In a brilliant conference about Samuel Johnson and his illustrious biographer, James Boswell, Jorge Luis Borges remembers the theory that George Bernard Shaw proposed about his strategies when it came to telling the life story of his object of study. Shaw said that, in the same way that there were four evangelists, four great playwrights, who created the character of Christ, or in the same way there was a Plato who created a Socrates, Boswell had invented a legendary character called Samuel Johnson, master of British letters. Boswell, who from the moment he was twenty-two years-old became his shadow, was condemned to portray him as a father figure, although his detractors accused him of forgetting about his origins, about giving a biased vision of him that somehow consciously eluded Johnson’s symbolic value as a man of his time. For his sharpest critic, Thomas Macaulay, the problem was his point of view: “We know Johnson not as the men of his generation knew him, but as the men whose fathers were.” He wrote describing a low angle, but his dedication to the cause brought him glory, unlike poor Eckermann, Goethe’s secretary, who decided to publish his Conversations after his master’s death, when the fame of the author of Werther wasn’t exactly at its peak among his countrymen.
Friends for life
As Kent Jones’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut suggests, the veneration that the director of Les 400 coups felt for the Master of Suspense had a lot to do, as with Boswell, with the need to compensate his orphanage feeling by inventing father figures that adopted him (André Bazin, Renoir, Rossellini). When Truffaut started exchanging letters with Hitchcock to convince him to give a long interview to scrutinise, film by film, the secrets of his art, he did so using an argument before which no sane genius would frown: proving to the world that Hitchcock was the best director in the History of Film. Thus began a symbiotic relationship between master and fatal fan. On the one hand, Truffaut, who prepared the encounter as thoroughly as he did his own films, took advantage of his idolatry to consolidate his vision of films as life’s ultimate expression. On the other, Hitchcock, the great manipulator, agreed to collaborate on the project with overwhelming sincerity, respecting all the (magnificent, we have to say) ideas that Truffaut had about his work and his neurosis, as if his participation in the book was the official confirmation of the character that Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers had created on the pages of the magazine during the fifties. The rigid political methods of the authors consisted precisely in the invention of an idol they could adore taking as a base the images that provoked among the faithful an almost religious devotion. As Godard says in chapter 4A of Histoire(s) du cinema -entitled, significantly, The Control of the Universe– talking about Hitchcock, “What’s style if not the man?”
If Hitchcock had liberated Truffaut as an artist, and Truffaut had liberated Hitchcock of the label of film director for the masses, it’s also true that Hitchcock managed, thanks to Truffaut, to widen the depth of field of his public figure, up to then reduced to a significant caricature silhouette, to the instant cameo, or the image of a satyr who was an expert in marketing. Sometimes, that character acquired an almost tragic dimension in his obsessions, as if the author of The Birds manipulated the symbolic meaning of his images to place himself at their narrative centre, a character who was at the same time all of his characters.
We should study whether that decisive duel of the titans had consequences in their respective work. It didn’t seem to, at least not as visibly as in the case of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk. Theirs was also an encounter born from a revelation, one that the director of Querelle felt when in December 1970, in a retrospective devoted to Sirk held at the Munich’s film institute, he sees six of his films and his head is about to explode. As everything in Fassbinder, knowing his idol becomes a life or death question, and in the winter of 1971 he travels to Lugano, where Sirk lives retired from the madding crowd since he abandoned films at the peak of his career, in 1959, with Imitation of Life. Sirk, like Hitchcock, was a great creator of forms, despised during his time, considered a mere maker of cry baby films that made millions of dollars, and the visit of his admirer coincides with the moment in which European critics were starting to defend him. However, unlike Truffaut, Fassbinder hasn’t got the patience to write a book, he has too many things to do at once, but that doesn’t mean his encounter with Sirk didn’t cause a deep effect on his work. An effect, in fact, in the work of both of them: in 1978, the director of There’s Always Tomorrow adapts Tennessee Williams in a short film, Bourbon Street Blues, starred by Fassbinder, and the latter changes the direction of his filmography, devoting all his energy to a genre, melodrama, that wasn’t exactly the New German Cinema’s cup of tea.
Fassbinder doesn’t need Sirk as a character, but as a brain in the shadows. He’s more than a source of inspiration for him: he’s the fuel of a re-writing operation that aspires to becoming completely original. And the other way around, Sirk is able to be Sirk again with Fassbinder as his link to the present. These relationships between master and outstanding pupil (or fatal fan) end up translating themselves into a kind of palimpsest of sensitivities, something similar to what Pierre Menard wanted to do when he thought he had re-invented Don Quixote by copying it word by word. Samuel Johnson is, somehow, Boswell’s masterpiece, as Hitchcock is for Truffaut. By scrutinising the secrets of their figures and/or their art, they are re-writing them with their own hands, defining themselves as an intrinsic part of their imaginary. The being and the work are restored to become equal and different at the same time.