Alfred Hitchcock’s Grammar

Michael Hess Click to

HessMichael Hess is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Toronto.  His films have played at the NYU Director’s Series, NewFest, The American Cinemataque, The Kansas International Film Festival and The Beloit International Film Festival.  His writing has appeared in Glassworks, The Outrider Review, Red Savina Review, Alleycat News, Glitterwolf, and the upcoming anthology Creativity and Restraint.  He previously worked for Goldman Sachs.

The sun was shining and it was one hundred degrees, hot, very hot, but I was drinking lots of water and feeling that I could peddle for the rest of the day and into the night. I was on the Martin Goodman trail in Toronto moving east. I had just passed the memorial to Leanne Freeman on Unwin Avenue by the Richard L. Hearn Generation Station. The memorial is an engraved stone with the words, “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal / Love leaves a memory no one can steal.” I see this memorial whenever I pass by and always imagine the carnage on the scene that day. Leanne probably didn’t even know what hit her when the bullet discharged from the gun held by Joseph Beauregard and pierced her skull. She was dumped in the middle of this street where they found her, a street deserted on that night and other nights, but one populated by bikers, like myself, and other active people during the day.

Suddenly, something slammed into my helmet. It wasn’t a forceful hit, but it is strong enough to knock me off balance. I fall easily but I did not fall on this day. Black wings were beating around me furiously. It was some sort of bird. There was something oddly disconcerting in having a two-and-a-half ounce creature repeatedly plunge into my head with beak and claw. The helmet I wore to protect my noggin from the impact of collisions proved a solid defense from the attack of the angry bird. I was stunned, but would be fine. For the rest of the day—for the rest of my life—I would be on the lookout for all those things that strike from out of the blue.

A panic attack is an internal event that strikes from out of the blue. One could be said to have had a panic attack, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., if there is “a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes”: heart palpitations, rapid heart beat, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain, abdominal distress, lightheadedness, derealization (feelings of unreality), depersonalization (being detached from oneself), fear of losing control or going crazy, or a fear of dying. Panic attacks occur in 3.5 percent of the adult population in the United States and, I would presume, about the same percent of the population in Canada. They are treated, as almost every other mental event, with a combination of medication and therapy, if they are treated at all. The most common medications for the treatment of panic attacks are antidepressants (SSRIs such as Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac) and benzodiazepines (Xanax and Klonopin). The medications may or may not work. A panic attack may or may not recur. To calm patients who have had or are having a panic attack, doctors and therapists have been known to incant that “no one has ever died of a panic attack.” While the experience may be uncomfortable, they explain, it will not cause mortal harm. This is not entirely true. A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry demonstrated that post-menopausal women who had “reported at least 1 panic attack in the previous 6 months were at increased risk of subsequent cardiovascular events….” Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a link between suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in individuals who experienced panic attacks; in fact, in a random sample of almost 20,000 people in the United States “[t]wenty percent of the subjects with panic disorder and 12% of those with panic attacks had made suicide attempts.” There were also complications, according to the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, for those who hyperventilate during a panic attack.

No one wants to endure a panic attack. But there are those who want their assumptions of safety challenged, those who want to feel panic’s edge, and one way to guarantee those results is to watch the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I was introduced to Alfred Hitchcock by my Aunt Patricia at a farmhouse in Northern Illinois. We would watch reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on, I believe, WGN Channel 9, which broadcast out of Chicago. This was a time when, weather permitting, a household in the Midwest received five channels—three local stations, 13 (ABC), 17 (NBC), 23 (CBS), and two Chicago stations, 9 (WGN) [which, in addition to Alfred Hitchcock, carried the Chicago Cubs baseball games], and Channel 11 (PBS). We purchased a TV Guide at the beginning of the week and circled or otherwise highlighted our choices so they would not be missed. This was a time before remote controls, a time when at certain hours all stations transmitted analogue snow, a time when we all had a clearer idea of how to end our days.

At the beginning of each program, the music of Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette would begin, and the silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock would enter the frame from the right and flush itself with an outline of his likeness, which was in the center of the frame. The outline of Alfred Hitchcock was drawn by Hitchcock himself. “Hitchcock’s shadow within the drawing serves a literal function as an ominous warning of imminent suspense, and symbolizes the long shadow he cast over the entire production,” claims Andrew Erish in “Reclaiming Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” The camera would pan from his shadow toward an Alfred Hitchcock not in shadow, one turned to face the camera. This effect was achieved by splicing two pieces of film on a similar movement with a similar background during the camera pan. The edit was noticeable. Alfred Hitchcock would pronounce “Good Evening” and then introduce the show and its sponsors.

While he introduced and concluded his television series to, in his own words, “give the title to those of you who can’t read, and to tidy up afterwards for those who don’t understand the endings,” he let his motion pictures speak for themselves. In The Birds we are lead to believe that a colony of birds is out to attack citizens on a California coastal town. We are never informed why this might be the case; the aggressive manner of the birds is a mystery through to the last frame. This may be one reason the film works so well. The viewer is always trying to construct a plausible motive to the bird’s behavior. In one scene, an ornithologist in a coffee shop who explains that birds do not normally act in an aggressive manner and that “they bring beauty into the world” is the only scientific information the audience is provided, in fact. This of course heightens the mystery of the bird’s behavior. For Hitchcock knew, as we all do, that experts are frequently wrong, and that something that might be right most of the time may not be right all of the time. He would also allude to the fact that animals, even human ones, have a mind of their own, and they can perform the cruelest of acts on others. They can even love each other.

Real birds in Toronto do in fact attack. “Male red-wings are highly territorial, and during mating season—from May to July—they’ll fiercely defend their multiple mates and nests (they’re the polygamous players of the feathered world),” says Stephen Michalowicz in the Torontoist. “The ones that nest in cities are also more aggressive than their rural friends.” Perhaps this is why in the rural Midwest where I grew up I never suffered an airborne avian assault. The red-winged blackbirds of my youth sat on barbed-wire fence posts and trees with their distinctive yellow and red stripe. Of course, I am describing the male red-winged blackbird. The female red-winged blackbird has no red or yellow on its wings; its feather pattern is brown and speckled, like that of the sparrow. Unlike Hitchcock’s birds, the red-winged blackbird has not been known to attack en masse nor has it been known to attack with the intent to hurt. Which is another way of saying that the red-winged blackbird is not a predator, just a little fellow trying to frighten away anything that might threaten or hurt its chicks.

This bird event occurred a day after I experienced a horror event of my own. My partner and I had been in Montreal for a funeral and, while my partner was sleeping, I had, early in the morning, a morning when the sky was blue and the sun was shining, walked out to secure a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Our hosts did not stock coffee without caffeine. The closest coffee shop, Marché Saint-Jacques at the corner of Ontario and Amherst, was closed because of Canada Day, so I walked up to rue Sainte-Catherine, which is the main street in the gay district of Montreal. During the summer the city closes the street off to motor vehicles and strings lines of pink bulbs that extend across the breadth of the street. These bulbs give the appearance and mood of a festival or carnival and, because they are pink, reinforce the gay and lesbian ethos. As I turned onto rue Sainte-Catherine, I experienced a deep feeling of intense fear and four other symptoms that developed in an abrupt fashion. The most disturbing symptom—something between depersonalization and derealization (a technicality: there are gray lines between many states of disassociation)—was the feeling that I had lost my body. I still seemed to be a living presence, my body still seemed to be moving in a normal fashion, but the agent doing the moving, presumably me, seemed suspect. Who was I? And if my body had temporarily abdicated, what was next to go?

I made a quick retreat from rue Sainte-Catherine. The panic lifted as I approached the home where my partner was sleeping. I had failed in my morning mission, allowed a psychic shock to prevent me from procuring a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Instead of heading up the stairs to the home, I walked around a few nearby blocks in order to find a hole-in-the-wall diner with a yellow checkerboard floor that (gasp!) made me a cup of Sanka. Receiving brown crystals in an orange packet with some lukewarm water seemed the perfect prop to punctuate the internal episode that I would spend the rest of the day—the rest of my life—trying to figure out.

To experience a panic attack is to confront an existential theatre in which the stage is constantly changing or not present, and in which there are no stage directions. It is to feel unsafe with the self and with thoughts of the self. It is simultaneously to accept and reject the improbability that we are all here at this moment in time and that we will not be here at another moment in time. It is to confront that which cannot be confronted, our mortal coil. Interestingly, two days after my panic attack, the New York Times ran a lead that may hold a clue to the genesis of that coil: “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe,” by Dennis Overbye. The particle they think they have isolated, the Higgs boson, which was generated in a high power accelerator, is believed to be a force field that provides mass to all elementary particles that pass through it. It is the medium that gives the world as we know it its form. “Without the Higgs field…all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.”

I do not understand enough about the science behind the physical world to enter into a discussion on the ways that matter may or may not act in the universe based on contact or immersion with a newly discovered field. I bring up the Higgs boson because, if physicists are on the right track, there is a definite challenge to the conditions upon which human life emerged. “The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws—but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry,” Overbye writes. What it seems to be saying is that we are not here because it makes cosmic sense, but because we snuck up between the cracks, like weeds in a sidewalk. If the universe can be so described and our place in it assumed so suspect, we might acknowledge that the resulting panic attack of an individual on earth may not be an inappropriate response to our emerging grand view.

Hitchcock understood how tenuous the terms of our place in the universe could be. It could be bad out there. Real bad. And the social and physical hemorrhages did not necessarily need to have a scientific or other logical explanation. The moral to his stories, if there is a moral, is always obscure. Perhaps there is a clue to his morality in an experience that Hitchcock had when he was six years old. Little Alfred had committed a small crime. His father made him carry a sealed note to the police station instructing the constable on duty to lock him up in order to teach him a lesson. The officer spoke a line to Hitchcock that day that he would never forget, “This is what we do to naughty boys.” Michael Lewis in “The Canonical Alfred Hitchcock” would explain, “Biographers have stressed the fear and shame of the incident, but it is not the incarceration that is decisive. The characteristically Hitchcockian touch is that he was made to carry unwittingly the instrument of his own punishment.”

We might take this idea a bit further. These instruments of punishment may not need to be carried physically by the individual at all; they may exist inside of him at all times as unconscious desire. Almost a century ago, Freud would provide a theory of psychic processes that hinged on the idea of the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious was produced in early life from a family drama that forced the individual to suppress his most primal wishes. These wishes did not remain hidden at all times, however. They emerged, given a prompt, in the form of dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, and symptoms, like panic attacks. It is through these channels that the individual makes himself known at certain moments, and he does it always unawares.

My astute partner would suggest that I do not speak the official language of Quebec, French, and that this might have made me feel more like an outsider than I might otherwise feel in a new city. This brings grammar into the equation of my particular panic attack. We might see this as a signal as to how important our language—our languages—really are as we confront each other and our environments. To not speak the language of a region forces us to use other means of communication, in the broadest definition, to partake in sign language—pointing to objects, facial expressions, picture drawing. It is to find ourselves using the tools of the silent film era while everyone else is able to indulge in modern sound and special effects techniques. We are behind, not current, outside. (This is not a judgment on the superiority of modern over silent motion pictures, only to offer that the former are opportunistic in their approach to storytelling and allow audience members more rapid access to filmic information.)

The red-winged blackbird that attacked me that day on the Martin Goodman trail did not hover for too long. It flew to a nearby telephone wire where it could presumably eye all those other bikers who dared pass this way. I remember thinking that I had seen those birds all my life, felt like I knew those birds. We had always lived together so peacefully. There was an urge to scream out, to try to make the bird with the red and yellow on its wing understand that I came in peace, but I knew that we spoke other languages. We were from two different parts of the animal kingdom, after all. The only thing that bound us together—Hitchcock got this right—was the violence at our cores, that atavistic pulse that resonates though all our days and nights.

Leanne was shot in the head and dumped on that deserted street in November 2011. Beauregard had an accomplice for the murder, but he was the one who held the weapon that ended her life. Leanne was at points a user of crystal meth and a prostitute, but she was trying to get her life back on track, trying to make it all work out. She had come here from a broken home in Winnipeg. She was twenty-three-years old. There is a framed photograph of Leanne hanging on the cyclone fence behind the stone memorial along the Martin Goodman trail. On top of the frame, secured by Scotch Tape, are two pieces of candy in cellophane wrappers. Leanne liked sweets. I would love to know why Leanne was killed, just as I would love to know why I am a person who experiences panic attacks. The one on the rue Sainte-Catherine was not the first. But the application of causality to an attack that floods all the psychic channels and produces derealization and depersonalization and a fear of going crazy and a fear of dying is entirely dependent upon the angle of one’s view. Freud might say that, through the symptom, we are always acknowledging what we really wish for. The physicist might say that our individual crises, like our place in the universe, is the result of a flaw in the cosmic fabric. Hitchcock might say that we get what we deserve. This is what we do to naughty boys. I would say that in a panic attack, like in a horror film, one is always unable to construct the proper sentence at the moment the shit hits the fan. There is only the scream, or the wish to scream.



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  1. Pingback: NEWS: My essay “Alfred Hitchcock’s Grammar” is out in the current issue of Shenandoah | Michael J. Hess

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