Jump to: navigation, search

Representations (1990) - Anal Rope





Anal Rope

I have nothing at all on my mind, but I've too many things under my behind.
—Charlotte's Web

Rope Trick

The technical originality of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope has been so little neglected by serious-minded criticism that the latter may be considered almost definitively shaped by a ritual of recounting and assessing the director's desire to do the film, as he put it, "in a single shot," or at any rate, as nearly without benefit of montage as the state of the art allowed in 1948, when a camera only held ten minutes' worth of film. Yet this technicist bias has proven to be curiously distracted by the very shooting technique on which it elects to concentrate. For one thing, contrary to all reasonable expectations, it has hardly managed to generate a single accurate account of the technique in question. Again and again, for instance, we are told that each shot in Rope runs to ten minutes, whereas the shots range variously from roughly three to nine minutes; or that Hitchcock blackened out the action every time he changed cameras, though only five of Rope's ten cuts are managed this way. It is as though Rope criticism aimed less at a description than at a correction of Hitchcock's experiment, for whose irregularities and inconsistencies there is substituted a programmatic perfection that better supports the dream of a continuous film (not yet to mention whatever wishes might find fulfillment in that dream) than Hitchcock's actual shooting practice. Furthermore, Rope criticism has surprisingly little good to say of this technique, even when it speaks of nothing but. Only unconsciously, in its lapses and inaccuracies, does it aim at indulging and protecting the fantasy of a film without cuts; its conscious concern is to diminish this fantasy to, precisely, a one-shot thing. However much one might admire or be intrigued by the experiment in Rope, "never-the-less," as François Truffaut puts the characteristic disavowal in his interview with Hitchcock, "weighing the pros and cons-and the practices of all the great directors who have considered the question seem to bear this out-it is true that the classical cutting techniques dating back to D. W. Griffith have stood the test of time and still prevail today."1 The evidence of a compelling, but meaningless, device (a paradox writ large in the debate over the role of technique in Hitchcock's work as a whole) is as familiar as the accompanying denunciations of mass culture's tendency to degrade formal experimentation to the status of a gimmick. But it is never simply enough, here or elsewhere, to observe the gimmick structure, or to identify it as that which elicits technicist accounts and at the same time betrays them into an all but self-acknowledged pointlessness. Far from ever truly installing a site of non-meaning (which the denunciation of formalism, like the embrace, cannot help affirming), the gimmick only exploits the idea of such a site in relation to specific meanings whose production is felt to need obscuring. The gimmick arrests attention, but only in the process to relax the demands put on it by an ostentatiously unworthy object. In the case of Rope, Hitchcock himself has been more than happy to trivialize his formal experiment; his urgency may be measured, in the Truffaut interview, by the inevitably worried criterion of normality that presides over his retraction, and by the oddly-to the point of being contradictorily-assorted excuses he offers for himself. "I undertook Rope as a stunt; that's the only way I can describe it. I really don't know how I came to indulge in it. ... I got this crazy idea to do it in a single shot. When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage" (179-80). Yet what is at first an incomprehensible freak later becomes a mere semblance of aberration, beneath which a reassuring orthodoxy has merely mistaken its identity: "This film was, in a sense, precut. The mobility of the camera and the movement of the players closely followed my usual cutting practice. In other words, I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode" (180). In the end, Hitchcock adopts a somewhat more forgiving third position (responding to Truffaut's suggestion that Rope represents an inevitable moment in his career, just as inevitably superseded): "As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven, but it was definitely a mistake when I insisted on applying the same techniques to Under Capricorn" (184). What emerges through these shifts of defense (I don't know how I came to do it-I didn't really do it at all-it wouldn't matter if I only did it once) is less a gratuitous technique than an attempt, undertaken for reasons whose remoteness the shifts are there to ensure, to render it such. In rejecting Rope as a stunt, Hitchcock does not break with his exclusive preoccupation during the filming (when in the course of numerous exhausting retakes James Stewart is said to have complained that what was being rehearsed was not the players but the camera)2 so much as he continues to consider Rope's technique the only thing that matters about the film, even if, on this retrospection, it doesn't matter much. The stunt may no longer be valued, but it retains all its old centrality in Hitchcock's refusal to depart from a technicist perspective on the film as though there were-so that there appear to be-no others.

If H...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]


Varia: a) Raul Companioni and I once amused ourselves by imagining how, taking shelter, or pretending to take shelter, under the video equipment he let me use during my research, I might dedicate this essay to him, "through whose good offices I learned most of what I know about Rope." That together we could be thus easily amused is not the least affluent source of my attachment to his memory. b) "Anal Rope" was first presented, through the invitation of Teresa de Lauretis, during the conference she organized on "Queer Theory" at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in February 1990. Peter Bowen, William Cohen, Christopher Craft, Douglas Crimp, David Dryden, Lee Edelman, Casey Finch, Christopher Friden, Richard Meyer, Leland Monk, William Nestrick, Jeff Nunokawa, Mary Ann O'Farrell, and Craig Rubano were exceedingly helpful in the preparation of the text. c) Of my many viewings of Rope, let me recall one that took place at the Bridge Theatre in San Francisco, where I was exhilarated to witness-and even, in the company of my friend Ben, somewhat to demonstrate-how thoroughly the comfort of the gay couples in the audience succeeded in dating the film's treatment of homosexuality. d) Alfred Hitchcock began the filming of Rope on January 22, 1948-by what we call coincidence, meaning an event that is impossible to consider just a coincidence, also the day I was born: almost as though Rope were wound by some malevolent fairy as part of a spell to ensure that- for how many years?-its outdated date would remain my own.

  1. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, revised ed. (New York, 1985), 184. Further references to this work will be given parenthetically in the text.
  2. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Boston, 1983), 306.
  3. In the French text the unassimilated character of this disclosure is even more pointed: "Deuxjeunes hommes, homosexuels, étranglent, etc."; Hitchcock/Truffaut (Paris, 1983), 149.
  4. Even "after Stonewall" this principle does not cease determining mass culture's representational practice, in which homosexuality, though obviously a less infrequently cited phenomenon, has hardly therefore become a more visible sexuality. The recent television biography of Rock Hudson, considered and considering itself daring for bringing up homosexuality at all, offers a case in point. Notwithstanding that the film piously denounces the necessity of the Hollywood closet, at whose door it implies that Hudson's many personal troubles may be laid, yet it continues to respect every classic decorum of that necessity in its own compulsion to append a "beard" to Hudson's face Anal by several times requiring that he embrace his wife, while forbidding him even once to kiss another man.
  5. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1974), 7.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. Craig Wolff, "Night, Not Despair, Falls over a Shaken City," New York Times, 18 October 1989.
  8. Robin Wood, who has also observed this contradiction, puts the point of it thus: "It's not simply that Rope cannot tell us that the two men sleep together; it also cannot tell us clearly that they don't, since that would imply that they might"; "The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock's Homophobia," in Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York, 1989), 351.
  9. A recent magazine article purporting to assist heterosexual women in the AIDS- related task of identifying "bisexual" men offers these clues:
    Women should ... be cautious of men in certain careers. Bisexuals (and gays) are prevalent in such narcissistic businesses as the theatre, fashion, the beauty industry, art and design, and fitness. Many bisexuals are also attracted to the helping professions: medicine, social work, counseling. Some bisexual husbands seek jobs that involve travel.... These professions include the travel industry, import/export, and any work, such as law and consulting, that involves out-of-town clientele. Bisexuals also like to work in hotels, restaurants, and other places where they earn cash tips.
    Susan Gerrard and James Halpin, "The Risky Business of Bisexual Love," Cosmopolitan, October 1989, 205. Observe how, under the pressure of establishing a homosexuality that can only be ascertained circumstantially, the initial category of "certain careers" is gradually enlarged to the point where, of all careers from which the magazine's target reader might choose her lover (short of submitting to an unthinkable déclassement), the paradigm is saturated. Accordingly, what begins as practical advice to women who would resist their possible victimization ends in a paranoid fantasy in which they are more needful of help than ever, and less likely to get it.
  10. Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 205.
  11. In L'Uranisme: Inversion sexuelle congénitale (1895), Marc-Andre Raffalovich isolates what he calls paradoxomania as an important factor in Oscar Wilde's "anti-natural genital vocation"; quoted in Sherwood Williams, "The Gay Science: Paradox and Pathology in Wilde and Melville" (Unpublished manuscript).
  12. Gerrard and James, "Risky Business," 204.
  13. Jean-Pierre Coursodon, "Le Desir attrape par la corde," Cinéma 311 (November 1984): 28. Brilliant with such apercus, this study of Rope has the additional rare merit of being willing to engage the erotics of technique in the film. According to Coursodon, the blatant formalism of the plan continu (in keeping with a screenplay that has nothing to tell except an utterly pointless murder) advertises the perverse workings of a desire that dispenses with the credibility of any attempt to motivate it. To which account, however, my own will be seen to imply the following reservation. Insofar as the generality of desire, even perverse desire, faithfully transposes the abstraction of technique, Coursodon's argument must perpetuate the phobic dehomosexualization that is sedimented in such abstraction, and in doing so must fail to consider how-and how particularly-a certain motivelessness might be motivated.
  14. Sigmund Freud, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis ["The Wolf Man"], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London, 1953-74), 17:78.
  15. Lee Edelman, "Seeing Things: Representation, the Scene of Surveillance, and the Spectacle of Gay Male Sex," in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York, forthcoming).
  16. See Raymond Bellour, "Le Blocage symbolique," Communications 23 (1975): 235-350.
  17. V. F. Perkins, "Rope," Movie 7 (February-March 1963): 11.
  18. Rope's ten cuts may be schematized as follows:
    1) unhidden, to David's strangulation;
    2) hidden, by Brandon's back;
    3) unhidden, to Janet;
    4) hidden, by Kenneth's back;
    5) unhidden, to Rupert;
    6) hidden, by Brandon's back;
    7) unhidden, to Mrs. Wilson;
    8) hidden, by Brandon's back;
    9) unhidden, to Rupert;
    10) hidden, by the cassone lid.
    Nos. 2-9 represent an orderly oscillation between the apparently continuous and the unmistakably cut, thematized as an opposition between homo- and heterosexuality, but the system is oddly framed by no. 1 and no. 10, not least because the latter two cuts present the same (homosexual) thing, David's "dead" body, and because, in violation of one of the thriller's cardinal laws, the less reticent, more graphic variant seems to come first.
  19. As viewers of The Trouble with Harry hardly need to be told, Hitchcock is perfectly capable of displaying a corpse, even without benefit of hanging, in full erection. The paradox offered by the early image of Harry's lifeless but aroused body gets elaborated in the various courtship narratives engendered through the process of burying him. In Rope, not dissimilarly, at the same time as the cassone serves as a grave, it also designates the site of an unbridled eroticism. (To Brandon's favorite story of the bride who on her wedding night locked herself in a chest, Janet, freshly engaged to David, replies: "I don't think I'll get that playful.") It will be seen, however, that David's erection points to something at once more specific and more specifically troubling than the general link between eroticism and death.
  20. Perkins, "Rope," 11.
  21. Ibid. Anal Rope 133