Friday, May 18, 2012

Anxieties of Influence


Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.
--Alfred Hitchock


The trick, of course, as so well-described by Greg Ferrara, is to find anything new to say about Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most written-about directors of all time (I'd say he's the most-written about, but that might be hard to quantify, and could bring out the blogging equivalent of those Hitch termed "the plausibles," those overly concerned with tiny details of "realism" in his plots, who therefore missed the forest for the trees). Since the release of The Lodger in 1926, and even more so since the efforts of the Young Turks at Cahiers du Cinema to deconstruct his methods and elevate his reputation in the 1950s, Hitchcock has been the subject of countless books, articles, reviews, films, biographies, conferences, websites, blog posts, and even an animated "cookbook". At a certain point, as Greg rightly points out, even the most dedicated Hitchcockophile (and I certainly consider myself one) is tempted to give up the ghost: "What new is there to even say? I suppose there's Hitch's foot fetish but that doesn't really get to the heart of anything, does it?"

But perhaps the cookbook angle is a fruitful one to follow, a metaphor that could, at the very least, take us to some interesting places. What if we saw the writing less as something necessarily new than a variation on the familiar, the already-laid-out, a series of steps that functioned as our critical MacGuffin?. The famous anecdote about the MacGuffin that Hitchcock enjoyed telling was this:

"What have you there?" asked one of the men.
Oh, that's a MacGuffin," replied his companion.
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."
"But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands!"
"Well, then, I guess that's no MacGuffin!"



He would continue, describing the MacGuffin to Francois Truffaut as, "the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever." The job of the critic, then, should be no less playful or aesthetic; rather than the desperate cry of the man yelling out "the 39 steps" by rote, it could a seductive tracking shot across histories and registers.

Two more useful quotes from Hitch: "I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach"; and this, to stave off some of our anxieties and to get us underway: "Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms."



Another way of thinking about the typecasting Hitchcock notes is to reframe it as reputation, the public persona an artist accrues through a series of works, public statments, etc. Certainly, by the time Hitchcock sat down with Truffaut in the early 60s, his reputation as a supreme entertainer and "Master of Suspense" was well-established (it was the goal of his Cahiers acolytes to show us how aesthetically and morally complex his entertainments really were); and as the ensuing decades following the publication of Hitchcock in 1967 would prove, that reputation would be a a broad source of influence for other filmmakers. Particularly since his final film, Family Plot (1976), his films would inspire homages from filmmakers as varied as John Carpenter, Jonathan Demme, Kenneth Branagh, and Gus Van Sant; most famously, Brian De Palma would devote a large portion of his early career to reworkings and riffs on Hitchcockian imagery, particularly the blonde in distress (whether that blonde was Nancy Allen or Michael Caine).



The shadow Hitchcock threw over the American and British suspense film (particularly those with a psychological bent) was the body in the coach for this new generation of filmmakers (and the critics who were quick to spot the influence), that reminder of a previous body occupying the same space, which they could no more shake off than John Forsythe could hide the corpse in The Trouble With Harry; had Hitchcock himself risen from the dead and made one of his famous cameos somewhere in the background, he could scarcely have been any more palpable than he already was. In both Sarrisian and Platonic terms, he was a key cinematic circle, and those that followed seemed doomed to stay trapped within his concentricity.

But, again, this anxiety arises only if we worry too much about the authentically new; maybe, to borrow from the other Hitchcock quote above, we should rather think of whatever we're going to say as "a sound among other sounds." Let's return to that notion of the cookbook mentioned above, and imagine a recipe for a dish called "To Serve Hitch" (we'll avoid Barbara Bel Geddes' example, however, and go for something a bit less bloody; besides, none of the cinematic "chefs" mentioned above could ever get their interrogators to eat the evidence away as neatly as they wanted). What would be our list of ingredients?

TO SERVE HITCH
1. Suspense-- well, yes. And in a sense, Hitchcock's classic definition of suspense suggests that being familiar with the story-- or part of it-- is essential to the blend: 



2. A Man or Woman in Peril, particularly when falsely accused of a crime: Most famously in espionage thrillers like North by Northwest, The Thiry-Nine Steps, Foreign Correspondent, or The Lady Vanishes, but also playing a role in more varied films like Vertigo, Rear Window, Frenzy, Marnie, The Birds, and Psycho.

3. Doubles/Identity Blurring: 


4. Gender Play/Psychoanalysis:










4. Blondes (often icy):


5. Mastery of Mise-en-Scene: In his American Cinema essay on Hitchcock, Andrew Sarris wrote that  the director was the only contemporary (1968) filmmaker in American cinema to combine the cutting of Eisenstein with the rich Expressionism of Murnau.

6. Family As A Unit of Irony and/or Repression:









Mix, gently or softly. Add Vermouth where necessary.
   
Of course, no recipe is ever going to turn out exactly the same (just as no signature is ever written exactly the same way twice). But thinking about Hitchcock as a recipe (or a formula, if you like, or a a set of jazzy chords), begins to suggest the way in which being one sound among many other sounds can be liberatory, as well as repressive.
   
All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the varied concentric circles and overlapping visual voices of Ringer.


Debuting on the CW network last fall, Ringer came to audiences already bearing the influence of several other histories, nearly all of them split into fascinating binaries. First and foremost was that of its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, best known as the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose titular show was once the anchor of the WB network, but who also found a lucrative career in films like The Ring and I Know What You Did Last Summer, playing horror damsels much less confident and complex than Buffy Summers.

Gellar's co-star Ioan Gruffudd was perhaps best-known to American audiences as Horatio Hornblower, the brash C.S. Forester hero he played in a series of acclaimed television films, or as Reed Richards, leader of The Fantastic Four in two mediocre adaptations of the Marvel comic; but like Gellar, he also found a space for very different characterizations in film and TV: as Tony Blair in Oliver Stone's W., Pip in a BBC production of Great Expectations, and as British abolitionist William Wilberforce in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace.

Finally, there was the strange history of the CW itself, which was the awkward name given to the merger of two smaller "netlets," The WB and UPN, when UPN's parent network, CBS, bought the WB and mashed the two together in 2006.

Since their simultaneous debuts in 1995, the WB and UPN had pursued similar demographics, and found themselves mirroring each other as they developed programming identities. For all their similarities, however, UPN could never get the media toehold or attention that its savvier sibling got-- with the exceptions of its Star Trek programs (Voyager and Enterprise) and the acclaimed-if-low-rated Veronica Mars, hardly any of UPN's programs gained the attention that the WB's did, and certainly none of them had the ratings of Dawson's Creek or 7th Heaven, or the buzz and cult following of Gilmore Girls, or Joss Whedon's programs. While each network could survive alone in the 90s, by 2006, the changing landscape of cable and broadcast television meant that even the networks' successful programs were starting to lose viewers, a process exacerbated by competition from a rising number of cable channels, rising production costs for aging franchises (especially in the face of cheaper alternatives like reality TV), and fan backlash against the WB's decision to cancel such favorites as Angel. The initial merger of the networks meant that programs that had once competed against each other (like Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars) could now air on the same network on the same night, a seemingly good fit, given their demographics.

However, both shows--and several others that aired on the CW that first year-- turned out to be in their final seasons, making this debut year of the CW less a super team-up than a one-shot identity. A writers' strike the following fall spread into the spring, delaying the CW even further, and when it finally emerged with a solid slate of programming, its face was that of teen-centric shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and a relaunch of 90210, rather than the earlier, expected hits. The quality of these programs varied, but the image was that of a simulacra, a revamp of 90s teen programming in a much more uncertain economic era.

It speaks to the lightning-fast nature of change in this televisual era that Gellar-- whose Buffy had aired its final episode as recently as 2003--suddenly seemed like an aged veteran when she returned to her kinda-not-exactly-the-same stomping grounds in September 2011.



This history of splitting and doubling, though-- among cast and network alike-- made for the perfect backdrop to Ringer, a show that takes split and borrowed identities as both its theme and its visual strategy. Ringer begins with two murders, both (initially) off-screen, and each involving our main protagonist, Bridget Kelly (Gellar). Bridget is, to put it politely, a fuck-up: alone, drug-addicted, alienated from her family, desperately broke and dancing in a Wyoming strip club when she accidentally witnesses the murder of a fellow dancer by the club's ruthless owner, Bodaway Macawi. Having nowhere else to turn, she goes to the FBI, and their contact agent Victor Machado (Nestor Carbonell), arranges for Bridget to enter witness protection in exchange for her testimony against Macawi.  The night before her court date, one of the agents guarding Bridget tells her she isn't safe, and she runs.  Her estranged twin sister, Siobhan Martin (Gellar) has reached out after several years, and Bridget accepts her invitation, without telling her why she's suddenly arrived at Siobhan's Hamptons' summer home.  There is a distance, and then a reconciliation between the sisters. They go out on a boat ride. Bridget falls asleep on the boat. When she awakes, Siobhan is gone, seemingly having committed suicide. A frantic Bridget radios the police from the boat, but by the time she reaches the shore, she's come up with what she thinks is a better idea: she will assume Siobhan's identity. It's a way out, after all, and Siobhan is, after all, dead. Bridget, posing as Siobhan, tells the police that Bridget has disappeared. She returns to Manhattan, where she greets her "husband", Andrew Martin (Griffudd), and settles in. She's a Judy who has decided to become a Madeline, without anyone else's help. And that's where the fun really begins.

Andrew is cold and distant, and Bridget/Siobhan-- who's never met her estranged sister's husband-- doesn't know why. Andrew's spoiled daughter Juliet (Zoey Deutch) ignores stepmother Siobhan, and has her own problems (including pill and alcohol use) to occupy her. Andrew's business partner, Olivia Charles (Jamie Murray), seems to have designs on him that extend beyond the office, while Bridget discovers that Siobhan has been having an affair with Henry Butler (Kristoffer Polaha), the husband of her best friend. Meanwhile, Bridget's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Malcolm (Mike Colter) is looking for her, even as Bodaway Macawi is looking for him, as a way of tracking down Bridget before she can testify. And FBI agent Machado hasn't given up Bridget's trail either, even if he doesn't realize that the "Siobhan" he's interviewing in Manhattan is the very woman he's looking for (failures of governmental authority figures is another borrowed Hitchock trope). And where did that hired killer stalking Bridget/"Siobhan" through a model loft come from? Meanwhile, it turns out Siobhan isn't actually dead-- she's alive and living very suspiciously in Paris, and seems to have her own schemes underway...

Everything I've described (and more!) happens in the sleekly directed, very busy pilot, and the twists spin out from there over the course of the program's single season (its cancellation was announced by the CW last week). Ringer  was created by Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, who cut their teeth writing for the CW hit Supernatural, but nothing about that bit of horror pastiche fanwank suggests the rich ironies, sharp characterizations and gorgeously evocative surfaces they create in Ringer's first 42 minutes (and expand on for 21 more episodes). Like its CW neighbor, Gossip Girl, Ringer delights in the tension between have and have-not, and the show crafts a New York where the deep depth of the visual field means everything in its busy frames is potentially a clue, a weapon, or a way out.  The mistake critics often make about both shows (as they also sometimes made about Hitchcock) is the assumption that pretty (be it a place or a person)=silly or shallow.  But Ringer and Hitchcock were both wise to Oscar Wilde's maxim that "It's a shallow person who doesn't judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Of course, the central, very dark joke of Ringer is that the mystery and the solution of Bridget/Siobhan's identity is one and the same thing, and always right in front of everyone, but they are too busy, too caught up in their own fantasies or deceits to notice this person sneaking in right under their noses. And it's a joke that keeps reflecting on itself as the show unfolds, kind of like those doubled mirrors in the image above: the deeper Bridget moves into Siobhan's world, the less she can truly see what's happening in front of her, until it's almost too late. There is a constantly shifting sense of dread around all the characters in Ringer, and Charmelo and Martin are very good at constantly building, then playing against various sympathies. The terrible thing, to paraphrase one of Hitchcock's famous contemporaries, is that everyone has their reasons. And when everyone finally tries to put things right, that's when all hell breaks loose.

On a strictly narrative or thematic level, Ringer evokes many of the Hitchcockian tropes I noted above-- the woman on the run, intertwined in a crime she didn't commit (who then unknowingly intertwines herself in several more); the psychoanalytic exploration of gender roles, complete with very Hitchcockian flashbacks to childhood throughout the run of the show; the doubling of images, of characters, of thematics, across 22 episodes-- always a play of both inner and outer reflections (and not just with the two twins); the trope of the icy blonde (deployed here ironically); and above all, the notion that family is simultaneously a haven from and generator of emotional and physical violence.

It's almost impossible for me to say more without spoiling you, which I desperately don't want to do (in an age of DVD and streaming video, one can catch up with a cancelled show at almost any time). So much of the fun of Ringer lies, in Hitchcockian form, in both knowing and not knowing what's going to happen. That shiver of the familiar comes from how well the program references Hitchcock without feeling slavish to him. I wanted to start with the image of Novak and Gellar because of the white coat they both wear, and because Vertigo feels like the Hitchcock text that  Ringer's plays with identity, family, violence and guilt most recalls. But there are also others.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Gellar, without whom the show simply couldn't work. James Wolcott gets at why here, while also making the Hitchock connection:

Ringer is about role-playing, all right, but not just about playing the part of a double, but playing the role of Woman--constructing a feminine persona that becomes an iconographic identity. Whether as Bridget or Siobhan or both sharing the same screen, SMG's image is reflected, split, and multiplied through a forest of mirrors and portrait photographs, a diamond prism that evokes Hitchcock and Brian De Palma in its elegant eros. It's impossible not to think of Tippi Hedren in Marnie and The Birds when we first see Siobhan, so chic, ivory-cool, and perfectly accessorized; Grace Kelly too, of course. And the very staginess of the rear projection and the speedboat bobbing in the water when Siobhan decides to take Bridget out for an ill-fated jaunt is also very Hitchcockian, the only thing missing being a divebombing gull or two. One rack focus shift from a mammoth closeup of Bridget/Siobhan at a black-tie charity performance to a man standing in the background shadows is pure De Palma, as is the use of the Natural History Museum at night as a site for a male predator stalking his prey. The final shot of the pilot episode, the blonde of blondes reclining in the tribute of her own reflection, has more sinister glamour than anything I've seen at the movies in ages. And no wonder--a few directors aside, the movies aren't interested in women anymore. TV still is.

More than that is how well Gellar really embodies the notion of the split-connected personality that Ringer is playing with on both a stylistic and narrative level. Even when they occupy the same frame, it's never unclear which sister Gellar is playing, and what kinds of very different emotional states they embody. At the same time, Gellar's  exquisitely timed movements and expressive face helps you to understand the links between the two women, and the terrible past they share. It's a tour-de-force performance across the season, and its in Gellar that the dualistic creative personality Sarris described as "Hitchcock"-- at once the cold logic of Eisensteinian cutting and the mysterious depths of feeling of Murnau--gets best translated into serialized TV. Bridget and Siobhan are so utterly different, yet one can't exist without the other's help or interference-- like those creative tensions in Hitchcock's work, they are a seeming contradiction that becomes a necessary symbiosis.

Ringer is about the dangers of adopting someone's identity, but even as the characters pay a hideous price, there is also an ironic revelation: that they never would've figured out who they really were without literally trying on someone else's clothes. That they can't enjoy the self they've become, because it is so tied in the larger world to someone they are not, is almost a necessary tragedy for this revelation to take place. To return to that Hitchcock epigraph, blondes might be the virgin snow, but whose bloody footprint is walking in it-- Bridget's or Siobhan's (or someone else's entirely)?  The artist's or the artist's shadow of influence? And does that matter less than simply taking the first step, and seeing where it goes?




And in the end, that's what the deployment of these Hitchcockian elements, the utilization of a familiar recipe, is meant to do: not to re-create what's already been made, but to honor the past while finding one's own expression within it. There's another term for that: preservation, a way of honoring and remembering and offering the past to a new generation, who will then use it to generate stories in their own time, for possible future preservation. Ringer may have only lasted a season, but its pastiche of Hitchcock, both visually and narratively, is a variation on the themes, another way of playing with the history that preservation can provide.

This post is a part of the For the Love of Film Blogathon and Fundraiser for the National Film Preservation Foundation to help preserve our film heritage. The Blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. Please make your donation by clicking on the button below. Thank you.





2 comments:

Grand Old Movies said...

Ringer sounds in part like a remake of 2 Bette Davis films in which she played twin sisters in each (yes, Bette doubled twice!). In A Stolen life (46), she's the bad and good sisters who, like Gellar/s, go out on a boat trip; here a storm overtakes their craft, sweeping the bad sister overboard. The good sister returns, is mistaken for the bad sister, and goes to live with the latter's husband (whom the former has been in love with); complications ensue. Dead Ringer (64) also has Bette as good/bad twins; and here the good sister murders the bad and takes her place; once more, complications ensue. Admittedly, neither film has the Hitchcock style, though.

Brian Doan said...

Grand,
Interesting! I have not seen those Davis films, but now I very much want to-- I like her a lot. Thanks for reading and commenting!