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Belgian arthouse documentarian Johan Grimonprez (Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y) lets the many mediated personae of Alfred Hitchcock guide us through modernity's recurrent anxieties.
As a human body is shown flailing and falling through the air in slowed-down black-and-white, the announcer from this old newsreel calls the explosive collision of a B-25 Bomber with the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in 1945 "a disaster that remains the most singular in New York City's history".
For the post-9/11 viewer, all too aware with the benefit of hindsight that this event, far from being a singularity, would find its terrifying double in the destruction of the Twin Towers, the sequence near the beginning of Johan Grimonprez's Double Take provokes precisely the sort of uncanny response that is enshrined in the film's title. Elsewhere, Grimonprez focuses, as he did in his earlier short Looking for Alfred (2005), on the Protean personality of Alfred Hitchcock, here viewed in the early Sixties as the established face of cinema, the new face of television, a playful manipulator of his own media image, and a lover of doubles, alter egos and lookalikes.
Meanwhile, a short story ('24 August 1983') by Jorge Luis Borges - who was born in the same month and year as Hitchcock - is here duplicated and altered to tell of a fictive encounter in the production offices of The Birds (1963) between Hitchcock and his own (future) doppelganger, with Hitchcock's nervous narration provided by voice double Mark Perry. Perry himself is shown in a recording studio, mimicking his model in full flow on the subject of his famous narrative-propelling enigma, the 'MacGuffin' (a story which we will in fact hear Hitchcock tell twice in slightly different versions) - while another Hitch double, the (now late) impersonator Ron Burrage, shares anecdotes about his double life in the shadow of another.
If Double Take certainly exploits Hitchcock's celebrity status, it also makes him its own MacGuffin, turning him into a duplicitous icon of modernity's recurring anxieties about identity and alienation. As Hitchcock is seen promoting the avian atrocities of his latest movie or doubling as a pioneer in the relatively new medium of television, all against the background of the Space Race and Cold War oneupmanship, his take on fear (and its falsification) is shown to reflect his own times, and also to re-echo down the ages, with history exposed as a series of poisonously self-destructive repetitions.
In this meticulously researched film essay, montage and collage suggestively associate all manner of dualistic antagonisms. While Hitchcock's The Birds sets humanity against nature (while replaying contemporary fears of thermonuclear death from above), chauvinistically guilt-inducing ads for Instant Folger's Coffee ("how can such a pretty wife make such bad coffee?") set husband against wife. The famous 'kitchen debate' between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev (another Hitch lookalike) dangerously pits East against West, and a similarly televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy polarises American voters against one another - and television itself is dramatised as slowly but surely stealing the edgy thrills of its cinematic daddy and bringing them right into the home ('interrupted' by commercials that in fact seem to play to the same fears and doubts).
The glue holding all this together might be the person of Hitchcock, but as humanity is repeatedly shown being terrorised by the other in itself, Grimonprez urges us to look outwards to the eternal return of history itself, in an uncannily entertaining warning about the dangers of forgetting who we are and where we have come from.
Deploying a dizzying bombardment of archival materials, Grimonprez concocts a Borgesian reflection on the recurring place of fear in twentieth-century history (and beyond), with Hitchcock as the duplicitous host.
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