Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take

By Robert Koehler

Following the New Media Film Festival screening last night at Downtown Independent in downtown Los Angeles, festival programming director Noel Lawrence (center) moderates a very new media panel discussion on Johan Grimonprez’s fascinating film on Hitchcock, doubling, paranoia, the Cold War and catastrophe culture, Double Take. In the foreground to the right is co-editor Tyler Hubby, who discussed the process of working for five solid months with Grimonprez during his residency at the Hammer Museum, where they culled UCLA Film Archive footage of everything from episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, rare promotional footage of The Birds (which becomes the key filmic reference point, shot during the October Missile Crisis), Folger’s Coffee commercials, and a forest of Cold War and early Space Race newsreel footage (among other things).

Grimonprez was also on the panel and is actually in this photo….on the laptop on the left side. Currently in Basel (presumably for the art fair, though I couldn’t confirm this), Grimonprez spoke on Skype audio and mic’ed through the laptop. This proved fascinating and valuable, since his thoughtful and voluminous answers to questions from the panel and the audience became perhaps more coherent and digestible by being on audio. The effect was doing a panel discussion via radio, and it concentrated the mind.

This was especially useful in the case of Double Take, which my Cinema Scope colleague (in the best and longest interview in English with Grimonprez in the summer 2009 issue available here) Mark Peranson refers to as “a post-Internet film.” I asked Grimonprez to expand on this notion; he noted that the complex ways in which the film adapts fiction (two Borges stories inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Double and adapted by novelist Tom McCarthy), edits fact and history in a kind of “drama,” and how the central theme of Hitchcock encountering his double who wants to kill him is given a hall-of-mirrors treatment that has the rapid, fractured sensibility of what one experiences on the web.

This webby viewing experience also has its doubling, since Grimonprez deliberately simulates the viewing effect of watching TV with a remote control; Hubby noted that those Folger’s ads were inserted every ten minutes in the film to create the illusion of watching TV. In the film, TV is viewed as a weapon of control, both seductive and as a tool of technological dominance: Hitchcock himself understood this, ironically commenting on the medium as host of his own show, while the film gauges the growth in nuclear weapons, space exploration milestones and steps forward for (Western) TV. Double Take may be some kind of masterpiece of cinematic history storytelling, media analysis and the “in-between” film–in between fiction and non-fiction, between cinema and television, between journalism and music. This is a key to its vitality and importance, and why it’s a film that must be seen.

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