“Vertigo” and Repeating Repetitions

27Aug15

I’ve been re-watching “Vertigo.” And re-rewatching, and re-re-rewatching. I’ve actually been listening to the audio, without images.

With all this study, I’m not 100% certain of my opinion about it. I’m not sure I love it, or if I do, if I love it because it gives me something to think about as a film lover, or if I’m just trying to love it so I resemble a film lover. But that’s all subjective. In studying it very carefully, I’ve noticed some facts that have eluded me for far too long.

1.) There is some world-class foreshadowing in the second scene. This is at Midge’s apartment, and I’ve always kind of passed over this scene, as I’m sure many others have as well. Initial reviews of “Vertigo” noted that the opening hour is rather dull, but that’s because the exposition and foreshadowing is so well done that you think you’re watching a standard Meet-The-Characters scene when you’re actually getting fed vital information — information which plays directly into the nuts and bolts of the story as well as (and this is the more impressive part) the character traits and themes, which go on to support the later, weirder elements of the story.

Specifically:

A.) We learn that Scottie is racked with guilt from the death of the police officer, due to his fear of heights. Midge not only tries to convince him that it wasn’t Scottie’s fault, but also mentions how a doctor told her that only another emotional shock could cure his acrophobia. This emotional shock WILL COME in the near-closing moments of the film, when Scottie drags Judy up the tower.

B.) Scottie not only still has acrophobia but — and this kind of blew me away — he thinks he can conquer it. “I think I can lick it,” he says, even though Midge has just said he cannot. This is important because his fear will play a key roll in the murder/suicide to come (nuts and bolts), but it also establishes Scottie as the type of guy who thinks he can cure things which are un-curable. This arrogance will come up twice more in the film: first as he tries to help Madeline to decipher her “death dream.” When she feeds him some information about her “death dream” (describing the mission), Scottie responds that not only do those things exist, but that if he takes her there and shows it to her, it will destroy the dream — it will cure her. “I think I can lick it.” The next time will be in the finale, after he has figured out the truth about Judy and her role in the murder of Elster’s wife. A less arrogant person might have seen Carlotta’s necklace in Judy’s apartment, called the police and been done with it. But not Scottie. He thinks he can lick it, and that means recreating the situation, close to how it originally happened… just like he tries to do on Midge’s step-ladder. In terms of foreshadowing and supportive character construction, this is an objectively bad-ass example.

As I said, it blew me away when I realized this existed. It surprises me even more to find nobody else has pointed this out prior. Am I the first, or the last?

On that similar note…

2.) Symmetry. “Vertigo” strikes me as being very symmetrical in its construction. Actions happen A-B-C in the first half which have reflections as C-B-A in the second half. It’s not a perfect, down-to-the-second symmetry, but it feels pretty close. Another great example of this is in the aforementioned scene in Midge’s apartment. Around my fifth time through the movie, I was still pondering the bit where Scottie wonders aloud about the brassiere Midge. “What’s this dohickey?” he asks. Up until my fifth trip, the moment always felt to be more in line with Hitchcock’s weird sexual politics, or even with his attempts to be naughty.

Then I realized that this is supposed to foreshadow and mirror the scene near the very end of the film, where Scottie helps Judy put on Carlotta’s necklace. In that scene, he says “How do you work this thing?” which is another version of “What’s this dohickey?” Add to that the fact that the staging is very similar, with Scottie standing behind a female figure (a brassiere in the first, and the facsimile of his former love in the second). The bra posed on a stand is no accident — it’s framed very similarly to where the bra would be if it were being worn by a real life woman.

First time… Screen shot 2015-08-27 at 1.05.14 PM

Second time… Vertigo

Many others have noted the symmetry of Vertigo (the moment in Scottie’s apartment where Scottie turns to see Madeline emerge from his bedroom is very similarly shot to the later moment in Judy’s hotel room where Scottie turns to see Judy emerge from the bathroom — dressed as Madeline), and many other subtle touches that support the weird mystery of the film (Madeline wears Scottie’s polka-dot robe when they have their first real conversation, and Judy’s dress has a similar polka-dot pattern on her collar and cuffs during THEIR first conversation). But few have ever gone so far as to match this A-B-C to C-B-A mirroring of the story elements.

Such symmetry can be the only way to explain why on earth they had the coroner’s deposition in a building across the yard from the San Juan Bautista mission. It almost feels like it happens the very day of Madeline’s “suicide,” and it very well might be, but that’s not why it was done — it was done because we’re going back down the other side of the mountain, as it were.

The mountain’s peak represents the suicide from the top of the mission tower. On our way “up” that mountain, in the first half, there is a slow panning shot through the mission arches to the Livery.

After the “mountain peak,” there is the same pan shot through the mission arches to the Livery… and next to it is the building in which the deposition is being held.

Such choices don’t exactly support the story, but they do support the MOVIE. It all feels like we’ve been here before, and we have. And we’ll be back.

Some of the symmetry is more of a mirror reflection, but in the big picture, grand-scheme of things, as someone once said, “it’s all there.”

3.) Poor Midge. Much has been written about this very sad, sympathetic character, but I haven’t found much in regards to her support of the movie’s theme and Scottie’s character. She is the first character we meet who carries a torch for someone who does not reciprocate, just as Scottie will do. She also won’t let go, and even makes an ill-advised attempt to “fix” her problem, just as Scottie will do in trying to cure his fear of heights, to cure Madeline of her death dreams, to try and make-over Judy into Madeline, and then to recreate the suicide scene. She even plays into the symmetrical elements. Her first scene has her playing music, to which Scottie doesn’t respond favorably. Her last scene is in the sanitarium, in which she plays — you guessed it — music which does not draw a good response (or any response) from the now-crazy Scottie.

4.) Juicy Dialog, No Dialog. Listening to “Vertigo” without watching the picture makes you really aware of the long periods without dialog. The first time Scottie tails Madeline is about 10 minutes without any dialog, and that doesn’t include the first time he sees her at the restaurant. This means that when the characters actually DO speak, nothing can go to waste. And it doesn’t. The dialog is juicy, in the way it’s written and the way it’s performed. Some of my favorites include:

-Midge tells Scottie: “I’ve gone back to my first love” (tiny pause) “painting.”

-Elster’s dialog on old San Francisco, and how he would have enjoyed the “power and freedom” of those times. Such power and freedom is later described by the book shop owner as the power to throw women away.

-Tons of lines from Judy, during her first conversation with Scottie, alluding to all the times she’s “heard it before.” She’s been picked up before (probably by Elster). And she has probably come to realize that she was originally picked up by Elster because she resembled Mrs. Elster. It keeps happening. We’ve been here before!

-Almost everything in the Midge’s Apartment scene.

5.) Hitchcock Paranormal. As he would later do in “Psycho,” one of the uniquely great aspects of “Vertigo’s” story and storytelling is that for the longest time, the events seem explainable only by supernatural means. Norman Bates’ mother is the killer, but she’s dead, so she must be undead! Madeline is being possessed by the ghost of Carlotta! Hitchcock seemed to enjoy these red herrings, but I can’t think of a single instance where the supernatural ACTUALLY played out in one of his movies. Yet they easily could have, and I’m positive this is a criteria to label some directors as less great than Hitchcock. The supernatural answer is the easier one. As “Futurama” once said, “Magic. Got it.” I greatly admire this effort of having your cake and eating it.

6.) Academia. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this, and it goes back to my earlier comments about not being able to truly work out my feelings toward the movie. Do I actually love “Vertigo?” Or do I want to love it so I can be considered a film critic? Do film critics love “Vertigo” because they are film critics, or because they love “Vertigo” itself. At the very least, I think it’s accurate to say that a good way to sound like a student of film is to have conversations about “Vertigo.” To talk to anyone, one must share a common language. Since the film has so many juicy, interesting elements, it’s a natural one to discuss.

But that still doesn’t mean I love it. It just means I love talking about it, but that’s not the same thing. Or it doesn’t HAVE TO BE the same thing. You can love to talk about a movie you love (as I’ve done countless times with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars”), but I saw those when I was very young, and loved them right off the bat. “Vertigo” was a different story. I saw it in college, and was put off by it. It felt dated, in both its politics, subject matter and even production (and truth be told, the part that still feels dated is the famed “Vertigo effect”). Did I just grow into it, or did I will myself to this opinion? Did my admiration of Hitchcock’s other films draw me into this one as a way of keeping the Hitch party rolling? Or is it simply more familiar to me, and now that I’m older, I can appreciate many of the parts I missed previously? Is it because I’ve been here before?

I couldn’t help myself.

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