Johan Grimonprez: Looking for Alfred (Camilla Jackson)
Johan Grimonprez: Looking for Alfred
"I thought I was safe until you guys came along, digging up all those other Hitchcock look-alikes. Now, we will have to find ways of disposing of them ... "
(Ron Burrage, professional Hithcock look-alike)
The following interview, about Johan Grimonprez's new film project Looking for Alfred, was made by the artist and curator Camilla Jackson by email in October 2004.
The underlying theme of your new work Looking For Alfred, and particularly the strong references throughout to The Birds (1963), seems rooted in a contemporary re-evaluation of Alfred Hitchcock's work.
Isn't The Birds Hitchcock's most enigmatic and surreal film: birds attacking a village, trapping people in a house as if in a birdcage? In fact Hitchcock infected the whole world with his neurosis: as son of a poulterer and greengrocer from Leytonstone in London, he absolutely hated eggs. 
What actually fascinated me in this new work, is how much our understanding of reality today is filtered through Hollywood imagery. For instance, when Hitchcock scholar Slavoj Zizek  compared the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centre to a real-life version of The Birds (1963), he called it the ultimate Hitchcockian threat that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He referred specifically to the scene when Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren, approaches the Bodega Bay pier in a small boat and a single seagull, first perceived as an indistinguishable dark blot, unexpectedly swoops down and gashes her forehead, strikingly similar to the plane hitting the second World Trade Centre tower.
In this sense 9-11 brought fiction back to haunt us as reality. It is like Independence Day  real time, where the dark underside of repressed world politics strikes back in the form of flying objects, in this case planes, that appear out of nowhere to demolish the Trade Towers.
So, we begin with cinema imitating life and come to life appearing strangely like cinema. The collapse between what is real and what is fake is very much part of the exploration throughout Looking for Alfred, in particular in reference to look-alike culture. Film stars become fake imitations of their celebrity projections and in turn look-alikes, while adopting the attitudes of their cherished idol, become a more real version of what they try to look like.
Looking for Alfred began as an attempt to find the perfect Hitchcock impersonator and hence to explore the legacy of Hitchcock's persona as well as referencing his films. He was, and remains, so familiar that even today you could source over 80 look-alikes.
I was intrigued by Hitchcock's legacy. Partially since his regular appearances on TV introducing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but mainly because of his cameo appearances in each of his own films, he became so familiar that his silhouette was simply recognized on the spot: the way he almost looks like an overgrown baby with his protruding belly under a pair of trousers pulled too high, his lower lip drooping…
So, we embarked on a quest to find the perfect Hitchcock double who would fit the profile for the reenactment of Hitchcock's cameos in the filmshoot we had planned in Brussels. We organized a series of casting sessions, happening over the course of a few months in New York, Hollywood, and London, which brought together an amazing and colourful assembly of people, including three female, a few African-American Hitchcocks and even two "bad guys" who starred in the X-files. In the end it was Ron Burrage, a professional look-alike from London, whom we thought closest resembled him.
Unfortunately, Ron was unwell at the time of the filming, which prevented him from featuring in the movie. We decided to integrate him in the production anyway by interviewing him at his home in London. This as well as all the DV-cam documentation of the screen tests as such have actually become very much part of the project now.
You tried to find a Hitchcock sound-alike as well?
We asked the actors to recite an anecdote from an interview Hitchcock gave with the French film director Francois Truffaut [5 ] in the 1960s. It's a typical Hitchcock sort of stranger-on-the-train story describing what the term McGuffin  meant: the thing that everyone is after, but as such is totally irrelevant.
And in a sense perhaps Hitchcock himself has become the McGuffin we set out to find in our project, but never did. The process of making this film – the search for the ultimate Hitchcock – revealed all the emptiness: the nothing that is the McGuffin, but became a driving force behind the project. In the end we discovered that Ron Burrage, the professional Hitchcock look-alike wasn't at all a Hitchcock fan: he much rather prefers the opera, who switches off the TV after Hitchcock made his cameo, often at the very beginning of the film. Although it crossed our minds: we're dealing with 'the wrong man', 'the wrong man' who suffers the same identity crisis as Madeleine in Vertigo (1957)!
Do you think the way we can see Hitchcock's films today, particularly now that we no longer need to go the cinema, effects our interpretation of his work?
This makes me think about the very first time I attended a cinema screening of Vertigo (1957) and they mistakenly interchanged reel two and three, which meant I saw the point where Madeleine had changed her identity to Judy, before I should have, which gave the plot a very disconcerting and bizarre angle. But this is actually very similar to how with a DVD reader you can skip scenes, and jump back and forth through the storyline.
Today we can lock ourselves in our bedroom and watch all of Hitchcock's films back to back if we wish in one afternoon – very different from going to the cinema, It allows for a multiplicity of readings.
Also the contemporary, especially the younger viewer, has a very different view of his films.
Yes, when my daughter Geraldine, who is 15, watched The Birds (1963) she said: "that was not very scary and such bad FX !!"
The DVD format of such films also provides the contemporary viewer with a huge amount of background information, such as providing alternative endings to some films.
Indeed, the idea to explore the history of happy endings lay very much at the basis of Looking for Alfred. Actually The Birds (1963) is Hitchcock's only film where he omitted the words 'THE END'. He never wanted it to have a conclusive ending but instead wanted to leave the spectator wondering. That interested me as it undermines the idea of Hollywood redemption through a happy end. On the DVD an alternative ending is offered by including the final pages of the screenplay by Evan Hunter, which adds another dimension to the reading of the film.
You restage several of Hitchcock's famous cameo appearances both during the casting sessions and in the film. Some are quite literal references whilst others are amalgamations taken from a variety of different Hitchcock films.
The most obvious is the reenactment of a cameo from The Birds (1963), where Hitchcock crosses Tippi Hedren, while coming out of a pet shop with his two terrier dogs, Stanley and Geoffrey. However one crucial and recurring moment in the work is of Hitchcock meeting himself. The point where he turns his head and glances back refers to Stage Fright (1949) and Marnie (1964). I've mirrored these with the Hitchcock cameo from Foreign Correspondent (1940), where he passes someone on the street. This glancing back appears also recurrently in the casting sessions as we asked each impersonator to do this to camera.
At one point, whilst in Los Angeles, during the casting we did a spoof on Hitchcock's famous cameo of missing-the-bus, which appears at the beginning of North by Northwest (1959). We restaged this one with three Hitchcocks at a bus stop on Wilshire Boulevard. A tough one, as the bus drivers were too friendly and pulled their brakes for the Hitchcocks who ran out to miss it.
But it is not only Hitchcock look-alikes that appear in your work, another recurring figure in this work is the surrealist artist René Magritte (1898 – 1967). You cite several paintings by him. For example the arresting image of a young girl devouring a bleeding bird? 
Magritte was one year older then Hitchcock; both were born in the very late 1890s which coincided with when the inventors of cinema, the Lumiére brothers, projected their first film. It is surprising how much Hitchcock and Magritte's iconography overlaps. The idea of a clone, of blurring boundaries between what is the same and nearly exactly the same, but not quite, is very much a recurrent theme in both their works. For Hitchcock it was a plot device in a lot of his films. For Magritte 'doppelgangers' often appear. I was interested in this as a way of exploring mistaken identity: the uncanny feeling that in a situation, something, or someone looks exactly the same as another, but somehow is not, and hence is totally displaced. It creates an unease and a sense of anxiety announcing the impending disaster, but precisely because of this, reveals a glimpse of the sublime.
Both Hitchcock and Magritte pushed a vocabulary that is now common language. The way Magritte constructed his images relates in fact closely to what you can do nowadays with the Adobe tools in Photoshop. Magritte was a cut-and-paste artist avant-la-lettre. Actually without Photoshop I believe Magritte's iconography would not have remained so popular.
And you chose to set the film in Belgium at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, an art deco building by Victor Horta. Obviously it works perfectly as a cinematic mise-en-scene, but were there other reasons that drew you to that?
I liked the idea that it is the sort of location Hitchcock would have used for a Belgian version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), or maybe it would have been The Woman Who Knew Too Much, where the final murder scene with a gunshot would be committed as the cymbals clash. The concert hall adjoins the arcade which we featured in the film, whose atmosphere closely resembles Giorgio De Chirico's: Piazza d'Italia (1913), depicting an uncanny architecture almost breathing a sort of inner fear. So there was this collapse of iconography with Hitchcock which fitted very well. Although always spoken about as being the grand innovative auteur, Hitchcock in fact was very much embedded in a visual language that existed all around him, and he often referred to painting: specifically De Chirico. But the Palais des Beaux Arts building has also a real connection to Magritte as not only has his work been shown there, but there is also for example Lee Miller's photographs of him in the coat racks.
When you see the Hitchcocks in the film wearing bowlers hats it is as though it is Magritte still roaming around in the building. You take this further in several places where you conflate Magritte and Hitchcock in the film – for instance in the image referring to Reproduction Prohibited, (1937), the portrait of Magritte's friend and collector Edward James, which depicts a man seeing the back of himself in the mirror.
A strange collapse: Edward is now Alfred! The title becomes ironic in this sense, but points precisely at what is at stake in the film: the cloning notion in a photoshop reality. It also refers to the idea of mistaken identity, central to Hitchcock's film plots. Paradoxically in Looking for Alfred it is Hitchcock who is the mistaken guy.
1. In his book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: 50 Years of his Motion Pictures, Anchor Books (1981) Donald Spoto mentions an anecdote where the young Hitchcock threw eggs at his Jesuit school's windows, commenting: "Looks like birds have been flying overhead" See also: Garrett, Greg: Hitchcock's women on Hitchcock: a panel discussion with Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Karen Black, Suzanne Pleshette and Eve Marie Saint; Literature/Film Quarterly, vol 27, n* 2, 1999.
2. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11th and Related Dates, Verso, 2002
3. Independence Day, film by Bill Pullman 1996
4. TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, screened from 1955 - 1962
5. French Film Director Francois Truffaut published an interview entitled Hitchcock-Truffaut (1967)
6. What is a Mcguffin (also spelt Macguffin)?
The formal description of a Mcguffin is " A device or plot element that catches the viewer's attention or drives the plot. It is generally something that every character is concerned with." Essentially it is something that the entire story is built around and yet has no real relevance, it is in fact nothing at all. Hitchcock described it as follows in the Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews:
" It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.
One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?"
And the other answers, "O that's a McGuffin."
The first one asks, "What's a McGuffin?"
"Well" the other man says, "Its an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."
The first man says " But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other answers "Well then that's no McGuffin!"
So you see a McGuffin is nothing at all."
7. Camille Paglia, The Birds, published by the British Film Institute, 1998
8. René Magritte, Girl Eating a Bird (Pleasure), 1927