Week 2: Waltzes from Vienna (1933), Failure, and David Bowie.

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

A note on titles: Many of Hitchcock’s British films have different American titles and different release dates here in the US. So for instance, IMDB lists “Strauss’ Great Waltz” as the title of this film and a release date of 1934, when it showed in America. I am using the British title and years of release because it more accurately tracks Hitchcock’s career.

Sunday was a cold, snowy night, but it was the last show of the new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut here in Pittsburgh, so I hopped in my car and drove across town to check it out. The movie is inspired by and paying tribute to French director François Truffaut’s 1966 book that condensed a week’s worth of interviews into a gorgeously illustrated and annotated guide to the craft of moviemaking itself. Hitchcock holds forth generously and technically on how he made all of his movies to date, with Truffaut a perfect, energetic guide. It’s amazing & inspiring. Finding a used copy of that book in high school only fueled my Hitchcock and moviemaking obsession. And now a documentary about this book! I was eager to hear what other directors thought of the book and Hitchcock.

So I was surprised when I was a bit disappointed in the film. Directed by writer and film programmer Kent Jones (full disclosure, I knew Kent professionally if not personally when I worked at BAMcinématek and he worked at the Film Society of Lincoln Center), the movie is a heartfelt, well-meaning tribute that, for me, gets a little tedious. The best parts come in the beginning, when directors like David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, and Martin Scorsese talk about how the book legitimized both moviemaking and Hitchcock in the 60s and 70s, with Scorsese explaining that finally, now that French critics have lionized Hitchcock, “Yes, we can embrace this.”

Yet the documentary leans far too heavily on Hitchcock’s American period, with Vertigo and Psycho being singled out for long passages. Both are tremendous, amazing movies, but so are The Lodger, The 39 Steps, or even North by Northwest. Plus the film’s reliance on white male talking heads is tiresome; in 2015 (when the film was made), no female director could be found, especially since the film touches on Hitchcock’s sexual obsessions in Vertigo?

I also know that I’m fussy and overly critical. As I get older, I’m trying to curb that impulse and judge work on its own merits. Maybe this documentary got under my skin a bit because all I see are the things I’d do differently. Or maybe it’s because I’m unhappy and unsatisfied with my own work right now…but we’ll get to that.

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My own dog-eared copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut

The documentary did get me back to the book of Hitchcock/Truffaut though, which I’m currently carefully re-reading. Wes Anderson has a lovely anecdote in the film about how his copy is so worn out it’s basically just a sheaf of papers, and my copy isn’t far behind. Looking through the book a few days ago, I had the idea to watch Hitchcock’s worst film, as a sort of yin/yang right after Rear Window (which I think is his best film). And it’s right there in black and white in the book: Hitchcock’s least favorite film is Waltzes from Vienna (1933).

I honestly couldn’t remember if I’d seen this film before; I know at NYU I made a point to see every Hitchcock film I could, but I have zero memory of this movie. Then again, it’s hardly on video even now – it’s easiest to watch streaming on Youtube or as a download from Archive.org. It’s not held in high regard by Hitchcock or hardly anyone else.

The movie is loosely based on the play Waltzes From Vienna (which would later be adapted into The Great Waltz, which inspired a 1938 MGM musical), about the rivalry between Johann Strauss Senior and Junior. Senior (played with force and little humor by Edmund Gwenn who would later find fame playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) is pompous and disdainful of his son, literally forcing him to play second fiddle in the orchestra. Yet Junior has his own musical talent and, inspired by the words of a contessa with a roving eye, he writes the Blue Danube Waltz. This is the good stuff. In between is a lot of British music hall comedy that does not translate terribly well to film; lots of low farce, doors slamming, people exiting through windows, and many many misunderstandings, especially between Strauss Junior and the woman he wants to marry.

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Much of the comedy is dated and flatly executed; Hitchcock just sets up a camera and watches the actors perform. This happens occasionally in some of his earlier British films, but it’s not entirely his fault. As sound burst onto the scene (with Hitchcock himself directing the first British talkie, Blackmail, in 1929), silent scenarios were thrown out and the rush was to film plays and light musical/operettas to satisfy an audience’s demands for the new medium. Still grappling with the demands of a gigantic, unwieldy microphone and camera booth, many directors either lost their confidence or gave in to studio demands to shoot scenes clearly, much like you would see in a theater.

I’m guessing this is the case with Waltzes from Vienna, as much of the comedy is too broad and not filmed with respect to comedic timing. Just eight years later, in 1941, Hitchcock’s comedic sense had advanced enough that he directed the serviceable-if-not-terrific slapstick comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch comes down hard on this film, saying “It had no relation to my usual work.” Yet he also embarks on a remarkably self-aware criticism of his own filmmaking, commenting that his previous films “had been a disappointment,” and “reflected a careless approach to my work.” He even refers to it as a low ebb of his career, saying “To all appearances, I seemed to have gone into a creative decline in 1933 when I made Waltzes from Vienna, which was very bad.”

This is a man who, just a few years earlier, had been called the young man with a “master mind.” He was the anointed savior of British cinema, he even directed their first talkie! And yet in describing this time he sounds despondent, admitting that he didn’t even know how bad his reputation had gotten.

A quick tangent. I get that comparing myself to Hitchcock is, at best, a strange idea and at worst, incomprehensibly obnoxious. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize something of myself in the way he talks about this film. It’s easy for me to be positive and enthusiastic about other people’s work; it’s much harder when it’s my own. Most artists I’ve met are their own worst critics; if we’re being generous we might say it stems from our desire for relentless self-examination. Or maybe it’s just because we’re bitter & unhappy. The truth is probably somewhere in between and it varies from person to person.

I run a business called Alternate Histories, where I take old maps & photos and digitally add in monsters, robots, monsters, & other pop sci-fi creatures. I started in 2009, focusing mainly on images from Pittsburgh, then started to expand to other cities and added greeting cards. In 2010 my work was featured in a bunch of sci-fi & design blogs, culminating in being showcased in the Huffington Post. I got thousands of orders in a few months, which let me pay off debts and purchase a car. In the selling-art-online-through-Etsy game, I had reached the top of the mountain.

I kept selling. I kept making new work. In 2012 I signed a contract to publish a book and in 2013 Alternate Histories of the World was published. I spent a feverish year making it and while it’s not perfect, I really love it. But you can’t buy it in stores anymore.

My online sales have declined every year since 2010. I spent almost $13,000 to go to a big greeting card & stationery convention that was a total bust, run by uncaring bureaucrats. I still can’t get my work into bigger stores. And my book, that I loved and was picked by Entertainment Weekly as a 2013 Best-Of for their year-end gift guide, was a failure. This isn’t me being a downer; I saw the reports. I know what it sold. And I got the news in 2015 that my book was going to be remaindered, the unsold copies shipped to discount chains. I didn’t want that to happen, so I bought the remaining copies for almost nothing and now have a closet full of them.

I say all this not to stage a pity party or compare myself to other people; lots of artists have it much worse. But I want you to understand. Yes, I always judge myself harshly, yes I am my own worst critic, and yes if someone compliments me, my instinct is to say “oh, it’s just garbage” instead of “thank you.”

That’s not what I’m talking about now. I’m talking about cold, hard facts. Money don’t lie, and I have less and less of it. Over the past two or three years I have turned out work that I love, work I’m passionate about, and work that I think is the best of my career. And I’ve seen it sell poorly, as my yearly sales continue to dwindle.

So, okay, cue the world’s tiniest violin. I get it, none of this is life or death. Still, I feel like I’m at a crossroads, much like Hitchcock was. Maybe the work isn’t as good as it was. Maybe I’ve lost my touch. Or maybe people just don’t want what I’m selling. Every day I make notes and try to figure out what my next big idea is. I’m turning 40 this year, have few marketable skills, and am not a good prospect to be hired anywhere. I’m left with my wits and my monsters.

I also try to remember that it’s hard to step outside yourself. Right now, things seem bleak, but I know that I’ve accomplished a lot that I can be proud of. My goal is to have an awareness of how fortunate I am, while still looking forward.

In the same way, Hitchcock is wrong to think so poorly of Waltzes From Vienna. Yes, it’s undeniably towards the bottom of the long list of films that he directed, but as in all of his films, there are moments of greatness. What’s strange is that in the book he makes mention of cutting many of the musical numbers, despite the fact that these are the sequences which feel the most alive. My guess is that they were either too expensive or too demanding for the technology of the time.

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Nonetheless, beauty abounds in this film. When Strauss Junior first plays a piece for his domineering father, Hitchcock crowds the frame with judgmental faces. When Strauss Junior’s love interest appeals to Senior to conduct a piece, he rejects her and she storms out in a wave of woodwind and slamming doors (a beautiful optical effect accomplished with a lightning-fast cut on action). And when the climactic moment arrives and the Blue Danube waltz is played for the first time, Hitchcock directs this scene with as much care and finesse as any sequence in his best films. The music rises and the crowd leans forward, enthralled. Several couples get up to dance, while Strauss Junior’s betrothed finally understands what the music means to him and Strauss Senior comprehends his son’s genius. It harkens back to Hitchcock’s silent film roots as he’s creating pure cinema out of images and music.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, someone comments that the worst Hitchcock film is still better than most director’s best films. This is clearly an exaggeration. The moments of musical excellence in Waltzes from Vienna don’t make up for a film bogged down in low comedy and tedious plot contrivances. But having said that…I still enjoyed it. Maybe instead we should say that even in his worst films, there’s always something to take away, some piece of brilliance, some bit of Hitchcock himself. Even as Hitch admitted in the book that he had gone into a creative decline in 1933, his greatest successes were still ahead of him. “ The talent must have been there all along,” he says in Hitchcock/Truffaut, “since I had already conceived the project The Man Who Knew Too Much, the picture that re-established my creative pedigree.”

So who knows? We can never see clearly when we’re in the thick of it. It’s only at the end we can look back and pass judgement. Maybe I’m on the cusp of something great, just as Hitchcock was with The Man Who Knew Too Much, a film whose success would reinvigorate his career, lead to British masterpieces The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and eventually to a career in Hollywood.

And now…on to a different piece of music.

Right now I’m writing this on the evening of the day we found out David Bowie died. I was never the biggest David Bowie fan, although I respected the hell out of him]. I loved certain songs too: “Modern Love” still gets a dance party going after 33 years, and I once won a karaoke contest once singing, among others, “Rebel Rebel.”

This night I was getting home from some errands and was in a lousy mood. I’d finished writing the first draft of this essay and rather than purging my feelings of inadequacy, it had amplified them.

I have a dog (Otis, he’s the best) and when I leave the house I turn the radio on so he doesn’t bark at every noise. When I opened in the door, Otis greeted me with his usual wiggles and I noticed that the radio was playing my favorite David Bowie song, “Heroes.” I stood there listening and when Bowie half sang, half screamed “We can be artists! Just for one day,” I burst into tears. My dog had no idea what was going on.

This song undoubtedly means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But for me, it definitely shines through as some kind of outsider anthem. Bowie spent much of his career creating a world that welcomed the fringe, the outsider, the bizarre (even stating this outright as a kind of manifesto in “Kooks”).

“Heroes” isn’t that clear-cut, but right now, as I’m typing through tears, I can only hear it as a statement of purpose about art. And it’s the disclaimer, “Just for one day,” that really clinches it. Maybe creating art is painful & difficult, and maybe it’s supposed to be that way. But maybe it can be worth it. Maybe if Hitchcock had given up or failed completely, he’d still think it was worth it for those few shining successes. Maybe I will fail, and my business will falter, but at least for a few years I got to make a living with my art.

We can be artists, just for one day.

We can overcome our failures. We can be who we want to be. We can move forward and create new things and reinvent ourselves the way Alfred Hitchcock and David Bowie and a thousand million other artists all did and continue to do. And if we fail, then we know we’ve tried, and we dust ourselves off and start again.

We can be heroes.

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Watch It: Waltzes from Vienna is streaming on YouTube and because it’s in the public domain, can also be downloaded in full at Archive.org

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