Thursday, March 29, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: Oh, Ho, Ho, It's Magic

Every once in a while, the movie business has itself a great idea. Even more infrequently, they have the same idea twice. As a result, we get Capote AND Infamous. We get Mission to Mars AND Red Planet. We get Lambada AND The Forbidden Dance.

As you can see, it doesn't usually work out.

It happened again last fall, when we were treated to a double dose of stories about magicians set over a hundred years ago. The Illusionist and The Prestige battled it out for box office dollars, and what usually happens in these cases is that moviegoers decide to make a choice. They're not going to see the same movie twice. So they pick. That's what happened here. The Illusionist had the advantage of hitting theaters first, but The Prestige responded with the marquee matchup of Batman vs. Wolverine.

Here in the Wilson household, we naturally opted for neither. That's what Netflix is for. All hail the homemade double feature.

Truth be told, take away the magic element and the similar settings and these two movies aren't similar at all. The Prestige, for example, is purely a battle of wills. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are magicians who become deadly rivals because they are willing to throw love and decency aside in pursuit of the ultimate illusion. Not only that, but they go after each other with increasing venom, and as the film opens, one of them is in prison, accused of murdering the other.

You can tell how much the stars are enjoying themselves. Jackman gets to play nasty without just snarling for the whole movie. Bale gets to be a star without a mask or an accent. Michael Caine continues to reap the benefits of not taking every part he gets offered. And Scarlett Johanssen didn't even bore me.

I liked this movie, and I think the reason for that was that it didn't really feel like any movie I'd ever seen. The combination of setting and subject evoked a rich novel. It's based on a novel, so that may not seem surprising. But how often do movies get that right? It's hardly a perfect movie (my Whirled News colleague Matt points out that the numerous double-crosses are overly predictable, and the two magicians' disguises are laughable in a bad way), but it just felt kind of refreshing.

The Illusionist felt a little more traditional. Edward Norton is our title character, an unusually gifted magician who uses his skills first to win the love of his childhood sweetheart, and then to seek revenge against the crown prince who stands in the way of that romance. Shot in and around Prague, it's a prettier film. And because it's one man against powerful antagonists, the effect is sort of like a caper. A caper with magic.

Like The Prestige, this film benefits from a good cast that's playing way above its usual skill level. Edward Norton is... well, he's Edward Norton. But just watch the 10-second snippet of him in the behind-the-scenes featurette and you'll see what a complete transformation (from total dweeb to imposing man of mystery) he undertook. Paul Giamatti, for the first time that I can recall, took away the nervous tics and the nasal whine and was absolutely mesmerizing. I would like to formally request that he speak with a deep voice for the rest of his career. And round out the cast was, of all people, Jessica Biel. Turns out the girl can act, and good for her. That's always a pleasant surprise, and maybe means she won't have to make movies like Stealth anymore.

I should also take a moment to comment on the score, which is interesting but strangely overpowering at times, and I made several jokes to my wife about how the composer was ripping off Philip Glass. Of course, I went back and looked at the credits and saw that the composer was Philip Glass. Two lessons I take from this: (1) Evidently, I like Philip Glass more than I thought, although a little goes a long way, and (2) no one sounds like Philip Glass quite like Philip Glass.

Ultimately, there is one very important reason these movies are different from each other, and it has to do with what they have in common. These are each movies about magicians, and they each ask a very crucial question: "How does he do that?" But where The Illusionist wants you to believe that the answer is mystical, The Prestige is firmly rooted in the notion that everything you see can be adequately explained. Even if the solutions to Bale & Jackman's tricks is more outlandish, more outrageous, they remain rooted in the film's inner logic, unlike the tricks of Norton, which are never fully explained. The Illusionist ends in a montage that shamelessly rips off The Usual Suspects, and suggests that there are logical explanations for everything you've seen (although director Neil Burger's boneheaded commentary nearly torpedoes that, as well), but there's too much that is never accounted for. In the end, that's why I think The Prestige is a better film. It's premise is almost ludicrous, and certainly science fiction. But it plays fair. The Illusionist wants to have it both ways. It cheats.

Still, I'm glad I saw them both, and I'd say they were each among the better films of 2006 that I saw. And if all the magician movies were good, I wouldn't mind the glut. Heck, if it were good, I'd even sit through a lambada movie. Moviegoes: we're just that easy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Sorry. We've kind of left Alfred hanging, haven't we? But don't feel too bad for him. He's doing very well for himself. He's gonna be a director, you know. Very soon.

Perhaps the most interesting observation our biographer has made so far is that most directors come up through the ranks of editors or cinematographers. There are a fair number of actors and writers who also take up the megaphone. And these days, special effects wizards also take a turn fairly often. But directors are almost never former art directors. And yet, that is the path that one of the most acclaimed directors in film history took.

Hitchcock's first jobs are supposed to be strictly art direction and titles, but he knows enough to make himself indispensable. The studio that hired him, Famous Players-Lasky, quickly loses money and starts laying people off. But Hitchcock willingly takes on any task that comes his way. Who will write the script? I will, says Hitch. Can anyone direct these extra scenes? I'm your man, says Hitch. When the film company finaally did fold, new producers swept in to pick up the pieces, and this eager young man was ready and willing to work.

(I had a lot of empathy for Hitch at this point. I did sort of the same thing at Jellyvision. "What do you need me to do? I'm your guy." Being indispensable is the best thing to be.)

Hitchcock starts to make a lot of key contacts at this point. He meets producers who will make some of his first movies. He meets the man who will become his agent. Most importantly, he meets the most important collaborator in his life.

Technically, he met Alma Reville in the last chapter. She was a writer with Famous Players-Lasky, and he was evidently smitten with her at first sight. Of course, being a proper turn-of-the-century English gentleman, he would never make a move above his station. So he doesn't even speak to her. While he's hanging on at the studio, she's let go, and still not a word. In fact, she doesn't even know who he is, until years later, when he's at a new studio and he's permitted to hire a staff, and suddenly she gets a call.

He doesn't just do this for girls he likes, mind you. Hitchock proves to be quite loyal, an unusual trait in the film industry. An actress named Betty Compson was working on a film on which Hitchcock was assistant directing. The film had a cash shortfall, and Compson invested money to keep it going. Years later, when she needed to qualify for benefits, he arranged to get her a small part in one of his movies. One director who Hitchcock worked with extensively even badmouthed him. But when he fell on hard times, Hitch secretly arranged for him to get work.

This kind of hard work and good behavior pays off in spades when Hitchcock goes to work for a new studio called Gainsborough. This studio had just made a deal with a film company in Germany, so Alfred heads to Berlin, where he learns the basics of expressionistic cinema. And then the studio's lead director gets himself in a bit of immigration trouble, and who's standing by to take the reins? That's right. In less than five years, Alfred Hitchcock has risen to the role of director.

And here's where we have to stop. Because you see, one of my rules is that I can't read about the making of one of Hitchcock's movies until I've seen it. So many secrets to give away, you know. So my next posting will be about the movie itself. Just a brief pause in the action.

It's 1925. For the first time, the director's chair will read "Alfred Hitchcock". The movie is called The Pleasure Garden. And the Chicago Public Library is sending it over. 53 movies, and this is Number 1.

Now the project really gets going.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: Popcorn, Coke, and a Deep Sense of Dread

Not content with the unhappy feelings associated with two funerals and property fallout of a third, I finally sat down to watch The Most Depressing Film Ever Made.

The previous titleholder, 21 Grams, also came very close to holding the record for Longest Time a Netflix Movie Sat In Our House Without Being Watched. (I'm pretty sure Mystic River remains the champion in that particular category.) That film, which has a plotline wherein Sean Penn can receive the gift of life through a heart transplant and still be utterly miserable, is one of those films that just urges you not to watch it, because it relies upon the notion that life is bleak and hopeless, and no matter how good the acting is supposed to be, nobody really wants to see that. And I can promise you, finally subjecting myself to 21 Grams is the reason I may never see Babel.

Yet, none of the movies I've mentioned so far can even hold a candle to the fondue pot of joy that was The Most Depressing Film Ever Made. Oh, I knew it would be bad. I avoided it for a long time. But then it started to get award buzz, and I can never resist the clarion call of award buzz, no matter how soul-destroying the film. (Hello, 21 Grams.) And my colleague John told me about it, and strongly implied that it was a must-see. Most of all, my shameful need to know got the better of me. I went against my instinct. After two months on top of the DVD player, I caved.

I hit play, and began to watch United 93.

I guess the first question is obvious: why would anyone want to watch this? I guess it's human nature to wonder about the darker aspects of existence, particularly the sudden end of that existence. We watch TV shows about forensic investigators, read books about serial killers, drive slowly by car accidents. So there's that, for starters. But there's also an essential mystery of what we now casually refer to as "9/11". Five years on, we know quite a bit about that hideous day. We know the events. We know how those events made us feel. We know who we believe was responsible for those events. (Those of us who happen to be President of the United States seem to have that last part wrong, but there's no changing that.) But no matter how much information we've culled together, we still don't really know what went on in those planes, and we're never going to. People came out of the Towers; no one came out of those planes. We can't know the awful truth.

So we make a guess.

Which I suppose answers the next question: why on earth would you make this movie? I guess you could say that it's an effort to recognize the heroism on that awful day. Indeed, in addition to the passengers of the ill-fated flight, United 93 shows us baffled air traffic controllers, frustrated bureaucrats, and desperate military commanders all struggling to cope with an impossible situation. A lot of people did their best under terrible circumstances, and that is captured in the film.

But the thing is, those intense scenes in the national air traffic control center? We can trust in those scenes, because we can back them up. Several of the people in those scenes are playing themselves. They were actually there. They can testify to what we're seeing. Onboard that plane, all we can do is guess. It's a very educated guess, and it looks real, but it's still a guess, which means it's not real at all. Did a hijacker hesitate to act? Did a passenger try to warn the hijackers about the revolt? Did the passengers break through the cockpit? We don't know, we don't know, and we don't think so but we don't know. So despite everything -- the research, the authenticity, the good intentions -- what we have is a work of fiction. Which begs my final question: what is it exactly we want to see?

Director Paul Greengrass has accomplished a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Possibly more than any movie I've ever scene, I had the sensation of watching something real. The combination of documentary-style cinematography, improvisational acting, and well-known subject matter makes for a very realistic presentation. In particular, the use of real-time is expert. More than ever before, I gained a sense of the speed with which the passengers aboard Flight 93 had to make their ultimate decision. It's a mortifying realization.

It's a measure of the commitment of everyone on this project that I can single out the only actor I recognized, Christian Clemenson, and tell you that I have never seen him do work anything like this. I remember him as a nebbish in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., an officious nerd in Apollo 13, and a jittery freakshow in Boston Legal. His performance here as Tom Burnett is a marvel of composure. Everyone associated with this film buried themselves in the task at hand -- honoring this moment in history. And they've succeeded.

But what I keep coming back to is this: I respect this movie. I even have admiration for what it accomplishes. But I really, really hate it. Because it isn't really a movie. There's no suspense; we know every beat of the story. There's no arc. United 93 is essentially a stunt. It's a meticulous re-creation of a mass murder, and it doesn't get me anywhere. Can a movie capture the particulars of a real-life event in such a way that it feels real? So much so that even the moments which are categorically unreal also feel real? Can the finest artists and craftsmen re-create the dread and disgust and horror of one of the defining historical moments of my time for my viewing pleasure?

Yes. Yes, they can. And I feel no better for knowing the answer, and a little worse for having decided to find out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

You Are Unique

We were visited by sadness again last week, as Clair's grandmother Hazel passed away last Friday. This came only two weeks after the death of her husband. She was 95.

It's not my intention for this to be the most depressing blog on the internet. Sometimes, that's just how it works out. The saying goes that God does not give us more than we handle, but one has to wonder what gave God the idea that the Clairmont family should have to handle so much.

As was true of Clair's grandfather, I did not get to see Hazel Clairmont at the peak of her powers. Evidently, she was very much the driving force in the family. If she said the grandkids were going to put on a Christmas pageant, then by gum, they were. (It seems there were minor skirmishes over who would get to be Mary and who would have to be a shepherd.) I got a small taste of this a few years ago, when we visited Alexandria at Christmastime, and Hazel instructed us to lead off the caroling. Well, we certainly weren't going to say no.

She lost her eyesight about six years ago, which was surely a major blow to someone who prided herself on being in charge. But to the extent that it bothered her, she was determined not to let it show. Clair tells me that she could still remember exactly where everything in her house was, far better than people whose eyesight was as strong as ever. Indeed, next to her chair in her apartment, she had a tray that was divided into many compartments, and each compartment had a very specific purpose. (Several of them had candy. A little bit of a sweet tooth.) In a way, her meticulous mind was well-suited to her failing vision. Being very organized came naturally to her.

My favorite moment with Hazel goes back to that blessing ceremony. Actually, the lunch afterwords. We went to this fancy country club outside Alexandria called Arrowwood, and the restaurant looked out over a lake. The colors were remarkable that day; a mix of yellow and red and gray, and the reflection of the clouds off the lake was very striking. Several people commented on it, but I could tell that Hazel wasn't getting enough information to understand it. She knew Arrowwood. She'd been there plenty of times. But she had no perspective. So, when a break came in the conversation, I spoke up and began to describe her surroundings to her. I explained how the fireplace was behind her, and the kitchen was ahead. I told her how the windows were off to her left, and I did my best to describe the unusual sky. If my journalism degree was going to be worth a penny, I was going to capture this moment in great detail.

Hazel perked up, and she seemed to be able to picture the scene. Except for having our marriage blessed, it was my proudest moment of the day.

Hazel was a schoolteacher, and in his outstanding eulogy, Clair's father read aloud a sort of poem-credo that she wrote for her grandchildren. It was very inspiring, precisely the kind of thing that a good teacher would prepare for her students. It was titled, "You Are Unique". And any woman who would strive to convey that message to her family is a remarkable woman indeed.

Hazel Clairmont

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Chapter 2 takes us up to Alfred Hitchcock's 21st year, the point at whichwe traditionally think that a person's life really gets going. Our boy Alfred, however, has no intention of sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Aftera several months of higher education, 14-year old Hitch decides he's had just about enough of school life, and lands a job with the W. T. Henley Telegraph Works, where his job is to measure the size and voltage of cables. For those of you considering going to USC Film School to break into the movie business, you may want to consider an alternate route.

Of course, he doesn't stay with this drudgery. He soon moves up through the ranks, and he does three crucial things that will pave the way for his future.

1. He moves into the design department. He ends up working on industrial publications and advertising material, and learns a great deal about how to use layout and imagery to capture people's attention. One of his noteworthy products was an elaborate brochure advertising lighting for churches, which he illustrated with -- in a nice bit of career foreshadowing -- a coffin.
2. He gets along great with everybody. Hitch was very popular at Henley, and people would go to great lengths for him (which will become relevant in a moment). He led many of the company's intramural activities, including sports teams. Most crucially, however, was his role as founder and editor of the Henley Telegraph, the in-house magazine. It was a very popular publication, and for it...
3. He wrote several short stories. This is perhaps the most noteworthy part of this chapter, because McGilligan reprints several of Hitchcock's first published writings. It's our first look at Hitchcock the Storyteller, and as our biographer goes to great pains to point out, these early tales give us a sneal peek at popular Hitchcockian themes. Confinement, voyeurism, twist endings, they're all in here.

This is fascinating, because unlike, say, an M. Night Shyamalan, Hitchcock never wrote his own movies. So it's tempting to say that he was skilled at setting a mood more than telling a story. However, these short stories prove that Hitchcock was quite capable of acting as writer. He clearly just didn't feel the need to spend time writing specific plots and dialogue. Someone else could do that; Hitch would then do the real writing on film.

Speaking of film, the movie business also makes its first appearance here. The Famous Players-Lasky Company announces plans to open up a studio in London, and begins hiring for all positions. Meanwhile, young Alfred Hitchcock, after seven years in the electrical business, has been reading screen trade magazines and writing stories. The next step is obvious.

Hitchcock's actions show a great deal of confidence and chutzpah. Applying for a job as a title card designer (the movies were still silent, you see), Hitch gets word that Famous-Lasky is going to make a certain book into a film. So he buys a copy, reads it cover-to-cover, and proceeds to turn the whole book into a title card script. The movie people admire his spunk, but do not hire him. Undeterred, he does it again for another book. This time, he even convinces several of his co-workers to help him assemble his portfolio. So respected is Alfred Hitchcock among his co-workers that not only do they help him, but management blithely looks the other way. I can hardly imagine a similar scenario today. It definitely pays to be nice.

This second effort persuades Famous-Lasky that they've got a real dedicated fellow on their hands, and this takes us to 1921. Alfred Hitchcock has a new job in the movies. He's going to write title cards. He's only 21. I predict big things for this guy. We may very well be watching a film soon.

Oh, and he might even have his eye on a girl. Stick around.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fair Warning

Some people prefer high-stakes poker. Others would rather parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. Still more like to tempt fate by snorting Diazinon crystals. But for my money, it would be hard to top the adrenaline rush that accompanied the Wilsons’ introduction into the cutthroat, fast-paced world of decorative art auctioneering.

To understand how we found ourselves in a room in Oak Park looking at Shaker duck decoys, it’s necessary to take a quick trip into some ugly family history. Let’s step back a little over a year ago, when Clair’s grandmother passed away. (Yes, my blog is death 24-7 these days.) You see, the Davises, Mary Ellen & Jerry, were very gifted collectors. They ran a department store, (which got a mention in Time when the U. S. Government attempted to destroy it with a nuclear bomb), so they become connoisseurs of modern furniture. In addition, Jerry’s upbringing out west brought him into direct contact with several Native American tribes, so he became an astute collector of baskets and rugs. A visit to the Davis home in Kanab, Utah, was evidently like entering a mashup of the MoMA and the Museum of the American Indian.

When Mary Ellen died, she left all of this stuff that was collected over the years to her son. This became an immediate source of friction, since (a) she left none of it to her daughter, and (b) her kids hate each other. The reasons for this are complicated, and I think there's plenty of blame to go around. Nevertheless, you might imagine that, even in the worst of circumstances, had this happened to you, you would still have to admit that family is family, and you would set aside your petty differences for this one moment, and you might be magnanimous and permit your siblings to choose one or two items to keep, as a remembrance of your parents and to carry on the family's history.

If this sounds like you, then you would have been woefully out-of-place at this funeral. I've never encountered an environment as toxic as this one. Put it this way: there was a security guard at the house after the funeral, presumably to make sure we didn't abscond with anything. This, needless to say, did not clear the air. My advice to you: stay on good terms with your brothers and sisters.

The upshot of all this, after all the finger-pointing and threats of legal action and whatnot subsided, was that Clair's uncle decided to sell everything. Every basket, every chair, even a sculpture signed by Mary Ellen that she might have made herself. No nostalgia. No legacy. All gone. The whole shebang.

The furniture, which featured Herman Miller cabinetry and a Noguchi coffee table, was sold in December. At a really basic level, this is just sad. What kicks it up a notch to annoying is that Clair and I didn't hear about it until January. It's hard to know if that was designed to prevent us from getting anything or just a maneuver to stop any attempt to halt the sale. Doesn't matter now, I guess. But amidst the nastiness, I saw a glimmer of hope.

A second auction. In March.

The baskets.

For the past two weeks, Clair and I have been assembling a package of information and money to try and keep at least a few of these baskets in one branch of the family or another. Between ourselves, Clair's mom, and her brother, we put together a decent little bankroll for heritage reclamation. Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.

We had actually looked at the whole collection the week before, but Clair was getting a case of the nerves, so on Saturday -- the day before the auction -- we went back to see everything again. There were only a few of us the first time, but the gallery was packed on this day. People pawing over everything, like some upscale garage sale. It was a little unsettling.

Of particular concern was a mousy-looking man who looked like a dorkier version of the father from Cakey! The Cake From Outer Space. He wore a polo shirt that said "National Counterterrorism Center," wielded a digital camera, and hovered over a few of Mary Ellen's baskets with unsettling intensity. I'll just come out and say it: he gave off a strong pedophile vibe.

At one point, Mr. Counterterrorism Pedophile -- who was staring at a particular basket with a diamond pattern like he was taking a color-blindness test -- snapped his fingers melodramatically and announced, "Of course! He'll know!" A security guard and I exchanged glances, as we silently agreed that it was time for the ham to come out of the oven. But there was still overcooking to be done. Later, when the lech answered his cell phone, did a bad-spy glance-around, and stage-whispered into the phone, "Oh, yes, this looks very good," like he was in The Second Thomas Crown Affair. Trust me, if you see this guy around your kid's school, shoot first.

Sunday morning was nervous indeed, as we gathered our wits and our study aids one last time. The large crowd, plus the antics of Agent 00Dork, had made us nervous. Clair warned her family to prepare for the worst. And then, like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy off to foil the Duke Brothers, we marched into the gallery, ready for battle.

Our first item of interest didn't show up until the late 300s, We arrived a little before #100. So I took this as an opportunity to study. And man, did I get an education. You've heard about auctions. You've seen movies. You've visited eBay. They're fast. But until you're actually in one, you can't possibly know what that means. Let me put it this way: this gallery sold nearly 1200 lots yesterday. They averaged about 100 lots per hour. Sweet jeepers.

Try and imagine something between a genteel auction of some Picasso and a livestock sale. Take the calmness of the former and the speed of the latter and you will sort of get a sense of how this went down. A nice woman would rapidly plow through a series of numbers which turned out to be bids, while people on telephones took orders, and the occasional spectator threw out a bid on a hideous green vase. At the end of each lot, the auctioneer would announce "fair warning" to signal that this was the last chance. But she did it in this high-pitched, sing-song way that, written down, might look like this:


That still rings in my ears.

Finally, the first item on our list appeared. I consulted our chart. We weren't too interested in it, but I wanted to gauge the market.

It went for $2,300.

That's a lot of money.

Several more lots would go by before I mustered all my courage and raised my paddle for the first time. And then there was a lot of blurry stuff I don't really remember, and there was a "FAIR war-NEENGGG" in there somewhere, and then we had won ourselves a basket. For $1,900.

That's a lot of money.

After that, the adrenalin never really stopped. Items came, items went, won a few, lost a few. Purely from a spectator's point of view, the highlight of the day was this item:

It's a Mission basket with a snake coiling around the bowl and an insect near the top. My mother-in-law didn't think she wanted it, because it creeped her out as a child. Still, it was in very good condition, and looked unusual. It was valued around $3,000, but we kept it in the back of our minds.

In no time, the bids were approaching $4,000, and with several important items still to come, I quickly gave up. But as the price continued to rise, I switched to fascination. And you could tell everyone in the room felt the same way. Two telephone bidders were going at it against each other. After $10,000, a man in front of us turned around with a look a "what-the-hell" expression. And still, the price climbed. And climbed. And climbed.

Final sale price: $25,000. Plus another $5,000 for the house.

We informed Clair's mom by text message, and her response was immediate: "Casino money." It seems that all those Native Americans who deal poker on tribal lands are using their profits to buy back all their treasures. And even though this treasure probably didn't date back more than 50 or 60 years, they wanted it just the same. And I just know that's who the Pedophile Spy was working for.

Fortunately, they didn't want everything. As the day wore on, I clutched our paddle nervously, managed to eke out several victories, including:

A Pima basket with a horse:

A Tlingit basket with lid (at Clair's urging; good call):

An adorable little Shoshoni basket (2 inches high) with a teeny-tiny handle; this picture is pretty close to actual size:

And the only non-basket item on our list, a Navajo rug covered with what the catalog called "a whirling log pattern", and what Clair's mom says the Navajos referred to as "thunderbirds", but which most people will identify as "inappropriate":

Look, they were around long before the Nazis, and meant something totally different to the Navajo people. We're not evil. You really have to trust me on this one.

When the smoke cleared, we had managed to acquire about a third of Mary Ellen's collection, and didn't bankrupt ourselves to do it. We didn't get everything; in particular, an item my mother-in-law wanted dearly went to the casino people for $15,000. But we got a lot, and we got most of the things that we wanted the most.

While checking out, we managed to bethe official auction buzzkill as people learned the reason for our buying spree. (It seems "eager collectors" is a much happier story that "heritage salvagers".) We retrieved our half of our basket bounty (the other half being shipped to Clair's mom), and retreated to a restaurant around the corner for food and drink and decompression.

"We did alright, Clair," I said over a rare glass of wine.

"We did good," she said.

And it felt good. I had successfully bid on valuable items at a live auction. I had confronted an extremely tense situation and emerged victorious. I had helped to restore some of the legacy of my wife's family. It felt real good.

And let's just not have to do that ever again. Okay?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Next Time on Xenora, Queen of Battle...

The weekly edition of You Don't Know Jack made its debut yesterday. I know how hard they worked on it, and it shows. It's fun, and funny, as you would expect. I assume you've been playing the Daily DisOrDat all along, but this link here should take you straight to the full game. It's called "Episode 1", just in case you get lost.

The first question - the very first regular ol' trivia question to mark the return of Jack - was written by me.

This strikes me as the most perfect definition of the word "bittersweet" that I have ever encountered.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: The Boy Who Would Be King of Scaring the Crap Out of You

And so it begins.

Starting off a biography is a tricky business. The very beginning of a person's life is usually the least interesting part. There's the being born and the growing up and stuff, but a lot of that is passive, and rarely has anything to do with the reason that this person got a biography written about them. Unless you're someone like Wayne Gretzky, I guess. He pretty much came out of the womb shooting goals.

So, what to do? You could just skip the whole thing entirely, and start out at the cool part. Your quickie biographies, like your Scholastic Books bio of Justin Timberlake, is like this. If your family is famous enough, like a John F. Kennedy, you can let them handle the narrative for a while, until you're grown up enough to start doing things on your own. Or you can always go for the long view. A biography of Neil Armstrong I thumbed through began hundreds of years ago, with some ancestor slogging through France or something.

Patrick McGilligan opts for this approach: everything matters. After a brief introduction, we start in on the very origin of Alfred Hitchcock's name (Hich was a corruption of Rich, as in King Richard the Lionheart), and then get right into the settling of his family on the outskirts of London. Fortunately, Hitchcock himself never strays far from the narrative. No matter how far removed from the man the story goes, he's still very present. Consider the tale McGilligan relates about how Hitchcock would introduce himself. "It's Hitch," the director would drawl, hesitating for the maximum shock value, "without the cock." This punctuates the etymology lesson.

This can get a little extreme. When a favorite aunt travels to Africa, the basket she is carried in is compared to one in Torn Curtain. A favorite author of young Alfred's later turns up as the reading material for a character in Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock's home had a staircase, and staircases figure prominently in his movies. It's a little heavy-handed. "Get it? Do you get it? It all started here! It all makes sense now!"

But hey, we all like to play armchair psychiatrist, and is the author didn't make connections, we would. Nowhere is this more evident than in the legendary tale of little Alfred Hitchcock in prison. Alfred's father, so the story goes, caught him doing something bad, and promptly took him down to the police station. There, he made a little arrangement with the local constable, who locked the boy in a bare cell, saying, "This is what we do to boys who've been naughty." After a few minutes, they came and got him out, and his dad told him to learn a lesson from this.

It's an interesting story, because so many of Hitchcock's narratives revolve around a man wrongfully accused of a crime. So he was thrown in jail, you think, and he knew he was innocent, and horror and despair overcame him, and then he turned his childhood terrors into movies. It all makes sense now!

But is it true? Hitchcock himself told the story, and yet his knack for storytelling makes him somewhat unreliable. His sister also confirmed it, but several key facts don't match up. If there's any definitive proof that it's true, it lies in the fact the Hitchcock was petrified of the police all his life. McGilligan hints that this fear stayed with Hitchcock all his life. If you're going to develop a lifelong phobia, this seems like the kind of childhood trauma that would do it.

A reader is probably strongly inclined to believe this story, if only because we need the drama. Alfred's early life is pretty happy. His father, first a greengrocer and then a fishmonger, is reasonably successful, and the family lives well. A devout Catholic family in Protestant England, Alfred goes to several very good private schools. (He was punished once for a minor infraction, and regretted it so deeply, he seems to have gone on the straight-and-narrow ever since. It all makes sense now!) The only dark stories are the ones he reads in Grimm's Fairy Tales, a favorite early book, and the ones he hears in the news, like the Crippen murder. All in all, it's a very happy childhood, and you'd be hard-pressed to find the dark side. Well, actually, Hitchcock could find the dark side. For example, he said, "The Bible can't be bettered for gruesome stories." So maybe this is just a guy who's born to like scary stories.

This last point is very important, because it relates to something McGilligan brings up for the first time (and I'm sure he's not done). An earlier biography about Hitchcock written by a man named Donald Spoto was called The Dark Side of Genius, and apparently portrays the master filmmaker as a monstrous individual, manipulative and cruel. McGilligan is clearly going to spend a lot of time debunking this portrait. The picture we've got so far is of a dutiful and earnest little boy, eager to please, troubled by little, kind of quiet...but with an early taste for things with a hint of the macabre.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899. As we end Chapter 1, it is 1913. Still more education awaits us, as well as early attempts at gainful employment. The movies do not yet beckon...