Friday, January 24, 2020

North by northwest

Serge Daney described how his move from Cahiers to Libération "liberated" him, how the pressure to publish almost daily unleashed his creativity and how he enjoyed being the "the absolute master of his page". 
I wrote a lot. After all, it was articles of five or six times the basic 1,500 characters units, because at the time, we didn't have any advertising at first, so we did the whole page. I've even had that extraordinary pleasure of writing an article, spending almost the whole night on it, of bringing it the next day to the paper, following it through to the press, of leaving, at the time at one in the morning, and I saw it composed, and I even helped the editor to put on a title, a caption etc. (...) For me, my page was like, like a film. I did the captions, I did the title, I did everything. [Journey of a cine-son]
Here's perhaps the most famous example.

North by northwest  
Snobbery didn’t work. We’ve always said La mort aux trousses*, never North by Northwest. Yet, inside the luxury train heading north by northwest, one of the most torrid scenes ever imagined by Hitchcock – a salacious filmmaker – takes place. Eve Kendall (who’s engaged in at least triple-crossing, hence her unease) welcomes in her compartment Roger Thornhill (a great clumsy oaf still very close to his mother). The case is clear: they will kiss.  
A few years ago, a discrete survey of avid Parisian cinema-goers asked: for you, what is the most beautiful film kiss? Not making out, not a snog, not a bite, but a kiss. The answers often mentioned this kiss, with Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. Why?  
Take a 35mm copy of North by Northwest and directly extract the images from that scene. You’ll obtain 3,426 images (called photograms). Put these photograms end-to-end, like in an intellectually perverse picture story, and what can you see?  
Firstly that, as Truffaut says, Hitchcock has always filmed love scenes like murders (and vice versa). Look at Cary Grant’s vicious and Brechtian look, his long hairy hands searching for a neck to strangle, the cold sensuality, the calculating euphoria. Look at Eva Marie Saint’s old skeleton’s hands, her large forehead, her overplayed ecstasy. Many things happen in a kissing shot. Many mixed things.  
North by Northwest is the right title. Like Cary Grant, the cinema audience is losing its bearings. Hitchcock is a machine: he knows where the north is (meaning the dénouement, the last stop, Mount Rushmore). But one never goes straight up north. One goes there by northwest. The real film, the one that you hallucinate and that feeds your most enduring dreams, is the northwest. The film heads north; the photograms – the unknown flesh of a film – head northwest. Here’s a “west” page.  
* The French title of the film, literally: death on the tail. [translator's note]
First published in Libération, 25 June 1982. Reprinted in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

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