The 39 Shots

Creator's Statement

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).

Memory text

The woman lay on the carpet in her living room. She was old enough to be my mother. She was wearing a robe, I think. I could tell she was drunk or on drugs because she hallucinated a white animal in front of her, which quickly vanished. She then passed out. This was not something I had ever seen, not at that time. The banality of the living room setting and the lack of music created an unsettling mood. There was something threatening and sinister about what I was seeing. Even the animal scared me, because it didn’t belong there. Where did it come from? Was the woman dying?

She was not dying, but somebody else was. This woman was much younger and didn’t seem to realize she was in danger… until it was too late. The older father figure suddenly appeared, giggling maniacally. I was scared; traumatized already. The giggling family man ran after her and grabbed her as she screamed. I recall he was wearing rubber gloves. Even I could tell at age 10 that those gloves meant his intent was to kill.

Was it strangulation? I don’t remember that part too clearly. But there was a merciless close-up of her fingernail, and the killer slid something tiny and pointed underneath it. The whole murder seemed to take place in real time. The editing was not meant to keep you in delicious suspense, like a Hitchcock film. This was the first murder I ever watched from start to finish and it occurred in the comfort of my TV room. Were my parents even there? They must have been watching as well… but had they known how this media object would scar me… they might have turned off the television. 

Author’s reflection on the video

I was surprised how confidently the video maker (Ariel Avissar) turned the conceit of the video to be about Hitchcockian themes. The prompt was to write something deliberately vague, which I did. But I think I was half expecting that my source would be obvious. I was surprised to see how well my text lent itself to a Hitchcockian analysis, when in fact, my thoughts had nothing to do with that director’s work. My favorite parts of Avissar’s video were when there was a brilliant synchresis between my text and the visual from the Hitchcock film. The best example of that being the final shot, which paired my description of “turning off the television” with an image of several TVs in a shop window. 

With the exception of The Trouble with Harry (1955), Avissar purposefully avoids using any of the overused or unmistakable classic shots from Hitchcock’s films, which would inevitably distract the viewer from the overall anonymity of the exercise. Avissar’s aim to strip the clips of their context and match them with appropriate excerpts of my text created a sustained, threatening mood which was well-suited to my memory of seeing a disturbing murder on television when I was a child. Avissar and I briefly discussed his video and he revealed to me that he knew my memory was not of Hitchcock but it was all he could think about when editing. To me this reinforces the wisdom of following one’s whims when making video essays; they can often lead you to a creative solution. 


Philip Józef Brubaker is a writer and filmmaker who makes videographic non-fiction about the art form of cinema and his relation to it. He studied at the Rogue Film School with Werner Herzog and the Experimental Documentary MFA at Duke University. He has made 100 video essays for and is known around the globe for his work.