Scratch beneath the nitrate gloss of any given Alfred Hitchcock movie, and you’ll find it’s flabbergastingly erudite.
If you’re going to properly geek out on Hitchcock’s films, plan on picking up a little nineteenth century German philosophy, twentieth century geopolitics, art history, the cultural impact of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System and lot more along the way. It’s a bachelors degree in the humanities, taught by a single, rather droll professor. I bring this up because, in my last Hitchcock Geek video — Freak the Geek: Dead Ringers, Part 3 — I needed to create an infographic (shown above) that could succinctly describe Male Gaze theory as it relates to Hitchcock. In the spirit of his style, I took a similar allusive approach. And in the further spirit of T. S. Eliot’s footnotes, Harper’s Magazine’s annotations and/or David Foster Wallace’s markup, I thought it’d be helpful to provide my own gloss of the damn thing, starting with the title, which tips its hat to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (specifically, Hitchcock’s go-to designer Saul Bass and his iconic title sequence and advertising poster for that 1959 film). From there, the associations run free like blood down the drain of a flyspeck motel on a lost highway.
Maybe you’ve already noticed the resemblance between my picture and Paul Klee’s celebrated Twittering Machine(1922):
Klee was Hitch’s favorite artist, so I had to incorporate his work into my project somehow. I was attracted to this one in particular because its apparent theme of man versus machine (or is it bird vis-á-vis machine?) relate organically to his technique in creating the piece: the original drawing was imprinted on this watercolor-daubed paper surface via oil transfer, giving it a somewhat manufactured look. Thus the painting, like its subject, is a hybrid of human creation and mechanical reproduction. These thoughts weighed upon my mind as I used the digital tools in Adobe Photoshop to assemble and process the drawings, engravings and photographs that go into Anatomy of the Gaze, particularly when I used the “rubber stamp” filter to convert the photos into sketch-like artifacts. In the 1920s, in both his art and his lectures at the Bauhaus, Klee expressed ambivalence toward the relationship between nature and technology; Twittering Machine takes a wry look at the line that divides them and then smudges it. He would have giggled to know that Twittering reproductions would one day hang in baby rooms around the world, insinuating joy and nightmares into countless newborns’ pre-lingual minds — but I don’t think he would have been surprised by the rise of Photoshop, Instagram filters and deepfake technologies that reduce the artistic struggle to that of a keystroke.
Diagramming the gaze
If Umberto Eco is my spirit animal, then Robert Fludd might be my…I don’t know… Wii avatar? His whackadoodle esoteric diagrams speak a truth to me that has nothing to do with science or maybe even reason; still, they compel me to, well, gaze upon them. His Representation of Consciousness (1619) has yet to be bested by modern science or philosophy, and what’s not to like about a guy who won’t shy away from explaining the unexplainable? His engravings reach across the centuries, inspiring me to create my own diagram above.
The eyes have it — or — Jeepers, creepers, where did Dalí get those peepers?
Hitch was a card-carrying surrealist, and through that (cough) lens, his films actually commented on feminist Gaze theory decades before it was articulated by Laura Mulvey. Think of all those scenes of his that weaponize the very act of looking, of watching, of voyeuring — even glances that break the fourth wall to set movie audiences on edge! When he hired Salvador Dalí to paint those bulbous, testicular eyes for Spellbound, it was a testament to his commitment to the Gaze. But even an original voice like Dalí had his influences — in this case, the 19th century French proto-Surrealist J. J. Grandville. For my infographical collage, I went back to the source to borrow the eyeball-dudes — not to mention the female objet d’attention — featured in Grandville’s It’s Venus in Person! Obviously, thinking artists have been considering the Gaze for quite some time.
Uh oh, Susannah!
But what about those two guys in the upper left corner of my mishmashographic? Excerpted from Gerrit van Honthorst’s 17th century painting Susannah and the Elders, this touch is especially Hitchcockian. According to an apocryphal addition to the Old Testament Book of Daniel, the beautiful and virtuous Susannah spent so much time lolling in her backyard that the local gentry took up “watching eagerly, day after day, to see her.” One time, a couple of them spied her bathing naked and tried to coerce her into a threeway. She successfully fought them off, only for them to turn and frame her for adultery. So you’ve got some of Hitch’s favorite themes all wrapped up together: voyeurism, lust, violence. But here’s where it goes full Hitchcock: around the same time that van Honthorst was retouching Susannah’s nipples for the ocular delectation of future male gazers, Frans van Mieris the Elder (or possibly his son), was painting his own take on the story. (It seems every artist wanted a piece of her.) That version hangs in Norman Bates’ office parlor,and with deliciously metatextual panache, our murderous motelier hangs it over the peephole through which he spies on his victims! Naturally, I had to work that bit into the project.
And there you have it. And what th hell, if you’d like a signed, high-res print, ping me. I’m sure we can work something out.
Originally published at www.alfredhitchcockgeek.com.