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Timberline Lodge, starring Rod Taylor from The Birds , 1980

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How the coffee break gave way
to the commercial break

Johan Grimonprez in dialogue with Catherine Bernard


J.G.: Yup, today, Hollywood seems to be running ahead of reality. The world is so awash in images that we related to 9/11 through images we ourselves had already created prior to the event. In a sense, fiction came back to haunt us as a lookalike reality. As for our immune systems, they're being hijacked. Pharmaceutical corporations like Baxter merely buy market opportunities from governments who only legalize their greed: they want to own our immunity system! Buckminster Fuller once pointed out in an interview that corporations benefit from keeping humanity in a state of inherent failure and fear, and hence control. At the security control, before you board a plane, you're forced to take off your shoes. You're fumbled all over, your bag is searched into its most intimate details, you're not allowed to take your water, etc. Literally our bodies have become the very site of terror. It's symptomatic of a global system that turns permanent war and crisis into a modus operandi! It's what Naomi Klein calls the new phase of "disaster capitalism".1 It's the new contemporary sublime our world finds itself in today. We have been turned from happy innocent consumers into savvy consumers of fear.


C.B.: In Double Take you juxtapose these narratives to structure the film along those different political, psychological, and fictional layers, as if to mimic the construction of reality as a composite...

J.G.: Hitchcock used that a lot—in many cases he would libidinize the political plot. For example, the Cold War would be revisited through the love story, as in North by Northwest between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. His love stories are often set against an international political backdrop that instigates the desires of the characters to keep the plot rolling.

C.B.: This interpretation could also apply to The Birds where Melanie is the victim of the bird attacks and becomes progressively terrified, a situation that stands for a metaphor of the Cold War-induced paranoia. Birds take the metaphoric place of the missiles or war planes, and are revisited in Double Take as catastrophe culture descending into the home through the TV-set, trapping people as birds in a cage.


J.G.: The anxiety in The Birds is usually interpreted by Hitchcock scholars in a Freudian sense: the birds mirror the tensions between the characters, as a metaphor for Melanie's repressed sexuality or the repressed anxiety of the mother coming back to haunt the village, but yes, maybe there's more going on... Today we could perfectly rethink the birds as an embodiment of the so-called ominous terrorist threat coming out of the sky (and propagated through the news media), very much in the way Slavoj Žižek compares them to the 9 /11 planes attacking the WTC.2 Political spin in fact is only one way of looking at it, but more than any other of Hitchcock's films, The Birds refutes interpretation and has generated every possible contradictory explanation by Hitchcock scholars. As Thomas Elsaesser points out, cinema studies about Hitchcock have proliferated to such a degree that they start to collapse under their own weight.3 He goes on to identify a Schopenhauer Hitchcock, a Heideggerian Hitchcock, a Derridean Hitchcock, a Lacanian Hitchcock, several Deleuzian Hitchcocks, a stab at a Nietzschean Hitchcock and even a Wittgensteinian Hitchcock. I could easily imagine them sitting around the dinner table, having a lively discussion. And in a sense this is the Double Take plot, where two Hitchcocks have a dialogue over a cup of coffee. Their conversation is partially inspired by the Truffaut–Hitchcock dialogues. Despite the fact that Hitchcock never meant to make an overtly political movie, seen in retrospect The Birds seems to perfectly reflect the zeitgeist and the anxiety of that period. At the same time as Truffaut was talking with Hitchcock in August 1962 on the set of The Birds, Khrushchev was sending missiles to Cuba. Two months later the Cuban Missile Crisis broke loose over TV, and the world was pushed to the brink of a nuclear confrontation, all played out as a media drama.


C.B.: On another level this political backdrop also mirrors the repressed sexuality in the fifties, at a time when lots of women were at-home mums. This comes through in the Folgers ads that literally function as commercial breaks throughout Double Take, in which the woman is seen trapped at home desperately trying to make good coffee for her husband.


J.G.: As Heiner Müller once observed in relation to the impact West Berlin television commercials had on East Germany, commercials are the most political part of television.4 It's funny how in Double Take two guys do pretty much all the talking, but we could easily do the Hitchcock trick and libidinize the plot here! Not only the two Hitchcocks, but also the political figures of Khrushchev and Nixon who keep on talking about their rockets in the so-called "Kitchen Debate" while the repressed sexuality comes back to haunt kitchen dialogues between man and woman in the very first coffee ads broadcast on TV!


C.B.: But then the woman exchanges roles and turns murderess by poisoning the coffee, thereby making this perfect symbol of domesticity a symbol of transgression and empowerment. In Double Take, the woman takes revenge, as she is the agent who brings the poisoned cup to Hitchcock. Did you want to point at the fact that his films are filled with women repressed by the culture of that time, and in a sense also by Hitchcock himself – the ordeal suffered by Tippi Hedren while filming the final scenes of The Birds is telling in that regard? Hitchcock is suspicious of female sexual power and can't let it overtake the story. In The Birds, Melanie falls victim to the birds, punished for what we learned early in the movie: for her carefree lifestyle and her ability to choose and pursue her partner herself. In the end, she isn't given any choice but to passively accept the birds as her fate.


J.G.: Hence Hitchcock's confession in Double Take: "we always fell in love with our characters, that's why we killed them." All the characters in his movies are trapped in this situation, exposed to the Hitchcockian terror! He often portrays strong females leads. But isn't it precisely because they're agents of dangerous sexuality that they have to be castigated? Ingrid Bergman is a very independent character in Notorious (1946), so she's poisoned. Likewise with Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960): she's stabbed to death. Ditto with Tippi Hedren. As a free-spirited socialite from San Francisco she drops in at Bodega Bay, only to be attacked by the birds. Although fascinating and seductive, they're threatening!

But maybe it points to a symptom of male hysteria, a man who is suffering from a split personality as the James Stewart character in Vertigo (1958), or caught in a case of mistaken identity as in the case of North by Northwest (1959). A man whose fear of intimacy or fear of death prevents him from really looking at the other, one who's trapped in his own narcissism. These characters only mirror Hitchcock's own fears and phobias projected back onto the female character as a way to try to contain her, or even poison her. Similarly, this male hysteria is also displaced onto the woman in Double Take. Just as in Vertigo, it goes back to the schizophrenia within the man, the doubling that stems from the fact that the woman he tries to mould never really corresponds to his projection. He wants the woman to embody his own desire, but his dream woman never redeems his anxiety precisely because she refuses to fit into that mould. The man then is ultimately faced with a split reality.


Double Take (2009)



Folger's commercial ca. 1964 (Double Take 2009)


C.B.: Isn't it peculiar how Sigmund Freud mentions in his 1919 essay "The Uncanny", the terrible anxiety he felt when he encountered his own double in the wagon-lit during a train journey, only to realize it was his own mirrored reflection?5 To Freud, meeting one's double is an encounter with the uncanny. It occurs at the boundaries between mind and matter, when subject and object blur, generating a feeling of unbearable terror. In order to keep his or her sanity the subject must reject the intrusion of the uncanny brought on by such an encounter with one's double, one which threatens the common reality through the emergence of the "real". A fateful meeting with the double becomes the moment where the real begins to speak back.6


J.G.: Hence he has to kill his double! Hmm, maybe I need to get some therapy myself now that I've finished the film. But I believe so do some politicians!

C.B.: Funny then that in your film it's actually the woman who poisons Hitchcock. The scene in Notorious where Ingrid Bergman drinks the poisoned cup of coffee is entirely reversed in Double Take. By shifting the aesthetic codes the commercial comes to stand for its exact opposite and turns the cup of coffee into a murder weapon—yet another example of juxtaposition of different layers in the film.


Folger's commercial ca. 1970 (Double Take 2009)

J.G.: Well, Hitchcock's cup of coffee is never just a cup of coffee! The coffee ads in Double Take not only count for their documentary value, revealing the underlying ideology through their historical displacement, but they're also woven into the fiction plot: it's the commercial that literally becomes the murder weapon. They come to stand for the arrival of television. Indeed, one of the Hitchcocks in the film contends that television has killed cinema, alluding to how TV's commercial breaks have changed the way narratives were told. Hitchcock was very much part of that early television landscape, he who always faithfully introduced his own TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A minute of commercials typically followed this intro, but not before Hitchcock had berated the sponsor by voicing his contempt, jokingly and sardonically demanding how an ad could possibly dare interrupt his stories. It turned Hitchcock into the biggest television prankster of his time.

The doubling of fiction and politics is also mirrored in Double Take through the rivalry between cinema and its televisual double. This in turn mirrors the plot that sets up Hitchcock the film-maker versus Hitchcock the television-maker. The encounter happens at a time when Hollywood had to redefine itself due to the closure of many cinemas caused by a loss of audiences to television. TV was on the rise, and it had to carve out a niche for itself within society. But alas, it's almost as if the social ritual of the coffee break gave way to the commercial break.




First published as: Bernard, C. & Grimonprez, J., "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards: Johan Grimonprez en dialogue avec Catherine Bernard" in L'image-document, entre réalité et fiction, ed. J.-P. Criqui (Paris: Le Bal/Marseille: Images en Manoeuvres Éditions, 2010), 212–23.