Tuesday, August 21, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #50: Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO

After roughly a year and a half of blogging about films that exist for me in the nebulous headspace between the real and the imaginary, I can think of no better way to conclude than with a re-view of the 1958 film VERTIGO.  My main prompt is an excellent new book of essays called The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage, and Commemoration (Scarecrow, 2012), edited by Douglas A. Cunningham.  This book is much more than a set of re-heated ruminations on a film that has been analyzed ad nauseam since its rediscovery in 1982.  It brings a new philosophical dimension to the study of VERTIGO, and film studies in general, by examining the intersections of life and art that occur when a cinephile goes hunting for filming locations.

Anyone who has followed my blog for the past few years knows that I’m a dedicated location-hunter.. or what Cunningham refers to as a “cinephilic pilgrim.”  And according to the author, VERTIGO is practically the grail legend of cinephilic pilgrimage.   It’s not difficult to understand why.  Hitchcock’s film is basically an extended meditation on reality and illusion.  The first half of the film is a ghost story, harkening back to Hitchcock’s first American film REBECCA.  The second half (beginning when the hero’s sense of reality gets exploded) is an exploration of Freudian neurosis, foreshadowing films like PSYCHO and MARNIE.  Each half has a climactic sequence. 

The first half concludes when Scottie and Madeline go “wandering.”  (They have, of course, been wandering together since early in the film… but only one of them was supposed to know it.)  Their first stop is in Big Basin Redwoods, where Madeline appears to embrace the idea that she is possessed by a dead ancestor. Diffused lighting and a spectral score by Bernard Hermann suggest that something supernatural is at work.  The camera movement, in a shot where Madeline disappears behind a tree, makes it clear that Scottie is becoming a believer too.  Moments later, Madeline stands in front of a cross section of an ancient redwood and points to the ring that represents the year of her previous birth and death.  

Regardless of the fact that the ghost is a MacGuffin, this is a moment worthy of any real cinematic ghost story, and it has always made me wish that Hitch was a bit more Jungian and a bit less Freudian.   The director, of course, is only setting us up -- along with Scottie -- for a fall.   Just as Madeline manipulates Scottie, Hitch manipulates us into believing in ghosts…. then pulls the rug out. 

The second half of the film climaxes with a scene in which Scottie reclaims (or, rather, re-invents) his lost love.  Madeline is , of course, “lost” only in the sense that she never really existed… except in Scottie’s mind.  His love for her is equally questionable, and is often the subject of film critics’ discussions of voyeurism, unhealthy obsession and even misogyny.  (It wouldn’t be entirely misguided to suggest that Hitchcock’s everyman hero is actually a necrophiliac Humbert Humbert.) 

When Judy reluctantly consents to become Madeline (again), she appears in a hotel room, bathed in an eerie green light that suggests un-reality.  Scottie eagerly kisses her, only to find himself briefly in a kind of fugue state, imagining that he is with the real Madeline, at a specific moment in the past when he kissed her for the last time.  For all intents and purposes, Scottie accepts this illusion as reality… until, once again, his worldview gets shattered.

 The two central essays in Cunningham’s book explore the philosophical implications of these two endings -- Johnny’s ability to briefly resurrect an illusion and incorporate it into his everyday reality, and Johnny’s failure to maintain the reality of that illusion.  The common thesis is that cinephilic pilgrims willfully subject themselves to a similar trial.  We are haunted by a film’s world of illusion, and eager (perhaps desperate) to more fully integrate that illusion into our reality by visiting and engaging with “profilmic landscapes.” 

In his essay “It’s All There, It’s No Dream,” Cunningham writes: ““Cinephilic pilgrimages stand apart from the casual ogling of curious film buffs; after all, the cinephilic pilgrimage is born of love (for the diegetic world of the film), loss (the apparent absence of that diegetic world within the realm of the real), and a longing to occupy/influence a space-time somewhere between the index and its referent.”  The goal, he theorizes, is “to achieve a sense of wholeness and/or healing (physical, mental, or spiritual) through a spiritual journey to a revered state.”  As supporting evidence, he writes about Chris Marker’s pseudo-documentary SANS SOLEIL and Cindy Bernard’s art exhibit “Ask the Dust.”  Both works re-visit the “ghost landscapes” where VERTIGO was filmed, and express the artists’ disillusionment upon realizing that “the real cannot live up to the image.”

Cindy Bernard - "Ask the Dust: Vertigo"
 Disillusionment is not the end for Cunningham.  Based on his own pilgrimages, he says “the cinephilic pilgrim must exercise his/her own creative agency” in order to “redeem both the real and the image.”  In other words: The pilgrim has to creatively engage with the place.  This can be done in many different ways.  The web series “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” for example, places a kind of historical marker at sites where revered horror films were made, via video testimonials.  Like the work of many dedicated location-hunters, HHG recaptures specific camera angles from the films.  Other pilgrims go even further, reenacting scenes and sequences from their favorite films.  (A friend of mine recently said that the beauty of Vasquez Rocks was ruined for him by the sight of a couple of geeks re-creating Captain Kirk’s battle with the Gorn on the site where it was filmed.... A quick youtube search will show you why.)
If you’re not the obsessive type, then you’re probably asking why anyone would feel compelled to do these things.  Cunningham’s explanation: “Like Scottie’s desire for a zone in which he alone controls the courses of space and time, the cinephile wants to freeze in time - and explore - the moment at which the worlds of memory and film converge to create meaning; in short, he/she wants to step into the film with memory intact.”  This reminds me of a passage in Geoffrey O’Brien’s excellent book The Phantom Empire -- one that I quoted in my very first Movies Made Me blog post.  Allow me to repeat myself (or, rather, to repeat someone else):

Films get their hooks into you by propping up memory, or perhaps more accurately by substituting for memory. You can trace each image back to an original encounter; various rooms, theaters, even nations exist primarily as the place where a particular image first emerged. "Ankara is where I first saw PILLOW TALK." More than anything the pictures serve as reminders of the people who watched them. That's the post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie about giant cockroaches in Los Angeles that so deeply and inexplicably disturbed Michael. That's the doomed starlet on whom Frieda modeled her youth. That's the sentimental wartime fantasy that Dave has spent his adult life attempting to reenact. That's the comedy that Patrick watched on Channel Nine the night before he jumped. There were movies endured during all-night sieges of insomnia, movies left on while making love, movies clung to in the wake of disaster as a substitute for grieving. There were movies used as a focus point, to give the group something to laugh at or to dream about, or simply to allow them a brief respite from being so endlessly involved with one another...

Cinephilic pilgrimages are about bringing emotional memories to a real, physical place in which they are rooted.  This is the place where knowledge and experience overlap.  If the initial experience of falling in love with a film is like an unknowing infant discovering the world through pure sensory perception, then the cinephilic pilgrimage is an attempt to re-discover that initial experience with the memories and awareness of an adult.  (Not coincidentally, cinephilic pilgrimages are usually based on the experiences of films we saw when we were young and most impressionable.)   As haughty as this sounds, it really is a kind of meditation in sacred space.

In her essay “The Frustration of Reality / Illusion,” L. Lelaine Bonine proposes that the meditation is necessarily doomed to failure.  Like Cunningham, she describes her own personal attempts to achieve “transcendence” through a cinephilic pilgrimage to San Francisco’s Fort Story, complete with Bernard Herman’s score on her iPod.  She confesses:  “I wanted to get closer to the film, inside it to finally be united with this loved object or, alternatively, to deconstruct its hold on me: make a logical investigation of it to dispel its possession of me and be released.  What I found was not relieving but exacerbating.” 

Bonine’s essay is intellectually intimidating, so I shouldn’t to try to refute her conclusions on a philosophical basis… but I have to say, based on personal experience, that I think the reason for her frustration is rooted in her expectations.   She is, I believe, correct in pointing out the philosophical impossibility of Cunningham’s desire to “freeze a moment in time.”  But I’d argue that her conclusion is stunted by a failure to distinguish between Bergson’s theory of time and the real-world experience of time.  In philosophical terms, the latter might be the illusion, but in experiential terms, the former is the illusion.

Whereas Cunningham simply anticipates an ability to “occupy/influence a space-time somewhere between” the illusion and the reality, Bonine yearns to be “united” with the illusion, or to at least exorcise her desire to be united with the illusion.  The theoretical impossibility of her goal leads her to an experience of the inescapability of the past and the impossibility of achieving the ideal moment.

Like Cunningham, I often experience my “pilgrimages” as more of a confirmation.  Being in the space where one of my favorite films was shot confirms, in my own mind, the partial reality of that fiction.  I’m not delusional, mind you.  I don’t believe that Captain Kirk actually fought the Gorn at Vasquez Rocks, and I don’t imagine that anyone reenacting the scene believes it either… though perhaps they are a bit more desperate than I am to escape into a world of illusion.  That kind of “escapism” seems to be increasingly common among younger moviegoers, and I think Cunningham and Bonine are both correct in suggesting that the future of film criticism (not to mention DVD bonus features) will deal more and more with these intersections of life and art.

Speaking for myself, I can say cinephilic pilgrimages are not always about engaging with the characters and events portrayed onscreen.   When I visited Big Basin a couple years ago, I didn’t imagine that I was Scottie following a ghost... or even that I was Jimmy Stewart, acting.  I did “creatively reframe” the space (my blog stands as proof), but I had no inclination to reenact any event from the film, and very little inclination to see any living person within that sacred space.  (I did take a photo of my wife in front of the Father of the Forest tree, but only because the photo would be meaningless without a sense of scale.) 

As a cinephilic pilgrim, I prefer to adopt the perspective of the storyteller.  If I’m communing with anyone, it’s with the director.   For me, certain filming locations are “sacred ground,” because this is where a great storyteller worked his magic.   I like standing where something significant occurred even though I know that the significance is all in my mind… in fact, probably because I know that the significance is all in my mind.  For me, that’s a way to pay tribute to the storytelling.  You see, I don’t believe that great stories are ever just stories.  As Geoffrey O’Brien explains in The Phantom Empire, stories/films are often as much a part of us as are real-life experiences.  Like our real memories, our movie-memories are constantly evolving…. And never in a vacuum.  Like the physical spaces in which our favorite films were shot, we too are constantly changing.  It doesn’t bother me at all that we can’t claim or re-claim an “ideal moment.”  The traffic never stops at the intersections of life and art, and that’s what makes them so mysterious and alluring.

Many of the sites I’ve visited have mysteriously found their way into my writing -- not just blog posts, but short stories and scripts.  Sometimes these “ghost landscapes” are inextricably connected to the film that made them famous.  Sometimes they become, more simply, a symbol of an abstract idea or an emotional experience.  Sometimes they do little more than stir up wandering impressions or set off a completely new chain of thought…. And that is especially satisfying, because it demonstrates the unstoppable flow of creativity.  In these seemingly empty spaces, imagination is god.


  1. Wonderful essay about the essays, and meanings, of VERTIGO. Wonderful explorations on all those locations, too. Well done, Joe.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I thought I'd responded to this note earlier, but my response seems to have disappeared into the ether... I hope to make my way to San Francsico in the near future, to visit some of these places in person...

  2. Terri - Time will tell. It seems that I always think of writing in terms of "projects," and I have a need for closure.... 50 is a nice round number, and I want to change things up a bit so that the blog doesn't start to feel like a "job." That said, I'm already thinking about a potential Tony Scott double feature... and also brainstorming about a new blog series on some of my favorite authors....

  3. Hey Joe/Joseph,

    I linked to your wonderful article on DJ Shadow from my blog here:
    (all the way at the bottom)

    I hope that's okay. Will remove link if asked! I was hoping to ask you this in an email, but I can't find an address anywhere, so there:). I've bookmarked your blog!