Thursday, February 04, 2010

Vertigo Followup
for Eduardo

The Vertigo vortex image. In her hair.

OLD BUSINESS. We had this deal. Eduardo would watch Vertigo, and I'd watch Babylon 5. What a sucker I was. Two hours versus dozens. Oh well. I keep my word. He kindly wrote back that he had watched Vertigo and understood that it was better than he'd thought, though he had some questions. Like, why did she jump at the end? What was that all about? Which caused me to write him again. Only he never got my email. And still, two email addresses later, hasn't gotten it. So here's what I wrote him.

Hi [Eduardo],

I was good too. I watched the first disc (four episodes) of Babylon 5. Note that you're done and I'm still under sentence. But a deal is a deal. It may take a while, but with my wife's persistence, I will keep going.

Too early to give you a review. I like some of it, but I'm waiting to see where it goes, reserving judgment. Okay?

As for your questions about Vertigo, let me first say that I appreciate your giving it a real look. I know how hard it can be. I got my first clue about that when you said you could only watch Rear Window by fast-forwarding through it. It brought to mind a close friend of mine (older than you and also smart as a whip) who jeered at Shane without knowing it was one of my favorite movies. Too slow. Nothing happens. Like watching paint dry. He'd been raised on Clint Eastwood westerns, which I also love, and waiting an entire movie for one gunfight was just unthinkable. I know how he felt. But I saw Shane BEFORE I saw Clint's remake, Pale Rider, and I love them both, though I know when I'm being honest with myself that Shane is the better movie by far, though slower, more 'composed' and hence more structurally artificial, though more dramatically, realistically, and humanly honest. [The solution to generational disconnect of this sort btw is to slow down. No, it's not Transformers, the Sequel. Sloooow Doooown. Listen to the Moonlight Sonata first. Satie. Nina Simone. Read T.S. Eliot out loud to yourself. It can be done.]

Hitchcock is also structurally artificial. He was famous for having every shot of a movie mapped out before he ever yelled action. He referred (glibly) to actors as cattle, though he always picked the ones (Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart) who could attend to the tiniest details on camera. He was the the cinematic equivalent of what in painting is called super-realism, hyper-realism, or photo-realism.

Like this.

His cinematography achieves an extraordinary FOCUS, either black-and-white or bursting color, that does not bleed, blur, stain, or otherwise interpose some filtering vision between filmmaker and observer. The dull sections of Rear Window you fast-forwarded through were Hitchcock's self-revelation of himself as a director. He is watching the intimate details most people fail to look at, because we all always confess our natures even if we never explain them in words. That's his signature. Always watching. Always a voyeur. And always third-person behind the camera. Incredibly difficult.

For example, I don't know if you've read the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. He was the precursor of all the greats, including the greatest, Raymond Chandler. But what is distinctive about Hammett from every other twentieth century writer I've ever read is that Hammett wrote in a pure third-person point of view. Not third-person ominiscient, or third-person limited omniscient -- not telling or intimating even his main character's thoughts. He wrote like a news reporter, depicting the physical appearances and actions only. I can tell you, as a fiction writer, this is an almost impossible narrative voice, even in the visual medium of film, where there are so many subtle ways to cheat. No other film director I know of tries it at all. Hitchcock does it exclusively.

He, and you, are always just watching, from some distance. That's where all his suspense comes from. None of his characters ever directly tells you, the audience, what they're thinking or planning. They tell other characters, perhaps, but they may be, and frequently are, lying.

Which is hyper-realism. You get to see everything in excruciating detail, but the director never saunters in to explain it all, just so you'll both be on the same page. Life isn't like that. Hitchcock isn't like that. Revelations always come in the form of action, outcomes, events.

Which is why Hitchcock movies require incredibly close and minute observation.

Which is especially true of Vertigo, considered by many of us to be Hitchcock's greatest picture. It was as close as he ever came to formal confession. What Stewart did with Novak in Vertigo, Hitchcock did with many of his (always blonde and beautiful) leading ladies. He made them all into his fantasy love object, dressing them, schooling them, directing them, transforming them. Grace Kelly. Tippi Hedren. Eva Marie Saint. Kim Novak. Others. They were just clay for his remote voyeuristic vision.

He knew that the exercise of such cold power was possibly evil, destructive, and most of all obsessive. At the end of Vertigo, Kim Novak didn't JUMP. She fell, frightened by a sudden apparition -- of a nun -- that is supposed to be a figure of safe and comforting authority, even divine authority. So who is the man who relentlessly drives her to this hysterical reaction? The man who begins the movie hanging by his fingernails from a rooftop? A man afraid of the heights his job pushed him to. A detective. In other words, a man whose whole profession is supposed to make him proof against being manipulated into a devious plot whose sole purpose is to destroy innocence. A man well loved and enfolded in superficial understanding who cannot stop himself from becoming the victim of his own fears and obsessions and creating other victims thereby.

The whole conducted in the most reasonable, understated, and third-person objective way imaginable.

Vertigo is an anguished psychological horror film, but one devoid of the arterial spray today's generation expects. The moment I've previously called transfiguration is tantamount to the sexual release Hitchcock obtained by controlling and commanding the beautiful women he could never possess sexually in real life. And they all got away from him. And his own internal torture was eternal, equivalent to damnation. The guilty man on top of the tower, no longer afraid of height for its power to do him in, but profoundly stained by the damage that height could do to clueless, illusory innocents.

Or, if you watched the movie enough, you could come up with a whole other interpretation of what it might mean, because nobdoy anywhere in the film volunteers the slightest sliver of insight about what it might mean.


All I know is that having seen it a few times it stays with you. Haunts you like the haunts of Stewart's delusions. Her suit becomes eerie. Her French twist. Her platinum hair. Why? Because Hitchcock succeeds in his plot just like the malefactor you noted succeeds unavenged in his. They get away "Scot-free." How? They make you fall in love with the illusion too. You can't wait to get rid of Kim Novak's mousy hair, trashy wardrobe, and thick eyebrows in favor of the vision in platinum and gray. Hitchcock is telling us, you want it too, and his choice of music makes it all seem something like romance. Stewart's moment of transformative fulfillment is ours too. And H's.

That's the real definition of H. Horror.


You see? Engage us here and we will -- what's the word? -- 'dialogue' with you to your heart's content. Or at least ours.

UPDATE. Just for fun, on the subject of point of view.

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