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Friday, December 11, 2009

Rise of Portland's Hitchcock Geek

Posted by Matt Davis on Fri, Dec 11, 2009 at 12:58 PM

One of my favorite blogs, Hitchcock Geek, happens to be produced by Portlander Joel Gunz. I suggest that its local production is a coincidence because it was only after reading the blog for a few months that I clicked on the “about” tag and realized I could probably figure out a way to actually go share a burrito with the website’s creator, over the summer.

hitchcockgeek.jpg

Since then, Gunz’s star has risen a little further into the Geek-o-sphere. Just Tuesday night, December 8, he was on stage on Broadway in New York City, on a discussion panel for the audience of the play 39 Steps, for the second time in three months. Gunz now has plans to move to New York next spring, to write and produce a one-man play based on his website. I interviewed him at his Old Town office on Sunday afternoon, December 6, before he got on the plane.

To get the Q&A going, I asked how the blog got started. Back in 1998, Gunz got in touch with Ken Mogg, author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story, he told me. Mogg teaches film studies in Melbourne, and is considered one of the foremost experts on Hitchcock in the world.

“He’s just a very generous person with his knowledge,” says Gunz. “He’s been like a long distance mentor to me. We started sharing notes, and it was very neat to have him share tidbits. But I also contributed to the conversation.”

In 2001, Gunz began contributing a monthly Hitchcock column to Kent Lewis’s e-zine, Anvil, until it folded in 2004—when it seemed the right time to start the Hitchcock Geek blog. And we’re off…

So, are you the foremost Hitchcock expert in the US?
No. But I just put up this post in February entitled “Mad Props From Around the World.” Dan Auiler, who wrote the seminal book on Vertigo, has praised the site, and if you look through some of those reviews you’ll see that the site is pretty popular. We’re getting about 3,000 unique visits a month, now, and I just set up the Facebook Fan site last Wednesday, and we already have more than 1,000 fans.

How did you get into Hitchock?
I was 13—about the age when guys discover dark stuff, heavy metal, whatever they’re into. I was interested in film, and my step dad said Hitchcock had the ability to manipulate a viewer’s emotions, just by the way he edited his films, and I thought it was fascinating that he’d have that level of control.

I was a student at Jefferson High School at the time—back when it really was an arts school, and I watched this PBS show that talked about all the things Hitchcock is famous for—montage, framing, and composition, how to build suspense. Then I took notes. And he died right around that time, in 1980. Then the authorized biography by John Russell Taylor came out, and I just read it, and found it fascinating.

Where did you watch his films?
I was watching his movie, but in the 1980s there weren’t a lot of opportunities to see them. Then Dave Evans renovated the Roseway Theater in North Portland, he restored it to 1940s splendor and the staff all wore red waistcoats, and they’d do a Hitchcock festival twice a year. In the late 80s, several films that hadn’t been seen in years because of legal issues to do with Hitchcock’s estate—Rope, Vertigo, The Trouble With Harry, and Under Capricorn—they re-released all of those films. And the Roseway had the best projectors on the West Coast, I think. That’s where I really started geeking out on Hithcock. I did a story for the Jeffersonian.

So the Roseway was the place to go?
Oh, I gotta tell you about Vertigo. I was 17, I saw this movie for the first time on the big screen, and I went to the movie alone for some reason. It absolutely floored me. At the end I just sat there in the audience, just staring at the screen.

You’re about to fly out to New York this evening to speak after a Broadway production of the 39 Steps. How did that come about?
Initially they contacted me to do some cross promotion on the blog, and I offered to come and speak at this thing called Talkback Tuesdays, which is where they invite people to have this post-mortem discussion about the play every week. The play is based on the film of 39 Steps, except it’s just four actors playing all the parts.

39 STEPS: IN NEW YORK
  • 39 STEPS: IN NEW YORK

It’s weird, but I actually went and saw that play in New York last Christmas. We were sat in front of these two teenage kids and they kept going crazy with every visual or script reference to a different film that took place, like, “OH MY GOD, THAT’S A REFERENCE TO ROPE,” and it drove me and my brother crazy.
I was exactly the same when I went. Except I was with my son and I totally didn’t want to embarrass him. But this Talkback Tuesday concept is amazing—they’ve had some Saturday Night Live writers, film professors, and then me. I’ve done one of these so far already, and it went really well, so this is the second one.

And you’re actually planning to move to New York, on the strength of this experience?
Yeah. The long-range plan is to split my residency 50/50, between here and there. I have clients here—and I’ve talked to everybody, and the overwhelming response has been supportive. I have a laptop and an internet connection, so essentially I can do the work from anywhere.

So you’re in advertising brand development. You’re like the modern Don Draper?
More like the modern Roger Thornhill, Cary Grant in North by Northwest. He was the original mad man. If you look at the opening sequence of Mad Men, it’s very similar in concept to North by Northwest. In the opening sequence of that movie, he’s dictating questions to his secretary. He’s got three ex wives, and two bartenders who are basically dependent on him for a living. He lies, he asks his secretary to lie, he lies his way into line for a taxi, and he says “there are no lies, only expedient truths.” He’s the link between Gregory Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Mad Men.

And you’re planning to write a one-man show in New York?
Yes. The title is Hitchock Geek. Here’s a poster.

ONE MAN SHOW: YET TO BE WRITTEN
  • ONE MAN SHOW: YET TO BE WRITTEN

You haven’t written the show yet.
Yes, but I’m in advertising, so I had to get my priorities straight. It’s going to be info-tainment, you’re going to come out of the theater convinced that Alfred Hitchcock is really the Shakespeare of the twentieth century. Seeing a Hitchcock movie is really soul nourishing in the same way that great art is.

But it’s also a show about geekery?
Yes. More than this, it’s about geekery. Why did I fall down this particular rabbit hole? Why do other guys fall down other rabbit holes—like renovating old tube amps from the 1960s, or scrapbooking.

Is geekery a male thing?
I don’t think so. Not scrapbooking. At least, not males I know, Davis.

What’s scrapbooking?
My image is these Midwestern housewives with big hair, who instead of journaling their lives, they scrapbook their lives.

Can you give me an example?
Let’s see, if I Google “scrapbooking.” [Googles scrapbooking].
They have retreats!

It looks sort of like that thing on your wall.
That’s art, man. It’s collage. I did that.

GUNZS ART ON THE WALL
  • GUNZ'S "ART" ON THE WALL

But you see the similarities?
[laughs].

Good.
[laughs]

So tell me more about this show.
It’s going to be interactive, there’ll be lots of stills from his movies, and lots of his movies, and he did a lot of interviews, so I’ll cut those in with me talking and asking him questions. He did a thing on the TV show What’s My Line? And then I’m going to do a parody of Steven Colbert’s The Word, only the word is going to be “The MacGuffin.”

Tell my readers what the MacGuffin is. Because obviously I know.
The MacGuffin is described by Hitchcock. There are two men on a train, and one has a package, and the other asks what’s in there, and he says ‘it’s a MacGuffin, an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands,’ and the other fellow says ‘there’s no such thing as lions in the Scottish highlands,’ and so the other fellow says ‘well that’s no MacGuffin,’

[silence]
That’s British cockney humor. I thought you’d get it.

So Hitchcock was a cockney?
Yeah, absolutely. Rope, for example, shows Hitchcock’s cockney sense of language. The film is literally about a guy who was strangled by a rope, but there are overtones of sexual asphyxiation, and there’s lots of gay overtones—rope is a slang term for ejaculate. It shows his free associative mind—these cockney free associations. For example, what’s a telephone in cockney? It’s a cup and ladle, right?

I’m more of a mockney, to be honest. I don’t know much of the slang.
You’re a metro-ckney.

That’s true, and as a result, as I mentioned, I don’t know much of the slang.
His dad was a green grocer in Covent Garden, and so he came from this working class background. They put him through Jesuit Schools, very strict, and what I think is fascinating about him is he was definitely a high-brow thinker—he hung out with the intellectual elite, but he never went to college. So, John Steinbeck came away saying he felt Hitchock was one of these real British intellectual snobs who really looked down on the lower classes, but I don’t think that’s true, because Steinbeck probably would have been put off by a lot of the things Hitchcock said, but also I think Hitchcock was often one to say a lot of things jokingly that he did’t really mean. And I don’t think Hitchcock ever really forgot his roots—when you look at his scenes featuring working class people, they’re very lovingly filmed.

I think the other part of the picture is that Americans have never really been very easy with class, and haven’t understood how it’s supposed to work. Whereas in England, and in Europe, people understand where they fit in.

I hate it.
Yeah, but you accept it.

Yeah, I suppose I do.
See, they’re two opposing feelings, but in America, I don’t think we’re reached the point where we can both hate class and accept it, and understand that it will always be there.

Although I would suggest that Hitchcock’s departure from England and his coming to America may also have been about escaping from that rigid class system—as someone who has experienced something similar, through emigration. He could market himself here as an intellectual and go to the 21 club in Manhattan.
Can I have a pen? [writes a few notes]

He was certainly very class conscious. His wife, Alma, was an Assistant Director, and he was an Assistant Editor, and he didn’t propose to her until he had a better job. And yes, in America, he was viewed as the upper class director. Walt Disney was this goofy cartoonist.

This whole class issue, here’s Hitchcock, the smartest man in the room, and by the time he came to the USA he was acknowledged as the best director, so the English see his ascent as a validation of the British film industry, and so he saw coming here as a personal triumph.

But he was always an insider, and an outsider. He comes here and he’s working with the most beautiful women and the most manly men—his ability to play both sides of the fence. Was he a misogynist, an intellectual snob, or a feminist? The answer to all of those questions is both yes and no, and part of his genius is to be ambivalent in the fullest sense of the word.

So you’re going to be splitting your time between New York and Portland. Any parallels there?
Yes. One thing that’s come out of this conversation is, I’m from Portland, the son of a postman, and I’m not being invited to speak on this theater on Broadway because I’m a film professor with letters after my name. I’m being invited because I make Hitchcock cool and interesting.

So what are you working on at the moment?
Well, I’m working on a really popular series of posts about the connections between Hitchcock and artists, in this case, Dali. Hitchcock followed the arts movement inside and out, so a lot of his films are powerfully influenced by art.

How has the internet shaped your geekery about Hitchcock?
Not just the visual content, but a lot of my research, I’ve been able to get connected to a community of aficionados and scholars. There was a very active Yahoo group that for a long time introduced me to a lot of film professors and thinkers, so that’s been really important. It’s really awesome that as a blogger in Portland, Oregon, I can float an idea online and put it out there and get feedback from all these people from all around the world.

So where did you get this idea about Dali? From Bob, the other Hitchcock blogger, who’s in pieces in your basement?
No. I got this from a show that was put on in Montreal in 1999. It was called Hitchcock and Art. It really goes into the milieu that Hitchcock was a part of, over the years. This post-Victorian era. You know the myth of the lady in the lake—the lady who is jilted in love and then goes and drowns herself in the lake? You see that repeated in his movies, for example where Kim Novak jumps in the San Francisco bay.

This is the key point that I’m trying to make—he got his start in the 1920s, and at that time, there was no tradition in film. He always calls himself a technician, but if you wanted to make a movie artfully, at that time, you were going to go and look at 1000 years of art history. Those guys had already figured out how to concentrate emotion inside a frame.

And here’s a picture of him getting his honorary doctorate from Columbia in 1972.
Yes. He was eventually knighted by the Queen, a year before his death, and people asked what took so long. He said: “I guess she forgot.”

honorarydegree.jpg

Here’s another similarity between Hitchcock and the work of Edward Hopper.
Yes. Hopper’s ideas about isolation and loneliness and ennui are a fundamental theme of Hitchcock movies. His characters frequently start out in a place of bordeom, and throughout the course of the movie they’re actualized into life, and that’s what a lot of Hitchcock movies are about.

house-by-the-railroad-by-edward-hopper.jpg

This Hopper picture, House By The Railroad, Hitchcock said this is the house that he based the house in Psycho on. The painting was done in 1925, and it’s a lonely, isolated house beyond the tracks. There’s a lot of murkiness going on behind those walls, and we’re not sure that it’s all good. Then it goes deeper. Joseph Stephano, the screenwriter on Psycho, said that Hitchcock sat down with Anthony Perkins and said he had based his character for Norman Bates on a Hopper painting. They would have these long discussions about what that was about, so that makes this really, when you think about it, when you go back and look at the movie, it really illuminates it in a new way.
cap716.jpg

So, what would Hitchcock be like today?
Assuming he was immortal, I think, he was very sensitive to trends. And so he would have taken this trend for MTV-style jump-cutting and he would have laughed at it, and found a way to respond to it in his filmmaking.

What would he think of you?
I think about that all the time.

I bet you do.
And what I hope—I see him as a kindred spirit. Not that I have his genius, but I have that capacity to take what he did seriously, and also to laugh at it too, and say it’s just a movie. I have this image of him in my head, it’s like he’s leaning over my shoulder as I write my blog posts. He’s not the guy with the untarnished life—when I write about his faults, he says it’s okay to write about that, and be forgiving, but also fully indicting at the same time. But also, that you can’t forgive unless you’ve explicitly identified the crime.

And what were his crimes?
Well, the biggest mistake was in the 1960s. He got involved with Tippi Hedren, he made a star of her, and took a very svengali and possessive attitude to her. He took a pass at her and expected her to be his mistress and be there for his every whim. If that had happened today he’d have been called out for sexual harassment. It made life uncomfortable for her and for people around them, and I don’t mean to condone what he did in any way, but he was faithfully married his whole life. This was the one icky thing he did. It was 1963, and to look at this in 2009, or from the perspective of what it was like to be a a successful Hollywood director in 1963—it’s different. You have to be willing to look at that.

And there’s also a sense that as a film director, you have to have a capacity for cruelty to be successful. You have to be willing to ask actors and actresses to show up on set, having not written nudity into the script, and say, okay, now take your clothes off.

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