Is Hitchcock (or Welles) Necessary?

I've talked a bit before about the canon and the choices we make in introductory classes - do we model and discuss an appreciation of cinema as an art or do we model and discuss instead the (mostly) nonevaluative scholarship that defines the field of film studies in the humanities? Well, the Film Vituperam's blog-a-thon on Alfred Hitchcock gave me an opportunity to address specifics. A friend of mine told me recently that he thought an introductory education in film which didn't show Citizen Kane was lacking. Is that true? Can we say the same about Hitchcock?

On the plus side, Hitchcock's films can be remarkably multi-layered. Even showing a clip from Notorious this semester, I couldn't help but notice how perfectly it exemplified analytical and continuity editing - exemplified because such classical editing organized the form, but also because Hitchcock exaggerated the form: he pushes invisibility as far as it can go before it becomes visible. Furthermore, non-formal approaches, whether genre or ideology are fruitful to understanding films both as art and popular culture, and with Hitchock we have no shortage of prior scholarship to use as examples.

On the downside, the exaggeration and self-consciousness of Hitchcock, especially the later work, can make the films distractions rather than examples. Rear Window seems to exemplify cinematic voyeurism, but it's so explicitly thematizes voyeurism that the notion of classicism as a voyeuristic enterprise might get lost. The Birds mixes classical and montage editing to the point where it might fail to adequately illustrate either.

Also, students can come to Hitchock with a lot of baggage. His reputation as the "master" can shut down critical engagement. He can exemplify auteurism, but sometimes it's hard to get beyond the auteur in Hitchcock.

Finally, we have to ask if we want to communicate how a "genius" makes films or how a studio configuration and film language solidified into what Andre Bazin and Thomas Schatz called a "genius of the system." I'm tending more to the latter approach, and thus am happier with choosing well-done but less canonical examples of classical cinema. Of course, those approaching the field from a more purely oppositional stance to commercial cinema - including those who find the whole idea of educating in any canon whatsoever - may well have no truck with "genius" in any guise, other than to destroy it.


Anonymous said…
That's great! What a cerebral look at a man as he relates to a field of study. When I think Film Study I think core, fundamentals, roots. I think Eisenstein and other Rusky inventors of montage, I think D.W. Grifith and his disscovery / invention of the 180 degree rule. I think Hitchcock too, but only as it relates to German Expressionism translated to the common denomiator.
Deepshikha said…
Some some reason scholars and even lecturers of film Studies fail to criticise Hitchcock and raise him above god in classes. for any student to be objective its important he is able to critise the piece of art work effectively and i am yet to come across a person who does that to hitchcock.
Chris Cagle said…
Some some reason scholars and even lecturers of film Studies fail to criticise Hitchcock and raise him above god in classes.

That's only half-true. A sizeable body of feminist scholarship, for instance, has criticized Hitchcock and argued explicitly against "genius" pedagogy. C.f. Tania Modleski's book on Hitchcock. And, in general, there's been a move away from Hitchcock in the scholarship over the last two decades.

The thing is, in introductory classes, a film appreciation mentality of a certain sort still takes hold.

That said, I probably agree that hagiography can end up impoverishing our understanding of art despite its intentions.
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