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Friday, June 15, 2018

Alfred Hitchcock on the Importance of Style in Cinematic Storytelling

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Often, horror Movies don't expect much from their audiences. Typically, there's nothing philosophical or theological about them. As a rule, they don't offer social criticism. If they mix science with their horror, the science is likely to be dubious. Psychology, when it's included, as an explanation for a character's bizarre behavior, is apt to be simplistic or patently absurd. History is usually general and vague or wrong altogether.

Audiences don't mind. They're happy to overlook such discrepancies. They're not interested in factual or political correctness. They want to see death and destruction, blood and guts, and a naked scream queen or two. Give them that, and they'll consider their $10 well spent.

Nevertheless, some horror movie directors want to give audiences more bang for their buck. They have something to say, and they want to say it. In addition to merely entertaining viewers, they want to share their visions, their understandings, their insights with audiences concerning evil, society, heroism, the human psyche, art, filmmaking, or what-have-you. Alfred Hitchcock is one such director. Stanley Kubrick is another. Both Scott Derrickson and William Friedkin are other horror movie directors whose films deliver more than fear, as is David Rosenberg.

Some of the points Hitchcock makes is about filming per se. In an interview with Cinema magazine, the director defines cinema as “pieces of film assembled.” The individual pieces of film, he adds, mean “nothing”; it is their combination, in such a way as to form a “mosaic” of them, whereby their “combination creates an idea” (or, he adds, later, “an emotion”), that they become meaningful. Part of the forming of the mosaic is the selection of the images; another part, in Psycho, in particular, is the “juxtaposition of angles” and the rapidity with which each piece of film appears, for only a fraction of a second, on the screen, resulting in the assembly of a “montage” suggestive of the stabbing of Marion Crane (Jennifer Leigh), while, in fact, “no knife ever touched any woman's body in that scene.”

In the same interview, Hitchcock also speaks of how he maintained and intensified suspense while avoiding a cliche in North by Northwest. The cliche was “a place of assignation [taking] the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street,” which is often used to “put [a] man on the spot.” Besides the boredom that results from the use of a cliche, another problem is that cliches set up predictable situations. The audience has seen them so many times before that they know what will follow.

To avoid this hackneyed device, Hitchcock “take[s] the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide, if we can call him that,” having the protagonist disembark from “the bus . . . , a little tiny figure,” standing in the middle of a “complete wasteland.”

Then Hitchcock seems to threaten the man. Just as he intends, the audience thinks, “Well. This is a strange place to put a man.” As cars pass, the audience begins to suppose, “"Ah, he's going to be shot at from a car,'” but Hitchcock frustrates this expectation by showing “a black limousine go by.”

Next, a car approaches from a different direction, stops, and “deposits a man,” before returning from the direction it came. Just as the director intends, the audience imagines the man may be the protagonist's assassin. When the main character approaches him, engaging the stranger in conversation, it's clear to the audience that the new arrival is not a killer. For a second time, Hitchcock has raised the audience's expectation as to what will occur, only to frustrate their prediction.

Now, as “the local bus” approaches, the stranger to whom the protagonist is speaking says, “That's funny.” He points out that a crop-dusting plane is “dusting a place where there's no crops.” The stranger gets onto the bus and leaves. Hitchcock says, “The audience says . . . 'Ah, the airplane.' Now, what's gonna be strange about the airplane, and you soon know. And from that point on you have a man trying to find cover. There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield. Now, you do in the design a very important thing.”

By avoiding a give-away cliche, and repeatedly arousing and frustrating his audience's expectations about what will happen, Hitchcock creates and maintains suspense. Then, when the threat they suspect is coming finally arrives, Hitchcock makes sure the action continues, as the protagonist scrambles “to find cover,” as he is chased by the menacing airplane. The entire scene, from beginning to end, is carefully designed before it is ever filmed. As Hitchcock explains, “This sequence is very carefully designed step by step both visually and to some extent in its menace . . . . So that's production design, exemplified in terms of its function.”

Any author of horror fiction should take the same pains as Hitchcock did in planning the action of his movie's scenes, remembering that the images created on the page, like those filmed on the sound stage or on location, are, when properly combined, in such a way as to form a “mosaic,” the means by which the writer “creates an idea”—and the way that he or she manipulates readers by causing them to draw inferences as to what will come next—inferences which the writer must then frustrate as he or she introduces new possibilities or plot twists.

Now that he has explained how to design combinations of images to create ideas, Hitchcock explains how to use the same process to create an emotion in his audience.

Hitchcock offers two examples. The first, from Psycho, involves Detective Milton Arbogas entering the Victorian house occupied by Norman Bates and his “mother.” As Arbogas steps onto the upper-story hallway floor, after having ascended the staircase, “Mother” rushes from her bedroom, knife in hand, and stabs him across the face. A close-up shot shows the bloody gash in his forehead and cheek and registers his shock as he begins to fall backward, down the stairs, pursued by his killer. Hitchcock explains how he captured this horrific sequence:

. . . When he got to the top of the stairs, I took the camera very high, extremely high. So that he was a small figure. And the figure of the woman came out, very small, dashed at him with a knife. And the knife went out, and we're still very high, and as the knife started to come down, I cut to a big head of the man. And the knife went right across the face, and he fell back from that point on. Now the reason for going high—and here we're talking about the juxtaposition of size of image. So the big head came as a shock to the audience, and to the man himself. His surprise was expressed by the size of the image. But you couldn't get the emphasis of that size unless you had prepared for it by going high.

As an example of how an effect can be varied, he refers to Rear Window, whose main character is L. B. “Jeff” Jeffrey, a photojournalist convalescing after having broken his leg. A voyeur, he spends much of his time peering at his neighbors across the way.

Mr. Stewart is sitting looking out of the window. He observes. We register his observations on his face. We are using the visual image now. We are using the mobility of the face, the expression, as our content of the piece of film. Let's give an example of how this can vary, this technique, with whatever he is looking at: Mr. Stewart looks out. Close-up. Cut to what he sees. Let's assume it's a woman holding a baby in her arms. Cut back to him. He smiles. Mr. Stewart likes babies. He's a nice gentleman. Take out only the middle piece of film, the viewpoint. Leave the close-ups in—the look and the smile. Put a nude girl in the middle instead of the baby. Now he's a dirty old man. By the changing of one piece of film only, you change the whole idea. It's a different idea.

When Jeffrey smiled at the baby, the audience thought him a “nice gentleman,” but were a nude woman substituted for the baby, the audience would have imagined Jeffrey is a pervert, and their emotional response to him would have been quite different.

Every piece of film that you put in the picture should have a purpose,” Hitchcock says, which means each sequence of images should be planned in detail and be combined so as to encourage the audience's ideas and emotions while depicting whatever action is called for by the scene. Style is the means by which Hitchcock says he accomplishes these goals, insisting, “I put first and foremost cinematic style before content . . . . Content is quite secondary to me.”

Alexander Pope defined style, with regard to writing, as “proper words in their proper places.” If “images” were substituted for words, so that, so amended, Pope's definition reads that style, with regard to film making, is proper images in their proper places, Hitchcock, no doubt, would agree. By substituting one image for another, Hitchcock can change the context of a scene and, as a result, the audience's reaction, or feelings, about Jeffrey.

Note: In future posts, we will consider the messages Stanley Kubrick, Scott Derrickson, William Friedkin, and David Rosenberg express through their films:

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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