Alfred Hitchcock, considered worldwide as one of the greatest film directors in history, once said this to French director and contemporary François Truffaut: “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” The consensus is that he meant he was more interested in providing entertainment than reality; he would sacrifice plausibility for excitement, he would provide thrills before tears. My understanding follows that premise, but goes a little deeper. It goes beyond entertainment, and it also goes beyond the mundane authenticity of real life. Certainly Truffaut, whose masterpiece, The 400 Blows, was as dramatic and cold as movie can be, would have agreed with Hitchcock. But how would their completely different styles be reconciled by that definition? Simply.
Movies are, I believe Hitchcock meant, not supposed to be a mirror of life, a piece of regularity sliced out of life (whether yours or someone else’s) and thrust before your eyes. They were instead meant to be extensions of the life of the viewer, a reality within their imagination, but not true anywhere else. These are extensions that the film’s creator asks or invites the viewer to accept. They were meant to be a pleasure and treat to the viewer, like cake–an escape from their own life’s realness and into the vivid reality of an imagined and shared world. At the same time, they are meant to let us into the worldview of it maker. (See, that world has to be shared. Otherwise, it becomes the indulgent expression of a director.) This is a principle I didn’t quite understand until last summer, when one particular film shed light to which I had been previously been blinded.
That film, unexpectedly, was the perennially favored Hepburn-Tracy picture, Adam’s Rib. While it should be noted that I consider the movie overrated, I must admit that it opened my eyes to the secret. One scene in that film shows a woman who was called in to a court to provide expert input as to the abilities of women. In an effort to validate her testimonial, she lifts the plaintiff (Spencer Tracy) into the air over her head, and the entire scene becomes frantic and rather comic. One small nuance in the scene stood out to me. As she was lifting up Spencer Tracy so nonchalantly, and as the extras in the background made their respective scenes to the sound of Tracy’s wails of surprise, you could see, even in the black and white, the faint reflection of nylon cables tied to his belt, no doubt harnessed behind him.
At first, I shook my head, disappointed at the lack of attention to detail and the “cheesy” nature of the mishap. You could see the cables! Then, the next thought crossed my mind: so what? Why does that matter?
This isn’t supposed to be real life! This is a movie. If you want real life, then get off your couch and go outside. Do something.
The word “movie” obviously is a short form of “moving pictures.” Perhaps with this in mind, one can understand the real reason behind what makes a great movie. Just like music, painting, sculpture and prose, photography has always had a role in artistic expression. If a still shot provided by Fratelli Allinari could bring so much power, what would happen if the picture could move? While at the time the primary use of photography was for documentary purposes, there was still a magic in harnessing a millisecond of time and space on, more or less, a sheet of paper as mobile as the individual who carried it. What accompanied that image was even more magical. Looking at a negative from the late 19th century of some landscape in the American Midwest, one can see things, in the mind’s eye, that are not presently in the photograph. Perhaps a buffalo hunt once crossed over this path. There was a rainstorm, maybe. Someone was there. The mind is triggered; and much, much more than a single moment’s detail is then born from its starting point on the film to the incomprehensible and immeasurable vastness of the human imagination.
That is what a movie is. It is capturing that detail; not the period of time that passes from point A in time and space to point B, which is reality, but rather the visualized and imaginative story with no necessarily real chronology at all. Whether that expression lies in plot or imagery, morals or mere questions, humor or melodrama is up to the creator himself. What can be created from a photograph? What can really be brought to life? That is what makes a movie a slice of cake, and not just a slice of life.
So does it matter if I can see the cables that hold up Spencer Tracy in that courtroom scene of 1949? No. What matters is that someone, through film, is trying to tell me that a strong woman lifted up a lawyer in a courtroom to prove the strength of women in one of the great feminist comedies of the post-war era. They did it with cables, that’s all. I can let my own mind–my own brave imagination–fill in the blanks. Not having the patience to deal with this reality is the primary reason why most of the millenials don’t appreciate old films. We have come to be conditioned to expect reality, which is ironic because most of the films that we love so much involve superheroes, magic rings, lightsabers and high schoolers that break into choreographed dance numbers in cafeterias..none of which are all that realistic. Yet, in these films, we expect precision and techiniques that make everything seem real. Is there a problem with this? While I have no issue with a master-director creating a realistic image (I give credit where credit’s due, Peter Jackson), there is at least one problem with this: it has kept us away from the special gems of the past, because we deem them cheesy, boring or outdated.
This is manifest, unfortunately, in literature as well. The second a good book is written, the general populace begins a mass movement with questions such as “who should direct the movie version?” or “who should play so-and-so in the film?” We want so bad, nowadays, to be given the image that imagination (wherewith the word “image” shares a common root) is lost. Contrary to popular belief, the book is always better than the movie, because we, in our active minds, make it better. Once it’s a movie, we’re stuck with what we’re given.
That’s why I love black and white film so much. With the emergence of color pictures, directors started to pay more attention to the details presented in the picture than to the more important elements of the picture. What those elements are changes with the film. With Welles, it was the lighting and the focus. With Fellini, it was the angles and the pace. With Bergman, it was the faces. With Hawks, it was the one-liners. With Buñuél, it was the background noise and the anachronism of the surreal. Black and white pictures, for the most part, take the focus away from this desire to be given everything (which the casual movie-goer wants) and places it on the desire to escape into a world where the viewer’s imagination links with the director’s (which is what the competent movie-connoisseur wants). We stop worrying so much about the recipe and start focusing on the taste. And, then, we want more slices of cake.
This is not to say that color films are all bad or movies with intense precision and fantastic special-effects are all bad. The Godfather, Vertigo, Cinema Paradiso and Singin’ in the Rain are all in color, and The Lord of the Rings is considered a masterpiece for its precision and scope. Nor am I stating that movies shouldn’t be made that are based on books. From the aforementioned films, The Godfather, Vertigo and The Lord of the Rings are all based on books. The true thesis being presented here is that the first step in becoming a competent movie-goer is to recognize the slices of cake and the important role they play in our entertainment and enlightenment. I hope to encourage the people around me, whether through this blog or through conversation or through example, to see movies in a different light, and by so doing learn to really taste them, and learn to really love them.
To wrap up this post, I think a quote from Roger Ebert is most fitting:
“…Too many moviegoers are stuck in the present and recent past. When people tell me that “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Total Recall” are their favorite films, I wonder: Have they tasted the joys of Welles, Bunuel, Ford, Murnau, Keaton, Hitchcock, Wilder or Kurosawa? If they like Ferris Bueller, what would they think of Jacques Tati’s “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” also about a strange day of misadventures? If they like “Total Recall,” have they seen Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” also about an artificial city ruled by fear?
I ask not because I am a film snob. I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies. I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.
I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see “hits,” and discourage exploration.
…There are no right answers. The questions are the point. They make you an active movie watcher, not a passive one. You should not be a witness at a movie, but a collaborator. Directors cannot make the film without you. Together, you can accomplish amazing things. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll know when the director is not doing his share of the job. That’s the whole key to being a great moviegoer. There’s nothing else to it.” (Emphasis added…I really like that line).
Ebert, in writing the article, went on to provide a list of movies to watch as a starting point for all who want to become “an active movie watcher.” Ebert’s list is probably better than mine. He’s seen much more than I have for a much longer period of time. But, this is my blog. And I’m going to provide my own list. Enjoy.