TABLE OF CONTENTS

POP BEFORE POP: WELLES, SIRK, HITCHCOCK

The communication system of the twentieth century is, in a special sense, Pop Art’s subject.
Lawrence Alloway,
“Popular Culture and Pop Art” (1969)

Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai, 1948, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth).

“THE VIRUS OF ARTISTIC AMBITION”

There was always in twentieth-century cinema an implicit promise of inclusion: the sense that the same movies might hold both the mass audience and the avant-garde cognoscenti spellbound, if not always at the same time.¹

For some, mainly European, early filmmakers, the motion picture was a medium; for others, mostly American, the motion picture was a mass medium—the mass medium. The latter filmmakers, including D. W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin, were popular artists who saw the new mass audience as a larger version of the traditional theatrical public; for a mysterious few, that larger public (and, thus, the nature of mass-produced entertainment) would be a subject in itself. To these directors, motion pictures were not simply dramatized stories but consumer products that—predicated on promotional gimmicks and artfully constructed publicity, trafficking in trademarks and merchandised personalities, including those of the filmmakers—epitomized a particular system. Because their movies were, in essence, self-aware mass-produced consumer products, such filmmakers were, in effect, Pop artists before Pop art. Their prototype was Orson Welles (1915–1985), who was already a celebrity when he made his first feature, Citizen Kane, in 1941.

Citizen Kane hyperdramatized the act of filmmaking no less than van Gogh hyperdramatized the act of painting, and consequently, as critic Andrew Sarris put it, “infected the American cinema with the virus of artistic ambition.” Citizen Kane surely inspired Maya Deren’s psychodrama Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which invented the avant-garde film in America as well as the idea of an American avant-garde film artist, but the most obvious example of Kane’s influence is on the ultra-aestheticizing Hollywood tendency known as film noir—like bebop, an instance of a pop-culture vanguard. Citizen Kane was self-reflexive, and not only because its eponym was embodied by its twenty-five-year-old director. In allowing the boy genius Welles to play another genius on the screen, the movie was less about Welles than about the communications system of the mid-twentieth century.

Two decades before Andy Warhol, the young Welles took the media as his medium. Prior to Citizen Kane, his Mercury Theatre had entertained New York with high-concept Shakespearean productions such as a voodoo Macbeth (1936) and an antifascist Julius Caesar (1937), both of which interpolated film and radio techniques; even more dramatically, Welles panicked America with The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s faux news-report adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, broadcast Halloween evening 1938. After Kane, Welles would broaden his means of address—as an actor, an orator, a journalist, and a political activist—but that movie, over which the director enjoyed near-total control, was an unrepeatable event. Thanks in part to its scandalous burlesque of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and in part to its implicit Hollywood satire and adroitly fake, hence “world-changing,” newsreel, Citizen Kane shocked the nation’s communications system—which the film precipitously illuminated, in the way an animated lightning flash might reveal a cartoon creature’s skeleton.

Welles subsequently cast himself as a creator of film statements—The Stranger (1946), for example, was the first Hollywood feature to incorporate newsreel clips of the Nazi death camps—but Chaplin notwithstanding, such a role did not exist in the American motion-picture industry. And so he came to live, as well as to dramatize, the self-serving Promethean spectacle of an outsize artistic temperament laid low by the constraints of commerce—The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) butchered, The Stranger shortened, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) reedited. He projected himself as a media personality and thus lives on, not only in the posthumously restored director’s cuts reconstituted for his movies’ various rereleases but as a mythic character in the novels, plays, and films of other writers and directors.²

Welles’s first Hollywood movie, often thought of as a protonoir, introduced new subject matter while providing a new visual vocabulary and narrative structure for American film; his final Hollywood production, Touch of Evil (1958), a baroque noir starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop and Janet Leigh as his American bride, effectively brought down the curtain on one of the most fertile movements in US pop culture. As far as Hollywood went, the next new artistic move would be made by Alfred Hitchcock with a film that also put Leigh in a motel of menace: Psycho (1960).

Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows, 1955, still from a color film in 35 mm, 89 minutes. Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) and Cary Scott (Jane Wyman).

“THE FIRST HYPERREAL ARTIST”

Welles exiled himself to Europe; Douglas Sirk (né Claus Detlev Sierck, 1897–1987) found himself in America. One of the twentieth century’s more radically displaced personalities, Sirk was a European intellectual who studied law, philosophy, and art history (with Erwin Panofsky), translated Shakespeare’s sonnets, and directed numerous theatrical productions, including the premiere of composer Kurt Weill’s German swan song, Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake), in 1933. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Sirk entered the movie industry, where, helping to invent film star Zarah Leander, he enjoyed considerable success as a director of exotic melodramas.

Leaving Germany on the eve of World War II, Sirk eventually made his way to Hollywood, arriving in 1942, shortly after the US entered the war. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that he would begin his fruitful (and largely anonymous) career directing flaming Technicolor weepies like Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956), all starring Rock Hudson, and the 1959 remake of John Stahl’s 1934 Imitation of Life. Enormously popular and critically ignored, these commissioned projects were the opposite of Citizen Kane, and yet they might be thought of as film noir by other means—genre movies for a mass audience that were so mannered, critical, and deeply ironic that they functioned as something more, at least for the aesthete who directed them (as well as for future generations of cinephiles). As Roy Lichtenstein framed the comic strip and James Rosenquist the billboard, so Sirk represented the Hollywood “woman’s film.”³

Temperamentally suited to appreciate the one-dimensionality (or secondhand nature) of his adopted culture, Sirk maintained that he would have made Imitation of Life for the title alone—or so he told Jon Halliday, whose Sirk on Sirk (1972), a book-length interview with the filmmaker, is the equivalent of this enigmatic figure’s memoirs. When Sirk was assigned to Lloyd C. Douglas’s inspirational 1929 best seller Magnificent Obsession, his initial response was bewildered discouragement; his breakthrough came once he decided to fully embrace the story of a reckless playboy (Hudson) who accidentally causes the death of a noble doctor and, after inadvertently blinding the doctor’s widow (Jane Wyman), becomes a doctor himself so that he can (anonymously) devote his life to curing her.

Sirk diligently heightened the novel’s melodramatic conventions and middle-class mysticism; he embalmed the material in a celluloid pyramid. Hospital corridors are crisscrossed with cathedral light shafts; palatial suburban homes rival the castle of Charles Foster Kane; virtually every interior contains a vase of flowers, as though the characters were perpetually wandering through mausoleums. Interiors are dappled with light that has no apparent source. Household objects appear balefully radioactive. The landscape, often framed by picture windows, looks as fake as the airbrushed vistas on greeting cards—the exaggerated image emphasized by the strategic appearance of a perfectly posed deer. Audiences did not laugh—and neither did Sirk. Such deadpan stylization would be his trademark. On the other hand, Time magazine had a chuckle with All That Heaven Allows, in which Wyman plays a respectable widow who falls in love with her gardener (Hudson): “The characters talk Ladies’ Home Journalese, and the screen glows like a page of House Beautiful.”

Treating lachrymose or ludicrous scripts as an intellectual exercise akin to Hermann Hesse’s glass-bead game, Sirk elevated the Hollywood soap opera to the level of classical tragedy—or at least played at doing so. Halliday called Sirk the “best-read man I ever met in my life” and very likely the “most literate” director in Hollywood. “You have to do your utmost to hate it—and to love it,” Sirk confessed of Imitation of Life. “There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Sirk’s greatest movie, Written on the Wind, projects a lurid classical grandeur: Norman Rockwell reimagining the Parthenon or Jacques-Louis David painting Las Vegas. From the credit sequence (a cascade of jewels falls as Nat King Cole imitator Earl Grant sings of “skies above in flaming color”) on, Imitation of Life revels in phoniness—snow-machine flurries, shiny Christmas props, a picture-perfect suburban house furnished with generic Post-Impressionist paintings and unopened leather-bound books, a white actress playing a black woman passing for white.

Pop art “accepts being an imagery,” wrote Roland Barthes. So do Sirk’s movies. With their mixture of frantic affect and seductive flatness, Sirk’s melodramas predict what gallerist Ivan Karp called Tom Wesselmann’s “bright and brutal” plastic assemblages; like the vulgar modernist comedies of cartoonist-turned-director Frank Tashlin, Sirk’s spectacle of immaculate consumption anticipates the commodity artists of the 1980s. The critics at Cahiers du cinéma saw Sirk as an aesthete and were the first to praise his brilliant mise-en-scène (as early as 1967). Half a dozen years later, the British Marxists of Screen pronounced Sirk a clandestine Brechtian with a subversive social analysis. (“The studio loved the title All That Heaven Allows,” Sirk told Halliday. “They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way round. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy.”)

In a 1987 interview, in which he referred to Sirk as the “first hyperreal artist,” the painter David Salle said he despaired of ever making an artwork as great as Imitation of Life. Rainer Werner Fassbinder embraced Sirk as a precursor of the populist and critical cinema to which he aspired. Fassbinder’s 1973 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul remade All That Heaven Allows; Todd Haynes’s 2002 Far from Heaven remade both All and Ali into a “Sirk movie” that illuminated what the master necessarily concealed. It’s only a matter of time before Sirk turns up as a fictional protagonist, like Welles. The idea of Sirk—the notion of an artist grasping the aesthetic possibilities provided by the studio system and commercial-genre conventions—is as seductive as his movies, made for the masses as well as for an audience of one.⁴

Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window, 1954, color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Production still. L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart).

“THE AUDIENCE IS LIKE A GIANT ORGAN”

For the protagonist of Citizen Kane, the mass audience is not his subject but his medium—so, too, for Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), the Master of Suspense, the auteur who launched ten thousand masters theses, and perhaps the cleverest man ever to direct a Hollywood movie.

The subject of a 2001 Centre Pompidou exhibition devoted to the affinities between his images and the art of the past 150 years, the portly colossus bestrides classic cinema and cinema studies alike. Utterly dissimilar to Welles in temperament, Hitchcock was well suited to the studio system and prescient in his understanding of the commercial cover that genre filmmaking might provide; unlike Sirk, Hitchcock also functioned as a producer and chose his projects with relative freedom. Although less cultured than either Welles or Sirk, Hitchcock was arguably more film literate; a director since the 1920s, he made his first movie in Weimar Germany and assimilated (and was prepared to popularize) the lessons of Soviet montage theorists and Surrealist pranksters alike.

Hitchcock was Soviet in his comprehension of motion pictures as a means by which to “direct” spectator response, and Surrealist in his taste for shock, scandal, and the exposure of unconscious pathology. Rear Window (1954), the movie Hitchcock considered his most “cinematic,” is a thriller without on-screen violence or a visible (human) corpse. All the action unfolds in or is observed from the room in which a bored photographer (James Stewart), incapacitated by a broken leg, uses a telephoto lens to survey his neighbors, the residents of one of the largest, most elaborate sets ever constructed on Paramount’s back lot.

Blatantly conceptual, reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Eisenstein’s montage to Warhol’s stare, Rear Window was a commercial success—although no contemporary American reviewer seems to have seen it as anything more than a superior entertainment. Beginning with Vertigo in 1958 and continuing through The Birds in 1963, Hitchcock produced a succession of avant-garde experiments in the guise of Hollywood movies. Structured with dream logic, summing up thirty years of Surrealist (and Surrealist-inspired advertising) imagery, Vertigo is a movie about being hopelessly, obsessively in love with an image. Like André Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s female subject (Kim Novak) lives out her dreams—or are they those of her male pursuer (Stewart)? With its long late-afternoon shadows, pervasive anxiety, terrifying intimations of the void, frozen immobility, feeling of elastic time, charged symbols, uncanny portraits, and general sense of weirdness in broad daylight, Vertigo could have been subtitled after Giorgio de Chirico (The Nostalgia of the Infinite) or Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon).

Although now a perennial challenger to Citizen Kane in critics’ polls for the title of “greatest movie ever made,” Vertigo was initially received with genial condescension: “All about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame” (New York Times), a typical “Hitchcock-and-bull story” (Time). As if a response to the idea that the film had no content, Hitchcock followed up Vertigo with North by Northwest (1959), a movie—or rather, a daylight dream—radically about nothing. An empty Brooks Brothers suit (Cary Grant) is pushed further into the void when he inadvertently assumes the identity of a nonexistent secret agent. Thus cast in a role he cannot understand, the Grant character is a superb special effect, as well as a stranger in a strange land. Among other things, North by Northwest provided Hitchcock’s most enduring—and well-publicized—image of the void, in the small airplane that materializes out of an immense, empty sky to chase Grant through a flat, equally vacant expanse of midwestern landscape.


Alfred Hitchock, Psycho, 1960. Excerpt.

If Vertigo confirmed Hitchcock’s stature as an artist (at least in France), the weekly television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS, 1955–60; NBC, 1960–62) made him a well-known personality in the United States. Each episode featured a clownish, self-reflexive introduction in which Hitchcock would appear one week as a puppet on a string manipulated by himself, another time as a trio of identical quiz-show contestants, and yet another, most provocatively, as analysand on his own couch. Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film-essay Double Take proposes Hitchcock as the embodiment of TV in his desire to strike fear into the heart of the American family. A quickly made, low-budget black-and-white production, disreputable and outrageously comic, Psycho evolved out of Hitchcock’s television work—although it could in no way be shown on television, or even synopsized.

If Rear Window was Hitchcock’s most conceptual film and Vertigo his most poetic, Psycho was the one that epitomized his pop avant-gardism. The director waged a public-relations war to promote a picture that, no less than Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou, was designed to disorient, confound, and even assault the spectator. Hitchcock launched his campaign with the movie’s insolently blunt title, following up with a hilarious first-person trailer (opening a door of the set and quickly closing it, he explains: “The b-a-a-ah-th-room”), unprecedented print ads featuring a Hollywood star (voluptuous Janet Leigh) in a slip and brassiere, a well-advertised absence of press previews, and radio spots that promised, “No one . . . but no one . . . will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance.”

Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho, 1960, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. Production still. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

The fortunate few who saw Psycho cold in late June 1960 shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The critic William Pechter described the unique atmosphere of excited dread. The audience, he said, “had the solidarity of a convention assembled on the common understanding of some unspoken entente terrible” and took their seats in fearful anticipation. Of course, nothing prepared anyone for the spectacle of a psychotic mama’s boy living in a haunted mansion with the preserved cadaver of the mother he murdered twelve years before—or for the movie’s blasé attitude toward this outrageous material. Relocating horror to the heart of the American family, Psycho was blatantly ironic from beginning to end. Audiences responded with a convulsive mixture of screams and laughter; some patrons bolted for the exit or fainted in their seats. The mayhem caused one New York theater to call the cops and others to call for censorship. (Yet just as with Citizen Kane, the movie’s greatness was recognized immediately—and not only by Cahiers du cinéma and the teenagers who, years before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, turned Psycho’s showings into rituals of initiation. Psycho was an idea whose time had come.⁵)

Even Hitchcock was startled by the violent response, although Psycho epitomized his theory of directing. Interviewed a few years later by François Truffaut, he compared the audience to a “giant organ.” “At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction,” he expounded, “and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie—there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah.’” Thus implanted, Psycho would be Hitchcock’s supreme commercial success, as well as the most innovative and influential Hollywood movie in the two decades since Citizen Kane—pillaged by scores of moviemakers and privileged by generations of critics, presented as a twenty-four-hour projection by installation artist Douglas Gordon in 1993 and, in a Borgesian homage five years later, remade shot for shot by Gus Van Sant.

The paradox of Van Sant’s Psycho is that it is set in a place populated by characters inexplicably innocent of Hitchcock’s greatest hit. The remake is not only nostalgic for Psycho but for the moment before Psycho changed everything—including the movies and Hitchcock himself. For his name, like that of Franz Kafka, has come to identify an entire modern worldview.

KAFKA: “A CAGE WENT IN SEARCH OF A BIRD”

Hitchcock regularly appeared in his own films and since his death has, like Welles (and Warhol), become a character in other people’s. Double Take places Hitchcock alongside Nixon, Khrushchev, and Kennedy in the context of the missile gap and the space race in order to show him responding to, if not concocting, the cold war. The early ’60s were suffused with dread, and each in his way, Hitchcock and Welles, public figures as well as famous directors, responded with a statement: Welles adapted the most emblematic of twentieth-century novels; Hitchcock made another Hollywood thriller.

Far more than the Joycean or the Proustian, the Kafkaesque is the high-modernist trope that everyone understands, even Kafka. (“Went to the movies. Wept. . . . Boundless entertainment,” the writer noted in his diary entry for November 20, 1913.) The Trial (1962) was intended as Welles’s ’60s comeback, the first film since Citizen Kane in which a producer allowed him the right of final cut; it also marked a return to the popularized high culture of his Shakespeare films—not least in his casting of Psycho’s Anthony Perkins as Josef K. An attractively gangling, gawky, aw-shucks, all-American presence, Perkins turns assertively querulous when called on to speak for the masses. Welles has K. admit that he feels guilty and, typically, overexplain: “Why am I always in the wrong without knowing what for or what it’s all about?” Is the condition existential or historical? The Trial makes pointed allusion to the Holocaust and Hiroshima, as well as to the brute modernism of Stalinist bureaucracy, police surveillance, housing tracts, and, of course, show trials. Meanwhile, Welles played screen space as though it were an accordion, using mirrors, oddball camera placement, and a cluttered mise-en-scène to effect a further disorientation. As in Othello, creative geography is blatant. Doors open onto vast spaces; locations shift midscene—among them is a deserted d’Orsay railway station, not yet a museum. As in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the filmmaker is ubiquitous: Welles dubbed eleven voices in addition to his voice-over narration.

Hitchcock took a different approach to the Kafkaesque. The Birds appeared just as the director’s reputation reached a new peak. Arriving amid massive publicity (“The Birds is coming!”), the movie had its New York premiere on March 28, 1963, at a Manhattan art house as well as a Broadway theater, the day after the Museum of Modern Art announced its upcoming Hitchcock retrospective—itself something of a Pop art event. (That May, The Birds would open Cannes.) But despite the atonal sound design, notably free of emotional cues; the near-abstract combination of animation and live action; and the visual echoes of Max Ernst and René Magritte, not to mention the Miró reproduction smuggled into the scene where antiheroine Tippi Hedren is trapped in an attic and battered into catatonia, the movie has no pretensions to culture.

Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, 1963, color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Production still. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren).

If anything, Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Evan Hunter, appear to have drawn on the then-recent cycle of déclassé science-fiction films. The Birds postdates, and comments on, the mutant-creature features that filled drive-ins and grindhouses from the mid-’50s into the early ’60s. In the prototypical Godzilla, released in the US in 1956, all Tokyo is a war zone, and the monster is clearly punishment for tinkering with the secrets of the universe. But what, if anything, precipitates the avian doomsday depicted in The Birds? Godzilla is awesome in his destructive disinterest; the birds are not only ridiculous but petty and mean-spirited! (They crash the kiddies’ birthday party and take pleasure in bursting balloons.) Moreover, their attacks are unpredictable and without apparent meaning, although they often follow a display of human hubris. In the opening sequence, birds mass ominously over Union Square in San Francisco as Hedren enters a downtown pet store—where everything is nicely caged. By the movie’s end, nature has repeatedly invaded the home, and the humans are caging themselves. It’s a Douglas Sirk melodrama run amok.

In The Trial’s ultra–Eastern European dénouement, K. is arrested by the secret police and marched through deserted city streets to suffer his fate in an urban wasteland. Kafka’s K. dies “like a dog,” but Welles told Cahiers that he felt obligated, in the shadow of Auschwitz, to have his K. resist. Making a pitch for rationality, Welles’s K. argues that his inexplicable case doesn’t mean the world is insane. Then the world blows up. Hitchcock, by contrast, is consistently irrational. He concludes his absurd disaster film in medias res—birds triumphant—although audience confusion compelled the addition of an end title to signify that the movie had actually ended. Communication is short-circuited. Pop’s greatest triumph would be Hollywood’s most disconcerting allegory: The Birds is all about looking for reasons and not finding any.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.

NOTES

1. Released just before and during World War I, Louis Feuillade’s serial melodramas—Fantômas (1913–14), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1917)—are the first great example of this. The movies were enormously popular with their original audiences, found dated and then dismissed soon after, yet treasured by the Surrealists (for whom they were cult films) as well as by post–World War II cinephiles. Among later directors, Luis Buñuel is a major analogue, particularly for his Mexican movies, while David Cronenberg is the most significant neo-Pop artist working in movies today.

2. American critics found The Lady from Shanghai not only trivial but disastrous. The French, however, saw it as the birth of something new: “The plot no longer interferes with the underlying action,” André Bazin observed in Cahiers du cinéma (September 1958). Once Welles relocated to Europe, each of his movies took the form of an existential adventure. Othello (1952) was a superbly inventive exercise in editing, where, according to Welles, a single cut might span years and continents. Mr. Arkadin (1955) synthesized its precursors—an example of pragmatic montage, a movie about nothing, as well as an investigative thriller that, in its underlying insanity, sent Citizen Kane through the looking glass.

3. It is a suggestive coincidence that Richard Hamilton used an image from Sirk’s 1949 Shockproof, an obscure film noir directed from a script by Samuel Fuller and Helen Deutsch, in his collage paintings Interior I and Interior II, both 1964.

4. The success of Written on the Wind allowed Sirk to make a rare personal project, adapting William Faulkner’s Pylon as The Tarnished Angels (1958). Iconic, morbid, stocked with symbols, this Ingmar-Bergman-does-the-Mardi-Gras is either the most European of Sirk’s American melodramas or the most American of Euro art films. (Remarkably, this movie was produced by the vulgarian Albert Zugsmith, who was also responsible for Touch of Evil that same year.)

5. Two equally visceral (and poetic) horror films—Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—were produced simultaneously, albeit in Europe. Meanwhile, accepted motion-picture protocol was violated by a cluster of movies appearing around the same time as Psycho: Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) pulverized existing taboos regarding the representation of the body; Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) reveled in new attitudes toward crime and violence; Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), which confounded Cannes a month before Psycho upset the US, practiced a similar disorientation in doing away with its leading lady midmovie.