Thursday, July 02, 2015

Vertigo 3: Making sense of Vertigo

Madeleine (Kim Novak) watching the portrait of Carlotta Valdes at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Although Vertigo was voted as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, most voters did not mention it on their list (some 20% did), and it is important to realize the factor of growing dispersion on lists like this.

Most of my film expert friends do not particularly like Vertigo or do not rate it among Alfred Hitchcock's best. A deeply mixed reputation is part of the Vertigo enigma.

On the other hand, there are those of us for whom Vertigo is a cult movie. When we visit San Francisco or drive the Pacific Coast Highway, whether we make the Vertigo tour or not, we are spellbound, we sense the spirit of the place like Hitchcock did in Vertigo.

Vertigo is a surrealistic film, and like Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock knew that the most persuasive cinematic dream visions are grounded in physical reality. (Vertigo's dream sequences are less oneiric than the regular action.)

In the English-speaking world Vertigo's reputation started to grow after the publication of Robin Wood's book Hitchcock's Films in 1965. Before him, Frenchmen had written on Vertigo with great insight, for instance Eric Rohmer in his article "L'Hélice et l'Idée" ["The Spiral and the Idea"] (Cahiers du Cinéma, 93, mars 1959). Intriguingly, Rohmer and Claude Chabrol had published their book Hitchcock (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1957), the first monograph on the master, just before the release of Vertigo, covering his oeuvre until The Wrong Man. Yet in that book one can already anticipate Vertigo as a culmination of motifs and themes examined by the writers. For instance Rohmer and Chabrol study Hitchcock as a great inventor of forms, focusing on the figures of the circle and the straight line. The spiral motif in Vertigo is of course a combination of the two - the circle moving in depth.

Several monographs have been written on Vertigo, and inspired by the Bologna screening I read what I consider the best of them, Dan Auiler's Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

The first Vertigo monograph may have been Peter von Bagh's Elokuvalliset keinot ja niiden käyttö: Alfred Hitchcockin Vertigo [Cinematic Means and Their Use: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo], Helsinki: Helsingin yliopisto, 1968, his master's thesis also published as a mimeograph edition, republished as a regular printed book in 1979 as Hitchcock: merkintöjä Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta Vertigo [Hitchcock: Remarks on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo]. There is even another Finnish monograph on Vertigo, Heikki Nyman's Vertigo: rakkaus kuvaan: tutkielma Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta [Vertigo: Loving the Image: A Study on Alfred Hitchcock's Film], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman / Yliopistopaino, 1990, also incorporated in his magnum opus Hitchcockin kosketus: Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat 4, Väärästä miehestä (1956) uran loppuun [The Hitchcock Touch: Alfred Hitchcock's Films 4, From The Wrong Man (1956) Till the End of His Career], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman, 1992. Nyman's works have been published as private mimeographed limited editions, available at the National Library and the KAVI Library.

Both Finnish Vertigo monographs cover a lot of ground and have interesting points of emphasis. Among other things, Peter von Bagh discusses Vertigo's affinities with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including "The Oval Portrait". ("And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved: -- She was dead!") The philosopher Heikki Nyman's entire Hitchcock project focuses on themes of perception and the question of seeing - in all meanings of the word.

The disappointment of many people with Vertigo may have something to do with expectations of Alfred Hitchcock as "the master of suspense". As a thriller, detective story or murder mystery Vertigo fails miserably.

The composition is full of loose ends. How did Scottie Ferguson survive the rooftop chase? (Did he?) How did Madeleine disappear from McKittrick Hotel? (Was she even there?) The murder plot is outlandish, unconvincing and full of holes. Nobody would plan a murder like that. And why did Judy keep the bracelet of Carlotta Valdes?

Things look different when we see Vertigo without genre expectations, outside conventional categories, or perhaps in a special category such as a tragic mystery play, a surrealistic dream play, a mythic tale of modern romanticism, or an Orphic legend. Pygmalion and Galatea, Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, and Svengali and Trilby have been evoked in discussions about Vertigo, as well as Edgar Allan Poe's tales of mystery and imagination. Vertigo is a suspense story, but the suspense is of an existential kind, a soul battle in realms of immanence and transcendence.

The Finnish counterpart of Orpheus in Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a shaman and a bard able to visit Tuonela, the Land of Death. Jean Sibelius's shamanic composition The Swan of Tuonela has been playing in my mind as I've been thinking about Vertigo.

It is interesting to observe how Hitchcock was expanding his scope as "the master of suspense" in the late 1950s. The Man Who Knew Too Much is based on a different psychological structure than the regular suspense thriller because the protagonists do not feel anxiety for themselves but for their child. The Wrong Man is quasi-documentary. And Vertigo is a Wagnerian Liebestod legend.

I would argue that French film critics had a lot to do with the fact that Alfred Hitchcock got the courage to produce a highly personal and poetic film such as Vertigo in the heart of the Hollywood studio system (he produced it himself, to be distributed by Paramount). Hitchcock had always been known as a skillful entertainer; even André Bazin saw him only so. But Rohmer, Chabrol, and Truffaut saw more. It is an important turning-point in a man's life when he sees his most private and precious aspirations appreciated on the most profound level of understanding. Hitchcock had met sympathetic critics about to become fellow artists and professionals, all deeply influenced by him. That encouraged him to create his most personal masterpiece.

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