Film buffs will approachThe Extraordinary Image with eager anticipation. Robert Kolker, former president of the Society for Cinema Studies, has enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career. He is best known for his landmark studyA Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman (1980), now in its fourth edition, as is his influential textbook,Film Form and Culture (1999). Kolker has also edited volumes on Hitchcock’sPsycho(1960) and Kubrick’s2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Looking back from the vantage of these accomplishments and experience, what might he have to say about the holy trinity of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick?
Canonization has fallen out of favor in the twenty-first century (perhaps fittingly, Kubrick left us in 1999), but there is good reason that cinephiles and scholars find these particular titans irresistible. The career of the prolific Hitchcock can be divided into four phases: British Silents, British Sound, American Studio, and American Independent, periods that loosely coincide with his output by decade from the 1920s through the 1950s. Had his oeuvre been limited to any one of those periods, he would still be considered one of the greats. Welles was all of twenty-five years old when he made Citizen Kane (1941), the Empire State Building of movies, and for the rest of his career, incompatible with the Hollywood way, he made astonishing, invariably dazzling films under impossible circumstances. Kubrick, a cerebral diamond cutter, released his films at a glacial pace but every one can be studied with interest shot by shot, if not frame by frame.
The Extraordinary Image takes as a welcome point of departure the notion that filmmaking is essentially the craft of building images, and telling stories by way of their composition and juxtaposition. Kolker’s project is especially well-tailored to that insight, as the directors under consideration are among the most purposefullycinematic of filmmakers; each aspired to make movies that could only be understood as movies, a distinct art form with a language and a grammar of its own. Hitchcock held in contempt films he described as “photographs of people talking,” and he came to this position honestly: his apprenticeship, first in Germany and then in England, was in the silent cinema, movies that were necessarily exercises in almost purely visual storytelling. (The arrival of sound in 1929, which in its early days required massive, clumsy equipment, was a step back in this craft, one reason why Peter Bogdonavich considers 1928 the greatest single year in the history of movies.)