Double Take (2009)
The Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers and the Calgary Cinematheque are pleased to present an exciting double feature event in order to close out the Cinematheque's latest season! Join us for this captivating pairing of unconventional works and experience the thrill of Hitchcock as never before!
Double Take (Grimonprez, 2009) is a paranoid meta-movie that transgresses the lines of fiction and documentary and is perfectly paired with its shadow-film, Hitchcock's own sci-fi-realist 1963 shocker: The Birds.
Johan Grimonprez's ingenious documentary/fiction hybrid—a meditation on identity, filmmaking, power and paranoia—looks at Alfred Hitchcock's late 50s and early 60s films against the climate of Cold War-era political anxiety. With it, Grimonprez traces the global rise of fear as a commodity, examining modern history through the lens of mass media, advertising and Hollywood: as television hijacks cinema, and the Krushchev and Nixon debate rattles on, sexual politics quietly take off and Hitch himself emerges in a dandy new role on TV, blackmailing housewives with brands they can't refuse. What's more, a plot of personal paranoia mirrors the political intrigue, in which Hitchcock and his elusive double increasingly obsess over the perfect murder—of each other!
A unique picture—and for once, that overused word fits—it's a sort of think piece on doppelgängers, the Cold War, Jorge Luis Borges, propaganda and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And no, it's not likely to play your local multiplex any time soon.
For anyone interested in any of those subjects, though, it's worth a trip, and perhaps a good discussion with a friend over a cup of coffee afterward.
Basically, the film conflates a Borges essay with a fictional anecdote about Hitchcock who, in the midst of shooting The Birds, is called away for a phone call, and runs into his own double—actually, a future version of himself, gone back in time.
It's an odd, unsettling idea, and it's beautifully directed by Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez, working in, essentially, mixed-media: bits of old Hitchcock trailers and TV shows, shots of a Hitch lookalike, narration from an impersonator, snatches of the Psycho score.
Edited with great invention and precision, it's a true treat for any Hitchcock buff, who will delight in the imaginative re-purposing of footage—a bit of Stage Fright here, some home-movie footage there—and fact—the director as a character in one of his own movies.
This isn't a normal movie; it's an art installation. And whatever it may have been meant to be, it takes its real meaning from you.Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger, 2010
A Closer LookIt relates to something very contemporary—the whole business of terrorist spectacle, the war in Iraq andnuclear proliferation with Iran. They are things in the background always shimmering…
The Hitchcock effect
In his new film Double Take, artist and filmmaker Johan Grimonprez explores familiar themes: the way television manipulates audiences; induces a sense of fear; blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Again, at the centre of the film is that looming, jowly presence, Alfred Hitchcock. In a sense, the film is a companion piece to Grimonprez's short Looking For Alfred, which likewise played with the theme of the double by looking at Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his own films and envisaging what might happen if Hitchcock were to meet… Hitchcock. The difference about the new project is that the stakes have been raised. by Geoffrey Macnab
Flashback to the early 1960s. It's the time of the Cuban missile crisis but also an era where the rivalry between film and television is fierce. Cinemas are closing down as the tube steals their audiences. Hollywood is in the process of redefining itself. Hitchcock has already made Psycho with his TV crew. He is about to start work on The Birds. At the same time, he is creating a new image for himself as TV personality—the man behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Cold War is intensifying. American audiences have watched Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice-President Richard Nixon during their bizarre 'kitchen debate' on TV—an encounter that plays today like a parody of an interview on the Steve Allen or Milton Berle show. The two men are clowning. In a sense, they are doubles of one another too. Despite their folksy chit-chat, the threat is palpable. They are representatives of two global powers who are ready to threaten one another with destruction.
Double Take opens with accounts of an uncanny incident in the autumn of 1948 when hundreds of birds crashed into the Empire State Building and plummeted to the street. Next, we hear about a plane crashing into the Empire State. Hitchcock's film of The Birds was not, perhaps, as far fetched as it seemed. The fear felt about such freak incidences was to become more and more commonplace. Grimonprez contends that the sense of looming unease felt in the early 1960s is still with us today.
"The Birds is a metaphor for catastrophe television invading the home," Grimonprez muses. "Against, that, there is the historical backdrop of the missile crisis and the Cold War. That is a metaphor for doubles—the doubles of east and west, the political doubles of one another, both projecting fear but trapped in the same paradigm… it relates to something very contemporary—the whole business of terrorist spectacle, the war in Iraq and nuclear proliferation with Iran. They are things in the background always shimmering."
Hitchcock tapped into the sense of dread that was in the society around him and used it to induce goosebumps in his audience. Reduced to its essence, Grimonprez suggests that this dread was all about fear of 'the other'. The media continues to accentuate and prey this fear. In his film, there is a fictional element too. He has recruited a Hitchcock lookalike, Ron Burrage, famous for impersonating Hitchcock. At times, watching the film, we're not sure where the archive footage ends or the imagery of Burrage begins.
Double take also stands as a description of Grimonprez's working method which is to question received images and to turn clichés on their head. Meanwhile, the phrase also hints at what viewers have to do to make sense of the huge amount of images they are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Grimonprez first made his name internationally with his 1997 film, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a hijacking documentary that many now feel to have been prophetic. The film was examining the voyeuristic fascination that terrorist hijackings exercised on viewers and the ingenious methods—sometimes closed to those used by avant-garde filmmakers—with which the news media filmed and presented their activities. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen famously described the events of 9/11 as "the biggest work of art there has ever been." His remarks provoked huge controversy and were taken out of context. Nonetheless, what Stockhausen called the "cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy" was precisely what Grimonprez had been exploring in his documentary. He was looking at the way—as novelist Don DeLillo put it—the terrorist had usurped the role of the artist. "What terrorists gain, novelists lose," DeLillo wrote.
What were Grimonprez's own feelings during 9/11? "For me, the events were a confirmation of what was set forth in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y," the director states. He remembers that at the time of the terrorist attacks, he was breaking up with his then girlfriend. For him, the two events became intertwined. He wasn't able to separate one incident from the other. Somehow, the personal and the political meshed.
Fear and voyeurism
Hitchcock's work and life provide Grimonprez with fertile territory to explore. With 'Hitch', fear and voyeurism, overlaps between the private and the public, go hand in hand. The British director understood far more quickly than his contemporaries that TV was consumed differently than films. The flow was constantly interrupted by commercials. Viewers could hop between channels and programmes. What is intriguing is how a filmmaker from Flanders like Grimonprez has ended up at the heart of US avant-garde filmmaking. Ask him about the trajectory of his career and the director admits that it has been an unlikely journey. Grimonprez was born in Roeselare, Belgium, in 1962. He came from a "simple Flemish family, with mum in the kitchen." He was educated at a Catholic school called Our Lady Of Joy. As a kid, he was interested in theatre. As an 18-year-old, Grimonprez declined to do National Service. He became involved with Amnesty International and with the burgeoning punk movement. "I think my mum and dad must have had a hard time," he says of his days as a teen rebel. "It was the moment of The Sex Pistols and The Clash."Geoffrey MacNab is a UK journalist at The Guardian, The Independent
In Ghent, he met some avant-garde musicians from an organisation called Logos. Pipe-smoking naturists and academics, these musicians performed Situationist-style stunts. Grimonprez was fascinated by their antics. At the time, he was taking courses in subjects like cultural anthropology and photography. His studies took him to Jakarta and then to a remote part of New Guinea. His experiences there were to inspire his first video work, Kobarweng or Where Is Your Helicopter? (1993). He visited Irian Jaya, a place where few white people had ever been but where, 30 years before, a group of scientists had visited by helicopter.
Together with choreographer Alain Platel, he founded Les ballets C De La B, a radical dance company. "It was a dance company but was also poking fun at the dance world… it was a Wallonian name but a Flemish company." Their big inspiration was modern dance guru, Pina Bausch. In his productions with C De La B as in his subsequent film projects, Grimonprez was busy questioning "boundaries of what an image is about or what television language or film language is about—how you can push those boundaries and by pushing those boundaries, reveal how things are coded."
Eventually, Grimonprez went to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He was in the US in the early 1990s, at the time of the first Iraq War. The way the media represented the war, with all its rhetoric about "surgical strikes" and its sanitised view of the bloodshed, was to influence Grimonprez's later video work. After leaving The School of Visual Arts, he was accepted at the Whitney Museum's independent study programme. Here, he encountered teachers who already occupied what was to become his chosen territory—the transgressive world between avant-garde film of the 60s and new video art.
"I sometimes take on the job as curator and set up an archive in a museum," Grimonprez reflects. I am part of two worlds—part of the film world and part of the museum world. Having your feet in two worlds is interesting—you can question one world from one perspective and the other world from the other perspective." In films like dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Looking For Alfred and Double Take, he makes extensive use of archive material. The use of this material is never innocent. Grimonprez invariably places the imagery in startling new contexts. He 'spins' it and looks at it from a new perspective.
A teacher as well as a filmmaker and curator, Grimonprez currently divides his time between Belgium and the US. He spends a lot of his life on aeroplanes. He says he has shot hours and hours of footage of airports and the insides of planes as he shuttles across the Atlantic. His work may not seem directly autobiographical but he suggests that elements of his own life always feed into it. Something as simple as the way you say goodbye in an airport, amid heavy security, might spark off an idea for a new work. One theme he can't escape is that of the double. He is the filmmaker who's also an artist, a European looking in at the US—and vice versa, the Hitchcock lover who is also deeply suspicious of the manipulation and sadism found in Hitchcock's work.
"I cannot deny I am from here (Belgium)," he reflects on his nationality and his work. "I think the humour is something very Belgian." The idea of the double, he adds, is at the root of Belgian national identity, with its two communities, the Flemish and the Wallonian, always shadowing one another.