Friday, October 26, 2012

Imitations of life

It took some hours of procrastination and a cup of strong coffee, and my finger may have trembled as I clicked the “play” button, but I did finally watch the trailer of the forthcoming film Hitchcock, about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho in 1959-60. It was nearly as unsettling as I had imagined – and not just because Psycho is enormously dear to my heart, or because one likes to think that the world in which that film was made was necessarily a black-and-white world, or because I admire Stephen Rebello’s book on which this new movie is (very loosely) based. On the tiny YouTube screen was one of the most honourable actors of the past few decades – not hamming it up exactly, but imitating away.

A two-minute trailer is limited evidence to base a judgement on, but Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the Hitchcock role looked like mimickry to my eyes, as opposed to the considered acting that involves building a character from the inside out. The attempt to make his features approximate Hitchcock’s – such as the quadruple chin and the studied downward curve of the lips – made me cringe a little (it isn't as blatant as the use of prosthetics to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt resemble Bruce Willis in Looper, but still). In any case there is a touch of contrivance to the casting of Hopkins (such a well-known actor, now almost as closely associated with the playing of diverse real-life figures as Charles Laughton was in an earlier time) in this part - one wonders if the motive was the creation of a lucrative casting coup with the equally respected Helen Mirren, who plays Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville.

In 1992, Robert Downey Jr played the title role in the biopic Chaplin, but - though Charles Chaplin was among the few movie personalities who was even more recognisable worldwide than Alfred Hitchcock - there was an essential difference in effect. The Chaplin on view in most of that film was not the iconic Little Tramp but the real-life person, whom very few viewers had any direct association with. Which meant Downey Jr had some space to work out his own interpretation of the character, to not be shoehorned into familiar tics and mannerisms. Hitchcock, on the other hand, always appeared in trailers, interviews and TV introductions as “himself” – he performed the same droll gestures (standing about stiffly, saying outrageous things in the most deadpan manner) in the same starched three-piece suit that was presumably attached to his body when he emerged into the world, much like Karna’s kavacha. And this is the figure that Hopkins has been called upon to play. Saddled with such a character – someone who is a vital part of our recent pop-cultural mythology – even a fine actor can be reduced to a pawn.** (The real Hitchcock, who believed actors should be treated like cattle or chess pieces, may have enjoyed this.)


Watching Hopkins as Hitch – or Meryl Streep accumulating a bundle of carefully observed tics and presenting them as “performance” in her imitation of another imposing real-life figure, Margaret Thatcher – one sees signs of things to come. Film history is at a point where we can expect an increasing number of biopics about people who lived recently enough that we have video evidence – and strong memories – of their real selves. And if these biopics are to be made as box office-friendly as possible, one can expect broad simplifications in scripts and shortcuts in portrayals.

A related component is that with important anniversaries looming around every corner, there will soon be no getting away from films about our cinematic past. Consider just the very near future: in 2014 the movie world will celebrate 75 years of Gone with the Wind (75 years, in fact, of that cinematic annus mirabilis 1939), and personally I’d be astonished if a high-profile project about the making of GWTW has not already germinated in the mind of a screenwriter or producer. (What back-stories! What drama! Who could resist the possibilities of the real-life scene – as compelling as anything in Gone with the Wind itself – where David Selznick first laid eyes on his Scarlett, Vivien Leigh, her face lit up by the flames from the burning Atlanta set, at a point when production was already well underway?

Two years after that, Citizen Kane will celebrate its diamond jubilee year, and so it will go. Critics often complain about excessive meta-referencing in contemporary cinema – that Quentin Tarantino, for instance, only makes films that are about his film-love – but it is entirely possible that 30 or 40 years from now we will have a film about Tarantino’s life: in other words, a movie about a boy who watched lots and lots of movies and then made movies that paid tribute to those movies. By that time mainstream filmmaking may be closed into a self-referential loop, with little room for anything external.

Yes, of course I’m being cheerfully alarmist. And yes, trailers can be misleading – it’s possible that the complete Hitchcock will reveal a more shaded performance with Hopkins reaching for a poetic truth about the director’s personality, as opposed to caricature. But given that this is a commercial project meant for relatively painless consumption, I doubt it. I will watch the film, but with my fingers splayed over my face and violins shrieking in my head, much the same way that unprepared audiences first experienced Psycho in 1960. In the age of meta-cinema, it is appropriate that a film about the making of a scary film should be... scary.


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** No wonder Ranbir Kapoor said in an interview that he wanted to wait a while before taking on the daunting role of Kishore Kumar in a film. Who can blame him?

 [Did a version of this for my Business Standard film column]

15 comments:

  1. "But given that this is a commercial project meant for relatively painless consumption, I doubt it..."

    You violate your own rule here of being condescending about genres. Why can't an out an out 'commercial film' supply the 'poetic truth' about Hitchcock? (if there was such a thing as poetic truth about the man whose closest companion was a crow)

    And judging the film from a trailer--hope you aren't trying to pull a Hartosh here. (get the drift? if not just browse through Open magazine's archive and look for Hartosh's remark--"titles speak for themselves")

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  2. ...judging the film from a trailer

    Actually, Anonymous, I have clearly said - twice - that it isn't wise to base a judgement on a trailer, and also indicated that the whimsical starting point for this piece is my very personal relationship with Psycho. This isn't a review of, or a summary judgement on, Hitchcock.

    "Commercial film" is not a genre, btw. And what I'm talking about here is the potentially incendiary combination between a biopic dealing with a well-known real person and a movie trying to please the largest possible audience. That combination has not generally speaking resulted in top-quality cinema. if this turns out to be an exception, well and good.

    Finally, and unrelated to the comment: can you take the trouble to pick a moniker and stick with it for future comments (it doesn't have to be your own real name, of course!) so there isn't a regular confusion of different "Anonymous" commenters. I'm thinking of disabling that particular option for comments here. In any case I have a fairly strong feeling that you have commented on this blog before with a different name.

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  3. I have commented before--but I have been anonymous, and not because I am in the FBI's most wanted list, but because I don't have a blogger account (I think I did once, but never blogged).

    Besides, I comment, I don't troll. Whenever I have commented, I have either:

    a) asked a question
    b) made an observation

    (its not that I make "your momma" remarks here).

    Disabling the anonymous option might defeat the purpose of having an interactive blog (but of course it your blog, so its your discretion). It'd be far better to delete the comments that you get that are totally unrelated to the topic (like someone selling something)--just a suggestion. Cheers.

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  4. Just for a second I thought this was a post on the Sirk masterpiece - Imitation of Life giving me an opportunity to get started on race relations in America again ;)

    I saw the trailer too. Imitation is just about the right word for what Hopkins was upto in those few clips.

    potentially incendiary combination between a biopic dealing with a well-known real person and a movie trying to please the largest possible audience. That combination has not generally speaking resulted in top-quality cinema

    Agree. The once exception I can think of is Curtiz' Yankee Doodle Dandy where Cagney plays the American entertainer George M Cohan. Perhaps not a great film but still top-drawer enough to merit a rewatch every now and then atleast for specific scenes which Cagney has rendered immortal with his inimitable flair.

    Social Network I thought was a very very special film. I don't think anybody knows Zuckerburg and his cohorts well enough. But that film made all those characters come alive. Few films could've captured the yuppie know-it-all self-absorption of these characters better.

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  5. Shrikanth: interesting you mention Yankee Doodle Dandee. The two Old Hollywood biopics I had in mind when I dashed off that comment were Till the Clouds Roll By and Night and Day, which were fictionalised biographies of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter respectively. Decent enough films in their own ways, but with a definite air of "neither here nor there".

    That said, apropos of nothing I'm suddenly thinking of the very effective Lincoln pictures - Young Mr Lincoln (which had the advantage of depicting the man before he became The Man), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (with an excellent Raymond Massey) and to a lesser extent Griffith's Abraham Lincoln with Walter Huston.

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  6. Disabling the anonymous option might defeat the purpose of having an interactive blog

    Uh, how? All I'm asking you to do is to pick a pseudonym (even something as banal as "commenter1234" will do) and try to stick to it; the comment form has a Name/URL option that allows this. On some of the posts here one finds different commenters all posting as "Anonymous", which is both annoying and not very convenient when it comes to responding.

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  7. Jai: Yes. Young Mr Lincoln was a bad bad miss on my part.
    Perhaps the greatest film made on a real-life personage ever!? That's not overly high praise.

    I cannot praise that film enough. Without descending to hagiography or sycophancy, the film takes on the aspect of an ancient and sacred biblical narrative.

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  8. Jai: I am also reminded of My Darling Clementine which features Hank Fonda as Wyatt Earp - a legend who John Ford knew personally in his younger days.

    Having said that I don't think My Darline Clementine can be regarded as either a biopic or even a dramatization of a real event as Ford took a lot of liberties with the material.

    Also how about Minnelli's Lust for Life - a highly acclaimed movie on Vincent Van Gogh? I haven't seen the film, but heard good reviews of it.

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  9. Disabling the anonymous option might defeat the purpose of having an interactive blog

    Am amazed how insecure one can get.
    Here I am making politically incorrect comments all the time on this blog. Never did it strike me to camoflauge my identity.

    It's this primal fear that prevents meaningful public discourse in India. It's almost akin to old women of the 19th century fearing for the "purity" of their sons when they crossed the seas to go to England for studying law.

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  10. It's this primal fear that prevents meaningful public discourse in India.

    Shrikanth: not sure about this. On Internet boards everywhere, Indians who are just as "politically incorrect" as you (while being far less intelligent and polite) routinely leave their droppings. Often proudly brandishing their real names.

    Anyway, we're in danger of heading off-topic again. It might be interesting to see the new Lincoln, the Spielberg film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead. Difficult to see Day-Lewis messing up in that role.

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  11. "we will have a film about Tarantino’s life: in other words, a movie about a boy who watched lots and lots of movies and then made movies that paid tribute to those movies."
    You know what's scary about that? What if QT got it into his head that THIS should be his swan song - whenever he retires - 'coz who else could do this subject justice?
    The mind boggles at the meta-possibilities :P ..

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  12. QT's swansong. life does move very fast. also the way QT speaks, its hard to realize the man is past 50. He said it in an interview once that he would like to retire at 60 and at max we can expect 2-3 more films from him. One, Django Unchained is already done. Two, he is thinking of making Kill Bill-3. but after that will be it an end of his career?

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  13. The biopic that I loved in recent years is Todd Haynes' Im not there. Dont know if he was trying to please many people,there sure were a lot of big names in the film, though I think he must have known that its not going to be a big box office draw due to its quirky nature.
    I wish somebody makes a Kishore Kumar biopic the same way.

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  14. Rahul: yes, of course - but that's such a different kind of biopic. Would be a great idea if more biopics of that sort could be done around iconic cultural figures of our time, but it needs to be done just right and not everyone has the right sensibility for it. Plus Dylan's life and influence did kind of lend itself to that treatment.

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  15. Jai, it is rumoured that Scorcese is using the same technique for his Sinatra biopic.

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