Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Excuse me, Miss, but Haven't We Died Somewhere Before?

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, life especially, you haven't got a chance of keeping it. 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 from the FIGHT CLUB. In tripping parlance this is called 'letting go.' If you feel the reaper breathing down your neck, you don't run or cower or plead, you face it eye-to-eye and, with a loving howl, dive into his arms so hard you shatter both his reedy ulnas. Death wasn't expecting that! He's amused. He's been at this a long time, so any courageous about face wins his admiration - you've just made a friend of death. Play your cards right, you just might find yourself in the womb of fear. 

But what if you're not in the 101st Airborne, or running along the edge of Jack's personal razor, of in some decadent Paris hotel, what if you're just Jimmy Stewart, that suit-and-tie-encrusted square, adrift in late 1950s super boring San Francisco? What if, instead of having to fight Germans, you just have to climb Midge's step ladder, but you can't even do that? What if you're a woozy romantic gumshoe, playing at being a San Francisco agent ("available Ferguson" - that's you)? Then brother, watch out --it's VERTIGO.

Black and white is over, Mr. Narrator Grade-A Chump Fall Guy! It fades away in the first few frames announcing 'VistaVision' like the whole post-war noir haze has been yanked off the roof by gravity's unruly hand, plunging down 40 stories to Technicolor's lurid red-purple spectral conclusion. It's not that our Scotty (Stewart) is a coward, sir. It's just he looks too long into the face of the gorgon and turns to stone. Not even Midge's Mozart can cohere a single breadcrumb for his lost eyes' alignment.

Don't look into her false-colored eyes
Male-gazing into Medusa's face is best done--if at all--via a rear-view mirror or a quick coy glance, like one gives a pretty face while passing each other in the 5PM subway rush. If you gawk, you shall be ensnared, petrified, arrested for being a peeping tom, their passing glass-eyed gaze turned sour--an instant change in status from 'innocuous part of the urban landscape wallpaper" to 'another in the sea of horny objectifying creeps.' Or worse, if she's looking for those kind of gazes, and fins to return them - with interest. A wolf's howl freezes in his throat as his bluff is called. Scotty stares too long and he winds up a statue frozen in the funny farm flower garden, until he gradually crumbles and melts like the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, only instead of Fay Wray clawing his mask off, it's Kim Novak's mask returning from underneath her real one - allowing his own frozen VHS tape to finally eject.

The key element of 'unease' that prevails through VERTIGO, though, is that Dali melting-watch of 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. We never see him get 'better' in the rest home and be discharged. There's a feeling he's still on the ledge during the first half and still in the home in the second. After we fade out from the roof scene, the first time, he just suspiciously now walks with a cane and strings along with Midge, his emasculatin' and desexed (bespectacled) fashion sketch artist 'pal.' 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). And when he winds up losing the artificial persona of Novak the second time he is restored to the roof at last. Time will move normally again, even if only for the two seconds it takes to hit the pavement.

Or the end of the rope.

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 (running concurrently with the reality "you" are in) 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 (there are a hundred of you who live past 50 but only one of you who lives past 100). This is in fact a good thing as you will--finally--be able to remember your own death only when all the parallel lives are over -- which means you are completely whole only in that final moment; 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? Does your soul feel lopsided? Can you 'almost' hear the distant shouts of ambulance drivers on your right or left side, 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?

Whoa, in VistaVision this might have scared me - did I ever see it that way, you know, 'before'?
Of course this all speculation, though I personally feel it to be very real. As nobody remembers dying (unless they come back into this life, in which case it's not death --just an NDE) it's obvious that we will never 'experience' it, hence it can't happen. Even people who remember past lives have a hard time nailing down what goes on between the births and deaths. If we are in a purely dead state we become, in a sense, experience itself, depersonalized intelligence, a free-floating locus of identification, i.e. very similar to the way our identification shifts when being at the movies, the free-ranging narrative focus that Hitchcock suddenly seizes control of and stabs in the middle of PSYCHO or Dali and Bunuel in the beginning of La Chien Andalou. 

The only difference between movies and real death from this angle is one of morality: Watching sex onscreen might make us hypnotized (Mecha-Medusa), like we can become when free-floating disincarnated spirits drifting in the dark void, attracted to the copulating bodies of the Sidpa Bardot (the activated womb looks like a campfire). Our spirits can wind up trapped like a fly in the amber that reflects the blazing prana, forcing us 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, in ORPHEE Cocteau makes the mistake of assuming that mythic 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 (Beyond The Grave) 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 film noir, whose femme fatale 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, diegetic paintings, and boring flower shops. There's no noir edge to the Can-Can film cans clattering merrily up and down Cocteau's safely contained busline of a stage (4), but in Hollywood every skirt is just the red velvet curtain before a grisly death scene (or life scene, if you're dead) spills off the stage and bloodens your tux and 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 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 and a black hole can also be a pupil's reflection in an empty drain. Lang's hole is just a hole, filmed from the side.. one that by now looks too familiar to ever be confused with our own.  May as well cue up the Mozart and get comfortable, Johnny-O. you ain't falling anywhere... Midge's got you. "There," as Marnie's mom said (and says, and will soon again say), "there, now."

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. It's a drag! 
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 stage magician who used film at first as a feature of his act.
4. That's of course a reference to Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) to draw the point of how Hitchcock learned the hard way that you can't show a kid getting blown up if we know about the bomb in advance; and that there's a law against bringing nitrate film cans onto public conveyances as the stock is so flammable, the cans were almost like bombs (Sabotage is also referenced in Tarantino's reference-dense Inglourious Basterds).

1 comment:

  1. Nice.

    Interestingly, I do LOVElove Vertigo, possibly the only Hitchcock I can say that about.


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