The Philosophical Hitchcock
Teasing Out the Unknowable
Robert B. Pippin's beautifully designed The Philosophical Hitchcock couches itself within the realm of philosophy but feels more casual, meditative and informal than we might have expected as it focuses chiefly on Vertigo. Perhaps if it were foremost a work of philosophy it would have attended more strongly to the question it offers in the introduction: the problem of unknowingness and its relation not only to Hitchcock's films, but more generally, and perhaps ever more so, in life. "Unknowingness in various forms in general (from ignorance to being deceived, to fantasy thinking, to self-deceit) is something like a necessary condition of possibility of Hitchcock's cinematic world." Pippin later adds, "this 'Hitchcockian world' is a historical world, a complex modern world of profound social dependence and corresponding uncertainty, famously captured by Rousseau's remarks in the Second Discourse that modern "sociable man" always lives outside himself, is capable of living only in the opinions of others, and, so to speak derives the sentiment of his own existence only from their judgement."
We might find though that Pippin's very fine book is hampered a little not by the quality of his thinking, but by the format he adopts: to work through the film chronologically as he gives it the type of close attention he admires in certain writers on film, mentioning amongst others, V. F. Perkins, Stanley Cavell, Robin Wood and Gilberto Perez. These are all admirable names one may wish to sit alongside, but does such close attention across the entire film get to the bottom of the question Pippin originally proposes? While he certainly never ignores it, there are moments when he seems to retreat from it for the purposes of adopting an approach evident in some of the critics he so admires. Both Wood and Perkins are well-known for their strict attention to close cinematic readings. Perkins says in Film as Film, "it is common experience that a previously unobserved coherence may become apparent in the course of time or through increased familiarity with the work." Wood writing on Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai in Cineaction notes that "it has taken me at least six complete viewings...to disentangle it..."
There is something of this attention to detail in Pippin's book, but does this degree of close analysis further or hamper the enquiry? If the question of unknowingness is vital to all Hitchcock's work, and if this question is a central one in modern sociable man, would a broader approach to the question work better? Pippin certainly pays attention to a number of other Hitchcock films, and the introduction is an especially rich look at Hitchcock's movies through a philosophical prism, through an awareness of why Hitchcock's work justifies philosophical investigation and why Rousseau, Girard and Hegel can help the inquiry along. When Pippin says "in North by Northwest the film as a whole is framed as occurring in an America dominated by advertising, the creation and manipulation of appearances; that is, a world where there are no lies, as Roger Thornhill explains, just "expedient exaggerations", we are in a mind that can make connections, ones which open the film up in new and intriguing ways. Equally when he says that "the prelude to Marion's theft in Psycho is a portrayal of the arrogance of those with money, and how that is felt by those without, and of the sexism and crass bullying the world of money and power seems to breed", we have a thinker attentive to the social injustice that turns Marion into a thief.
At the beginning of the introduction, Pippin says that "sometimes it is said that in any romantic relationship between two people, six persons are involved. There are the two persons they actually are; there are the two persons as they see themselves; and there are the two persons as they are each seen by the other." Here he acknowledges that once you start going down this road it is hard to stop, and harder still in Vertigo than most films as he gets at the vertiginous nature of identity, at its ontological vertigo. This is the dizzying accumulation of being that always fascinated Hitchcock as sons become mothers (Psycho), people are mistaken for other people (North by Northwest), women pretend to be someone for the purposes of espionage (Notorious), or where a man looks like he will get killed for a crime he didn't commit (The Wrong Man). Identity is a fragile thing in Hitchcock's universe and Pippin's introduction is so good at noting how this fragile multiplicity is part and parcel of modern existence, and also how love is the arena in which the fragile multiplicity is most pronounced. We might have wished Girard, Rousseau, Hegel, Goffman, Henry James, Proust and Diderot (all mentioned in the introduction) could have opened the problem up.
Pippin later in the book acknowledges that Vertigo is a hopelessly implausible film yet what is so interesting about it from a philosophical point of view (and perhaps tells us much about the limits of close readings that claim to justify the mastery of a filmmaker), is that despite the numerous narrative improbabilities that he explores in a footnote, the film is masterful not especially because of what it does but what it says. This would seem a reversal of an important Alain Robbe-Grillet claim in For a New Novel that "...the genuine writer has nothing to say", which was always more nuanced than many might have believed, but nevertheless indicates the importance of how something is done rather than what it signifies. Yet if how something is done is what is most important, then error greatly reduces its significance. If we are more concerned with what something means but accept that style is the means by which to say something that cannot otherwise be said, we needn't regard flaws as so important. If someone credits a filmmaker's genius to deliberation (Kubrick of course immediately comes to mind), then the flaws of mis-en-scene - mobile phones used in a hospital in Eyes Wide Shut, the appearance and disappearance of a magazine on a chair in The Shining - undermine that genius or become awkward justifications of it: they were deliberate, part of some astonishingly intricate formal plan to test our capacity for seeing the absolute deliberation. By indicating that a film is about what it says we needn't fall into ignoring form; just resist the fetishization of it. It is this attention to the saying which we could have done more with, yet Pippin's respect for the writers on film we have mentioned, occasionally hampers the enquiry, even as he admits the flaws he sees from numerous rewatchings aren't very important.
Pippin explored wonderfully American myths through three key westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance The Searchers and Red River) in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, but he would also pay only as close attention to the films as was required to further his point. On occasion here we believe the point recedes as the intricacies of story and mise-en-scene are teased out. This means that the book is a first-class piece of criticism, but ever so slightly less than that philosophically. It manages to offer some interesting thoughts about a film that has been written about to death yet still remains alive in capable hands. However, that philosophical question of unknowability we might wish to know a bit more about. Hitchcock's "point in creating such a story about the role of fantasy in modern life was to show us something about that role and about romantic love in the conditions of complex interdependence and corresponding uncertainty, general unknowingness unique to modern societies." We need to know more.
© Tony McKibbin