Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
Paperback. x+280 p. ISBN 978-0190214173. $31.95
Reviewed by Leland Poague
Iowa State University
Few books in Hitchcock Studies have been more influential than Tania Modleski’s The Women Who Knew Too Much : Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (originally published by Methuen in 1988). Though working at a high level of sophistication, it has proven very classroom friendly. Its 2016 third edition confirms as much with newly added matter, study questions keyed to individual chapters by Ned Schantz, and an extended interview of Modleski by David Greven, which focuses on the complex relationship between feminist and queer-studies approaches to Hitchcock. Indeed, in her portion of the exchange Modleski seems very familiar with Greven’s work—had obviously read or heard significant portions of the material Greven included in Intimate Violence—so Greven has already received a significant endorsement of his efforts to achieve a rapprochement between feminist and gay-theoretical approaches to Hitchcock’s films.
Another critic who plays a crucial role in Greven’s approach to Hitchcock and to film more generally is Robin Wood. This will be obvious enough to readers of the Modleski / Greven interview, where Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films (1965) and Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989; rev. ed. 2002) are repeatedly discussed. Moreover, Intimate Violence is only one of many books on film published by Greven in the last decade that pay homage both to Wood and to Hitchcock. For example, Greven’s Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (2009) is expressly presented—as its title indicates—as a sequel to Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986). Moreover, Greven concludes his lengthy introductory survey of latter-day approaches to the construction, experience, and analysis of masculinity with an extended discussion of Wood, endorsing Wood’s deployments of Freud and Norman O. Brown (vs. Lacan) and praising Wood’s Leavis-inspired linkage of evaluative “aesthetics” and “the life-drive” even when engaging works of popular culture whose representations of gender are culturally problematic. It is “very often the most disturbing, least ‘positive’ films about sexuality”, Greven avows, that “most daringly address the complexities of sexual identity in our most compellingly strange time” [Greven 2009 : 5].
Two other among Greven’s numerous books require brief notice here, in view of Greven’s Intimate Violence discussion of the indebtedness of Spellbound (1945) to the “woman’s film”. Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema : The Woman’s Film, Film Noir, and Modern Horror (2011) extends Greven’s analysis of the experience of gender and sexuality on film by advancing the claims that “modern horror” begins with Psycho (1960) and peaks, roughly, with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and that films in the genre can be understood as “concealed woman’s films”, in that films in both the woman’s and horror genres frequently have female protagonists whose “transformation” from innocence to experience, in the face of maternal hostility or of some inscrutably monstrous form of masculinity, can be taken as politically valuable “allegories for gay male experience” [Greven 2011 : 5]. Dialectically enough, in Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (2013) Greven takes Hitchcock as crucially influencing such “New Hollywood” films as Taxi Driver (1976), Cruising (1980), and Dressed to Kill (1980), all of which derive much of their force and interest from a “triumvirate of male sexual anxieties—voyeurism, pornography, and homosexuality” [Greven 2013 : 11].
At the risk of oversimplifying, let me describe Greven’s Intimate Violence : Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory as having three main threads or tropes: 1) the “decentering” of the oedipalized straight-male protagonist in Hitchcock in favor of apparently ancillary characters and conflicts, chiefly conflicts among Hitchcock’s feminine and his variously queer characters; 2) a spirited reply to the “antisocial thesis”, as advanced particularly by Lee Edelman, which holds that queer theorists and readers (sinthomosexuals, in Edelman’s Lacanian coinage) should embrace the homophobic argument that homosexuality is death-driven, if arguably no less so than the future-oriented, jouissance-denying “family values” cultural warriors for whom bodily pleasure apart from reproduction is a sinfulness that should be eternally deferred; and 3) a pragmatist defense of popular culture as providing resistant pleasures far in excess of the constraints attributed to it by Laura Mulvey’s original and highly influential gaze theory or by some advocates of “high queer theory”.
The feminine versus the queer: Shadow of a Doubt
A noteworthy feature of Greven’s style, especially in Intimate Violence, is a reliance on variously overdetermined phrases or concepts, typically emphasized by italics, chief among them sexual hegemony, the struggle of the feminine versus the queer, and homoerotic antagonism. Crucially, what is “hegemonic” about “institutionalized heterosexuality” as a narrative/ideological “master plot” [Greven 2017 : 35], despite its obvious intimations of misogyny and homophobia, is its instability and contradictions. “Heterosexual sexuality dominates, but it does not wield dominance securely and stably” . Hence forms of sexual / social power are “riven by anxieties and incoherencies that threaten to topple them” .
As numerous critics have observed, in Hitchcock these resistant forces are nearly always personified by variously alienated or abjected females (Diana Baring [Norah Baring] in Murder!  or Alicia Huberman [Ingrid Bergman] in Notorious  or Marion Crane [Janet Leigh] in Psycho) or by (potentially) murderous but often fascinating if not in fact sympathetic male characters (Handel Fane [Esme Percy] in Murder! or Alex Sebastion [Claude Rains] in Notorious or Norman Bates [Anthony Perkins] in Psycho). Though some Hitchcock characters may desperately seek to embody heterosexual normality—the second Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca (1940), say, or Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in North by Northwest (1959)—their efforts are usually tainted by suspicion or intrigue, are often opposed or threatened by officialdom, and are repeatedly complicated by the agency of some equally non-gender normative, usually male, figure who both repels and attracts the problematically normative male protagonist, thus instancing homoerotic antagonism and thereby providing the “queer” term in the feminine versus the queer dialectic.
To the extent that women in Hitchcock are almost always depicted as sexually subordinate to men—especially when they struggle not to be—even the overtly feminine figures can be thought of as “queer”, in the sense that their sexuality is indeterminate, unknowable apart from the usually sad history of their patriarchal circumstances. Greven twice quotes Judith Butler’s claim that “masculine and feminine … are accomplishments” rather than “dispositions” as per (some versions of) Freud [qtd. in GREVEN 2017 : 13, 189]. Hence, for example, Greven argues that the title character in Marnie (1964) is best thought of as “inviolate” or “onanistic” rather than frigid or lesbian: “Marnie would rather go it alone” . It also bears saying that, if an alienated and abjected woman, Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is also one of Hitchcock’s most sympathetically presented (if “accidental”) killers, first of her prostitute mother’s client, then of her beloved thoroughbred, Forio (“There, there now”). In her constant changes of wardrobe, hair color, and demeanor, moreover, Marnie exemplifies the “constructedness” of gender and gender roles, a Hitchcockian theme that goes as far back as Daisy (June [Tripp]) in The Lodger (1926), who works as a runway model, and reaches its apotheosis in Rear Window (1954), where Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont is what we would call, nowadays, a supermodel, active in the fashion business far beyond the runway, if she is always stylishly attired, even in dungarees.
Readers of Psycho-Sexual will be familiar with Greven’s feminine versus the queer rubric, which he employs in his chapter one discussion of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the latter serving Greven as a provocatively counterintuitive template for his subsequent discussions of male sexual trauma in Psycho, Taxi Driver, etc. Key here is the extent to which the film’s initial Marrakesh setting and its clandestine espionage plot evoke Cold-War era homosexual panic, in that “queer sexuality”—personified chiefly by Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), who “cruises” Ben McKenna (James Stewart), to whom he subsequently whispers a deadly secret—becomes a metaphor of “the heterosexual couple’s dissatisfactions with their own subservience to compulsory gender roles” [Greven 2013 : 30]. In Intimate Violence, the “template” movie is one Hitchcock made more than a decade earlier, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), though here too we encounter dissatisfaction with normalized gender expectations, especially those distressing (if repressed by) Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge), mother to the film’s “feminine” protagonist and sister to its “queer” villain.
Though Greven’s chapter on Shadow of a Doubt is devoted largely to discussing the “liminal”, hence variously queer, sexualities of Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten), Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), and Emma Newton, he does so against the background of the “battle to the death” struggle between uncle and niece. Greven derives his notion of intimate violence, it bears saying, from Melanie Klein’s picture of infantile fantasy, in which a child “frustrated at the breast” imagines both “tear[ing] up” his or her mother and “repairing” her, putting her back together again [qtd. in Greven 2017 : 11-12]. Surprisingly, in view of his subsequent discussion of the queer mother figure, Greven does not observe how Shadow of a Doubt enacts a similar save-versus-kill scenario. Though Young Charlie clearly threatens to kill Uncle Charlie if he does not leave town, and does precipitate his demise in self-defense as things work out, her explicit motive is to save her mother from death-dealing embarrassment should her brother be arrested in Santa Rosa. More problematic is Uncle Charlie’s reason for coming to Santa Rosa. His obvious motive is to escape justice, in the form of various “detective” figures who are trailing him; but one can read his assaults on elderly women as reactively misogynistic, and the sense that they are somehow directed at his sister is confirmed by his repeated attempts to kill Young Charlie, whose anxiety about her own mindless life in Santa Rosa is expressed, at least in part, as distress about her mother’s dismal lot (“Dinner, then dishes, then bed. I don’t see how she stands it”). Uncle Charlie even opines at one point that Young Charlie is “the head of [her] family”, thus confirming the extent to which the feminine versus the queer figure can “decenter” the heteronormative story in Hitchcock; Charlie displaces her father in the family hierarchy for her mother’s sake, and the narcissistic intensity of Charlie’s affinity and antipathy for her murderous same-name uncle is far more emotionally charged than the tender if pallid “romance” that pairs Young Charlie with Jack Graham (MacDonald Carey), the latter of whom only appears in a few scenes.
More crucially, Greven sees the conflict of Young Charlie and Uncle Charles as proleptically thematizing the conflict between feminist and queer-theory readings of Hitchcock. Shadow of a Doubt, he writes, “crystallizes the struggle that has emboldened the present study—feminist and queer theory readings of Hitchcock at cross purposes even as both strive to understand and critique the effects of patriarchal ideology on those it marginalizes and conscripts” [Greven 2017 : 54]. Accordingly, Shadow of a Doubt offers an imperative “allegory to feminism and queer theory: Work together or remain radically opposed; learn more about the needs and goals of the other in order to find common ground” . The urgency here is palpable and poignant. Hitchcock matters to Greven because he so thoroughly deconstructs the gender status quo, makes implicitly visible, in the feminine versus the queer conflict, “ways in which a shared social struggle might be possible”, despite “the enmity and disconnection so often foregrounded in Hitchcock’s films” . Though Greven denies that “Hitchcock’s films are on balance either misogynistic or homophobic” , however often they may depict those prejudices, he is deeply aware nonetheless of the extent to which Hitchcock’s movies have proven crucial in disputes over the cultural consequences of mainstream cinema or of cinema tout court.
Regarding the antisocial thesis: Rope and Psycho
Greven devotes a portion of his Introduction, for example, to the dispute between Tania Modleski and Lee Edelman over the importance or role of women in The Birds (1963), where Edelman’s concept of the synthomosexual arguably decenters or marginalizes, much to Modleski’s distress, the role of women in the film, even if the birds themselves are taken (as per Slavoj Žižek) as representing the maternal superego. Despite the book’s largely chronological progress—from Shadow of a Doubt through Spellbound, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho, and on eventually to Marnie—Greven frames that progress by repeated reference to Edelman’s No Future : Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Thus Greven’s chapter one discusses Psycho (by reference to Hitchcock and Stefano’s revisioning of the Robert Bloch novel to make Marion and Norman more sympathetic than their originals) and North by Northwest (where Greven adduces Edelman’s reading of the Leonard character [Martin Landau] as personifying the perverse anti-compassion of Lacan’s subject of the libidinous drive). Similarly, Greven ends the book with an Epilogue where he contests Edelman’s No Future reading of The Birds directly, and arrives (with help from Jack Halberstam) at the (speculative) prospect that the birds who ravish Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in Cathy Brenner’s upstairs bedroom are less agents of destruction than liberation, as if they were urging Melanie to leave the patriarchal nest and join their flagrantly non-normative flock.
Greven devotes considerable attention to the fraught topic of paranoia: as a delusional symptom of homosexuality à la Freud, as the sad result of socially enforced disapprobation (elaborated via a concept of female paranoia, as experienced by female characters who “know too much” about homosocial masculinity), and as characteristic of the hermeneutics of suspicion, which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has elaborated in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” by reference to a concept of “strong theory” derived from the work of Silvan Tomkins. I raise the “strong theory” point because Greven’s repeated discussions of the “antisocial thesis” do not so much refute as reply to Edelman’s urging that (implicitly male) homosexuals should embrace their status as figuring the death drive. Though Sedgwick concedes the wisdom and necessity of practicing a hermeneutics of suspicion on occasion, she adduces Tomkins on the question of affect (especially humiliation) to explain the downside of “strong theory”, which becomes more negative as it covers more cases; there is no end to humiliation if it can be found everywhere. Two consequences may follow, as I read Sedgwick reading Tomkins. Seeking to avoid surprise, to know in advance when and where negative affect may occur, “entirely block[s] the potentially operative goal of seeking positive affect” [Sedgwick : 15]. More happily, the tautological element of strong theory can render it effectively mute. As Sedgwick puts it, “who reads The Novel and the Police to find out whether its main argument [that the carceral is everywhere] is true?” Instead, we read D.A. Miller’s 1988 book for the “wealth of tonal nuance, attitude, worldly observation, performative paradox, aggression, tenderness, wit, inventive reading, obiter dicta, and writerly panache” we find along the way .
David Greven frames his approach to “Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory” (per his book’s subtitle) as instancing a version of Sedgwick’s reparative reading. He puts back together an anti-hegemonic or queer Hitchcock from bits and pieces of Hitchcock, many of them gleaned from works by other theorists and critics, in ways that largely eschew “strong theory” (a phrase he never uses himself). Moreover, Intimate Violence displays, it bears saying, numerous of the writerly virtues Sedgwick attributes to D.A. Miller. Greven never really matches the full polemical force of Edelman’s No Future version of the “antisocial thesis”, which could hardly be a more striking instance of “strong theory” given Edelman’s paradoxically totalizing evocations of Lacan’s Imaginary / Symbolic / Real formulation, not to mention Edelman’s uncanny mastery of the texts in question and of his own critical language. But Greven is admirably straightforward in specifying his main objections to Edelman et al.
Abstractly speaking, Greven critiques Edelman’s argument that sinthomosexuals should embrace the death-drive status attributed to them by a hostile heteronormativity as leaving queer viewers and critics in an “impossible position” [Greven 2017 : 217] that is “unremittingly negative” . While repeatedly acknowledging his debt to critics like D.A. Miller and Edelmen, Greven finds the epistemological consequences of Edelman’s ethical imperative that queer critics “accede” to their status as death-driven not only stultifying, in the sense that it requires endlessly arriving at the same conclusion, but he finds that conclusion “distort[ing]”  and restrictive, as in suggesting, as Edelmen does, that Hitchcock’s works, however often they depict sympathy, are finally void of compassion, which is always subordinated to Hitchcock’s Pudovkin-informed fascination with the technology of audience manipulation. More pragmatically, Greven’s interest in achieving a rapprochement between feminist and queer-theory approaches to Hitchcock—in view of the distressing blindness to female characters or feminist perspectives repeatedly attributed to Miller and Edelman—is addressed directly in his claim to the effect that Hitchcock’s true center of narrative gravity is the feminine versus the queer pair, which displaces the normative hetero couple by reducing or decentering the agency of the ostensibly dominant male hero. This pattern is obvious enough in most of the films Greven attends to—Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound (where Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Peterson is, as it were, the main investigator), Psycho (where the heteronormative Sam Loomis [John Gavin] is far less interesting than Norman Bates, his queer double), or The Birds (in which the hyper-feminine Daniels is clearly the central character and the birds provide the queerness). Even Marnie can be interpreted along these lines, if we see the main axis of interest as pitting Marnie’s masquerade of feminine allure against her mother’s equally queer (and no less haunted) performance of matronly propriety. Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), for all of his complexity and centrality, is almost literally a go-between.
Two films among those studied at length in Intimate Violence are of special interest in gauging the extent to which Greven offers a theoretically satisfying “counterargument” [Greven 2017 : 2] to the queer-theory take on Hitchcock: Rope and Psycho. Greven’s treatment of the former, in response to the anal-centric efforts of Miller on Rope and Edelman on Rear Window, not only places special emphasis on the roles of Janet (Joan Chandler) and Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), but works to downplay the import of anality (which Miller reads as the invisible but implicit target of Hitchcock’s use of male backs to hide the cuts in his tour de force use of long takes) in favor of highlighting “orality” as the film’s dominant trope. Greven notes that the character of Janet was added to the dramatis personae of the original Patrick Hamilton play, and likens her backstory intimacy with Brandon (John Dall) to that between Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Scottie (James Stewart) in Vertigo (1958), though Greven reads the Janet / Brandon relationship as instancing the attraction/repulsion ambivalence typical of the feminine versus the queer conflict, crediting Janet, indeed, with a skepticism about Brandon’s behavior that often anticipates that of former prep-school house-master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the man who finally, as it were, cracks the case in deducing that David Kentley’s corpse is hidden in the cassone around which the film’s action has circulated. (It is this chest that allows Greven to literalize the notion that Brandon, Philip [Farley Granger], and their guests feast on David, thus “Making a Meal of Manhood”, as per Greven’s chapter title.)
More crucially, Greven critiques the apparatus-theory bent of Miller and Edelman, both of whom, like Laura Mulvey, link the technology of vision to that of gender in terms variously derived from Freud and Lacan. Partly, this involves an appeal on Greven’s part to Freud’s model of psychosexual development; if Miller and Edelman see anal eroticism as prior to, as suppressed by but informing, heterogenitality, Greven sees orality as prior to anality. Acknowledging that the discourse of homophobia might read priority as a sign of regression, Greven nonetheless sees eating or consuming in Rope as a register of desire, of “taste”: culinary, sexual, aesthetic. Thus Greven argues that orality, as the film’s “chief symbolic preoccupation”, links “all of the characters in the film”, hence suggests “that its homo killers are not rogue outliers distinct from the normative social order” [122-123]. Greven’s indebtedness to Robin Wood is especially emphatic in his discussion of Rope, in that both agree that blame for the thrill killing of David Kentley ultimately accrues to the homophobic culture that teaches even obviously privileged young men that life is not worth living. Indeed, Greven links the queer anguish increasingly exhibited by Philip, Brandon, and eventually Rupert Cadell to the question of (suppressed) speech: “what they principally chafe against may be not only the overt homophobia but also the stifling silences around the issue” . Though Brandon’s display of artistic “talent” in stage managing the death of David Kentley and the subsequent party is ultimately an elaborate form of suicide, in Greven’s estimation, it is also, almost literally, a speech act: he and Philip “have done what you and I talked about”, Brandon tells Rupert, as if his goal all along has been to prompt Rupert’s explicit acknowledgment, which comes more in Rupert’s stunned silence as they await the arrival of the police than in Rupert’s strikingly incoherent and hypocritical denunciation of their murderous deed.
Though it is hard to imagine a more explicit illustration of the “antisocial thesis” than Rope—in which Brandon and Philip (in Lee Edelman’s language) “figure an unregenerate, and unregenerating, sexuality … rejecting every constraint imposed by sentimental futurism” [qtd. in Greven 2017 : 171]—Greven reserves his most detailed confrontation with the Miller/Edelman position for his chapter six discussion of “The Death Mother in Psycho”. Indeed, Greven takes Edelman’s polemical description of the death drive as “a persistent negation that offers assurance of nothing at all” [qtd. 171] as an elegant “shorthand description” of Psycho, which Greven sees as Hitchcock’s most resonant and horrifyingly misogynistic variation of the feminine versus the queer trope. I take Greven’s equation of the death drive and the “Death Mother” to be puzzling on at least two accounts, especially in view of Greven’s argument that Psycho, in its “harrowing portrait” of “an essential American estrangement”, can be taken as a “proleptic critique of the antisocial thesis” .
It bears saying that “antisocial thesis” is not Edelman’s own description of his project in No Future. Greven takes the phrase from Jack Halberstam, and employs it, I presume, to acknowledge the ideological force of Edelman’s polemic. Greven wants to claim that Hitchcock’s films, for all their misogyny and homophobia, instance various forms of resistance to the heteronormative status quo, hence his attributing to Psycho an element of critique, of incipient or implicit irony by means of which the film can be taken as turning on the social conditions it depicts, not merely reproducing them but offering critical assessment of them in the bargain. This seems distinctly foreign to the practice of Miller and Edelman in the texts of theirs that Greven most directly engages. That Hitchcock is a highly esteemed cultural figure allows Miller and Edelman both to allege that even canonical figures are capable of telling homophobic stories, the homophobia of which is only magnified in Hitchcock’s case by his mastery of film form. (Greven himself is troubled by certain scenes in Hitchcock: the shower scene in Psycho, the scene in The Birds when Melanie is subjected to avian assault in Cathy Brenner’s upstairs bedroom, the rape scenes in Marnie and Frenzy .) A shorthand description of No Future would emphasize how Edelman describes various cultural texts, among them North by Northwest and The Birds, as subscribing to or reproducing the heteronormative story in which sexual union between men and women legitimizes and is legitimized by the prospect of biological reproduction: “The Future is Kid Stuff”, as Edelmen titles No Future’s first chapter. For Edelman, then, critique is the business more of queer theory than of canonical texts, especially those accorded the status of Symbolic Holy Writ.
However much he privileges being over meaning, Edelman is very emphatic that his argument on behalf of sinthomosexuality is profoundly figural, as his reliance on Lacan and Paul de Man clearly indicates. Edelman thus maps linguistic and sexual reproduction together under the rubric of “sentimental futurism”, leading him (in language Greven quotes directly) to describe “aesthetic culture—the culture of forms and their reproduction, the culture of Imaginary lures — as always already a ‘culture of death’” [Greven 2017 : 171]. All of which pertains to Greven’s elaboration of the “Death Mother” in Psycho because the “Death Mother” both is and isn’t a figure in the film. On the one hand, “Mrs. Bates” is one in a long line of queer mothers in Hitchcock—Mrs. Sebastian (Madame Konstantin) in Notorious, Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne) in Strangers on a Train, Mrs. Brenner (Jessica Tandy) in The Birds—whose over-close associations with their unconventional if not villainous sons complicate the feminine versus the queer figure, thus establishing in their respective films yet another axis of intimacy and violence, even as the “sympathy that Hitchcock characteristically extends to the queer villain is extended to the queer mother as well” . On the other hand, the fact remains that “Mrs. Bates” is a profoundly constructed figure, the literal handiwork of her taxidermist offspring, alive in the film only as a Platonic shadow or Lacanian Blot. Though her material trace persists in the form of her chemically treated corpse and in her meticulously preserved bedroom furnishings and personal effects, Norman and Hitchcock collaborate via costume, voice-over, mise-en-scène, and découpage, to bring “Norma Bates” to uncanny life, never more hauntingly than in the last moments of the film, when Mother’s voice and skull seem to merge with / emerge from the painfully expressionless visage of Norman.
The puzzlements here are two. Most obviously, Greven wants to have it both ways in casting Mrs. Bates/Mother as the “Death Mother”, the latter of which is both unique in Hitchcock yet has, nonetheless, deep cultural resonance. The cultural resonance—which Greven employs to qualify or question the “antisocial thesis”—follows from the thought that the Freudian notion of the death drive is a decidedly patriarchal fantasy, so that Norman’s efforts to depict his mother as the death dealer are read as misogyny writ horrifically large, “demonizing the maternal”  even as the “maternal metaphor” permits “the film to critique the social order’s investments in controlling female sexuality and silencing queer sexuality” . Greven’s corollary claim that “the death mother is distinct from all of Hitchcock’s mothers”  follows largely from her literal absence in Psycho, from her spatialization  via the “motif of life-in-deathness” , as “an effect produced by the film text as a whole” [173; ital. in original]. As “the death mother is primarily tied to the aesthetic”  on Greven’s analysis—and to the aesthetic of film in particular, to the extent that film is photographic, preserving its subjects while marking them all as mortal—it is fair to say that Greven’s elaboration of the Death Mother in Hitchcock comes perilously near to confirming Edelman’s quasi-Platonic critique of “reproduction” tout court as illusory and as prejudicially “death-dealing”.
The latter inference is all the more striking in view of Greven’s “Freud and the Death-Mother” chapter in Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema. There Greven ponders the significant if illuminating difficulties Freud encountered in trying to map female sexual development by reference to the Oedipus complex, and suggests an alternative if equally mythical template, what he calls “the Persephone complex” [Greven 2011: 17], though for our purposes the central figure, perhaps the original Death Mother, is Demeter, “goddess of the seasons, grain, and the harvest” and mother to Persephone, goddess of Spring . Per Greven, the Demeter-Persephone myth and modern horror alike depict “heterosexual union as a bond forged in hell” . In the former case, Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, to be his queen; and her mother, in her angry sorrow, casts the world into cold and darkness as she searches for her lost child. Eventually, Zeus intervenes; mother and daughter are reunited, but on the condition that Persephone spend four months of the year in Hades, which prospect is a constant sorrow for her, however much the hope of her yearly return from death provides comfort to mere mortals.
Though Greven limits the application of the Death Mother trope to Psycho in Intimate Violence, he illustrates it in Representations by reference to Vertigo and Rebecca. The earlier film, in this context, is a veritable template for Psycho; here the eponymous Rebecca exists mainly as upper-crust legend, vibrantly if perversely alive in the memory of her intimates and in her still preserved bedroom and wardrobe, though her corpse, we might say, like that of Mrs. Bates, makes a spectacular and disruptive cameo appearance before the film concludes. A similarly legendary (if also once real) mother figure haunts Vertigo, though Carlotta Valdes better fits the Demeter prototype than the du Maurier / Hitchcock Rebecca; Carlotta’s history as a grieving mother wandering the streets of San Francisco in vain hope of finding the daughter abducted by her former patron and lover is knowingly repeated, literally as a cover story, in the Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) plot to murder his wife, one of many lost daughters in the movie, Kim Novak’s Judy Barton among them. Numerous other Hitchcock mothers can be seen as more “positive” exemplars of the Demeter prototype. Most striking of all these death mothers is Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham) in Marnie, whose effort to protect her daughter from the agonies of heterosexuality is arguably as heroic as Marnie’s own exemplification of queer resilience. Other female characters who hover protectively over a daughter figure in Hitchcock include Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) in The Lodger, Mrs. White (Sara Allgood) in Blackmail (1929), Erica’s Aunt (Mary Clare) in Young and Innocent (1937), Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) in Jamaica Inn (1939), Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) in To Catch a Thief (1955), and Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), who forced her sister to give up an illegitimate son and belatedly repents, in Family Plot (1976). Greven’s neglect of this version of the mother-daughter trope in Intimate Violence is curious, especially in view of his expressed desire to reconcile feminist and queer-theory approaches to Hitchcock.
To love or not to love: North by Northwest
I have described Intimate Violence as offering a pragmatist defense of popular culture, though Greven’s other film books are more emphatic in this regard; Hitchcock hardly needs another defender by contrast, say, with Brian De Palma or Jonathan Demme. That defense hinges, in essence, on Greven’s ability to find “resistant pleasures” in the movies. Hitchcock’s skeptical take on social authorities of various sorts, especially as that intersects with the complexities of gender and spectatorship, provides numerous opportunities along these lines, few of which really qualify as reading “against the grain” unless Hitchcock is taken too literally at his often sardonic word. Most especially, Greven is obviously energized by the sympathy Hitchcock shows and encourages toward his socially abjected protagonists, which is all the more reason for him to find Edelman’s view of Hitchcock uncongenial. One pleasure that Greven does not much dwell on, even while allowing its existence as spectatorial fantasy, is romantic love, heterosexual or otherwise. (His chapter on Spellbound is the main exception here.) This neglect makes some sense in view of Greven’s claim about the primacy of the feminine versus the queer rubric in Hitchcock. Indeed, it is the repeated impossibility of mutual acknowledgment between such characters that renders their interaction so achingly, so ironically poignant on Greven’s account. The neglect of love may also follow from the influence of Lee Edelman, despite Greven’s anxieties about the antisocial thesis. Edelman’s Lacanian gloss on Leonard’s refusal to assist Roger Thornhill as he and Eve Kendall cling precariously to Mr. Rushmore in North by Northwest makes the “Imaginary One of the Couple” a threadbare fantasy indeed by contrast with the bracingly perverse reality Lacan attributes to the more ethically freighted injunction to “love one’s neighbor”, which Lacan translates as “kill him or fuck him” [qtd. in Edelman 2004 : 83]. There’s little room for “sentimental futurism” in that locution!
Despite the melodrama of its title, Intimate Violence is an admirably generous and enthusiastic contribution to Hitchcock studies, a book that deserves recognition and elaboration. Let me enter one serious caveat in closing by way of contributing to that effort. Greven repeatedly attributes a politically conservative, implicitly heterosexist bias to the analyses of Hitchcock by William Rothman and Stanley Cavell. That implication derives from Greven’s claim that Rothman follows Cavell in reading “Hitchcock’s films as Emersonian comedies of remarriage” [Greven 2017 : 6], the latter of which Greven glosses as a subgenre (or redescription) of “screwball comedy” . Both of these claims amount to tendentious misunderstandings, especially in view of Rothman’s Must We Kill the Thing We Love? (2014), where Rothman takes great pains to distinguish the Hitchcock thriller from remarriage comedy in the course of asking and answering his title question. Greven’s dismissal of Cavell and Rothman is regrettable not least because Cavell especially can be taken as elaborating Greven’s claim that in many Hitchcock films “heterosexuality itself is inherently queered by its arduous difficulty” . To be sure, the difficulty in a Hitchcock thriller is typically a matter of criminal or political mayhem (of the movies Greven discusses at length, each includes at least one homicide), and the extent to which Hitchcock’s vaunted devotion to “pure cinema” is itself a form of murderousness is the very question Rothman seeks to explore.
Cavell’s notion of “remarriage”, by contrast, is less gothic than romantic, but the closest Cavell gets to applying it to Hitchcock is in his 1981 essay on North by Northwest, which Greven quotes directly from Cavell on Film (2005). I concede that the film ends, uncharacteristically for Hitchcock, with a newly and happily solemnized marriage; Cavell reads the movie as allegorizing “the legitimizing of marriage” [Cavell 2005 : 42]. But Cavell’s “derivation” of North by Northwest from remarriage comedy (or from whatever remarriage comedy “derives from” ) takes less space than his analyses of its relationship to Hamlet and its sources and to other Hitchcock films, and he concludes the derivation by noting “the essential difference in structure between the romantic comedies of remarriage and Hitchcock’s romantic thriller” , which is roughly to say that Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill plays the role typically reserved in remarriage comedy for the female character, as someone who undergoes death and resurrection and whose “physical identity is insisted upon by the camera” . This formulation of the difference between the Hitchcock thriller and remarriage comedy might be seen as confirming Hitchcock’s misogyny, or Hollywood’s, or Cavell’s, hence implying that the difference between screwball comedy and remarriage comedy doesn’t much matter, especially from a queer perspective.
But in Pursuits of Happiness (1981) Cavell sees remarriage comedy, exactly in its insistence that “Marriage is always divorce” [Cavell 1981 : 103], as a radical departure from New Comedy or screwball comedy, where confusions of identify and affinity are resolved and social harmony is stereotypically restored via a concluding wedding ritual or celebration (e.g., As You Like It or My Man Godfrey ). That many of the couples in remarriage comedy have already been legally married, have presumably already experienced genital sexuality, implies that neither social approval nor sexual intercourse effects a valid marriage. “The central idea”, Cavell writes in “A Capra Moment”, is that “the validity or bond of marriage is no longer assured or legitimized by church or state or sexual compatibility or children but by something I call the willingness for remarriage” [Cavell 2005 : 136-137]. Which means, in practice, that comedies of remarriage prompt, for characters and critics alike, “philosophical discussions of the nature of marriage” [Cavell 1981 : 85]; which also means, in practice, that remarriage comedies “leave ambiguous the question whether the man or the woman is the active or the passive partner, whether indeed active and passive are apt characterizations of the difference between male and female, or whether indeed we know satisfactorily how to think about the difference between male and female” .
I take it that the Hitchcock thriller also puzzles many of these same questions, often under more traumatic fictional circumstances, which is why Cavell and Rothman repeatedly refer from one genre to the other. In the context of Intimate Violence, however, I am almost inclined to describe the central characters in remarriage comedy as sinthomosexuals avant la lettre, as exiles from the very “sentimental futurism” of which Edelman and Greven alike are wary. (Should it matter here that the two figures most associated with remarriage comedy—amounting to its archetypal couple for their performances in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940)—are Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, each of whom was variously if connotatively “queer” on screen, quite apart from whatever queerness was expressed in their private lives?) The central couples in remarriage comedies are notably childless, as if to make room for their own jouissance-like fits of childishness and game playing. Moreover, the idea that marriage is chiefly a matter of a willingness for repetition—gay or straight, you maintain a relationship by maintaining it—offers a somewhat more hopeful and perhaps more truthful perspective on the politics of repetition than is available to Edelman or Greven or anyone else under the sign of Lacan. That’s a difference worth repeating, especially in an America were same-sex couples are newly tasked to undertake “philosophical discussions of the nature of marriage”, in that sense to pursue their own mutual happiness, from within the ever-contested realm of our New World social contract.
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_____________. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Harvard University Press, 1981.
EDELMAN, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
_________ “Rear Window’s Glasshole”, in Ellis Hanson, ed., Out Takes: Essays in Queer Theory and Film. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999: 72-96.
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