Thursday, July 02, 2015

Vertigo 4: Death drive

Vertigo. Ferguson (James Stewart) rescues Madeleine (Kim Novak) at Fort Point by Golden Gate Bridge.
With a chuckle, Jean Douchet summed up his Bologna introduction by saying that Vertigo is about premature ejaculation, and we chuckled, as well. That gross explanation makes little sense, as so much about Vertigo. It would make a bit more sense to say that Vertigo is about coitus interruptus. It is true that there are sex symbols in Vertigo. The towers are male symbols; the spirals are female symbols; the spiral movement is a symbol of intercourse (the union of the straight line and the circle). And rather than premature ejaculation Vertigo is about impotence. The fear of heights is (among other things) an image of the inability of getting to the top, reaching a climax / fulfillment / release. Hitchcock loved to flavour his films with saucy touches (he is on record on insisting on the visibility of Coit Tower as a phallic symbol), but they are not what Vertigo is about. Rather they are part of the sense of the life force important for the poetic balance in a tragic mystery play which is really about the death drive.

Robin Wood visited Vertigo twice in superb essays which are in my opinion the best written about the film. Typically for him, the essays are totally different but not incompatible. The later essay focuses on patriarchy, revealing the structure of male domination. In the name of romantic love the male protagonist remakes the female protagonist according to his dream image, thereby divesting her not only of her preferred clothing and outlook but also of her sense of humour, her joy of life, her identity, her autonomy, her self, turning her to a shadow of her former self, a ghost, shattering her to death. The contemporary story of Madeleine also reflects back into history, "the power and the freedom" of patriarchy to exploit women mercilessly, exemplified in the tragedy of Carlotta Valdes.

This time I experienced Vertigo more in the sense of Robin Wood's earlier, original essay which I had not read in a long time. A key concept of his there is the death drive. The death drive (der Todestrieb) is a concept first invented by Sabina Spielrein (who, however, did not use that word) in her essay Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens (1912). It was soon adopted by her mentor Sigmund Freud as an intriguing speculation, but gradually it grew into the second foundation of his entire theory especially after the experience of World War I. Eros and Thanatos became the twin drives of his metatheory. There is nothing mystical in the death drive. All organic beings have a drive to grow and reproduce, and they have also an inbuilt drive to wither and die.

Wood connects the death drive to the theme of vertigo in the first sequence of the film where Scottie Ferguson remains hanging from the rooftop gutter. Life is hard: it is strenuous to keep hanging on. Death is easy: let go, and everything is over. The life force and the death drive are dramatized in an extremely simple and powerful image. The secret of vertigo is in the simultaneous contradictory upward pull of the life force and the downward temptation of gravity.

The same idea is expressed in Bernard Herrmann's score, in its vertigo motif: the ascending chords rising step by step (twelve steps in the music) - and then the swirling, inviting, seductive, descending spiral melody.

Herrmann also does an open hommage to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and creates his own version of the Liebestod theme. Further, he appropriates Wagner's famous Tristan chord and integrates it into Hitchcock's sound of suspense.

Liebestod, "love death", means the consummation of the impossible love of Tristan and Isolde in death. From this perspective, the logical final image of Vertigo would be of Scottie jumping after Madeleine. Having overcome his fear of heights Scottie would overcome his fear of falling. We see no such image, but the music continues after the final image of Scottie standing by the abyss, and the music ends with a crushing, tragic, deep, descending chord. There is no "The End" caption in Vertigo.

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