PRINT April 2009



“THEY SAY THAT if you meet your double, you should kill him.” The mantra in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s eighty-minute film Double Take, 2009, suggests that the real must assert itself against its image to prevent its own defeat in an ongoing battle between fiction and reality. The quotation is from the narrative that anchors the film—written by British novelist Tom McCarthy and based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “August 25, 1983”—in which Alfred Hitchcock meets an older version of himself. Alongside the intermittent narration of this tale in voice-over by a Hitchcock “sound-alike,” the film features interviews with Ron Burrage, one of the plethora of portly bowler-hatted Hitchcock look-alikes in Grimonprez’s Looking for Alfred, 2005, as well as carefully edited sequences of archival footage from the late 1950s and early ’60s. These include television news reports of the Cuban missile crisis, US and Soviet satellite launches, atomic bomb tests, and Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 “kitchen debate,” in addition to excerpts from Hitchcock’s wry introductions to his own television programs. At various points we see Folgers coffee commercials in which distraught housewives learn to mend their ways after serving their husbands unsatisfactory coffee. Throughout, echoes of and excerpts from The Birds propose Hitchcock’s 1963 film as an allegory for television (which, the director once quipped, “has brought murder back into the home—where it belongs”) and for missiles descending from the sky, suggesting a psychohistorical analogy between the fear of nuclear attack and the suspense that Hitchcock made his trademark.
As Grimonprez’s film develops, the parallels press in upon us ever more closely. The two Hitchcocks meet; television duplicates cinema; the opening salvos of the cold war expose the Soviet Union and the West as mirrors of each other. The proliferating layers of doubling are themselves interconnected: In one excerpt from the kitchen debate, Nixon boasts, “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us—for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances—for example, color television—where we’re ahead of you.” Yet, as the film implies, the overriding purpose of the space race and of television was propaganda, both individually and, to greatest effect, when acting together.
The interplay between fiction and reality has long been central to Grimonprez’s practice; it already characterized his 1997 film essay Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which conjoined archival footage of plane hijackings with excerpts from Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Mao II, and became notorious for its uncanny preemption of some of the shrewder theorizations of 9/11. Double Take—recently on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and currently at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall—clearly speaks to the origins of our current predicament, too, in which the symbiosis of the fictional and the actual has become increasingly difficult to parse. Indeed, a rapid-fire sequence after the final credits portrays both politicians and Hollywood as still invested in perpetuating a culture of fear. We should remember, as Grimonprez has noted, that “The Birds is the first Hitchcock film not to feature ‘The End.’” Double Take plays out our recent history against a fiction even while it presents that history itself as an ongoing story of claustrophobic suspense.

Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009, still from a color film/video in both 35 mm and digital Betacam versions, 80 minutes.

IN ONE OF HIS interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks of the difference between surprise and suspense. He explains that to create suspense—even during the interview itself—the audience needs only to know that a bomb is under the table. Hitchcock is talking about how he constructs his fictions, but it’s hard not to think of the Cuban missile crisis, which was dominating television screens the same fall that the two directors were having their conversation in Los Angeles—in 1962, during the filming of The Birds. Although Hitchcock argued that his film wasn’t an allegory for catastrophe coming from the sky, it came to seem to me—after I’d worked my way through a vast quantity of archival material—that The Birds is entirely embedded in that specific historical context. At that time, even as cinema was having to redefine itself as a consequence of

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