What could have been: a review of Hitchcock’s flawed Torn Curtain

Torn_curtainI recent­ly lis­tened to Alec Baldwin’s pod­cast inter­view of Julie Andrews and thought I mis­heard when she men­tions work­ing on a movie direct­ed by Alfred Hitch­cock. The effect was only height­ened when she men­tioned that her co-star was Paul New­man. Although I could do the math and real­ize the careers of these three leg­ends would over­lap, the younger stars seemed to come from a dif­fer­ent era. Julie Andrews espe­cial­ly seemed a mil­lion miles from the ubiq­ui­tous icy blondes of Hitchcock’s lat­er movies.

The movie is 1966’s Torn Cur­tain. The plot is dri­ven by a clas­sic Hitch­cock MacGuf­fin: a sus­pense sto­ry where we don’t ful­ly under­stand (or even care about) the objec­tive over which everyone’s fight­ing. In this case it’s a for­mu­la for some sort of anti-missile defense rock­et, some­thing called the Gam­ma Five (umm, sure Hitch, what­ev­er you say).

There’s a rare alche­my need­ed to cast famous stars in dra­mat­ic roles. Do it right and the star­dom melts into the char­ac­ter. Hitch­cock can pull it off. We love watch­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex Cary Grant in North by North­west, part­ly because so much of his lat­er comedic act­ing had becom­ing self-referential (he was almost always play­ing Cary Grant play­ing a char­ac­ter). Some­how Hitch­cock used Grant’s famil­iar­i­ty to turn him into a quick-witted mod­ern Every­man with whom the audi­ence could identify.

But the mag­ic doesn’t work in Torn Cur­tain. From the moment I heard Andrews’ famil­iar chirpy clipped voice from under the bed­cov­ers I won­dered why Mary Pop­pins was engag­ing in post-coital pil­low talk with The Hus­tler. I could not muster enough belief sus­pen­sion to see Paul New­man as a bril­liant math nerd and I cer­tain­ly couldn’t imag­ine him as a lover to prim and fussy Julie Andrews.

The sto­ry revolves around per­son­al and nation­al betray­al and defec­tion but we nev­er real­ly under­stood why Newman’s Michael Arm­strong would defect or why (as we lat­er learn) he has gone into a kind of free­lance espi­onage behind the Iron Cur­tain. The defec­tion of prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect Julie Andrews, who as Sarah Sher­man we now know to be par­tic­u­lar­ly deter­mined and loy­al, feels even more inex­plic­a­ble. As I watched the movie bounce aim­less­ly from one close call to anoth­er my mind drift­ed away to imag­ine the Hol­ly­wood board room where some mogul or anoth­er must have strong-armed Hitch­cock to cast two up and com­ing stars for roles which they didn’t real­ly fit.

Then the plot. It mean­ders. But even more damn­ing­ly, it focused on the wrong lead. Newman’s Michael Arm­strong is pre­dictably lin­ear in his objec­tives. The most inter­est­ing plot turns all come from his assistant/fiancée, Andrews’ Sarah Sher­man. She is full of pluck and intel­li­gence. It’s Sher­man who insists on com­ing along on the ini­tial cruise to Copen­hagen and it’s her sharp eyes that spot the mys­te­ri­ous actions that tip off the com­ing betray­als. She notices Armstrong’s tick­ets, picks up the mys­te­ri­ous book, fer­rets out the true des­ti­na­tion, and then has the chutz­pah to board an East Berlin flight to fol­low her lying and errat­ic boyfriend. Her tena­cious impro­vi­sa­tion remind­ed me more of Grant in North by North­west than any­thing New­man did.

There are some intrigu­ing scenes. The strug­gle with Gromek in the farm­house is fas­ci­nat­ing in its length and has the kind of bril­liant­ly bizarre cam­era angles that could only come from Hitch­cock. The the­ater scene was legit­i­mate­ly nail-biting (though I found myself imag­in­ing Cary Grant ’s face as he real­ized how hope­less their escape had become). One of the most mes­mer­iz­ing scenes was the bus chase — will they have to stop for a pas­sen­ger?!? It’s the the kind of Hitch­cock twist we all love.

After read­ing the spoil­ers from WIkipedia and IMDB, I see that many of my com­plaints have good sources.

  • The basic plot was Hitchcock’s idea, inspired by husband/wife defec­tors Don­ald and Melin­da Maclean and In the fall of 1964, Hitch­cock unsuc­cess­ful­ly asked Vladimir Nabokov to write the screenplay.
  • The orig­i­nal focus was on the female lead (I was right!) The first screen­play was writ­ten by Bri­an Moore, a screen­writer known for strong female char­ac­ters. After Hitch­cock cri­tiqued the script and hired new writ­ers, Moore accused him of hav­ing “a pro­found igno­rance of human motivation.”
  • For cast­ing, Hitch­cock had orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to reunite North by Northwest’s Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant told him he was too old; Hitch­cock then approached Antho­ny Perkins. But…
  • Lew Wasser­mann was the Hol­ly­wood exec who insist­ed on bank­able stars. Hitch­cock didn’t feel they were right for the roles and he begrudged their astro­nom­i­cal salaries and con­strained sched­ules. How is it that Alfred Hitch­cock hadn’t secured total con­trol over his projects at the point in his career?
  • The actors and direc­tors were indeed from dif­fer­ent eras: Newman’s method act­ing didn’t fit Hitchcock’s old school direct­ing style. Hitch­cock used his casts as chess pieces and expect­ed the direct­ing and edit­ing to dri­ve his films. When New­man pressed the direc­tor for Armstrong’s moti­va­tion, Hitch­cock report­ed­ly replied “moti­va­tion is your salary” (can’t you just hear him say­ing that in his famous­ly arch tone?)
  • Hitch­cock didn’t like the way the movie was unfold­ing and shift­ed the atten­tion to Newman’s char­ac­ter part-way through. It’s always a bad idea to tin­ker with some­thing so fun­da­men­tal so late in the game.

I think Julie Andrews could have stepped up to the chal­lenge of act­ing as the main pro­tag­o­nist. If Hitch­cock had treat­ed her as the Cary Grant “Every­man” char­ac­ter — and made New­man stand in as the dumb blonde! — it would have bril­liant­ly turned Hitch­cock on his head. As it is, this movie rates a mid­dling “meh” rat­ing, more inter­est­ing for what it could have been than for what it was.

Self-promotion and ministry temptations

Jon Watts looks at the ironies of fame-seeking and avoid­ance:

But this striv­ing for per­fect hum­ble­ness can eas­i­ly become dog­mat­ic. We can come to reject any­thing that looks remote­ly like attention-seeking, and we miss God’s mes­sage in it.

Jon weighs in with some good, juicy ques­tions. Where is self-promotion a way to pro­mote some­thing big­ger? And when is it ego-driven? t’s not just a inter­net ques­tion, of course. This is also at the heart of our Quak­er vocal min­istry: some­one just stands up in wor­ship with an implic­it claim they’re speak­ing for God.

Samuel Bow­nas is a good go-to per­son for these sort of dilem­mas. He was a second-generation Friend who shared a lot of the inside dirt about Quak­ers in min­istry. He wrote down the tri­als and temp­ta­tions he faced and that he saw in oth­ers in their “infant minstry” as a con­scious men­tor­ship of future Friends.

One of Bownas’s themes is the dan­ger of ape­ing oth­ers. It’s tempt­ing to get so enam­ored of someone’s beau­ti­ful words that we start con­scious­ly try­ing to mim­ic them. We stop say­ing what we’ve been giv­en to say so as to sound like the (seem­ing­ly) more-articulate per­son whose style we envy. Most cre­ative artists walk this ten­sion between copy­ing and cre­at­ing and as Wess will tell you, the idea of remix has become of more impor­tance in the era of dig­i­tal arts. But with min­istry there’s anoth­er ele­ment: God. Many Quak­ers have been pret­ty insis­tent that the mes­sage has to be giv­en “in the Spir­it” and come from direct prompts. Unpro­grammed Friends (those of us with­out pas­tors or pre-written ser­mons) are excep­tion­al­ly aller­gic to vocal min­istry that sounds too prac­ticed. It’s not enough that the teach­ing is cor­rect or well-crafted: we insist that it be giv­en it at the right time.

When think­ing the pit­falls about min­istry I find it use­ful to think about “The Tempter.” I don’t per­son­i­fy this; I don’t insist that it’s cen­tral to Quak­er the­ol­o­gy. But it is a thread of our the­ol­o­gy, one that has explained my sit­u­a­tion, so I share it. For me, it’s the idea that there’s a force that knows our weak­ness­es and will use them to con­fuse us. If we’re not care­ful, impuls­es that are seem­ing­ly pos­i­tive will pro­voke actions that are seem­ing­ly good but out of right order – giv­en at the wrong time.

So, if like Jon, I start wor­ry­ing I’m too self-promotional, the Tempter might tell me “that’s true, it’s all in your head, you should shut up already.” If I work myself through that temp­ta­tion and start pro­mot­ing myself, the Tempter can switch gears: “yes you’re bril­liant, and while you’re at it while don’t you set­tle some scores with your next post and take some of those fak­ers down a notch.” There’s nev­er an objec­tive “cor­rect” course of action, because right action is about strip­ping your­self of self-delusion and nav­i­gat­ing the shoals of con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es. The right action now may be the wrong action lat­er. We all need to grow and stay vig­i­lant and hon­est with ourselves.

The End of the Web, Search, and Com­put­er as We Know It:

parisle­mon:

I think about what constantly-flowing infor­ma­tion means for blog­ging. In some ways this is Twit­ter, Insta­gram, Tum­blr, etc. But what if some­one start­ed a stand-alone blog that wasn’t a series of posts, but rather a con­tin­u­ous stream of blurbs, almost like chat. For exam­ple: “I just heard…” or “Microsoft launch­ing this is stu­pid, here’s why…” — things like that. More like an always-on live blog, I guess.

It’s sort of strange to me that blogs are still based around the idea of fully-formed arti­cles of old. This works well for some con­tent, but I don’t see why it has to be that way for all con­tent. The real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion aspect of the web should be uti­lized more, espe­cial­ly in a mobile world.

Peo­ple aren’t going to want to sit on one page all day, espe­cial­ly if there’s noth­ing new com­ing in for a bit. But push noti­fi­ca­tions could alle­vi­ate this as could Twit­ter as a noti­fi­ca­tion lay­er. And with mul­ti­ple peo­ple on “shift” doing updates, there could always be fresh con­tent, com­ing in real time.

Just think­ing out loud here.

Good out loud think­ing from MG about where blogging’s going. I’ve real­ized for while now that I’m much more like­ly to use Twit­ter and Tum­blr to share small snip­pets that aren’t worth a fully-formed post. What I’ve also real­ized is that I’m more like­ly to add com­men­tary to that link share (as I’m doing now) so that it effec­tive­ly becomes a blog post. 

Because of this I’m seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing archiv­ing my almost ten year old blog (care­ful­ly pre­serv­ing com­ment threads if at a pos­si­ble) and installing my Tum­blr on the Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org domain.

+Matt Taibbi’s latest Rolling Stone piece explains the anger behind #ows: Wall…

Reshared post from +Tim O'Reilly

+Matt Taibbi's latest Rolling Stone piece explains the anger behind #ows: Wall Street Isn't Winning. It's Cheating. Really excellent. Skewers the idea that this is class warfare against the rich, focuses on the tilted playing field.

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Wall Street Isn't Winning It's Cheating | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone
I was at an event on the Upper East Side last Friday night when I got to talking with a salesman in the media business. The subject turned to Zucott

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Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquak­er, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New York­er arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweet­ed”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operan­di is to make out­ra­geous­ly counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­ness­es. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ous­ly. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, anoth­er New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tain­ly right in that most of what pass­es for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civ­il Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tend­ed to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well miss­es is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuak­er is pret­ty strong-tie – it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each oth­er and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each oth­er, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quak­er blog­gers came togeth­er to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ous­ly, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­al­ly dan­ger­ous form of Chris­t­ian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tion­al chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share pow­er, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who vis­it every day – a small group has tak­en over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuak­er with an ear­li­er peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larg­er audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fair­ly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­at­ed with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I nev­er felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quak­er work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­ti­fy. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­ti­ty of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more direct­ly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia – that just doesn’t pro­vide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­son­al entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and pow­er is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­i­ty and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­o­gy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably similar.

Glad­well is an hired employ­ee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pa­ny with $5 bil­lion in annu­al rev­enue. It’s not real­ly sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan skyscraper.

Relat­ed Reading:

Young Adult Friends Conference in Wichita this Fifth Month

I’ve been lucky enough to have two house­guests this week: Mic­ah Bales and Faith Kel­ley (no rela­tion). They’ve come up to the Philadel­phia area to help pub­li­cize a gath­er­ing of young adult Friends that will take place in Wichi­ta in a few months. Before they left, I got them to share their excite­ment for the con­fer­ence in front of my webcam.

Inter­view with Faith Kel­ley & Mic­ah Bales, two of the orga­niz­ers of the upcom­ing young adult Friends con­fer­ence in Wichi­ta Kansas.

FAITH: This is an invi­ta­tion for a gath­er­ing for young adult Friends ages 18 – 35 from all the branch­es of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends from all across the con­ti­nent. It’s going to be in Wichi­ta Kansas from May 28 – 31. It’s a time to get togeth­er and learn about each oth­er, to hear each other’s sto­ries and wor­ship togeth­er. We’re real­ly excit­ed by this oppor­tu­ni­ty to have peo­ple who have nev­er been to these before and to have peo­ple who have been to oth­er gath­er­ings to come back.
MICAH: A lot of the advance mate­r­i­al is already up online so you can get a good idea what this con­fer­ence is going to be about and to get a sense of how to pre­pare your­self for a gath­er­ing like this. We’ll be get­ting togeth­er with folks from all over the coun­try, Cana­da and Mex­i­co – we’re hop­ing a lot of His­pan­ic Friends show up and we’ve already trans­lat­ed the web­site into Span­ish. Reg­is­tra­tion is set up already; ear­ly reg­is­tra­tion goes until April 15. Air­fare to Wichi­ta is look­ing pret­ty good at the moment; if you reg­is­ter ear­ly you’re like­ly to get a fair­ly decent plane tick­et out.
FAITH: We’re hop­ing peo­ple will choose to car­pool togeth­er. So get orga­nized, reg­is­ter ear­ly and look at the advance mate­ri­als online. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
2010 Young Adult Friends Conference