Professor's book explores master director's cultural impact
By Adela Talbot
May 22, 2014
What do images of birds, staircases, trains, windows and blonde women call to mind?
Chances are, you’re thinking of Alfred Hitchcock, a man whose cinematic feats have embedded certain images, even colours and sounds, in the modern psyche. It’s no surprise artists have picked up recurring Hitchcock themes, using them in their own works as homage to both his films and their feted director.
But it’s much more than a tribute, if you ask Christine Sprengler, who teaches Visual Arts at Western.
By studying modern works that feature Hitchcock-inspired elements, Sprengler contends they are valuable not only as art, but also serve as contributions to the understanding of Hitchcock’s cultural legacy and, more broadly, of cinema itself.
Hitchcock-inspired works, she said, are motivated by cinephilia (a love of film) and epistemophilia (a love of knowledge). They perform a kind of film theory in the process.
“There is an awful lot about film one could learn from these artworks; they were actually not just the products of somebody’s love of Hitchcock, which some truly are,” Sprengler noted.
“But these dedicated explorations of some of Hitchcock’s films produced some very important knowledge about film itself, and in many ways, that was, kind of, the starting point for this project,” she said of her newly published book, Hitchcock and Contemporary Art. “It’s trying to figure out what is it we can learn about Hitchcock, about cinema, about its past, about its future and its specific engagements, by looking at these artistic practices.”
Hitchcock is a great fit for this kind of study, Sprengler explained, because of the connection that inherently exists between the director and the art world.
“He had a huge interest in Modernism, in modern art, and, in some way, the artists are reciprocating this. Hitchcock films work so well as subjects for artistic exploration because Hitchcock is actually trying to experiment with a lot of the same questions, and cover the same ground that’s of interest to artists as well,” she continued.
“That’s why these works ultimately sort of give us in knowledge about cinema and questions about cinema.”
Consider, for instance, an installation that explores the importance of soundscapes and music in the movie Vertigo.
Imagine yourself as Scottie, ascending a staircase as you chase Madeleine up into the bell tower. Your fear of heights is setting in, and against your instincts, as you climb higher, you look down. As Scottie’s vertigo hits, so too does Hitchcock’s signature camera zoom, to mimic the dizziness he feels. But imagine this scene completely silent, without the jarring shock chord that strikes simultaneously.
This anecdote stresses something the viewer inherently knows – Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack is extremely important in the film, Sprengler said.
And artists have picked this up, creating works to draw attention to Hitchcock’s use of sound.
“Douglas Gordon (a Scottish artist) was really quite struck by the impact the soundtrack had on determining people’s memories of the film,” Sprengler said of one of his video works that served as a sort of experiment to test the connection between images and music in Vertigo.
In the video, the audience was shown hands conducting an invisible orchestra. Meanwhile, the movie’s score played in the background as if the hands were conducting its performance.
“People who saw it actually swear (the artist) had interjected images from the film, even though he hadn’t. His work is about sound as a trigger of memory,” she explained.
“The soundtrack for Vertigo is one of those that’s celebrated as a masterpiece and really important in the history of film music, in part, because it not only reinforces the narrative of the film at certain points, but foreshadows what’s to come. It has these phonic signatures attached to characters, to different spaces. In so many really innovative and interesting ways, sound plays a role in guiding how we consume images.”
Sprengler’s book explores a variety of artworks, even video games, inspired by Hitchcock’s movies. She shows how different artistic mediums have become interconnected in the world of Hitchcock art and cinema, and how they interact both in production and final product.
This story originally appeared in the May 22, 2014 edition of Western News.
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