There Are no Lions in the Scottish Highlands

By John Riley

double-take-johan-grimonprez.jpgDouble Take, 2009

Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is a post-modernist mash-up-CGI-mockumentary-philosophical-essay/gag-reel (that started life in 2005 (very differently) as the installation Looking for Alfred). But if that description hints at its porous structural borders, it takes an equally liberal view when it comes to revealing its subject matter.

At its core is a monologue by British guerrilla-provocateur-situationist-author Tom MacCarthy in which Hitchcock meets his younger self on the set of The Birds. But that in turn is based on a short surreal autobiographical tale by Borges in which the author meets his older self. As the film’s narrator says: “They say that if you meet your double you should kill him, or he will kill you; two of you is one too many.” But of course, even when you’ve killed your doppelganger, you won’t know if you are actually unique so life becomes, paradoxically, a lonely trawl for others of yourself. Whom you must kill.

I suspect Borges would have enjoyed this ‘hitching’ to another author and he was very cinematically minded, thinking Hitch’s The Thirty Nine Steps greatly superior to Buchan’s novel. En passant, I should say that the Borges source material is its own doppelganger, existing in two forms: The Other and August 25 1983 (according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, a day on which nothing of note occurred). From there, Double Take enters a hall of mirrors so complex that the viewer (and possibly director-scriptwriter Grimonprez) becomes (perhaps deliberately) almost completely lost.

There’s the impressionist Mark Perry listening to a recording of Hitchcock, twinning his voice to loop (in both senses of the word) an explanation of the McGuffin (maybe Peter Bogdanovich was charging too much, or maybe he was just too good and would have knocked it off first time?) There’s the well-known Hitchcock lookalike Ron Burrage who, curiously, was born on Hitchcock’s thirtieth birthday, 13 August 1929, (Borges was born in the same year as Hitchcock but eleven days later: Grimonprez was born the day before, 1962, while Hitchcock was being interviewed by acolyte Truffaut, and making The Birds, the backdrop to MacCarthy’s monologue). There’s the story of Hitchcock’s two dogs and their appearance/non-appearance in The Birds; and there are that film’s two lovebirds (as well as Hedren and Taylor). Finally(?) of course there’s Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock walks down the street and has an uncanny, Borgesian-MacCarthyesque encounter with Hitchcock. There are the famous cameos, where Hitchcock sometimes ‘plays’ ‘Hitchcock’. And there are all manner of Hitchcock jokes from the openings of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Hitchcock staging a Hitchcock lookalike competition (and losing); And there are five cringe-worthily sexist adverts for Folger’s Coffee – sponsors of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

double-take-johan-grimonprez-2.jpgDouble Take, 2009

Double Take has been something of a festival hit and there are five trailers on Youtube that make it seem like it is just going to be a witty exploration of ‘the idea of Hitchcock’ and doublings, but even that largely excludes Double Take's wider concerns. There are the mirrorings of Kennedy and Nixon in the fateful Presidential debate (broadcast on both radio and television but with very different ‘results’); Nixon also crops up as a counterpoint to Khrushchev in the Kitchen Debate. Of course, that leads us to Capitalism vs Communism, their respective contributions to the space race (and the arms race) and the Bay of Pigs (and Laika the dog). Meanwhile Cuba hovers between the two; Fidel makes a speech as fiery as the Cuban sun before visiting Nikita to cavort in the Soviet snow.

At the bottom is the commodification of fear, and the way that the idea of ‘the other’ is reinforced to justify all kinds of official actions.”Two of you is one too many.” Who will kill whom? And it’s all recorded by the increasingly dominant television (slowly strangling its parent, cinema) as “History” (Grimonprez’s previous film was called Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y) is controlled by (or through) the media. I could push it further and talk about Double Take’s zapper-like (or even hypertext) editing, but I’ll leave that to you.

Though it all centres on the very early 1960s, we’re brought up to date with Reagan-Gorbachev and Clinton-Yeltsin as new Nixon(s)/(Kennedy?(s))-Khrushchev(s). Even more contemporary resonances come with shots of New York skyscrapers, the story of how the Empire State Building was hit by a plane in 1945, and an approximation of the famous 911 “falling man” footage. It all ends with Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns and unknown unknowns” speech, guaranteed to raise a laugh with audiences amused by the assonant riffing but which to me – no Rumsfeldian - seems surprisingly clear-sighted, despite the unsavoury ends which it was used to justify.

double-take-johan-grimonprez-3.jpgDouble Take, 2009

Doubles and coincidences are all very well, but once you start looking, you can, if you care to, find them pretty much anywhere you look. Given the film’s deeper meaning, Grimonprez obviously decided to miss out on some of the most obvious ones: the two Blackmails, the two Ma/(e)/n Who Knew Too Much, the Hitchcock/van Sant Psychos or the many other Hitchcock doppelgangers. Being a film, Double Take largely ignores the non-visual radio (home to several Hitchcock adaptations, sometimes starring the same and sometimes different actors) and books (both as source materials and post-film adaptations) and the various remakes and sequel (troublingly for the film’s premise, often, as with The Birds, not limited to a single reincarnation). It’s also a bit unfortunate that inescapable history means that the thread that ties the Cold War to Hitchcock is one of his weakest films (albeit set partly on Cuba) Topaz.

Double Take has a fun surface and at its core is a vital idea, but it tries to cram so much in that in the end I began to feel like Frenzy’s Chief Inspector Oxford faced with his wife’s ‘cordon bleu’ meal; so rich as to be indigestible. Or even that Hitchcock himself – eventually overwhelmed by contemplations of geopolitics - has been turned into the film’s very own McGuffin. But without that, the premise and montage of archive material could start to look like something by Adam Curtis. By the way – Frenzy has two scores: Ron Goodwin stepped in when Hitchcock decided he didn’t like Henry Mancini’s. Of course, also Topaz was Jarre’s second attempt to work with Hitchcock: he was supposed to replace Herrmann on Torn Curtain but that gig ended up going to John Addison. And so it goes on…

John Riley is a writer and broadcaster.