|Opening credits created by Saul Bass|
I've always been on the side of cinema as entertainment rather than art, less for reasons of economics and more for a shameful class-bias on my own account which equates the visuality (?) of pictures as being easier to understand than the literality of books and other printed works. Having said that I believe that 'Vertigo' is a work of art, and there may be very few films that are. But, I digress. I would like to put myself under my own microscope to see how it feels. So here goes. The medium of film is by nature an art form that is really more visceral than we would like to admit. Aren't we way too rational as civilised human beings to be distastefully...animated, by the power of the moving picture? That's so isn't it? Well, in a word, no.
|If Scotty falls in the opening minutes there'd be no film|
What drives us as humans to have such emotional responses to seemingly trivial pursuits such as movies? Just take a look at the IMDB message boards where people lay their lives on the line for their favourite movie, reducing their opponents to teary lumps if they disagree with them, that so-and-so may not really be the greatest movie ever made in the last hundred years, and they're just being silly for even suggesting it. I've never witnessed such intense partisanship on any of the news or political websites where great moments (as well as movements) in history and current affairs are the issues being discussed. You would surely expect these to be far more ruthless than any site that's connected with something as inherently harmless as sitting in your living room (as we do today) and watching a movie.
How people respond to movies is to me, a subject of endless fascination. I don't worry much about challenging their reviews if I don't agree with them. It's never bothered me. But pretending that you don't experience, shall we say, a knee-jerk reaction as a moviegoer is simply not true, and furthermore when you do it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's what they get made for, and there would be something wrong with you if you didn't. So what if you're just a victim of someone else's propaganda? From Battleship Potemkin to Triumph of the Will, in that respect what's the difference? You can be ashamed of yourself later on, if it's more convenient but why should you be when you've just had some fun?
I first saw 'Vertigo' in 1983 at a revival showing. I had never seen it on television and was too young to have seen it at the movies. Video had been around for a few years, but my mother didn't care for such new fangled contraptions (except maybe the car and the telephone). In those days you went to the cinema to see movies, and if you missed what you wanted, you had to wait for it to show on free-to-air television, because that's all there was. There were one or two cinemas in Sydney that showed older films. Years later I found out that I had seen the old, unrestored version, but I was not to know that at the time. I must have read something about 'Vertigo' in my movie guides, and become interested that way, but I'm getting on in life, and memory fails me. I had a book I bought called 'Focus on Hitchcock' but either gave it away or lost it. I was too busy reading other things. I was maybe attracted to the title, with its intimations of the fear of falling and other phobias that fever our restless imaginations.
|Kim Novak stands under the Golden Gate Bridge|
The screenplay of 'Vertigo' is an adaptation of the French novel The Living and the Dead (D'entre les morts) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock's initial interest in the work led Paramount to create a synopsis of the story as early as 1954, but the authors have refused to confirm whether the book was written specificially for either Hitchcock or as the basis for a film venture by any other interested party. The credited screenwriters are Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel, and they used Hitchcock's notes as the basis for their adaptation. I mention this because 'Vertigo' has a certain European archness about it; it may be set in San Francisco, one of the more cosmopolitan cities of the United States, but with its pre-occupations with mental illness, breakdown, and physical and emotional imbalance, to me it is first and foremost a creature of its European source material. I had no way of knowing until years later, how Hitchcock somehow achieved a true marriage of form and content with 'Vertigo'. Intentionally I think, in order to show the rest of the world that Hollywood practised what it preached. In the case of 'Vertigo'. HItchcock used his knowledge of American cinematic conventions to produce art, despite Hollywood's perceived preoccupation with the contrary, that is, money..
American movies are massively driven by the obligations of providing a constant and unyielding narrative.The viewer receives plot exposition through visuals, and an awfully large amount of dialogue. ('...and out came talk! Talk, talk, talk!') One thing leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, with a precision that I'm amazed some post-modernist boffin hasn't written a book about. (Well, maybe they have). Mainstream movies these days are about as predictable as anything you'd like to mention, whether it's the inevitability of death and/or taxes, and that's why I don't watch them much. Everyone seems to love Martin Scorsese for example, yet his films often get criticised for lacking narrative coherence. If I hadn't had this pointed out to me by well meaning keepers of the flame who feel it's their business to alert us to these pertinent issues, I may have enjoyed 'Gangs of New York' a lot more. It would have saved me the energy of looking out for these supposed plot holes, because apart from that, let's face it, it wasn't such a bad movie.
|Classic lovers Steward and Novak|
Let me propose a scenario: Hitchcock was looking for his next project, which he was wont to do. Working on one film with the (hopeful) assumption that there would be a next. He came across this particular novel and finally found something that he felt would free him from the burden of a conventional Hollywood narrative. Narrative bored him. He'd recently completed 'Dial M for Murder' and could do it standing on his head. He would get a good writer onto this new project who would produce a narrative he could mould and manipulate for the sake of his own preoccupations, that is, with what he really wanted to say, or communicate to the audience. We all are aware of the themes that recur in Hitchcock's work time and again. An innocent man accused of a crime he didn't commit; characters with liquid identities, that is, not being what they seem, disappearing then reappearing as different people; a so-called perfect crime going distinctly awry; the uncertainty of the bourgeois existence (which I think is best exemplified in 'The Birds'.) 'The Living and the Dead' was a vehicle in which he could express his innermost feelings about such things as the power of love and the burden of guilt, issues pertinent to his Roman Catholic upbringing in England. But in order to do this, he felt he had to use the most significant Macguffin of his career which was the insurance scam, that Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) finally confirms he has been a victim of, as the film draws to its close.
|Sitting in the museum, fascinated by Carlotta|
What I'm trying to say is that as an artist, Hitchcock may have conducted an internalised battle to find his own voice away from the hype of Hollywood, and 'Vertigo' was perhaps the result. In doing so he introduced the possibility of a freer form of narrative story-telling and expanded the narrow definition of narrative that Hollywood had previously set for itself. It's almost become a part of folklore how the film flopped with the critics when it was first released. In this respect, Hollywood critics, unused to this kind of artistic idealism, were taken aback by the film because Hitchcock appeared to be biting the hand that fed him, in the cause of his desire for a greater artistic freedom, not for just himself but for the medium that he loved and worked in. I think that most of all 'Vertigo' shows a practitioner in love with his his art, and may be a metaphor for every artist who ever struggled with keeping the faith for what he was born to do, whilst coping with more worldly preoccupations concerning wealth, the regard of others, and the proclivity to merely survive unscathed in a nasty world. 'Vertigo' is a film about romantic love as well as the love of the artist for his art.