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Mrs. Olson bails out a barbecue ,1963

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Hitchcock’s customary one-minute egg

An interview with Johan Grimonprez by Chris Darke


J.G.: At the height of his career, in the mid-fifties, Hitchcock was becoming acutely aware of the challenge of television. That’s why The Birds (1963) is pivotal: it reflects the ideology of that particular period, with television—just like the birds themselves—about to invade the home. It represents a moment when Hollywood had to redefine itself, losing its audience to television.

C.D.: Given the role that doubles and doubling play in Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958), why choose The Birds as your central Hitchcock work?

J.G.: The Birds has generated every possible contradictory interpretation by Hitchcock scholars: the birds embody the tensions between the characters, they’re a metaphor for Melanie’s sexuality or the repressed anxiety of the mother, etc. I went for The Birds to allude to Hitchcock’s ambivalent relationship with television and, by way of a detour, to lead back to the theme of the double—in particular, television as cinema’s “double”. I came across an essay by Angelo Restivo in which he asks the interesting question: “Why does nobody switch on the TV set in The Birds?”1 For me, the first thing you’d do if trapped in a house with some kind of catastrophe going on outside would be to turn on the TV! The implication is that the model community of Bodega Bay is being invaded by birds in the same way that television invades suburbia, turning the American nuclear family into happy consumers; in the process (and this was the concern for filmmakers like Hitchcock) displacing people’s relationship with cinema. In Hitchcock’s words: “TV brought murder into the American household, where it always belonged.”

It is interesting that when Hitchcock chooses to cross over to television in the form of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–62), he goes out of his way to poke fun at TV. He points out the extent to which the medium is itself infected by advertising, hijacked by the commercial break. Although he made his name in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and its successor, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962–65), were equally responsible for turning Hitchcock into a household figure: the belly, the protruding lip, the double chin... Over a period of around ten years, Hitchcock hosted about 370 episodes of his TV series. He introduced each and every one, as he said “to lay his customary one-minute egg”, in which he basically berated the sponsors while announcing the commercials with a large dose of sardonic humour. This adds up to about 360 minutes of Hitchcock performances which have hardly been examined at all in Film Studies, although they constitute an essential part of what Hitchcock was about: the biggest television prankster.


C.D.: In The Birds, the setting of Bodega Bay functions as this new utopia of suburban domesticity and, in his essay on the film, Angelo Restivo suggests that this world somehow coheres around the ritual of drinking tea and coffee... 2

J.G.: The screenwriter of The Birds, Evan Hunter, wanted to do something with the relationship between Melanie and the mother that would libidinize the plot. So there’s a certain tension beneath that suburban setting, a love story underneath the tea ritual. And remember, too, how the birds zoom in on the teacups... Hitchcock treats the cup of coffee with deserved suspicion. His strong female leads are often portrayed with their sexuality as perilous, set against a figure of male hysteria, a man who is often doubled, or trapped in a case of mistaken identity. And his fear of intimacy (or death) is projected back onto the female character as a way to try to contain her, and poison her (Notorious (1946) and Suspicion (1941)). However, in Looking for Alfred the tables are turned. Instead of the female protagonist being trapped and poisoned, she brings the poisoned cup to Hitchcock. Not only does she poison him but, instead of being attacked by the birds, she devours the bird.

Restivo relates how coffee houses were an integral part of early democratic culture, and how these places of conversation and discussion were increasingly replaced by television giving us the commercial break (instead of the coffee break). It’s interesting how the characters in The Birds fail to forge social links, and by extension a public sphere is lost to consumer culture (and its repressed undercurrent: the catastrophe). But here, of course, the birds—as harbingers of catastrophe—shatter the coffee cups, invade the world of domestic bliss! It’s maybe not a coincidence that 1963, the year of The Birds, was also the year when the Federal Communications Commission limited the amount of advertising on radio and television! I haven’t yet fully developed how I’m going to integrate all this into Double Take, but it definitely ties back into the idea of the commercial break and the happy ending. Although the growing popularity of television in the 1960s didn’t mean the end of cinema, it did mark the end of “The End”. By which I mean that the words themselves went out of fashion, losing out to endless credits. The Birds is the first Hitchcock film not to feature “The End”. He leaves it deliberately open-ended (as if waiting for the next episode or instalment), and then dispenses with “The End” in all of his subsequent films. To an extent, you could say that television has redefined what an “end” is all about. It gave us everlasting TV serials with postponed endings, coached us in the obsessive behaviour of live “around the clock” news reports, not to mention “zapping” during the commercial break. What does that leave us with? Essentially, with an image without end... And isn’t it funny how it was Hitchcock, in the early days of television, who urged us to zap away from those deadly boring commercials?





Excerpt from: “Hitchcock is not himself today... An interview with Johan Grimonprez by Chris Darke”, in Johan Grimonprez: Looking for Alfred, ed. S. Bode (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2007), 77–99. See also: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2011):