Archive for the ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ Category

There is a Los Angeles of the cinema. And of novels. This is the L.A. of dreams and nightmares, a place that exists on the periphery, a time and place that has been willed into being over that last 100 years, the modern L.A. stretching out across the desert like a monolith. This slippery version of the truth is the epicenter of glamour and glitz, of crime and punishment. This is the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, of Billy Wilder’s poison ode to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. It’s not the reality—far from it—but there are entire cottage industries devoted to this decadent mirror image. Not being from L.A. I have the luxury of indulging in this version, something akin to my romantic image of New York, seen forever in black and white, and as if everyone thing had become set dressing in a Woody Allen film. And that’s OK, I suppose. These are versions we cling to for one reason or another, spurred on by memories of sitting in the dark, watching hours of movies. All of this begs the pointed question: Which came first? L.A. or the movie version of L.A.?

Photographer Alex Prager knows this cinematic version of L.A. inside and out. Her Technicolor photos are steeped in reverence for Hitchcock films and B-movies of an old Hollywood that meets with the modern one. The lineage of her style can be traced directly back to such photographers as Cindy Sherman (especially Sherman), a photographer that also likes to stage entire scenes, microcosms of some unseen, fragile world only viewed through the lens of a movie camera. Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking photo series, Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980, are the likely forebears of Prager’s world. Sherman’s photos are all familiar in their own way. Haven’t we seen these scenes before, these characters? Yes and no—that’s the answer that Sherman is driving at. Her heroines are often photographed looking off-screen, as if a sinister presence was waiting just beyond the frame of the photo. These characters were always played by Sherman herself, doled up in wigs and make up that transformed her into some gangster’s moll, or femme fatale, or just a hapless victim. The photos, shot in grainy black and white, hinted that something terrible was about to happen, that, just like in the movies, we as the audience are unable to alter the future, we are made to be passive, watching until the final, fatal frame. Indeed, there is something deeply dark and disturbing about Sherman’s series that ultimately trumps the reference to certain movie tropes, and this is their ultimate power: they are tapping into something that we know on a basic level and then they are leading us further down a very dark hallway.

photo by Cindy Sherman

photo by Alex Prager

Alex Prager’s characters are more often than not female as well, archetypes from some B-movie, framed in strained, contrived poses as they too, often stare off-screen. But these cotton-candy photos insinuate a camera crew just out of frame rather than a killer/abuser about to strike. Whereas Sherman’s photos underlined a certain comment about how women are portrayed in the media (most particularly in film), Prager embraces the artifice of movie making itself—she is giving in fully to the characters and situations; everything is familiar, but unique and different at the same time. They are photos that love the movies, that are in love with the movies, that embrace the illusion that Hollywood readily provides. No doubt there is probably a subtext that Prager is driving at—after all, this is contemporary art—but the why seems less important next to the striking quality of the images themselves.

There are often dark deeds being conducted–staging that alludes to doom, to disaster, or to something so banal and everyday that surely there is terror hidden within their blandness. The situations, however vague or bleak are always formally imaginative, Prager deftly constructing each photo in such away that draws the viewer in time and again. Her photos are sumptuous, seductive, alluring. The colors and forms, the costumes and wigs, the compositions and staging all tie together to form a dark universe.  In one photo titled Eve, from her Big Valley (2008) series, a frantic woman is framed in that iconic green suit that Tippi Hedren wore in The Birds, being overwhelmed by attacking pigeons, but the background, with its rolling desert hills and looming  powerline, is obviously L.A.;all at once the photo is breaking and reinforcing the idea of  the appropriation of cinema. In another photo called Emily from the photo series Polyester (2007), a woman, pictured only from the waist down, is escaping down a rope, presumably out the window of an apartment building. Although no particular film is referenced, it seems as if this scene could have been lifted from any number of suspense movies. With these photos and others, Prager is erecting her own take on the power of cinema and its ability to fascinate, to capture a viewer’s imagination.

In recent years Prager has moved to making short films and commercials, which seems like a natural fit. One of her first short films Despair (2010), plays like a the crossroads of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Todd Haynes, a deadpan piece brought to life with Prager’s pension for luridly saturated colors and wonderfully contrived compositions.

In April of this year, Prager will be debuting a new exhibition of photographs complete with short film that ties into the series Compulsion (what seems to be a sly nod to Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion). A press release says this of the accompanying short film, La Petite Mort: the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth — the former a grand exit, and the latter a slow escape.”

Clearly L.A., and Hollywood in particular, continue to be fruitful muse for Prager. She is creating a landscape, a world that is so close in many ways, but one that still exists only in the world of the cinema, a place that can only come to life in a darkened theater, the audience captured by images that evoke an L.A. of wonder and darkness. This is the Los Angeles of the cinema, a distorted doppelgänger of the original, shimmering and pulsing out there in the sprawling desert of California, just close enough to touch.

You can find more of Alex Prager’s work at her website, Alex Prager Photography and Films.

All photos copyright Alex Prager and Cindy Sherman.

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is a nasty gem of a film. Obsessive, provocative, disturbing, deeply sad—Peeping Tom is all of these things and more. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but it also marks 50 years of Powell’s Peeping Tom, another film about a homicidal maniac, that was released just three months prior to Psycho. While Psycho was a success out of the gate, Peeping Tom became a career killer for Powell (he continued making films for years after, but it was difficult to get studio backing and much less box office attention was paid to the unfairly maligned director). The British press abhorred it, and the dark subject matter was met with a sharp sting of controversy across Britain. It was Powell’s first film after breaking with longtime co-director, Emeric Pressburger, and as a solo effort it had a decidedly singular vision. Written by Leo Marks, Peeping Tom is the culmination of Powell’s obsession with obsession; its destructive power can be seen thematically through many of his films, but here, it is all-consuming, an idea brought to a most devastating conclusion. 

Mark Lewis (Carl Bohem) is a lonely, tightly-wound cameraman (specifically a focus-puller) working at film studio. In his off-hours he shoots pin-up photos of women which he sells for a tidy little profit to a newsagent on his block and labors over an ongoing personal project: documenting the moment of fear before someone is killed. A young Anna Massey plays his naive neighbor, Helen who has a serious crush on Lewis. Massey is wonderful in this role, playing the mousey woman to its full potential; Helen is simultaneously frightened, repulsed and excited by Lewis and his hobbies. Only Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, suspects that there is something truly sinister about Lewis.

In many ways, Peeping Tom is much more unsettling than Psycho, its sadistic nature more overt. Powell’s character study is certainly more layered. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates could, at times, be ah-shucks charming, but Carl Bohem’s Mark Lewis is downright creepy, a filmmaker with a troubled past and a present that is getting decidedly worse. Bates is a sociopath, it is clear, and, as Hitchcock alludes to, this probably had something to do with the relationship with his mother. Powell on the other hand is far more forthcoming with his character; experiments into fear conducted by Lewis’ father no doubt lead to the killer’s anti-social behavior. Lewis’ father is an even greater monster than he, which complicates matters. Many critics have said that Powell draws a sympathetic character with Lewis; I’m not sure how sympathetic he is, but the origin of his sickness is something that the audience is hard pressed to dismiss. And where Psycho’s voyeurism was a metaphor for the relationship between the audience and cinema, Peeping Tom’s voyeurism is all about the voyeuristic nature of the cinema itself, and of filmmaking. Powell is not beating around any metaphorical bushes with this film, and perhaps this is what shocked so many people at the time: the very implication that the sadistic filmmaker and the audience are so inexorably tied together.

Like all of Powell’s films, Peeping Tom is gorgeous to look at. His love of red is everywhere, the color drawing even more meaning with this film in particular. There are also shocking blues and greens, golds that do more than just shimmer; they intensify the very scenes they are in. Powell used the process of Technicolor better than most directors, taking advantage of its inherent un-naturalism to give his color films an other-worldliness. (The vivid color and lighting of Peeping Tom often reminds one of the early color films of Mario Bava, like Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1963); it would be interesting indeed if Peeping Tom had some influence on Bava’s approach). The color palette Powell uses is sumptuous and vivid, it’s so inviting that you find yourself falling easily into this world, which is all the more unsettling.

Had Peeping Tom been made in the United States, it might not have met with such rancor. Directors like William Castle made a career out of films with this sort of subject matter (of course, Powell was not necessarily operating on the level of exploitation or b-movie horror). In sharp contrast, by the beginning of the sixties, Alfred Hitchcock had been making films for years within the American studio system, and had become, essentially, an “American” director, his much more mannered English films far behind him. Powell was very much an Englishman, but his approach to films could be decidedly, un-British; politeness, restraint, these were not ideas he practiced. He often delved into the darkness of humanity in operatic ways (especially with films like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947) ) and frequently undermined the domestic realism that was the cornerstone of British cinema.

Peeping Tom and Psycho seemed to be forever linked, as much for their close release dates, as for their similar subject matter. Both are films that have withstood the test of time to be sure, their shock value still firmly intact, but with Peeping Tom, Psycho’s demented cousin from across the pond, the horrors  run deeper, often nightmarishly so.


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The Bates Motel Sign; the house on the hill; a swirling shower drain; Norman Bate’s tortured visage; Bernard Herrmann’s score. All of these images and sounds have become iconic, woven into the popular lexicon, so unmistakable, even without context.  If by sheer dumb luck you have never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), you are likely to be familiar with some aspect of this film. (Like the theme for Jaws, Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Psycho is forever entwined with the action it’s amplifying.) This month Psycho hits the 50 mark, and despite many shallow imitations, a few sequels, a remake, and many, many movies attempting to tap into the sheer audacity and precision of its filmmaking, Psycho still retains the power to shock, even in contrast with the best modern horror picture. Perhaps, it’s that Psycho taps directly into the heart of the movie-going experience: voyeurism at its base level. We seek entry into other worlds, other lives, from the safety of the theater seat or living room couch. Norman is fellow who likes to watch, and the audience, in turn, becomes an accessory to this act, implicated— in a strange, passive way—in its fallout. 

For better or worse it remains Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film, which, in and of itself, is astounding considering the sheer number of influential and ground breaking works Hitchcock directed over his prolific career.

Happy Birthday, Psycho, you don’t look a day over 50.

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