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Poetry about Alfred Hitchcock
Just available now comes Lyn Lifshin’s Hitchcock Hotel, from Stonesthrow Poetry (available via Amazon.com, as a Kindle e-book). Alfred Hitchcock is the director most associated with things creepy, and Halloween is the most frightening day on the calendar until Election Day!
Lifshin has not written a series of poems about Hitchcock’s films. That would be a yawn. Instead, the poems are about Hitchcock and his problematic personality. And that makes this book of poems unique.
Sir Alfred died worrying that he had become irrelevant to modern audiences. 1970’s audiences and later ones often found his films the opposite of frightening. The ‘master of the macabre’ (or was that William Castle?) actually made only a film and a half to earn him horror movie status: Psycho and parts of The Birds and Frenzy.
The rest of Hitchcock’s films are suspense films, not horror or even frightening. However, it turns out his personality was frightening.
Hitchcock made Psycho partly because he was worried about becoming irrelevant. The audience wanted violence and being frightened? He decided to give it to them, in spades! And, by the time it came out, audiences were ready for a major switch in the pacing of thrillers and how much violence they saw onscreen.
Hitchcock’s films remain interesting for many reasons, among them how they reflect creepy aspects of his personality. A recent HBO film explored Tippi Hedren’s abuse problems with Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, depicting him as a stalker, demanding sex from her and destroying her career when she refused. An upcoming theatrical film, starring Anthony Hopkins, apparently is about Hitchcock’s insecurities leading up to Psycho.
Lyn Lifshin, who has written more books of poetry than most libraries own, takes on Hitchcock in her new collection, available in the Kindle format. Lifshin has periodically written books built around central themes. Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, about a race horse, is probably the best known. A recent book, Tango, Knife Edge & Absinthe (out from Night Ballet Press, and to be reviewed here soon) is a series of poems built around the Tango.
Building a series of poems about Hitchcock, Lifshin did not simply watch the movies. This poet did research! The poems contain details of interviews with Hitchcock, various bits from his life, and some poems about his rarely mentioned wife, Alma. Lifshin seems to KNOW the guy.
So here is one artist, a poet with her words, assessing the personality of another artist, a poet with his films. She is tall and blonde and dances ballet; he, as Tippi Hedren has claimed, was so fat and ugly he had to blackmail women into sex. Lifshin is a very strong woman, Hitchcock loved in real life controlling women.
Expect fireworks from these poems.
So what do we get? First, the recognition that Hitchcock’s films resemble in eerie ways his personality and life (just as a poet’s work resembles hers). That a creepy guy made creepy movies ain’t hard to believe.
AS IF THERE WAS A HUGE
Not Mr. Nice Guy. .
Reflected within Hitchcock’s films are his obsessions with women, especially focusing on cool blondes with fire inside. Dial M for Murder has been characterized as Hitchcock reflecting himself through the murderer, noting the character played by Ray Milland directs the murderer on how he wants his wife killed. How many films reflect aspects of his personality? All of them. That is why a Hitchcock film is a Hitchcock film, duh. How many of the films reflect stories from his own life, are allegories about his experiences and desires? Probably, in the central plots, all of the films Hitchcock made on his own, starting with Rope. As Lifshin notes, Hitchcock shifted plots to reflect his own experiences, becoming more and more extreme as he went on, leading to Frenzy, which features a ghastly explicit rape/murder sequence which forces the viewer to become a voyeur far more than Hitchcock’s other films had. Frenzy is both Hitchcock’s most “modern” film and his most revolting.
One of Hitchcock’s favourite approaches is to find fear in the disruption of the expected. In The Birds he found a perfect allegory—birds, for no given reason, break the usual chirping routine and instead begin attacking humans. There is no explanation for why the attacks begin and no idea when they will end. No safe place exists, no refuge is possible: outside is deadly, but being inside is not much better. Several of Lifshin’s poems are about that film:
WHEN THE JUNGLE GYM FILLS WITH BLACK BIRDS
When black birds dot
The Birds was Hitchcock’s last great film. The glory days were behind him. His techniques were indeed outdated for audiences brought up on receiving a ‘bump’ every few minutes, first introduced by the James Bond film Dr. No. Hitchcock was happy with three or four major suspense sequences in an entire film, but Dr. No gave audiences major sequences every three or four minutes. The pacing was much faster, and what followed for Hitchcock was increasing decreasing results, as it were. Marnie, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Family Plot—only cinephiles who have not seen these films describe them as masterpieces.
Hitchcock knew this, and in his later years rested on laurels which were lost on a younger audience. See how Lifshin describes a rare public interview Hitchcock gave:
ALFRED HITCHCOCK IS INTERVIEWED ON JAMES LIPTON’S ACTOR’S STUDIO
He’s reluctant, in a way,
Take the poem in the larger context. It’s all about the aging artist basking in the dying glow of fading work. It is easy to believe that this image of Hitchcock is quite true—in many respects he was going through the motions after Marnie. His films came farther apart, and increasingly appeared to reflect past glories. Frenzy feels desperate to attract an audience.
HE WAS OBSESSED WITH MONEY
as if it was power, a mask
It is entirely possible to conclude at this point that Ms. Lifshin does not think a huge amount of Sir Alfred as a person, good fellow or gentleman.
as if sure everyone
There was one strong woman in Hitchcock’s life—his life partner, and film-making partner. Lifshin writes about her and what she faced in life as Hitchcock’s wife:
with her dark cloche hat half over her eyes
Lifshin, as always, writes clearly, crisply. Her assessment of Hitchcock is honest and as direct as can be. In the end, does she think Hitchcock learned anything about himself before he died? As one last thought, quite suitable for Halloween:
HITCH WRITES TO TIPPI FROM THE GRAVE
under the tangle of roots and leaves,
"Hitchcock. The mere name, a touchstone of the macabre. Creator of countless memories and thrills, mysteries and chills. Yet, the indelible stories he told, the masterpieces he created, must stand astride the cannily crafted mythos of Hitchcock himself. In HITCHCOCK HOTEL, poet Lyn Lifshin journeys into this vast penumbra of platinum women, psychosis, and frenzied brilliance to unmask the man hidden behind the torn curtain at the rear window of our imaginations." — Publisher's blurb
A review from Amazon customer:
In Hitchcock Hotel, Lyn draws in Alma, his "drab" wife "on the sidelines" contrasting his "lovelies" all obsessively-blonde in his movies. "Birds are eerie music" to his loneliness as Lyn pecks apart his life in this stunning group of poems, each more intense than the last. Hitchcock is caged, except thru the lens of his camera where he is in control. He makes the blondes suffer as depicted in Lyn's poems as she points the lens at him with her pen. Interesting and a great read.