Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The book "Hitchcock/Truffaut" is an encyclopedic look into a game-changing brain. It is also one of the peak victories for cinephiles and/or movie geeks everywhere. In a historic meeting, former Cahiers du Cinema critic-turned-French New Wave director Francois Truffaut was able to snag a week of Alfred Hitchcock's time, and they talked about each of his films, scene-by-scene, idea by idea.
Director Kent Jones' doc of the same name uses the photos, recordings, and specific film references from the text's creaton to feature a whole mass of eloquent filmmakers (not just Truffaut) connecting, and essentially nerding out, on Hitchcock. The discussions here offer a haven for engaging film beyond history, but Jones' doc proves to have an ugly, specific idea about its audience that the book doesn't.
To Jones' credit, this doc about academic thought is far from a dry lecture; it is too buoyant and not overtly technical. It covers themes, specific set stories and ideologies with buoyancy to create Hitchcock experts in 80 minutes (having seen the films referenced is extra-curricular). Transfer of guilt, fear of police, his preference for dreams over logic—the themes are all compactly in there. And just as Truffaut probably covered this territory with a smile on his face for a whole week, so does the film have the ability to wrap a viewer up in movie love. Not just referencing movies, but truly engaging them.
Jones' doc makes proficient use of the films that are available, without bogging them down in titles; the sequences speak for themselves. And in bringing the book to life, its images are always in motion, the design lively moving from its static images, or even footage of the inspiring text. There's even a fantastic string quartet score by Jeremiah Bornfield that echoes the aura of Hitchcock, as if it could break out some Bernard Hermann at any minute.
For Jones' version of "Hitchcock/Truffaut," Truffaut is only the host to an event made more about Hitchcock's filmography than history behind the book. Instead of just Truffaut airing out his affection for Hitchcock's work and technique, it's a whole band of directors, from David Fincher to Olivier Assayas to James Gray to Wes Anderson, doing just that. When Jones introduces his documentary via the book's importance, it becomes clear of the type of impression it originally had on these now-heavyweights, and the documentary presents them reverting to amazed students again, their excitement genuine and eloquent. Even Martin Scorsese, one of the most charismatic and energetic film historians for any documentary, is now matched with talking heads who can keep up his excitement.
Jones interviews only filmmakers, an intriguing way to create authority by focusing on experts of actual directing experience. Instead of having influence projected upon them by us, the directors now share their own wonder. It's a little joy to hear Wes Anderson talk excitedly about the calculation in his films, or David Fincher talk about how Hitchcock embraced the intimacy of authorship and wanted to share his fascinations with an audience. They are passionate speakers about specific moments in Hitchcock's filmography, and sometimes funny too. I loved when James Gray conceded that he would have shot Kim Novak's face looking at the famous painting in "Vertigo," but Hitchcock doesn't, and probably didn't even consider it. Talking about film is a joy, but hearing the likes of Peter Bogdanovich reenact the screams from when he first saw "Psycho" is a special treat.
It is very sad, however, to see a movie in 2015 about a timeless talent, that does not consider a woman for its panel of directorial all-stars. Were all of our contemporary great directors, that happen to be women, not available to provide a non-male perspective on Hitchcock? In regards to anything—his suspense, the ideas of gaze, or even something like the eroticism that the boys club loves talking about in "Vertigo"? Jones' audience is far more diverse than his portrayal, and the movie becomes nostalgic in an ugly way. When this doc tries to throw a clip of "The Fast & The Furious" (2001) under the bus as seemingly anti-Hitchcock entertainment, it only shows how tacky an overly intellectual grasp can be on the current filmmaking scene, where Fincher and Anderson represent Jones' idea of new school.
Jones' affectionate doc is strong enough for a recommendation, at the least for how it consolidates a syllabus on Hitchcock into 80 minutes. It should be played in film schools, among other places, but with new talking heads. It already feels outdated. Wouldn't you rather study the newest edition of a textbook?
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.