Thursday, 8 September 2011

Why I love 'Vertigo' - An Appreciation

The following is an essay for readers who have already seen the film. It is not a review. So please watch the movie first and read this later if you'd like. Beware of Spoilers!

Opening credits created by Saul Bass
Since 'Vertigo' is one of my favourite films not only of the classical era, but maybe of all time, I find it curious that I've always shyed away from making it clear just why I like it so much. To be frank,  I've never written an essay, nor a review about anything that is so important to me in my entire life.  I'm beginning to think that it's such a private obsession, that if I start to analyse it too deeply it may be stolen from me. I am  possessive and don't sometimes share things. I have been deluded into thinking that 'Vertigo' is  mine and mine alone. I then discover  that other people know about it as well, when it has actually never occurred to me that this was possible, then feel ashamed of myself for being so selfish. The following is an attempt to put into words why I love 'Vertigo' so much, without looking  foolish and in order to correct the notion that I keep far too much to myself.

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
I remember coming across  this argument years ago and you can view the book it came from here.  It was suggested that because 'King Kong' played on the public's penchant for spectacle and the appeal of a gorilla in love, it automatically made more money than an art film that nobody could understand  like 'Last Year in Marienbad'. It wasn't an off-the-cuff remark, but a serious point cushioned with wit, poking fun at the elitists as well as the great unwashed who forked out  their money to see the gorilla. And besides, how many of us have seen 'Last Year at Marienbad', or these days even heard of it? But all of us know "King Kong', right? Right.

 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?

You know the scene in 'The Great Train Robbery' (1908), when  the robber aims his gun at the audience? It's pretty startling - personally, it makes me jumpy. (see above).  It was one of the first uses of film that does what is now commonplace: it acknowledges the proscenium arch and then proceeds to ignore it. The fact is, in film, the proscenium arch doesn't exist, and it took the pioneers of the medium to prove that fact.  Film is a medium in which the best practitioners make us laugh, cry, and experience the full range of human emotions, all from the safety of our cinema seats in the darkness. The movies that 'swing' so to speak, are the ones that take us for a ride to a place we have never been before, and I'm not necessarily referring to tourist destinations. 'Vertigo' does exactly that, but it's not because of  what it does do, but what it doesn't do.  It's a demanding experience for the viewer. The story is not necessarily clear. I'm the first to admit that the narrative is rambling, slow and sometimes obscure.  The characters motivations are often not understandable. Everything is somehow off kilter. But  that's precisely what I like about it. It's exciting because it's attempting to be something a bit different.

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
 I don't see the point of an extended plot exegesis, since  it would nullify what I want to say later on about the pointlessness of narrative when it may be the opposite of the director's intentions. He doesn't want the audience to think it's pointless, so invents a Macguffin  and embeds it into the plot to make it seem more interesting to himself as well as the audience. Which also comes later.  Suffice to say, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) meets with Scotty (James Stewart) to ask him if he will follow Elster's wife (Kim Novak) who appears to be mentally ill, She  believes herself to be the reincarnation of  Carlotta, a distant relation who had previously lived and died tragically in San Francisco. Scotty is a semi-retired detective suffering from agoraphobia after nearly falling off a roof to his death in the line of duty. Scotty rescues Elster's wife as he is following her and after she jumps into San Franciso Bay, then falls in love with her. But of course, this is not the whole story.

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
The narrative you can see in front of  you. You can write it down. You can storyboard it. You can have conferences about it. You can beef it up in the editing room or with voiceover. But what about the director's intention? I don't believe that is nearly so tangible, and  would argue that  it's left in the lap of posterity which films become part of the canon and which, fall out of public favour, and hence do not.  There's nothing inherently  rational about making a film that relies purely on narrative. It's maybe an easier way to do it. But it doesn't make such a process superior to any other possible alternative.

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.

As described by Wikipedia a Macguffin is something that:  the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

Sitting in the museum, fascinated by Carlotta
For those of us aware of 'Vertigo's' plot, this particular embedded  Macguffin is  the insurance scam, in which Elster stands to receive a substantial amount of  insurance money at the death of his wife, a plan at first undetected by Scotty,  but later revealed by Judy, who is Elster's girlfriend (also played by Kim Novak). The plan goes awry when the woman posing as Elster's  wife (also played by Novak), begins to have feelings for Scotty and becomes heartbroken by the fact that she is deceiving him as part of a plot for purely monetary gain. This indicates to me, a reflection of both Hitchcock's conscious thematic concerns regarding the nature of heterosexual love and romance, as well as his own private feelings or thoughts about the Hollywood studio system and its demands upon the artist who has to sometimes compromise his desires to the reality of the professional business of moviemaking. In this respect the embedded Macguffin in 'Vertigo' is far from trivial and is in fact, perhaps the greater purpose of the entire film. But as we know there is plenty more in the film to entertain us, and I have only come this conclusion myself after watching the movie over and over again. Which let's face it, was not what movies were made for back in the classic era, so perhaps I may be overstepping the mark with this interpretation, but there you have it. Hitchcock seamlessly weaves this Macguffin into the plot by making it  more than just a useful tool - it actually becomes an essential part of the viewed exeprience of the film in its entirety.

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.

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