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  • What Video-Journalists Can Learn from Alfred Hitchcock's Cardinal Rule of Filmmaking
  • Kurt Lancaster (bio)

françois truffaut, the famed French New Wave director of The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), among other films, was astounded at serious film critics' mainly negative reception of Alfred Hitchcock's films. He was flummoxed by what he saw as Hitchcock being "victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers"; Truffaut felt "it was obvious that [Hitchcock] had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues" (11–12). Truffaut realized that the cardinal rule of cinema was at the heart of Hitchcock's art: "Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer" (17).

In this way, Truffaut felt that Hitchcock was one of the few filmmakers who understood how to execute a story visually, cinematically. With the release of "talkies," dialogue took predominance in filmmaking, which, as Truffaut says, "serves to express the thoughts of characters, but we know that in real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel" (17). Cinema is not found in dialogue, both Truffaut and Hitchcock would argue. Indeed, Truffaut contends that one reason filmmakers and critics should take Hitchcock seriously is his "unique ability to film the thoughts of his characters and make them perceptible without resorting to dialogue" (17). Hitchcock made dialogue scenes cinematic by filming subtext—what characters think and feel made visible through the eyes, gestures, and the full body language of his performers.

Although Truffaut makes his case for Hitchcock as a narrative film artist—and his book documenting this conversation with Hitchcock did help change the minds of American intellectuals regarding Hitchcock's legacy1—I want to extend that conversation into the realm of video-journalism2 by making the case that when narration is utilized as the primary tool, the power of the visual image fades into the background, subsumed by words, and when that happens, the story loses its visual substance, the essence of the story, which thereby weakens it. But video-journalism can be made stronger if video-journalists engage in some of the principles and techniques Hitchcock applied to his films.

Of course, Hitchcock relied on staging and directing of actors to attain his cinematic results. Therefore, making this comparison between Hitchcock's techniques and the video-journalist's approach could seem flawed. Some may argue that application of cinematic techniques to video-journalism would shift it toward unethical manipulation. Applying techniques of cinema to video-journalism—if the latter is to remain fact-based and unstaged—requires video-journalists to write with their cameras. In order to translate Hitchcock's principles to nonfiction work, video-journalists must become active observers rather than just camera operators guided by a reporter-producer to shoot b-roll in the conventional form of video-journalism.3 I argue throughout this [End Page 18] article that the images (the visual material being shot) should be the main storytelling tool of the video-journalist, just as they are for the cinematographer, rather than omniscient-voice narration. Even Hitchcock felt that "one of the biggest problems" in the entire film industry stemmed from the "inability of people to visualize" their stories (quoted in Gottlieb, "Dialogue on Film: Alfred Hitchcock" 91). In an interview, Hitchcock illustrates what he means by referencing a Charlie Chaplin film, The Pilgrim (1923) (see Figure 1):

The opening shot was the outside of a prison gate. A guard came out and posted a wanted notice. [See 1a and 1b in Figure 1—there are two cuts here, not one.] Next cut: a very tall, thin man coming out of a river, having had a swim. He finds that his clothes are missing and have been replaced with a convict's uniform. Next cut: a railroad station, and there coming towards the camera dressed as a person with pants too long is Chaplin.

(Gottlieb, "Dialogue on Film" 91)

"These are the things that I think are so essential," Hitchcock explains while using shots to tell the story visually (Gottlieb, "Dialogue on Film" 91...


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