Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What teaching Hitch taught me: five things

Let's pick up the thread in media res, and we'll eventually work our way backwards (and forwards)...

Summer I ended Monday--I had the opportunity to teach a Topics in Film course on Hitchcock at the BSU Cape Cod campus in Yarmouth as a hybrid. I tried to pitch it really broadly (no pre-requisites / no assumptions about film studies backgrounds going in) to attract not only Strat Comm students I advise there, but also potentially folks in other Cape-based programs (education, business). We had enough students for the class to run--barely!--but I had more students driving "over the bridge" than not, which was a real surprise... Regardless, I'm really glad the class ran... and here are a few things I learned in the process.

1. That Hitchcock/Truffaut book? It's as crucial as advertised. I've had a copy of this book on my shelf for a while now, but never had taken the chance to dive in. But now, having read it all twice this summer, I can affirm its usefulness in accessing the notion of Hitchcock as an auteur--not least of which because it was Truffaut who did this book as an object lesson in auteurism. Thanks to Arthur for alerting me to the documentary film centered on the book from 2015--talking heads from Peter Bogdanovich to Martin Scorsese supplement Hitch clips + fragments of original interviews that comprised the book.

2. Surprise vs. suspense: it matters. A key conversation in the book, a crucial distinction made. Surprise lasts seconds, suspense can last for reels. The former can be a thrill, but the latter is what keeps the engines humming. One of those OF COURSE / WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT head-slap moments, once you get your head around it.

3. MacGuffins: they don't matter.  Another thing that shines through in the book-length interview is the inventive use of "MacGuffins" as an excuse to move plots forward. Sometimes whole film projects would get waylaid by studio misunderstandings on this count--what are The 39 Steps, after all?!

4. Hitch is a "matrix figure" in film (history). Hitchcock made 53 feature films in his career, spanning from silent pictures in the 1920s to the beginning of the "New Hollywood" era in the mid-1970s. He was in Germany during the filming of Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (1924). He negotiated the coming of sound, Classical Hollywood and the Paramount decree, the coming of television, wide-screen and 3-D... And it's not just Hitchcock and his films: the study of Hitch, as our other textbook A Hitchcock Reader makes clear, reads like film historiography--from auteur studies to feminist film studies to industrial studies. Hitchcock becomes a way to think through film history itself. That's what John Orr meant when he referred to him as "a matrix figure," and why I think it worked so well to integrate Gomery's "four ways of doing film history" into the course's conversation.

5. You could do a whole lot worse than watch 25 Hitchcock films in a summer. This was an arbitrary number, but I've set a goal for myself to see about half of Hitch's total output this summer... With only five weeks, and it not being a full-bore film studies course, I think it's right that we kept ourselves to about ten required films this semester. I figured I wouldn't get to 25 by the end of the semester, but I did complete #18 last night (Spellbound, 1945)...