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Financial Times (24/Jul/1999) - Vertiginous dealings with the master of suspense



Vertiginous dealings with the master of suspense

Pictures. That's what he called them. Talking about his work to François Truffaut in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock mostly refers to his films by that older, somehow more innocent name. But Hitchcock was the least innocent of directors. Always in control, each scene carefully mapped out before the cameras rolled, Hitchcock knew - and got - exactly what he wanted. His career spans the history of cinema, beginning as a teenager writing titles for silent two-reelers and ending in self-parody on the TV screen. Along the way, the director turned himself into a star, the pudgy, nervous misfit becoming the suave, cynical master of suspense.

Notorious,the Museum of Modern Art Oxford's exhibition organised to celebrate the centenary of his birth, attempts to show Hitchcock's influence on the visual arts. There is no denying that, over the past 30 years, the critical and academic output on his work has reached industrial proportions. But, as the work by the 14 artists selected for this exhibition makes very clear, the nature of that influence on contemporary art is by no means easy to pin down.

The trouble is, it is just too easy to read films such as Vertigo- in which the nice ex-detective, helpless in the grip of erotic obsession, forcibly recreates one woman in the image of another - as if they had been made to illustrate Freudian theories about repression and desire, rather than made by someone who embodied those conditions.

Vertigo dominates the first part of the exhibition, its music scrambled by Christian Marclay, its bedrooms recreated by David Reed, its sequoia grove digitally captured by Cindy Bernard, its scene at the Golden Gate Bridge dissected in a photo-essay by Victor Burgin, which includes much of the portentous psychological theorising we have come to expect.

Now Hitchcock knew his Freud. Psychoanalysis features in several of his films. He was interested in the subconscious and in Surrealism, and had Salvador Dali design the dream sequence for Spellbound.But he also knew something much simpler. He knew that acting out obsession was real, not just some sort of clever game. He knew it because he felt it, and he wasn't afraid to use it. "The stronger the evil, the stronger the film," he said to Truffaut. And for Hitchcock, the film was everything.

On the way to the upper galleries things get better. There's Ingrid Bergman projected on the landing wall, eyes closed, a tear creeping infinitely slowly down her cheek. Upstairs, there's Marnie, or someone pretending to be Marnie, filmed in black and white, pulling on those tight leather gloves and robbing that safe over and over again. There are some French people re-enacting Rear Window right there in their living room. And there is Janet Leigh, getting it in the shower for hours and hours.

Familiarity with Hitchcock's work helps make all these identification games quite fun - especially in the videos made by Christoph Girardet and Matthias Muller, which splice dozens of short sequences together around some of the director's favourite various themes - trains, bedrooms, and so on.

But what if a visitor does not know the films? Is "Subject to a Film", Stan Douglas's 1989 black and white remake of that Marniesequence interesting in its own right? He is certainly an artist who makes good work, and this piece has the period appeal of film-based work from a decade ago; but without such inside knowledge, would it, screened in a black room on a stifling day, hold anyone's attention?

And Douglas Gordon's famous, career-making "24 Hour Psycho", 1993: what, exactly is that all about? Is it Hitchcock's work we admire up there, jerking blurrily past at two frames per second? Or is it that of Gordon, his bright idea - you can almost hear him saying "Wouldn't it be great to . . ."- now realised, up there, in a museum. Hitchcock knew the answer, 30 years before the artist had even posed the question. Referring to his films being shown in other countries, dubbed or with subtitles, he remarked: "The image remains intact, even when the projection is faulty. It's your work that's being shown - nothing can alter that . . ."

The better works in the show distance themselves from Hitchcock as their source of inspiration. Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills", 1978-80, however much they might resemble Hitchcock outtakes, are made to express her own concerns, with women and identity. Later, the dead foot that looms so large in "Untitled," 1991, is not a recreation of someone else's imaginings but a manifestation of her own, part of a long series of work about body parts and decay.

Clips from Atom Egoyan's film Felicia's Journey bear little formal relation to the work of Hitchcock. Their subject, however - a serial killer who makes video tapes of his future victims in his car - would have delighted him, the young, beautiful women chatting about their sad, abused lives as they are driven, unknowing, to their deaths.

Hitchcock would not have enjoyed "Casual Shopper," 1980-81, Judith Barry's video which sends his style up deliciously. A Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery lookalike couple - he sporting a glorious false moustache - enact Hitchcockian rituals of courtship in a shopping mall, their mating dance in a shoe store interrupted by a clip from the "real" Marnie - the very same sequence used by Stan Douglas.

The show itself becomes a sort of dream sequence, the close conjunction of flickering images and muted sounds creating a parallel universe populated by beautiful women always on the verge of becoming victims of their own allure.

Hitchcock too became a victim, of changing times. When the 1970s came, and he could show what before he had seen only in his head - the naked breasts of women violated before their murder, the ugly sprawling limbs of violent death - the impact of his work changed. Instead of being terrifying, it became grotesque, instead of horrifying, horrible.

These later films, such as Frenzy, 1972, which prefigured postmodernists such as Tarantino in their blank gaze at the physical horrors of death, are largely absent as sources for the works in the show. It is as if these artists, his devoted fans, can't quite bear to see the master's weaknesses, the secret source of his power, so fully exposed. 'Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art', Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Until October 3.