Dr. Paglia Probes — Pop, the Net and Alfred Hitchcock
by DMETRI KAKMI
In 1998 I was writing for SevenMag—a print and online publication dedicated to the singer Prince, of all things. One day the editor Vicki Shuttleworth asked who I wanted to interview. Camille Paglia was my immediate response. The feminist firebrand had burst onto the scene short of a decade earlier with her mammoth bestseller Sexual Personaeand I counted her among my idols. Moreover, her new book about Hitchcock’s The Birds had just been released, and that seemed as good a reason to talk to her as any.
Little over a month later, after to-ing and fro-ing with Paglia’s agent and time differences between Australia and North America, I stood with phone in trembling hand and nervously dialled Paglia’s home number in Philadelphia. They say you shouldn’t meet people you admire, and I was about to do just that. Would I regret it? No, I did not.
Among the first words Miss Motormouth said was, ‘I haven’t much time. I have to be at work in half an hour.’ And hour and a half later she was still talking full tilt before suddenly going, ‘Oh my goodness, look at the time. I gotta go,’ before slamming down the phone, leaving me stunned and feeling thoroughly pleased with what I had caught on tape.
SevenMag went offline several years ago, and it seems a shame this interview is no longer available for the curious reader. We present it here for your ardent pleasure.
Dmetri Kakmi, 3 July 2020
‘I talk very fast, I’m sure you’ll get enough material,’ was one of the first things Professor Camille Paglia said to me when I rang her Philadelphia home for this interview. I laughed and said, ‘Yes, I know.’But I knew nothing.
The essence of Camille Paglia is in her rapid-fire, high-velocity speech, with its guffaws, screams, high, derisive laughter, startling asides, sudden changes of thought in the middle of a sentence, a word even, and her ability to circumnavigate to her original thesis, twenty minutes later, seemingly without drawing a single breath. Her scope of reference is so panoramic, that a simple question propelled us into a galaxy of references to music, film, classical art, television shows, politics and education. A self-proclaimed television junkie and ‘rock ‘n’ roll intellectual’, she is the embodiment of the age of ‘information overload’ on two legs, and the owner of the sexiest, brassiest voice I’ve heard in many an age. She was a dazzling maw of words and ideas before which I was a mere prompter, quickly flinging in morsels to tempt her voracious intellect.
In this transcript of the interview she talks about pop culture, the Net, and her book on Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.
Dmetri Kakmi: Since you first appeared on the cultural scene, you’ve slowly been absorbed into pop culture. That’s rare for an academic. First of all, how did this happen and what are your feelings about it?
Camille Paglia: Well, the reason it happened is because I’m a total product of the 1960s generation. Pop culture, pop art, was the sensibility that burst onto the scene at that time … What has carried my work is that I’m not coming at popular culture from the point of view of those sterile European styles — the Frankfurt school or poststructuralism, which permeates postmodernism. I’m not looking at it from the superior vantage point of seeing what’s wrong with it — that it’s a product of some sort of evil, corrupt capitalist plot — all that kind of moralistic language that impugns popular culture. I’m coming from the point of view of an aficionado, of a fan, okay? That’s why I’m very angry, VERY angry as I now see all of these academics in the Ivy League in America all of a sudden — now that poststructuralism is disintegrating beneath their feet — okay, all of a sudden desperately trying to glom onto popular culture, knowing nothing about it, because you have to have lived with it for as many years as I have to understand it. All of a sudden now they’re running desperately after it, and they’re putting in their books picture of Michael Jackson … trying to catch up and they don’t know what they’re doing.
DK: They’re using the wrong language when they analyse pop culture, aren’t they?
CP: Absolutely! Completely, but not only that, I mean, in order to write about popular culture you must write about it with as great a sympathy, and as great an emotion as you would if you were studying any kind of a foreign culture. And so that the arrogance and the exploitation with which these academics, who are my age, all right, who are trying now to gain cache by sprinkling their work with icons from popular culture. I just can’t tell you how much I’m at war with this gross exploitation, that’s everywhere now. You know, the kind of ironic quotation of popular culture imagery … and you like have this detached irony and present everything in this kind of disconnected way with a kind of whimsical tone. I’m an absolute devotee of popular culture. I see it from the point of view of the mass audience. I don’t look down on it from some ivory tower. And this is what gives my work on popular culture the kind of resonance that people find with it.
DK: Are you concerned that young people are attaching themselves to pop culture and forgetting, or not even being aware of, what Harold Bloom would call the Western Canon of literature and art?
CP: I can see a problem with it, if indeed your whole world is nothing but popular culture, which I fear is so much the case for American youth these days. I’m very concerned about this because what, I think, gives my work power is that I’ve had a very conventional and conservative education in the old style public school … and then a very excellent college education as well. So this gives me the base of knowledge, of history, of literature and of art to be able to play with popular culture. Everything is the media here. We are just inundated with television. Television really is contemporary reality in America, which I like on one level. On the other hand, I can see the effects on the young that have had an appalling, bad education. They have no sense of history, they have no sense of geography. All they know is pop.
DK: Do you see any dangers with this kind of ahistoricism?
CP: Not only am I worried about the loss of contact with and familiarity with the great art of the past, I’m even more worried by the loss of a sense of time and of history, because I feel that a country, a culture fed only on popular culture, where everything is hallucinatory, that that is very ripe for fascism. The idea that fascists will know … we saw Hitler immediately giving Leni Reifenstahl a much bigger budget than she would have got in Hollywood as a woman. All it takes is a severe climatological shift of some sort, whether through an asteroid hitting the earth or through some change in the weather, which causes an economic destabilisation in the world. So I’m very worried that the entire mechanism of the Internet can be taken over, in a time when the people want a strong man, because that’s the thing. People don’t realise that fascism is a permanent threat, all you need is a breakdown of the economy and a breakdown of law and order … and so always there’s the danger of the people longing for a strong man to come, as they did for Hitler following the economic collapse in Germany, following World War 1.
DK: You owe some of your success and the spread of your ideas to the Internet. Do you think we’re using the Internet to its fullest capacity, or is it early days yet?
CP: This is so right because before people even knew the Internet, there was an underground thing going on, unbeknownst to me, in 1990-91, spreading my ideas underneath the radar screen, as it were, of the academic establishment and the major media establishment in America at the time. My picture was not on my first book [‘Sexual Personae’] and there was no publicity budget, but that book mysteriously sold and sold and sold. We couldn’t figure out what was selling it, okay? Well, soon I found out what it was.
I had been invited to give this lecture [MIT, 1991], because I had written this expose called ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders’. A man came up to me and said, ‘Do you realise your ideas are all over the Well?’ And I said: ‘What is the Well?’and he said, ‘You don’t know what the Well is? Okay, we’ll send something to your university about it.’ And so one week later, arrived a big package with a print out, this long print out and I went around the office, ‘Look at this, look at this,’ I said to everyone. ‘What the heck is it? Someone in Boston is talking with someone in Tennessee who’s talking with someone in California and they’re all talking about me. What is this?’ Well, of course, the Well was one of the first examples of the Internet, okay. So, you see, I owe much to the Internet, now that I’m part of the Internet, also because my ideas are spread worldwide, from being on Salon magazine on the Internet.
DK: What is the future of the Internet?
CP: Well I consider myself the first Internet intellectual, okay? I consider myself the first rock ‘n’ roll intellectual, in that rock ‘n’ roll and television were the great, the original, art forms of my generation. However, I think the Internet is the medium of the young generation that is coming along. I feel that there is as great a gap and a chasm between my generation and these young people as there is, between me and, let’s say, Harold Bloom, my mentor, who has never been touched by television or rock ‘n’roll. And I mean he doesn’t view much television, which is amazing because television as a medium took over American culture in the 1950s, okay, so we’re talking about the major literary critic of the generation before me, Harold Bloom — here he is in the 1990s, okay, untouched by television and is still considering rock ‘n’ roll a barbaric form. It’s hard for me to understand that there are critics in this world, serious intellectuals, all right, who have not been touched in any way by rock ‘n’ roll, which has reformed my brain.
Similarly, just as there is a gap … between me and Harold Bloom, there is just such a chasm between me and the younger people coming along. Yes, I’m on the Internet, but my brain has not been formed by it in the way these young people’s brains have been formed by computers. These young people have had computers in their home already, okay, been fiddling around with it, and they feel at home with a computer. Now I use it, and it was easy for me to switch over because I was so used to looking at television, so to go from television to the computer screen is easy for me, okay. I enjoy it. However, what made it possible for me to become involved in the Internet was when all of sudden the Internet went from the DOS format into these beautiful graphics, where everything is like flashing graphics and colours and all these things, so I feel like I’m watching TV, okay.
I consider the logic with which the computer is constructed is quite different from the way I was trained. It’s not in the old Apollonian style … so I feel that the brain of the young people — we will not understand that for thirty years, not for forty years, not until they grow up and the works that they produce in art and literature and so on, will come out in a whole other way. So I think it is the future, I have great hopes for it in terms of international understanding, you know. To me it’s the ‘Star Trek’ future. Look, ‘Star Trek’ was prophesying, okay, [it] is the visionary thing of the future, when we move into outer space. This is the way I’m convinced that people on the earth will be communicating with people in other galaxies and so on.
Hitchcock and ‘The Birds’
DK: Hitchcock is the master of the cinematic narrative. He conveys a world of meaning purely through visuals, without relying on dialogue. He once said, ‘What appeals to the eye is universal; what appeals to the ear is local.’This can be said of your writing also.
CP: As I was doing this project on ‘The Birds’, for the British Film Institute, I found wonderful quotes from him, similar to what you just quoted, and they’re in my little book, where he says things like: ‘I don’t read novels. I’m a purely visual person.’ He has to see everything in visual terms. I realised that what comes from Hitchcock is that a lot is in mime, a lot is in choreography, and in body language, in facial expressions and so on. And I realised that this is something that he had from earliest years, Hitchcock’s silent films from the late 1920s and his obscure films from the early 1930s.
There’s a lot of wonderful writing on Hitchcock, but I have the advantage now of the VCR, so I’m able to take my print of ‘The Birds’, and I’m able to go over it in a way that no former writer on ‘The Birds’ has been able to do. I’m able to go over that film again and again and again and stop it, slow it, go over things, so I’m able to discover it now and in my little book on ‘The Birds’ now I’m able to find things in it that no one has noticed, that Hitchcock put in there. No one has seen them. They go by so fast when you’re watching the thing in the theatre, you know.
And everybody knows, of course, it’s been established for decades, that Hitchcock had everything planned ahead of time, everything on storyboards, everything in his mind. He’d cut the film already in his head and therefore often he was bored on the set because he was just having to go through what he had already imagined. He said again and again how his favourite part of movie-making was the six-month or the year-long period ahead of time, just sitting, drinking his brandy, in his room just refining, discussing things with the writers and discussing things with the art direction and so on.
At any rate, in ‘The Birds’, there is so much in there, little details that only when you are able to freeze frame it, as you can with a VCR, can you appreciate what he is doing — his sense of humour! I’m hailing him in my little book as the heir of the great British Romantic, Coleridge, the vision of nature as savage. He’s got a vision of [nature] that’s so vast and also his sense of style, his sense of fashion, that’s another thing which conventional and traditional feminism dismissed. Fashion, fashion industry, fashion magazines all corrupted, capitalist conspiracy, all sexist. And I hate that because I come at these things almost from a gay male point of view, which sees fashion as a great art form. So that one thing I also discovered in my research for this book on ‘The Birds’ is that I’d never realised the extent to which Hitchcock not only chose the costumes of his leading ladies, he went shopping with them! He actually went, for example, with Eva Marie Saint, I discovered, to find her fashions for ‘North By North West’. He went with her to Bergdoff’s and sat there and chose the clothing, he chose all the clothing for Tippi Hedren in ‘The Birds’, every single little thing … and Edith Head, the great designer, I found quotes from her which, you know, she is credited with the designs, but she said everything he chose and he told her what to design and so on. So these are the sorts of things, I never realised, this was part of what was attracting me to Hitchcock all along.
At any rate, I consider this little book on ‘The Birds’ the culmination of my career because to me it’s such an honour, the greatest honour I can think of to have the British Film Institute to ask me to write on ‘The Birds’, which is one of the great (obviously it was made in America) but Hitchcock is obviously a great British genius — his early career was in England. So he is one of the leading lights of modern British art and I just feel like everything I’ve ever learned about the history of art, everything is there, in my ability to read images and what body language means, and all these things which people have acknowledge.
DK: Two words: Tippi Hedren.
CP: Tippi Hedren has never got one good word anywhere in film criticism. The mass audience loved this movie, they liked Tippi Hedren, but the critics have been snobbish about her from the very start because they viewed as well ‘She’s not Grace Kelly,’ ‘Oh, she’s not Ingrid Bergman,’ ‘She’s not Eva Marie Saint.’ But Tippi Hedren has always suffered from the fact, ‘Marnie’ also was a flop, only the French critics said a good word about ‘Marnie’ all those years. So anyway, what I’m really loving about having this opportunity is that I’m lauding, Tippi Hedren’s performance, as well as Suzanne Pleshette’s performance, which has been very much ignored in ‘The Birds’. People have talked about the technical aspects but I didn’t find in my research for this book one single positive remark about Tippi Hedren anywhere in any in writing on ‘The Birds’ or ‘Marnie’. In fact, it’s fashionable to demean her and to insult her… So I think it’s about time that people realise she is the ultimate Hitchcock heroine.
DK: ‘The Birds’ was not popular with critics. Pauline Kael, for example, disliked it. Yet it’s reputation has grown over the years. What is the mystique of ‘The Birds’?
CP: Well over time, I realised that it had such an enormous impact on me, and that you can feel the influence of this film in my work, in ‘Sexual Personae’, for example, and that is this view of nature as this enormous unknowable force, much greater than human life, the power of nature, so much greater than that of civilisation, and that if nature turned on humanity it could crush everything to egg shells. This is why I despise poststructuralism so much, the school of Foucault, which denies nature exists, which edits nature out of its point of view, and I look at nature from the point of view of a pagan. I have a pre-Christian attitude towards nature. I don’t see any god above nature. I see nature as being the most powerful thing in all of human life and in the universe.
So ‘The Birds’ sees that, and not only that, I realised the fashion of it, the body language of it influenced me enormously. Gay men, drag queens often love that aspect of Tippi Hedren, she’s almost a kind of a drag. As it turned out she was a model and that was how Hitchcock discovered her, seeing her in a television commercial, so that I emphasise this. So that the very things that caused the critics to dismiss Tippi Hedren, her modelling quality, okay, is in fact what attracts me to her performance from the start.
DK: Did The Birds influence your work overall?
CP: I reveal in this book, that there are things in [‘The Birds’] which influence my theory of civilisation. For example, the great ‘jungle gym sequence’ where Tippi Hedren is sitting there smoking, smoking outside the school house while the crows are landing on the jungle gym, okay. Well that image of the jungle gym stayed with me for a very long time, and I say in this book that my theory of Apollonian form of structure, of civilisation, is coming from that jungle gym, I realise. Hitchcock himself understood, that’s why he had that jungle gym installed there on those grounds. There was no jungle gym, there was no playground at that school, at that authentic school house in the countryside, near Bodega Bay. That’s an authentic building, the school house, but he had the jungle gym constructed, that whole thing was in his mind. And so I don’t need Foucault to tell me about power, I don’t need him because I had Hitchcock, and any one with a brain in their head and part of popular culture would have been introduced to all of these things that are in poststructuralism — in fact every single thing that is in poststructuralism is in some way in the great foreign films. It’s in ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ all those theories about language and reality and time and relativity, it’s all there.
And the other thing is, I treat Hitchcock as a great surrealist. In my research, I found that indeed he was, as I was so glad to find, he acknowledged his influence by the great surrealist films of Bunuel and‘Un Chien Andalou’and Dali, and so I treat ‘The Birds’ as a great work of Surrealism — capital S Surrealism. I have a great instinct for surrealism. I have interpreted, for example, Rod Serling, the creator of ‘The Twilight Zone’, as a great Surrealist. I’m a Surrealist and I feel that Hitchcock has to be seen not as an entertainer but as the person …
DK: He’s a first rate artist.
CP: Well okay, absolutely, but the thing is in feminism in the last 20 years he has been dismissed as a misogynist. You have to realise how low his reputation is right now among feminists. It is an atrocity, it is an atrocity the way that he has been demeaned and defamed by these theorists among feminists. Feminist theory is universally condemning him, there’s hardly a woman who defends Hitchcock do you realise, coming out in the last 20 years. It’s outrageous! So that’s another thing I’m doing here, I’m saying feminism has been totally wrong with this. Hitchcock revered women, he worshipped women, he felt women were like goddesses and so on. And my God, Hitchcock is one of the major, major artists of the 20th century, in any field, to me, he’s one of the great geniuses of the 20th century and it is a shocking situation, indeed. We have young women being taught not to look at Picasso and not to look at Hitchcock. It’s ridiculous!
DK: Let’s talk cinematic violence. You’ve said that eruptions of violence in art show the buried paganism in Western culture, yet you abhor extreme violence in films. Are you squeamish or do you deplore it for aesthetic reasons?
CP: I think it is for aesthetic reasons. Take a film like ‘The Hunger’, for example, the vampire film with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. I feel that aesthetic, artistic errors are made there, that there is too much bloodshed and it makes one queasy. Whereas Hitchcock was a master of violence, he knew exactly how to present it in aesthetic terms so that there’s a kind of continuity of response, you respond to the beauty of him and you respond to the violence in him. That’s, of course, why the shower sequence is so famous. Because he goes out of his way, you never actually see the knife entering Janet Leigh’s body, of course, it’s all very distanced because it’s black and white film. You have a sense of the horror of it. The blood being washed down the drain, but again you don’t see the red of the blood it’s all black and white. It’s all very much distanced. And the same thing again in the scenes of the attacks of the birds.
You know the Greeks, in great tragedies, had a rule which is that you would narrate violence in messengers’ speeches and then you wouldn’t show it. It was considered vulgar, an artistic error to show it, so you would suddenly have the doors swing open at the very end and you would see a corpse laid out. Or at the end of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’, for example, you would hear her — ‘boom’ the gun goes off. You hear her blowing her brains out, you don’t see it. And I’m wondering to what extent have we gone too far when things are too much shown? Do we lose that kind of contemplative, metaphysical quality that art demands. I think that it’s a very, very fine line one has to tread there. Hellenistic art would say show violence, show bruising, show barbarism, show Laocoon being attacked by serpents. Whereas you would never see that in High Classic Greek art, where everything would be very much more removed and after the fact. It may be that we’re in a more Hellenistic period, which demands a bit more wallowing, let’s say, in blood and guts of violence. But I think it’s something an artist has to ask himself, or herself. How far should you go before you lose the artistic detachment that’s demanded … or think of all the great art that’s lasted.
‘The Birds’, by Camille Paglia, is released through the British Film Institute.
Originally published in Sevenmag, June, 1998.