Oil up your rubber plant leaves, we’re in for a vertiginous afternoon…
Inspired by David Cairns‘ wonderful Vertigo post, I took another look at the film (a longtime favourite) last night. And today, as fate would have it, I find myself in possession of the power and the freedom to do something about it.
I’ve read so much about this movie–and referred back to it in so many discussions (often revolving around Lynch, De Palma or 1970s Amazing Spider-Man comics)–that I’m not sure where to begin my own proper blog entry on Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
I do, at least, feel comfortable describing the film in those terms. But that’s where the comfort ends. This is a polarizing movie. And it should polarize you, as a viewer–especially if you happen to be a male gazer. When I first saw it, as a youngster, it made me really unhappy. I found it bleak, incoherent and, above all, misogynistic. (Interpretations of this sort are available in great abundance on the web.) These days, after somewhere between ten and twenty subsequent viewings, I can’t really argue with my 12-year old self–Vertigo really was built with those monstrous materials.
The difference is that, as an adult, I am willing to concede (which is not the same thing as accepting–in fact, for me, it’s quite the opposite) that bleakness, incoherence and (don’t kid yourself dude) misogyny make our sad orb go ’round. Once you make that concession, it becomes possible to understand that Vertigo itself is a plunge into the swirl of fallenness that shapes (or distorts–or both) our daily lives. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Vertigo is a sick film… a spiteful film. However, unlike our troubled Russian friend, Vertigo is very attractive indeed.
I like to think of this movie as the depressive rhyme to Emerson’s famously manic intuition of the Sublime:
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.
Apparently, Judy-as-Madeleine Elster doesn’t agree with ol’ Waldo. Maybe tree size matters? Those East Coast woods are a lot less intimidating…
Vertigo is retrospective… everything happens too late… and it builds the sepulcher of Patriarchy–trapping our protagonist in a terrible tomb. Yes. If I have anything even moderately new to introduce to the immense discussion about Vertigo, it’s that Kim Novak’s character is the hero of the piece.
Of course it doesn’t start out that way. For more than an hour, the film lulls us into a very comfortable affinity with the subjective experience of Jimmy’s glib jerk.
What remains to be said about Stewart? He’s probably the most important male screen star of the 20th century. An incredibly complex figure–and a one-man argument in favour of the narratological usefulness of the star system. The cinematic embodiment of kindness and decency (although he played A LOT of parts that don’t bring these values into play at all)–everyone loves him, even after they discover, to their (or, at least, to my) horror, that he was a rabid right-winger, a proud carpet-bomber and a demented Vietnam hawk… And it means something, something terrible, something very hard to put into words, that “Scottie” Ferguson rasps Judy Barton to her doom in the same injured-boy tones that Jefferson Smith had used in fighting for the lost cause of democratic freedom in 1939.
But there’s no reason to mince words here.”Scottie” is an ASSHOLE. We know this right from the start. Or, at least, we know it from the moment that we see him in action with the much-put-upon Midge. We should know it, anyway–take a look at him up there, teasing his friend with his weirdly wandering innuendo. But it’s hard to see. This is Jimmy, after all. And he even does a Philadelphia Story-style comic drink take, as Midge dashes out the door to Pop Leibel’s. He might seem a bit crusty, here and there (or drop the occasional bomb), but we feel confident (the first ten times we see the movie), that there’s a good man in there somewhere. And, obviously, Midge is just as taken in by the Stewart oeuvre as the audience is–why else would she put up with his shit? The star’s track record protects Midge from seeming like a fool–allowing us to take her seriously as a character. She sees the same genial mirage that we do.
Ferguson, meanwhile, is in the grip of another, far more palpable, delusion:
This is the look Scottie ought to have been trying to recreate, if you ask me… And the fact that I’m only half-kidding about that cuts to the heart of this film’s power… Most of us, I think, know what it’s like to become more preoccupied with an image of beauty than is good for us. Vertigo can’t work at all if you don’t become complicit in Stewart’s objectification of Kim Novak. Mea culpa.
And there’s no question that, after the gloriously intersubjective promise of 1930s screwball (in which men and women actually seem to like each other), this objectifying “love” represents a massive step backward (particularly with that lovable screwball Midge relegated to the sidelines, in her cold driver’s seat, whispering: “Well now Johnny-O. Was it a ghost? Was it fun?”)
Yup–it’s the ghost of his own desire… But there’s no fun here.
This is “Romance” Midge. This is FUCKED. Get with the program.
Among other things, Vertigo is a crash course is the historiography of movie love.
And it blossoms into full-blown critique when Judy Barton, our thirties-style “shopgirl heroine” comes into focus as the subject at the core of the narrative:
Some viewers are annoyed by the supposedly premature revelation of Judy’s identity, but these people are deeply confused. I’m not the first to point this out, of course, but I want to stress that the shift to Judy’s POV is the most breathtaking narratological redirect in the history of the cinema. Or anyway, it’s right up there with the subjective jumpcuts that keep Mulholland Dr. hopping. In the blink of an eye, through the looking glass of Judy’s memory, Vertigo goes from misogynistic thriller to feminist tragedy. After the above-pictured moment, the hard decisions are all made by Kim Novak…and this sometimes-maligned actress–whom I personally love in just about everything, but especially here–rises magnificently to the task. As she later tells Ferguson, she deliberately puts herself in harm’s way during the second half of the film.
Why does she do it?
It’s because, having magnetized him once, as a prepackaged confection, she longs to repeat the feat… making him love her “for herself.” Ferguson is an automaton during the entire second half of the film… People have interpreted the Judy section as Stewart’s fantasy… That he never actually emerges from his catatonic state, and concocts this weird story as a way of assuaging his sense of failure. There’s not a lick of sense in it. If these events are the stuff of anyone’s dreams–they’re Judy’s (and, of course, they’re nightmares). It’s far easier to make the case that Elster’s erstwhile accomplice, consumed by guilt, devised this scenario as a way of punishing herself for her role in the murder. This would account for the total absence of Midge in Judy’s section (Judy doesn’t know she exists) and would also explain the nun-sensical leap off the tower (which calls back to Madeleine’s scripted memory of “Sister Theresa” scolding the children for daring to venture into their favourite play area–a commentary upon the ways in which patriarchy forces women to police each other’s jouissance?).
Ultimately, I don’t have much interest in “what’s a dream, what’s reality?”-type analyses of deliberately oneiric films (this impatience bubbled up most famously in the Mulholland Dr. debates of yore). I’m interested in exploring subjective states–and examining the preconditions (or the possibility) of intersubjectivity. Vertigo does the first extraordinarily well–making us feel both what it’s like to desire and to be desired under the dark star of patriarchy… And it confronts us with all of the questions (re: the second) that no well-adjusted person wants to ask–because we’re afraid the answers will leave us right here, on the brink of a deeply non-Emersonian Sublime: