Much as I love and admire VERTIGO (1954), I don't love love it the way I love THE BIRDS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW or PSYCHO. It's not riveting, it's existential and sometimes plodding (as a kid I was bored silly by the endless shots of Stewart driving around the block and spying on Kim Novak in a flower store); It took a dozen viewings before I was able to appreciate the modernist freak-out of having Jimmy Stewart--our soft-spoken American son--acting like an obsessive misogynist dickweed. Speaking of which (SPOILER ALERT) but if you haven't seen it by now, well, you should be seeing it now. What if you die before you get a chance to see it? Or worse yet, what if you see it and realize you are already dead? Oh my god, that's what happened to me!
I've been watching BAND OF BROTHERS and in one scene a rough tough NCO tells a shaking, traumatized young private that the trick to overcoming fear in combat is to just know you are already dead. If you're afraid of losing something, you haven't got a chance. You have to act 'as if' it's all gone, and from that comes a relaxed sense of fearlessness, like Tyler "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything" Durden.
But what if you're not in the 101st Airborne, or running along the edge or Jack's personal razor, what if you're just Jimmy Stewart adrift in late 1950s San Francisco? What if, instead of having to fight Germans, you just have to climb Midge's step ladder? What if you're a woozy romantic gumshoe, playing at being a San Francisco agent ("available Ferguson")? Then brother, it's VERTIGO. Black and white is over, Mr. Narrator Grade-A Chump Fall Guy! It fades away in the first few frames announcing 'Vista Vision,' like the whole post-war noir haze has been yanked off a roof by gravity's skeletal hand, plunging down 40 stories to its lurid Technicolor red conclusion. It's not that our Scotty (Stewart) is a coward; it's just he looks too long into the face of the gorgon and turns to stone
|Don't look her in the eyes|
Male-gazing into Medusa's face is best done via a rear-view mirror or a quick coy glance, like one gives a pretty someone else while passing each other in the 5PM subway rush. If you gawk, you shall be ensnared, petrified, arrested for being a peeping tom. As Scotty stares too long, he winds up a statue, which gradually crumbles and melts like the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.
The key element of 'unease' that prevails through VERTIGO, though, is that Dali melting-watch out of time frozen-by-the-gorgon sensibility (hence the boredom). We never actually see Scotty rescued from his opening scene cliffhanger predicament. This leaves us with a queasy feeling all through the film that he's about to fall. It's a feeling that stays with us all the way through the movie. After we fade out from the roof scene, he just suspiciously now walks with a cane and strings along with Midge, a bespectacled fashion sketch artist. But whenever he looks down from any height we get a mysterious 'uncanny' glimmer that maybe this is all happening in a 'before his eyes' kind of instant. ala Cocteau's BLOOD OF A POET, or TWO SECONDS starring Edward G. Robinson (1).
Now here's another thing that recovering alcoholics and addicts who were 'low bottom' (1) and soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress all know, the feeling that you 'almost' died so often that in many of your parallel lives you did die, and your quantum immortality options have dwindled, i.e. you are approaching your total death, when all your quantum options run out. This is in fact a good thing as you will--finally--be able to remember your own death, which means you are completely whole; that's when you 'really' die, the complete and total soul death, beyond the grasp of any soul collector's fifth-dimensional clutches.
If you don't believe quantum immortality is real, here's an experiment: next time you 'almost' get hit by a bus or something random like that, close you eyes and feel with your auric tentacles into the dimensions to the right and left of you... are they still there? Can you 'almost' hear the distant shouts of ambulance drivers to clear the way, the feeling of being lifted onto a stretcher, the smell of hospital disinfectant lingering even as you go on about your business in your dimension proper as if nothing happened, which of course it didn't?
The only difference between movies and real death from this angle is one of morality: Watching sex from a Beyond the Grave (or BTG) point of view can be dangerous in that you become hypnotized (Mecha-Medusa) if you look too long at the copulating bodies (the Sidpa Bardot). You can wind up trapped like a fly in the amber of the womb, forced to reincarnate once again. If you look too long at violence, on the other hand, you can make some new friends, like pulling dead characters up out of the screen/swimming pool/mirror in Cocteau's ORPHEE (1950, below) and inviting them to play cards. It's opposite land!
But as with BLOOD OF A POET, Cocteau makes the mistake of assuming that BTG surrealism needs to function in cinema as it does in painting or theater, which is to say, as a shortcut in lieu of outdoor sets or tracking shots. Cinema moves far deeper far faster than a white elephant and if you want it to sell a lot of tickets your film shouldn't stop too long at the zoo, or art museum. Staring into a painting too can also be a kind of sticky amber flytrap... as in Carlotta Vance's black hole hairdo (below). Death has all sorts of dangers, presuming you want to stay dead (i.e. safe in the center of the mandala). Wherever you let your gaze and interest settle for more than that rear view glance, that's where you end (up). So look wisely and never stare at something that has the power to stare back, unless you want to suddenly remember that you've been staring into a mirror.
ORPHEE's a good example of these BTG perils in its depiction of passing through the water of a mirror as entering the underworld. There is no translation of this motif on a metatextual level in Cocteau the way there is in, say, Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA (2). Instead, Cocteau displays a continental contentment with the whimsical proscenium arch-contained magic of Méliès (3). For VERTIGO Hitchcock's psychedelic jumping-off point is the gritty San Francisco detective story, film noir, which in its femme fatalism offers a critique of desire that subverts the structure of the carny pitchman ("Is she alive or is she dead? Trashy or Classy? All I know is hubba hubba!") into a No Exit deathtrap of rear screen projection, matte paintings, real paintings and boring flower shops. There's no noir edge to the Can-Can film cannisters clattering merrily up and down Cocteau's safely contained bus of a stage, but in Hollywood every skirt is just the red velvet curtain before a grisly death scene (or life scene, if you're dead) spilling off the stage and bloodening your tux until you realize you've been the corpse all the while.
In that way, the work of Cocteau (and even sometimes Bunuel) is a little bit like the painted Greek statues in Godard's CONTEMPT, an old-school white elephant refusal to make eye contact with the terrifying black hole Medusa sun blinking back at them from the screen even though that's what's being filmed. It's what la nouvelle vague was reacting against, even as they loved the Fritz Lang, one of Europe's classical formalist masters. If a Lang or Cocteau wants to make a black hole of death they make a big black hole, Hitchcock just styles your hair so that it actually is a back hole of death, it sucks your narrative locus of identification clear out through the other side of the screen. Lang's hole is just a hole, filmed from the side.. one that by now looks too familiar to ever be our own.
Special Thanks to 1000 Frames of Hitchock from whom I filched the above screenshots!
Thanks to Robin Wood, who's writing on Vertigo in Hitchcock Revisited, inspired many of the jumping off points of this essay.
1a. Low bottom is an AA term for what's low enough to hit before you get sober and rise back to normal, i.e. almost dying of DTs or alcohol withdrawal, or living in that terrible space wherein you can't drink enough to stop your withdrawal symptoms because your body is so poisoned by alcohol you can't even get the bottle within a foot of your mouth without choking and vomiting from the smell, let alone keeping alcohol (or anything) down.
1. Cocteau's film occurs in the space between when a small brick smokestack blows up, and when the dislodged chunk of tower falls. Robinson's is all a flashback in the two seconds before he's fried in the electric chair.
2. I admit that could be because I'm much more libidinally 'fascinated' by Bibbi Anderson than Jean Marais, it might be the opposite if I was gay, female, or French.
3. Georges Méliès is one of the French pioneers of cinema at the turn of the century, a magician, he used film at first as a feature of his stage act.