Dig through the history of Horror and you will find, buried beneath the Vampires and the Werewolves, a more enduring monster. A monster that fits uneasily on the cinema screen because his depiction requires no make-up or special effects. A monster that looks exactly like you. A monster which, in fact, is you.
From Poe’s “William Wilson” (1838) to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846) through to Kurosawa’s Doppelganger (2003), it is clear that one of the greatest fears humanity has is to wind up face-to-face with itself. Terror is dealing someone who knows all of your secrets, who knows all of your bullshit, who knows what you are capable of… and who can do it too. The doppelganger is a reminder that as much as humanity fears the Other, it fears the Self just as much. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Perhaps what we hate about the Other is what we hate about ourselves. Perhaps all hatred and fear is externalised and projected self-loathing? This idea has a nicely psychoanalytical feel to it. You can imagine Uncle Sigmund whispering it in your ear as you cough up his fee and prepare for the long slouch back home. Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you. How far can we take this insight into our fears and terrors?
Johan Grimonprez’s documentary essay Double Take attempts to answer this question by using the doppelganger as a device for examining not only the politics of the Cold War but also the relationship between television and cinema.
The tone of the film is set by the short story that it is structured around. This short story is written by the novelist and conceptual artist Tom McCarthy. McCarthy’s story is inspired by another short story. A short story written by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “August 25, 1983”. This story (itself a revisitation of a much older Borges story entitled “The Circular Ruins”) features a confrontation between an elderly and dying Borges and his younger self. The older Borges lays out a future for his younger self including the humiliating decision to publish his masterpiece under a pseudonym. A decision that ultimately leads to the old man’s decision to commit suicide. Borges would later say of this short story that its title marked the date he had chosen for suicide. But of course, Borges would only die in 1986 begging the question of whether the old Borges actually was the young Borges and whether either of them was the real Borges who was writing the story. Was the Borges who wrote the story having decided to kill himself in 1983 the same Borges as the one who died in 1986? Can one ever speak of there being a real Borges?
McCarthy’s story is a near word-for-word recreation of Borges’ story but instead of describing an encounter between two version of Jorge Luis Borge, it describes a meeting between two version of Alfred Hitchcock. The film’s narrator. Well… I say that the film is narrated by Alfred Hitchcock but the truth is that it is a version of him. A version cobbled together using footage from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a voice-over provided by an impressionist and little illustrative skits featuring a professional Hitchcock look-a-like. Double Take is not narrated by the real Alfred Hitchcock. It is his double. But the double is not any precise person as the film interweaves specially written narration with snippets from old interviews and TV appearances. Just as there was no real Borges in “August 25, 1983”, there is no real Alfred Hitchcock in Double Take.
This head-spinning muddying of the film’s ontological waters sets the tone for a documentary essay that does not so much explore ideas head on as sidle up to you and whisper them in your ear before sauntering off. Double Take is, at times, almost impossible to follow. It is an essay that functions not be argument but rather by the juxtaposition of half-formed ideas. Ideas which are, without exception, fascinating.
Grimonprez’s selection of Hitchcock as a spirit guide for his exploration of the concept of doubles is far from accidental. Indeed, while Hitchcock never made a traditional doppelganger story, his films frequently feature multiple and mistaken identities. Consider, for example, Norman Bates’ adoption of his mother’s identity in Psycho (1960), the oddly layered characters of Madeleine and Judy in Vertigo (1958) or the different names and hair colours adopted by Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964). All of these films deal with a deliberate blurring of personal identity. The confusion of the self. The loss of self-awareness. This is one of the reasons why the doppelganger has retained its power to terrify us.
This is an idea that the film keeps returning to with its frequent repetition of the opening line to McCarthy’s story :
“They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him… Or that he will kill you… I can’t remember which but the gist of it is that two of you is one too many. By the end of the script one of you must die.”
This is a nice analysis of pretty much every story to feature a doppelganger, but it is not obviously clear why it should be true. Why are doppelgangers so terrifying? Why must we kill them upon encountering them? One answer to this question is that the doppelganger knows too much. He is too much. Because he is you, he knows all the lies you tell. Especially those that you tell yourself about yourself. He knows what lies beneath the padding and the self-mythologising. He knows what you are truly capable of and he is just as capable of it.
The film then proceeds to project these motifs against two unlikely subjects : The politics of the Cold War and the rivalry between television and film. Again, the choice of Hitchcock proves to be far from accidental as Hitchcock’s fame as a director and a public figure coincided with the depths of the Cold War.
Double Take focuses upon one of the lesser known but undeniably more bizarre diplomatic events to take place during the Cold War. In 1959 then Vice-President Richard Nixon attended the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in the company of the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (he of shoe-banging fame). However, what was supposed to be little more than a photo opportunity turned into a real head-bashing competition as Khrushchev took it upon himself to pour scorn on the American technological achievements displayed in the exhibition on the grounds that Soviet technological advancements were in fields that genuinely mattered whereas the Americans seemed to devote all of their technological innovation to the pursuit of frivolous luxury.
“if you meet your double, you should kill him… Or that he will kill you… ”
Grimonprez seems to be suggesting that the Cold War was never anything more than an expression of the same self-loathing and self-hatred that is provoked by someone having to confront their doppelganger. Indeed, both America and the Soviet Union were great powers who only reached the apogee of their power in the 20th Century. Both countries saw themselves as the fruition of a grand utopian vision and both countries saw themselves as the shining city on the hill. The beacon of civilisation. Both countries referred to each other as villainous empires in an effort to separate their own foreign policies with those of the great powers that dominated the 19th Century. Is it not possible that what both countries feared about the other was what they hated most about themselves?
“if you meet your double, you should kill him… Or that he will kill you… ”
The Kitchen Debate is also remarkable by virtue of the fact that it took place on live television. It was live. It was real. It was not the usual diplomatic photo op at which leaders smiled and feigned agreement and friendship in order to mask their complete failure to resolve anything in private. This was diplomacy without doubles. At the time, the capacity of television to capture moments like this was seen as a real threat to people like Hitchcock who made their living from film. Then as now, there was a pervasive fear that television would replace cinema and destroy it. This fear was driven partly by a recognition of film’s own failings : Its long production times, its herky-jerky revenue streams, its need to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to pay the bills. Nobody was more aware of this tension than Hitchcock himself who took a job presenting a TV show in order to pay the bills. A job he took knowing full well that it was helping to undermine the cultural centrality of the cinema experience. A job that made him a household name. This leaves us back where we started : One version of Alfred Hitchcock confronting another version of Alfred Hitchcock. Two Alfred Hitchcocks, both of them terrified by what they see before them. And what they see before them is themselves.