One of the buzz-words of Sundance 2010 is "rebel," conveniently usable as either a noun or a verb. Of the six movies I saw on Friday (Jan. 22) -- a number I have no intention of equalling in the days to come -- no film fulfilled that edict to be rebellious with as much zeal as Johan Grimonprez's "Double Take," part of Sundance's New Frontiers program.
I could write thousands of words trying to explain how "Double Take" is structured and it functions, but at 1 a.m. that might not be a good idea. Suffice to say that almost no simple description of "Double Take" can do the film justice and no list of genres could properly contain it.
[Full review of "Double Take" after the break...]
So what is "Double Take"? Let's start with the nuts-and-bolts. A Belgian/German/Dutch co-production, the movie is scripted by Grimonprez from a story by Tom McCarthy, based on the essay "25 August, 1983" by Jorge Luis Borges. That's a lot of intellectual firepower on the surface, until you realize that "Double Take" is actually a multi-pronged documentary, with a fictional conceit grafted on.
The conceit is a hoot: It's 1962 and Alfred Hitchcock gets called off the set of "The Birds" for an urgent message. When he arrives at the production office, he's shocked to discover an older doppelganger of himself claiming to be Alfred Hitchcock from 1980. We're told that when doppelgangers meet, one of them must inevitably be destroyed.
The intrigue of Hitchcock meeting himself is conveyed mostly through voiceover by a sound-alike and although it provides the hook, it's only a small piece of what Grimonprez is working on here.
In addition to the Hitchcock dopplegangers, Grimonprez appears to be suggesting that in the midst of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were dopplegangers, two superpowers vying for supremacy even if the individual points of contention were often MacGuffins. Using archival footage, Grimonprez traces the ups and downs of the space race, as well as the evolution of television technology, a point of pride for the United States when all else was failing. The critique of the evolution of television also is seen through the progression of advertisements, specifically for Folgers coffee.
Hitchcock's own famous television venture, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" is fertile territory for Grimonprez, because the series was built around the legendary director's identity and his cult of personality. In segments introducing different episodes, Hitchcock played multiple versions of himself, donned a mustache to become his own brother and played candidates to replace himself. On top of that, we also meet Ron Burrage, a successful Hitchcock impersonator who made a living playing the Master of Suspense in international commercials and even at the premiere of a recent re-release of "The Birds."
Grimonprez weaves the Hitchcock saga in with the Cold War progression, leading us through "The Birds" and "Psycho" and "Topaz" at the same time as we're being reminded of Sputnik, the Kennedy-Nixon debates and the Cuban Missile crisis. At times, the impact of his juxtapositions and pastiche are stunning, contextualizing Hitchcock's cinema of paranoia in provocative and challenging ways.
And sometimes the mash-up effect doesn't follow logically at all, you feel like the director is making leaps to be coy or glib, rather than to be smart. But even in those moments of overreaching, "Double Take" left me frantically working in my head to decide how well the pieces added up. At 9 a.m. on the first morning of Sundance, it's hard to ask for anything more than that.
"Double Take" may not be on quite the same level, but the film it kept reminding me of throughout the screening was Orson Welles' "F for Fake," another documentary-with-a-twist that focuses on cinematic sleight-of-hand and deception. "Double Take" combines images you've seen before countless times, archival footage that may be either new or long forgotten and a selection of material that will have viewers wondering at its veracity. It's an entertaining puzzle and I hope that some niche cable network -- IFC or Sundance, presumably -- picks it up for a little exposure. At the very least, "Double Take" should become a staple of discriminating film school classes for years to come.