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Less than an Ounce of Courage: My Life not in Movies
By Joel Gunz

In the hills above Monaco, a blonde and her beau careen down a narrow road and its pinhole turns in her silver-blue roadster convertible. Like the Sinatra tune, her life is without a care. After the ride, she seduces him with a mere picnic lunch—and eyes as blue as the Mediterranean Sea, whose waves crash conveniently nearby. So that's why the lady is a tramp.

In that scene from To Catch a Thief (1955), the amorous pair are Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. But the one who set up that tryst, who first saw it in his mind's eye and then realized that vision, was Alfred Hitchcock1. It's hard to believe he wasn't acting out a fantasy2, using the camera to act on an impulse that would otherwise be impossible to give way to3.

Think of it. The two sexiest actors around, frolicking in Monaco, the playground of the adult rich. Now look a little deeper. Kelly, with those aforementioned blue eyes that could melt an icecap, was summoned to seduce the unseduceable gay Cary Grant. The irony could not have been lost on Hitchcock.

Like many other film writers, I'm a wannabe movie director. I wanted a career in movies, but my parents were dead-set against it4. Even, however, if that hadn't been the case, I still would have balked. Good filmmaking demands an audacity, a willingness to exploit others—sometimes cruelly—a requirement from which, as a youth, I shrank. Not that I would find it any easier now.

The turning point came when I was a student at Jefferson High School, in the '80s. I went through the video production program and produced numerous spots for its closed-circuit TV news show. On one assignment I was to cover the untimely death of one my music teachers, the local saxophone legend Sonny King. I interviewed teachers and students who knew him and obtained footage of a recent show he had performed at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. I also attempted to take a crew to his funeral. However, when I contacted his widow, jazz vocalist Nancy King, she refused to give me permission to enter the church.

My instructor urged me to go to the funeral anyway. "It's perfectly legal," he said. "They probably won't even try to stop you." He suggested that I set up my equipment at a discreet distance, perhaps across the street, and capture some footage of the mourners, and, perhaps, of the casket leaving the church.

I demurred. I wanted, I said loudly enough to almost convince myself, to respect the wishes of Sonny's widow. But my real reason was that I was too chicken. The camera can be an invasive instrument, and I didn't want to push the boundary that Mrs. King had set.

I let the opportunity go. I went back to the project I had been working on—editing a reel of violent and sensational TV news clips into a montage underscored by Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry." (Note that the footage was not shot by me—I merely pulled it off of the television.)

I think it takes a bit of a sociopath to capture people on film—whether they are willing participants or not. To direct an actress to retake a scene (or to take her clothes off for the camera!) is way out of my comfort zone.

Alfred Hitchcock had no problem with such demands. He made the career choice he did because he could have power over actors. He loved coaxing the desired performance out of them—by any means necessary. Once, when he was directing an episode for his TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," he was having difficulty getting a child actor to keep from fidgeting during a scene. Hitchcock took the boy aside and threatened to nail his feet to the floor if he didn't stand still. Terrified, the young actor stood stock still during the shooting. Hitchcock got the footage he wanted, and the boy was traumatized for life.

Leonard South, Hitchcock’s cinematographer for many of his greatest movies, including North by Northwest and The Birds, once recalled that "Those [crop-duster and bird] scenes were some of the hardest I've ever been involved in. They called for absolutely perfect timing in situations that were really rather scary."

For the attack scene in The Birds, bird handlers stood next to the camera, throwing crows at 'Tippi' Hedren as she stood against a wall screaming. "We [the camera crew] were under a plastic-type covering," South recalled. But Hedren wasn't. And finally, after a week of enduring an onslaught of birds thrown at her face, one of them came too close and the actress nearly lost an eye. She went into hysterics and had to take time off from the shooting schedule to recuperate5.

Hitchcock saw the camera as a sort of weapon, as an instrument with diabolical purposes. Almost every time a camera appears in his films, it is put in an unfavorable light. Check out these examples:

Lifeboat's (1944) Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) makes her living as a war reporter, producing newsreels for American audiences. From the eponymous lifeboat, she films the wreckage of the sinking ship as it bobs in the water. Spotting a baby bottle, she says, "Look! That's the perfect touch!" John Kovak, (John Hodiak) disgusted, says, "Why don't you just wait for the baby to float by?!" and "accidentally" bumps her camera into the water.

In Foreign Correspondent (1940), an assassin shoots his victim with a camera rigged up to conceal a handgun.

Following the destruction of her reputation, the ####### of Easy Virtue (1928) steps out of the courthouse into a gauntlet of reporters with their cameras poised in the air. Despairing, she says, "Shoot! There's nothing left to kill!"6

In Topaz (1969), spies fight the Cold War armed with little more than cameras. And they prove to be as lethal as guns. Their use results in betrayal, torture and murder7.

Not to be missed are the Nazi infiltrators in Saboteur (1942), who operated out of a newsreel truck and planted explosives inside a movie camera in order to bomb a newly launched ship.

Of course, Hitchcock's greatest essay on the vicious uses to which cameras can be put was Rear Window (1954), in which L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart) used a camera, with its phallic, penetrating telephoto lens, to unravel a murder mystery—and keep an eye on his busty neighbor, Miss Torso. Stella (Thelma Ritter), his housekeeper, called it his portable keyhole. At the end of the film, assaulted by the murderer, he used his flashbulb attachment to momentarily blind the attacker. The camera that he had used voyeuristically to invade the killer's apartment was now used in self-defense.

What makes cameras so dangerous? Perhaps it is their mechanical detachment. They are as unblinking and uncaring as bureaucrats. And, like a state worker who can ruin your life with a flick of his pen, a skilled cameraman can change his subjects' lives with a flick of his wrist. A high school lothario will say "I love you" to any #### whose pants he wants to get into. Cinematographers do the same thing when they tell their subjects, "The camera loves you, baby."

Hitchcock talked about how a camera, when rolling, could even be rapacious. With Rope, the director was able to act on his fantasy "that a camera could photograph one complete [eight minute] reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a steam shovel."8

Like the all-seeing eye of Zoroastrianism and dollar-bill conspiracy theories, cameras draw power from their position as unstoppable machines of detached observation. Few things can make one feel more naked than to be caught unaware on camera9.

Alan Funt's famous "Smile, you're on ‘Candid Camera’!" is always followed by confusion, panic and nervous laughter. Why? Because the victims of his pranks have been stripped and humiliated by the camera. Guns may kill people, but cameras make better weapons for character assassination.

Cameras are an important weapon in the war on crime. One can now walk from Wall Street in Lower Manhattan to Harlem and remain under continuous scrutiny, courtesy of one surveillance camera or another.

Fearing for the safety of their intellectual property, an increasing number of corporations now prohibit employees from bringing mobile phones with built-in digital cameras to work—joining firearms and other weapons on the list of banned items. And they know when employees have broken that rule, because they themselves are watching from concealed cameras.

Cameras intrude. They invade. They violate. Even when used for private purposes, they can expose people in ways those people never intended. Just ask Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton.

The camera also doesn't lie. In fact, sometimes, it's a little too honest. The miracle of photography isn't that a camera exposes the strip of film behind its lens, but that it exposes whatever happens to be in front of its lens.

And so, when I was choosing my career path, I just couldn't do it. Much as I liked the idea of filmmaking, I wasn't—nor am I now—confrontational enough10. I was, in fact, well trained to be otherwise11.

While making movies can be downright sadistic, writing is the exact opposite—it's masochistic, and as such, it is much more in line with my character. Rather than put some actor or actress through a trial, I have an inverted comfort zone that protects them but leaves me completely exposed. It's as if my sense of that which should be protected begins four feet away from me and extends outward. Great for writing, perhaps. Bad for filmmaking.

Most writers, I think, would say the same thing. Generally the protagonist in a novel is some kind of alter ego of the author. And what do they do with him? They put that character through the most humiliating ordeals imaginable. Think of the climax of The Sun also Rises, in which Jake Barnes gets clobbered by that schmuck Harry Cohn.

It's a given that the best writing denigrates the author. Everybody loves to watch the first-person narrator go down. Check in on every protagonist from Phillip Marlowe to Will in Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, and you'll see page after page of mashed-in faces, rebuffed sexual overtures and stood-up appointments. Those are the tepid waters that I easily swim in.

That is why I write about film. It's an outlet for me. It enables me to live vicariously through other, more sadistic personalities.

I dream, though, that it could be otherwise. I'd rather be making movies than writing about them. And my movies—like Hitchcock's—would survey the interior landscape of hopelessly wounded mankind.

Inside me there is a sadistic fat man with a camera lens dying to come out.


1. Ironically, Grant, who was gay, wouldn't make a move for Kelly offscreen, and Hitchcock, whose professionalism (and, oh yes, devotion to his wife) depended on his keeping his distance, also kept things above board. Left to her own devices, Kelly settled for Rainier, Prince of Monaco, was crowned a princess, and retired from the screen. What a waste.

2. As Woody Allen's life demonstrates, an occupational hazard among filmmakers is that they tend to fall for their female stars. Hitchcock seems to have at times fallen into the same trap, though he rarely acted on it. 

3. After all, how could a movie director <i>not</i> develop a thing for his actresses? The hours that he spends inspecting them, giving them detailed instructions about their every move onscreen—and often offscreen— effectively sculpting them into an ideal image that he has heretofore only carried around in his head, would make the temptation to seek greater intimacy very strong. Every man fantasizes about creating his "ideal" woman. Film directors get to live out that fantasy. Thus, when <i>Vertigo</i>'s Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) remakes Judy (Kim Novak) to resemble his lost Madeleine, he is reenacting on screen what Hitchcock had already done with Novak—and many others— in real life.

4. Here's where I should insert my "I coulda been a contendah" monologue. But I'll spare you. Basically, I succumbed to family pressure to forego a university education. I coulda gotten loads of scholarships, which I shoulda used to go to film school.

5. Leonard J. South, 92; Cinematographer Was Camera Operator on Many Hitchcock Classics
By Dennis McLellan, <i>LA Times</i>

6. In the Hitchcockian-but-directed-by-Michael-Powell film <i>Peeping Tom</i>, a psycho killer lures his female victims to his "movie studio" and murders them with a knife that he has concealed in a tripod, all the while filming their final moments of life and their expressions of terror. This is a film that, according to Roger Ebert, "is about the deep psychological process at work when a filmmaker tells his actors to do as he commands, while he stands in the shadows and watches." I'm putting this in a footnote, because Ken Mogg has elaborated on this elsewhere. But I just want to say that I would have made the connection, even if he had neither written about it on the MacGuffin website nor delivered a seminar on the subject.

7. Throughout Hitchcock's Cold War thriller <i>Topaz</i> (1969), cameras get passed from one spy to another, and the devices turn out to be as mobile and toxic as a killer virus. The American Uribe (Don Randolph) bribes a Cuban official to gain access to some important documents, and takes pictures of those documents with a pocket camera. Afterward, the official is exposed and killed. Later, the Cuban counterrevolutionary Juanita Cordoba's (Karin Dor) fate is sealed when she accepts Andre Devereaux's (Frederick Stafford) "gift" of a spy camera. She hands the camera off to her servants, also counterrevolutionaries. Masquerading as picnickers, they conceal the camera in the cavity of a roasted chicken and capture photos of Soviet-manufactured missiles entering Cuba. The photographers are found out and tortured to death. When Juanita is finally exposed, her lover executes her in one of Hitchcock's most memorable—and beautiful—death scenes. Conventional wisdom tells one to follow the money. In <i>Topaz,</i>, however, to stay on the trail of death, follow the cameras. 

8. "My Most Exciting Picture," <i>Popular Photography</i>, November 1948.

9. I think it was the ancient Greeks who believed that we can see because our eyes emit rays that apprehend images of the world around us, like a fishing line that grabs at seaweed and rocks and the occasional Coho salmon. I like that idea, and I think in a metaphoric way it's true. Poets sit in Starbucks and fill reams of diary pages with odes to the hungry, rapaciously consuming eye. If mere looking is a passive act, why do women mind when men stare at their breasts? Why is there a James Bond movie titled <i>For Your Eyes Only </i>? Mere use of the eyes can lead to an act of theft. Or it can be an assault. Looks <i>can</i> kill.

10. That's also why I knew I could never be a newspaper reporter. Who am I to ask a widow, "What were you thinking when that bullet went through your husband's brain?" I'd love to know the answer, but I'll never ask the question.

11. And then there was that day in seventh grade, when Joe Zirkle, who sat in the rear of Mrs. Seely's Language Arts class, carefully folded a sheet of notebook paper into a thick, surprisingly hard, finger-friendly triangle and patiently waited for Mrs. Seely to turn toward the chalkboard so he could hurl the thing at my head, which—lucky shot for him—bounced off the curve of my skull right about where the 45th parallel would be if I were a globe. The blue-lined white projectile flew straight up into the air and he easily caught it, much to his delight and the mirth of everyone in the last two rows, giving him bragging rights that he exercised for the next week and motivating him to attempt repeating the trick. Failing that, he took to flicking my ears from behind—the hard way, by folding his middle finger into the fleshy crook where his thumb met his palm and then releasing it with a snap of his wrist. And I took it. Because that is what I had been taught to do. Good Christians don't fight, and I was an apt pupil of that philosophy. I had learned to run from fights when I couldn't walk away from them. Keeping your hands up and your head down and never turning your back on your opponent were moot skills, because I was a peaceful young man; yet, when I had finally had enough of Joe, and he had, in any event, challenged <i>me</i> to a fight, I met him on the playground behind the basketball court and steeled myself to end his bullying once and for all by meeting him fair –and square, taking one look at his left eyeball, and then placing my right fist on the bone below it. The strategy worked, as his flesh gave way under my skin-stretched knuckles like an orange peel wrapped around the handle of a baseball bat. Surprised, he ducked and backed off, and one of his friends stepped between us, gave Joe a quick inspection, whistled, and said something like, "Whoa, you got a black eye," which more or less ended the fight. I didn't have too much trouble with him after that, but now what would I tell my step dad if he found out that I had just kicked Joe Zirkle's ass? He—and, worse, my mom—would have been ashamed, and my self-defense plea would have fallen on deaf ears. And so I spent the next week wandering through my sixth grade haze on a cocktail of freshly stirred testosterone and grape Bubble Yum, when suddenly I would slip like a bad transmission into an anxiety attack because Mrs. Aylesworth, whose personality was as Victor Hugoian as her name, could have caught wind of the episode, probably by consulting her magic mirror, or, perhaps, by listening to sound recordings made of the fight by microphones that she had carefully hidden in the pine trees behind the basketball court. She would then have called my parents and told them that I was getting in fights at school. Think of the shame that would have brought on my family! Some kids are taught to be fighters. Other kids are taught simply to defend themselves. And then there are kids who have it pounded into them that fighting is always, always a sin. If nothing else, it's a parenting approach that makes for very obedient children.


Joel Gunz is the Principal of advertising copywriting firm Gunz Communications. A regular contributor the The Anvil, his writing has also appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Northwest Palate Magazine, and elsewhere.

 

 

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