhood can explain his adult work, although this is approach can also be reductive.
Today, there is a growing awareness of the way in which subjective emotions such as fear and desire enter into what we would like to think are rational, realistic representations. Yet fear and its representations may yet find still other grounds on which to meet and confront each other. In the future, these may have as much to do with chemistry, technology and biology as with art and personal psychology. For example, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) (a film owing not a little to Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers), the villainous Scarecrow (a ‘psycho-pharmacologist’) plays on fears in the angst ridden environment of Gotham city with the aid of psychotropic drugs, reflecting this newly scientific approach. In a sign that psychoanalysis still exerts a powerful hold over our need to explain things however, the drugs heighten fears drawn from childhood memories.
/ 07 Article by Nicholas Haeffner 2011
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Fear may be considered a positive emotion from many perspectives but perhaps one of the most important involves the acknowledgement that fear can give us so much pleasure.