Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cinema of secrets

Uncle Charlie has a secret. And soon his niece Charlie will have her own secret--that she knows Uncle Charlie's secret.

Alfred Hitchcock's films are riddled with concealment, doubt, shame and regret. The reason: everyone has a secret. Think of the quintessential Hitchcock scene. The protagonist is looking for evidence against the villain (think Rear Window, Psycho). They begin searching the room or house. Now the villain comes back unexpectedly, only the hero doesn't know it yet but we do. Now the hero has a secret--that he is looking for the villain's secrets. And all the time we, the helpless spectators are saying, "Hurry up! Get out of there! You'll get caught" naturally siding on the side of sneaking around and being suspicious, instead of honestly confronting someone.

It's strange that the suspense of Shadow of a Doubt (1943) works as well as it does. There are only a few minutes when we suspect young Charlie is in danger for her life. But the undefined menace of Uncle Charlie pervades the entire film, despite (or perhaps because of the blandness) of Joseph Cotten's manner. And at no time during the film do Charlie's parents or the community at large ever understand what truly took place.

The film has a strange resonance with An Education (2009) which I had the complete and absolute pleasure of seeing this weekend. I would like this blog to be as detached and analytic as I can make it, but in this case I really don't care. I really enjoyed this film in a way I haven't enjoyed a film in months.

The title reminds one of the old adage by humorist George Ade, "There are at least two kinds of education," a proposition which this film sets out to illustrate--and does so brilliantly. I don't want to explicate the plot or the moral or even the wonderful production design or the marvelous performances of Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard (a longtime favorite). All I can say is that director Lone Sherfig has placed and held everything in a marvelous sort of balance--playing fair with us but setting us up for heartbreak nonetheless.

Again, Topic A is secrets, only we don't know it for most of An Education. In both cases, young women, bored with their life and their surroundings experience the intervention of an older, more experienced, apparently more sophisticated man; one who likes them for who they are and wants to cultivate their intelligence and taste. What's the implied message here? Watch out for cultivated people--only trust loutish boyfriends? Not sure, but that normal adolescent desire for escape and for growth and yearning for that person who will help one become who one is supposed to become leads to terrible mistakes in judgment. Understandable, but terrible. Sadly, there is a sparkle to the bad side that the good side lacks. As Jean Kerr's daughter complained about playing Eve in a Garden of Eden play, the snake has all the lines.

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