North by north somewhere: A directionless approach to film

A dirty living room. 2002.

The television is on and roaring as gray and white snow tears across the screen. No signal. My father is grunting with frustration as he attempts to hook up the DVD player, yet he’s unmistakably smiling in a way I’ve never seen before. Today marks a special moment in the relationship this father (and probably most fathers) has with his sons: He’s going to share his favorite movies with us. We’re going to have the Father-Son Hitchcock Marathon Extravaganza he’d always dreamed of.

While we wait for the DVD player to work, my younger brother and I sit on the couch and read the synopses on the backs of the DVD cases from Blockbuster. Vertigo sounds boring. The Birds sounds promising, and is all the more intriguing after Dad tells us that it gave him nightmares for weeks and scared everyone in the country half to death. For that matter, I am genuinely afraid to watch this Psycho movie (a translucent “joke” Psycho shower curtain at a cousin’s house, complete with knife-wielding shadow and bloodstains, had ruined my appetite for ever watching it). But it’s the plot on the back of North by Northwest that really catches my attention.

Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) is a film with an unsuspecting and unwitting hero. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a man whose name and hairstyle are as sexy as they are firmly cemented in the 1950s, is mistaken as a spy contact by government agents and tossed into an assortment of thrilling and intense situations in set-piece moments across America. Touted by Ernest Lehman, who penned the film’s script as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” North by Northwest is a riveting classic from start to finish.

But the last thing the world needs is another gasbag singing Hitchcock’s praises.

Yes, North by Northwest is playing this weekend at 5th Avenue Cinema. You probably have already made the decision whether or not to go see it. Let’s assume you already know Hitchcock’s films are mostly incredible, and at the very least entertaining. Let’s assume you already know that the famous director repeatedly churned out classic movies over a decades-long career that spanned a large chunk of the 20th century and began in the silent film era. Nobody needs to say, “Hitchcock made great movies.” It’s like saying, “Oxygen is good for you,” or, “Wow, pizza sure is a tasty food!”

North by Northwest is an important picture, no doubt. But what makes it truly important to my experience is that while watching it that day with my father, listening to his commentary and memories of watching it as a child, I became aware of a film’s ability to operate beyond surface-level entertainment. I began to understand why people cherish movies.

A debonair, grim-faced Cary Grant flees from certain doom as the blades of an airplane swoop down on him from above. My father explains that the crop-duster on Grant’s tail is actually a converted fighter plane from World War II. I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth, but this Dad Fact™ makes the scene all the more enjoyable.

After subsequent Dad Facts™, I find myself aware of the camera, the sets, the extras and the character’s motives. I know that’s not actually Mount Rushmore (“It is, son,” Dad tells me). I can tell that the camera is set up so I can see the scene from a certain perspective, that this isn’t just a series of pictures stringed together to tell some hackneyed story. I feel frustration and triumph in unison with the characters. I feel the joy radiating from my father, reliving childhood memories. Old memories are returning to him, memories tied directly to this film. For the first time in my life, I’m being forced to watch an old movie and wouldn’t rather be watching cartoons or doing really just about anything else.

Ironically, North by Northwest gave me no true direction to head off toward in order to pursue my newfound interest in film. But nonetheless, it got me thinking. It got me asking questions, and that’s all any person with some level of imagination needs to set out. Maybe I was directionless (maybe I still am), but I was out there in the world and discovering which films and directors moved me. I wanted to find the movies I would show my own children one day.

Surely every appreciator of film can remember the movie that brought them into awareness of the medium as an art. It is these precious moments that create life-long appreciation and understanding of how movies can operate. Not every film or director has something to say, but when they do we have those first films to thank for the capacity to listen. Remember these first films, these first moments of understanding, and treasure them.

We are watching a climactic scene where a character is shot in a restaurant. Dad tells us to pay attention to a certain kid in the background, the “tell-tale extra.” Sure enough, before a gun is even produced, a kid has plugged his ears with his fingers in preparation for the bang. We are overconfident in our own anticipation, and the ensuing gunshot makes both my brother and I jump. Dad laughs.

He is laughing again a few weeks later during another trip to Blockbuster, when I approach the checkout counter with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in hand. It had begun.