In our prompt for this project, we noted that the texts should include no identifying features of the films to which they responded. The text I received, however, included a lengthy, detailed description of the (primal?) scene that had evoked such a strong reaction in the author, Philip Brubaker. I must not have seen the film in question, and so did not recognize the scene and had no idea what film it was from (I still don’t!). Not that I made any attempt to find out; not knowing seemed more productive.
In fact, the only thing I did know about the film, with absolute certainty – since this was explicitly stated in the text – was that it was decidedly NOT a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
And so, naturally, all I could think of was Hitchcock.
I went through – then proceeded to discard – many different ideas and concepts for the video, all of which involved Hitchcock in some way. One of my first points of reference was his famous quote, which seemed apropos to the text: “One of television's great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.” I looked for different ways of connecting my Hitchcock obsession to the debate on violence and television; I perused as many of his appearances on the small screen as I could find, as self-deprecating auteur-interviewee and as the droll, fourth-wall-breaking, episode-bookending monologist of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At one point I considered remixing the shower scene from Psycho (1960) with its almost shot-for-shot parody from an early episode of The Simpsons, in which Maggie, eternal toddler that she is, violently attacks Homer, mimicking the violent behaviour she has just witnessed on the television screen (courtesy of Itchy and Scratchy, of course).
When those – and several other ideas – did not produce anything that seemed worthwhile, I began playing around with the text itself, transforming and deforming it in various ways. I tried running the text through different AI text-to-image generators; here is one result out of many:
I tried rendering it as this word-art:
In a fit of despair, I even tried running it through Google Translate, going through every available language and back again; while this did not end up helping me in any way, it did, after several iterations, distil the entirety of the text into this lovely quasi-haiku:
He looked at the chicken.
Becky, six years after the war.
My parents sing, watch TV.
Nothing seemed to click.
Eventually, I broke the text apart into short, distinct clauses, and ended up with 39 of them. 39, all things Hitchcock considered, was not a random number to end up with; I knew I was on the right track. This was when the final concept – and the title – for the video were made clear to me. I proceeded to browse through the first 39 Hitchcock films I could get my hands on, in search of a single shot from each film, to match against these 39 fragments of text. Finding and sifting through these 39 films took quite some time; matching the shots to the text and editing them in sequence, however, was highly intuitive. After one sitting, I ended up with a first draft that was quite close to the final cut.
And while the sequence described by Brubaker was, of course, not staged by the Master of Suspense, I was surprised to find, in the process of editing, just how “Hitchcockian” the imagery evoked by the text actually turned out to be. Though perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the text’s fascination with violent father figures and helpless female victims, with murder and strangulation, and the heightened state of suspense it recounts.
I believe I spent more time working on this video than on any other I’ve made to date; most of that time went into chasing dead ends, trying out various ideas that never came to fruition, rather than actually making the video you see here. This was at times frustrating; when nothing seemed to work, I thought I might go a little mad. Sometimes. However, the different concepts I cycled through not only seem, retroactively, like necessary steps toward the final result, but have also been productive in their own right, forcing me to think and rethink my approach, leading me places I wouldn’t have thought I’d end up in, and perhaps sowing seeds for some future experiments I might go on to make. So that in retrospect, these were - if nothing else - productive failures.
Ariel Avissar is a PhD student and Tisch Film School Scholar at Tel Aviv University. His videographic collaborations include “Once Upon a Screen” (co-edited with Evelyn Kreutzer) and the “TV Dictionary.” He is an associate editor at [in]Transition and has also co-edited Sight & Sound’s “Best Video Essays” poll (2019-2021).