Double Take Double Take

To coin a Gumpism, studies of Alfred Hitchcock are like a box of Jaffa Cakes: even though I’ve probably had enough, I always think that one more can’t possibly do any harm. How fortunate then, that Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is a fresh and fascinating look at the big guy. The film plays upon motifs of doubling, repetition, and the cyclical broken-record rhetoric of Cold War paranoia, but itself seems at times like a doppelganger. Is it a coincidence that I feel like I’ve seen and heard most of this before?

Of course, I could have been just as entertained by watching a compilation of Hitch’s trailers and introductions for his TV show: these are always arch, often hilarious and ever-so-slightly threatening snippets of self-promotion, authoring a detached and knowing view of his work for the benefit of his spectators. Hitchcock loved to play upon his public role as master of ceremonies, posing as the only participant unaffected by his tales of obsession, terror and perversion. You can see it in his advertisements for Psycho, where he acts a as a nonchalant tour guide for the locations where the film’s murders take place:

Double Take intersperses archive footage of the Space Race, TV debates between Kruschev and Nixon, Nixon and Kennedy, Reagan and Gorbachev, Reagan and anyone who would listen, and Hitchcock himself, along with a bunch of Hitchcock lookalikes. On the soundtrack are sinister quotations from Bernard Herrmann‘s Hitchcock scores, the Supremes, and a reading of Jorges Luis Borges’ essay 25th August 1983, with the dates changed and Borges’ name swapped for Hitchcock’s. In this short fictional anecdote, Borges recounts the tale of a meeting with his double, who is on the brink of death. Given Borges’ recurrent interest in mirrors and simulacra, he seems like the perfect gatekeeper for a  series of allusive musings on the ways an author might exist independently of the persona he creates and unleashes for public consumption.

I wasn’t familiar with the “kitchen debate” between Kruschev and Nixon in 1959. At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the two leaders met in a specially built house that was designed to show the kinds of home all Americans could afford, with domestic appliances and mod cons that demonstrated their facility with labour-saving equipment, presumably in stark contrast with the drudgery of bread-and-water existence in that land of commies. Nixon’s attempt to explain the idea of colour TV to his opposite number is a wonderful bit of patronising idiocy, but the staging a TV debate in a fake house compounds the problem of a system of facade and surface sheen.

I think I’ve had my fill of collage documentaries cross-cutting between footage of militarised horrors and perky advertising: pointing out the contradictions of a culture built simultaneously on apocalyptic dread and aspirations for trivial crap. It’s all very Adam Curtis in its juxtapositions of mushroom clouds and coffee commercials, lending an air of menace to archive footage that urges new contemplation of the deceptive purposes for which it was originally forged (though I would suggest Barbara Kruger as an uncited influence on this kind of sloganeered montagery).

The end titles produce a breakneck montage of bellicose and paranoid speechifying. Ronald Reagan’s ramble about aliens is laid over shots from Independence Day of shadows cast over Washington by offscreen invading spacecraft (doubling the earlier shots from Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956)), and Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known Unknowns” (c)rap, surely the orthodox citation for a reductio ad absurdum of this sort of thing, has the last word.We are told that Hitchcock was invited to the White House in a memo dated the day before Kennedy was assassinated, clinching the links between Hitchcock’s knowing deployment of scare tactics and their po-faced political analogues. Hitchcock has been our guide through a densely packed nest of impersonations, mirrorings, twins and duplicates. But his fictions effortlessly transcend the ham-fisted attempts of government and advertisers to ensnare an audience and keep it in a perpetual back-and-forth between fear and covetousness.

I liked Double Take a lot, even if I had to generously attribute its familiarity to a deliberate commitment to doubling. It piles up its own connected inferences, such as the repeated use of the Empire State Building as a mutable symbol of technological primacy, a magnet for threatened disaster, or a transmitter of symbolic importance (and less figurative signals). Hitchcock himself is a monumental master of ceremonies, an artist who seemed to absent himself from the business of commenting on the historical moment, preferring to probe less contingent, more universal questions of human identity. He always disingenuously implied that he was only interested in provocative entertainments, but his observers have repeatedly extracted social commentaries and prescient, oracular wisdom from his body of work. There’s always a thrill to be gleaned from these polemical documentaries that suggest the interconnectedness of things; they comfort us with an impression of clarity amidst the infinite chaos of history. That it also exudes a whiff of paranoia and sensationalism doesn’t prevent it alighting on some truths about how enemies circle each other, ignoring the similarities in their ideological anatomies, wishing to see as opposites the people who end up closer to their mirror images. This sort of film ought to be the spur to, not the settlement of, historical narratives.

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