Johan Grimonprez, 'Looking for Alfred': a large-scale video installation. The exhibition will showcase this new film and will counterpoint it with behind-the-scenes video footage and photographs taken over the past year during the process of making the film at screen tests and auditions held in New York, London and Los Angeles. Bettina von Zwehl's subtle and unnerving photographic portraits are always the result of her orchestrating a climate within which her subjects are unable to fully control the manner of their representation. This new series, Alina (2004), portrays 12 young women of a similar age, in the same pose, each shown against a monochrome background, without any distracting clutter.
'Looking for Alfred'
"I thought I was safe until you guys came along,digging up all those other Hitchcock look-alikes. Now, we will have to find ways of disposing of them"
Professional Hitchcock look-alike
The following interview, about Johan Grimonprez's new film project Looking for Alfred , was made with the artist and curator Camilla Jackson by email in October 2004.
This large-scale, commissioned video installation is the latest work by the acclaimed Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez, maker of the celebrated dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y . The exhibition will showcase this new film and will counterpoint it with behind-the-scenes video footage and photographs taken over the past year during the process of making the film at screen tests and auditions held in New York, London and Los Angeles.
Looking for Alfred documents Grimonprez's search for the perfect Hitchcock look-alike. Focusing on Hitchcock's regular cameo appearances in each of his films, the work deploys a number of Hitchcock look-alikes to conjure up an unexpected narrative from Hitchcock's 50-year history of walk-on parts. Shot amongst the atmospheric interiors of the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, this labyrinthine trail of look-alikes and doubles combines Hitchcock's flair for cinematic suspense with a quiet and beguiling surrealism reminiscent of another great modern master, Rene Magritte.
The images here are a combination of film stills and photographs, some of which were taken during the film shoot in Brussels and others taken at the various screen tests held in London, Ghent, Rotterdam, Los Angeles and New York over the past year.
The underlying theme of your new work Looking For Alfred, and particularly the strong references throughout to The Birds (1963), seems rooted in a contemporary re-evaluation of Alfred Hitchcock's work.
Isn't The Birds Hitchcock's most enigmatic and surreal film: birds attacking a village, trapping people in a house as if in a birdcage? In fact Hitchcock infected the whole world with his neurosis: as son of a poulterer and greengrocer from Leytonstone in London, who absolutely hated eggs. [ 1 ] What actually fascinated me in this new work, is how much our understanding of reality today is filtered through Hollywood imagery. For instance, when Hitchcock scholar Slavoj Zizek [ 2 ] compared the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre to a real-life version of The Birds , he called it the ultimate Hitchcockian threat that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He referred specifically to the scene when Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren, approaches the Bodega Bay pier in a small boat, and a single seagull, first perceived as an indistinguishable dark blot, unexpectedly swoops down and gashes her forehead. It is strikingly similar to the plane hitting the second World Trade Centre tower. In this sense 9/11 brought fiction back to haunt us as reality. It is like Independence Day [ 3 ] real time, where the dark underside of repressed world politics strikes back in the form of flying objects, in this case planes, that appear out of nowhere to demolish the Trade Towers.
So, we begin with cinema imitating life and come to life appearing strangely like cinema. The collapse between what is real and what is fake is very much part of the exploration throughout Looking for Alfred , in particular with reference to look-alike culture. Film stars become fake imitations of their celebrity projections and in turn look-alikes, while adopting the attitudes of their cherished idol, become a more real version of what they try to look like.
Looking for Alfred began as an attempt to find the perfect Hitchcock impersonator and hence to explore the legacy of Hitchcock's persona as well as referencing his films. He was, and remains, so familiar that even today you could source over 80 look-alikes.
I was intrigued by Hitchcock's legacy. Partially through his regular appearances on TV introducing Alfred Hitchcock Presents [ 4 ], but mainly because of his cameo appearances in each of his own films, he became so familiar that his silhouette was simply recognised on the spot: the way he almost looks like an overgrown baby with his protruding belly under a pair of trousers pulled too high, his lower lip drooping.
So, we embarked on a quest to find the perfect Hitchcock double, who would fit the profile for the reenactment of Hitchcock's cameos in the film-shoot we had planned in Brussels. We organized a series of casting sessions, happening over the course of a few months in New York, Hollywood, and London, which brought together an amazing and colourful assembly of people, including three female and a few African-American Hitchcocks and even two "bad guys" who starred in the X-files . In the end it was Ron Burrage, a professional look-alike from London, whom we thought closest resembled him.
Unfortunately, Ron was unwell at the time of the filming, which prevented him from featuring in the movie. We decided to integrate him in the production anyway by interviewing him at his home in London. This, as well as all the DV-cam documentation of the screen tests, has actually become very much part of the project now.
You tried to find a Hitchcock sound-alike as well?
We asked the actors to recite an anecdote from an interview Hitchcock gave with the French film director Francois Truffaut [ 5 ] in the 1960s. It's a typical Hitchcock sort of stranger-on-the-train story describing what the term McGuffin [ 6 ] meant: the thing that everyone is after, but as such is totally irrelevant.
And in a sense perhaps Hitchcock himself has become the McGuffin we set out to find in our project, but never did. The process of making this film - the search for the ultimate Hitchcock - revealed all the emptiness: the nothing that is the McGuffin, but became a driving force behind the project. In the end we discovered that Ron Burrage, the professional Hitchcock look-alike, wasn't at all a Hitchcock fan: he much prefers the opera and switches off the TV after Hitchcock makes his cameo, often at the very beginning of the film. Although it crossed our minds that we were dealing with 'the wrong man'; 'the wrong man' who suffers the same identity crisis as Madeleine in Vertigo (1957)!
Do you think the way we can see Hitchcock's films today, particularly now that we no longer need to go the cinema, effects our interpretation of his work?
This makes me think about the very first time I attended a cinema screening of Vertigo and they mistakenly interchanged reel two and three, which meant I saw the point where Madeleine had changed her identity to Judy before I should have, which gave the plot a very disconcerting and bizarre angle. But this is actually very similar to how with a DVD reader you can skip scenes, and jump back and forth through the storyline. Today we can lock ourselves in our bedrooms and watch all of Hitchcock's films back-to-back if we wish, in one afternoon - very different from going to the cinema. It allows for a multiplicity of readings.
Also the contemporary, especially the younger viewer, has a very different view of his films.
Yes, when my daughter Geraldine, who is 15, watched The Birds she said: "that was not very scary and such bad FX !!"
The DVD format of such films also provides the contemporary viewer with a huge amount of background information, such as providing alternative endings to some films.
Indeed, the idea of trying to explore the history of happy endings was very much the basis of Looking for Alfred . Actually The Birds is Hitchcock's only film where he omitted the words 'THE END'. He never wanted it to have a conclusive ending but instead wanted to leave the spectator wondering. That interested me as it undermines the idea of a Hollywood redemption through a happy ending. On the DVD an alternative ending is offered by including the final pages of the screenplay by Evan Hunter, which adds another dimension to the reading of the film.
You restage several of Hitchcock's famous cameo appearances both during the casting sessions and in the film. Some are quite literal references whilst others are amalgamations taken from a variety of different Hitchcock films.
The most obvious is the reenactment of a cameo from The Birds , where Hitchcock passed Tippi Hedren while coming out of a pet shop with his two terrier dogs, Stanley and Geoffrey. However one crucial and recurring moment in the work is of Hitchcock meeting himself. The point where he turns his head and glances back refers to Stage Fright (1949) and Marnie (1964). I've mirrored these with the Hitchcock cameo from Foreign Correspondent (1940), where he passes someone on the street. This glancing back appears also recurrently in the casting sessions as we asked each impersonator to do this to camera. At one point during the casting, whilst in Los Angeles, we did a spoof on Hitchcock's famous cameo of missing-the-bus, which appears at the beginning of North by Northwest (1959). We restaged this one with three Hitchcocks at a bus stop on Wilshire Boulevard. A tough one, as the bus drivers were too friendly and pulled their brakes for the Hitchcocks who ran out to miss it.
But it is not only Hitchcock look-alikes that appear in your work: another recurring figure is the surrealist artist RenÃ© Magritte (1898-1967). You cite several paintings by him, for example the arresting image of a young girl devouring a bleeding bird? [ 8 ]
Magritte was one year older than Hitchcock; both were born in the very late 1890s, which coincided with when the inventors of cinema, the LumiÃ©re brothers, projected their first film. It is surprising how much Hitchcock and Magritte's iconography overlaps. The idea of a clone, of blurring boundaries between what is the same and nearly exactly the same, but not quite, is very much a recurrent theme in both their works. For Hitchcock it was a plot device in a lot of his films. For Magritte 'doppelgÃ¤ngers' often appear. I was interested in this as a way of exploring mistaken identity: the uncanny feeling that in a situation, something, or someone, looks exactly the same as another, but somehow is not, and hence is totally displaced. It creates an unease and a sense of anxiety announcing the impending disaster, but precisely because of this, reveals a glimpse of the sublime.
Both Hitchcock and Magritte pushed a vocabulary that is now common language. The way Magritte constructed his images relates in fact closely to what you can do nowadays with the Adobe tools in Photoshop. Magritte was a cut-and-paste artist avant-la-lettre . Actually without Photoshop I believe Magritte's iconography would not have remained so popular.
And you chose to set the film in Belgium at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, an Art Deco building by Victor Horta. Obviously it works perfectly as a cinematic mise-en-scÃ¨ne, but were there other reasons that drew you to it?
I liked the idea that it is the sort of location Hitchcock would have used for a Belgian version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955). Or maybe it would have been The Woman Who Knew Too Much, where the final murder scene with a gunshot would be committed as the cymbals clash. The concert hall adjoins the arcade which we featured in the film, whose atmosphere closely resembles Giorgio De Chirico's Piazza d'Italia (1913), depicting an uncanny architecture almost breathing a sort of inner fear. So there was this collapse of iconography with Hitchcock, which fitted very well. Although always spoken about as being the grand innovative auteur, Hitchcock in fact was very much embedded in a visual language that existed all around him, and he often referred to painting: specifically De Chirico. But the Palais des Beaux Arts building has also a real connection to Magritte as not only has his work been shown there, but there are also, for example, Lee Miller's photographs of him in the coat racks.
When you see the Hitchcocks in the film wearing bowler hats it is as though it is Magritte still roaming around the building. You take this further in several places where you conflate Magritte and Hitchcock in the film , for instance in the image referring to Reproduction Prohibited , (1937), the portrait of Magritte's friend and collector Edward James, which depicts a man seeing the back of himself in a mirror.
A strange collapse: Edward is now Alfred! The title becomes ironic in this sense, but points precisely at what is at stake in the film: the cloning notion in a Photoshop reality. It also refers to the idea of mistaken identity, central to Hitchcock's film plots. Paradoxically in Looking for Alfred it is Hitchcock who is the mistaken guy.
A Zapomatik/Film and Video Umbrella co-production made in association with Palais de Beaux Art, Brussels, The Photographers' Gallery and Anna Sanders Films. Made possible by the Flemish Audiovisual Fund and Arts Council England
Image: a work by Johan Grimonprez
Bettina von Zwehl
Bettina von Zwehl's (born 1971, Germany) subtle and unnerving photographic portraits are always the result of her orchestrating a climate within which her subjects are unable to fully control the manner of their representation. This new series, Alina (2004) , portrays 12 young women of a similar age, in the same pose, each shown against a monochrome background, without any distracting clutter. Photographed at a contemplative moment, the nature of their meditation is, at first, unclear; the pared down aesthetic of von Zwehl's work offers little by way of clues.
Several of the young women who agreed to be photographed by von Zwehl were students based at the Royal College of Music in London, some from overseas. Alina evolved during time the artist spent at the RCM undertaking a residency in 2004. She also became interested, at that time, in research carried out by music psychologists who were looking at ways in which our emotions are guided and influenced while listening to music. For von Zwehl her aim was to capture on film moments of intensive listening and absorption in music. Her method for visualizing this contemplative state involved sitting her subjects in a soundproof studio, initially in the dark and in silence. They were then played a mesmeric piece of music by the Estonian composer Arvo PÃ¤rt (born 1935) called Fur Alina (1976). During the second half of the ten-minute piece of music, bright flash lights were activated and von Zwehl photographed the women still meditating on PÃ¤rt's music, before they had fully reacted to the disruption of the flash. The young women selected by von Zwehl for this series of photographs were cast because of the origins of Fur Alina, composed by PÃ¤rt for a young Estonian woman who had come to study in London. The construction of the project was also influenced by Arvo PÃ¤rt's description of the music: "I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener." Alina is less a study of the sitters' physiognomies and more a document of the transforming psychological effect of listening intently to music. This powerful new body of work pushes the boundaries of contemporary portrait photography by attempting to explore a space that hovers between the subject's private and thoughtful world and their public appearance. Camilla Jackson Programme Organiser This work was A Photoworks Commission produced by the artist during a residency at The Royal College of Music, London.
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