Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I look up, I look down (Vertigo)

Something of a theme emerged for me in 2011, with regards to watching (or more specifically, catching up on) movies. That was the year I finally managed to rent, watch, and return more than twelve movies from Netflix in over the course of the calendar, and feel somewhat justified in paying for the subscription in the first place. I suspect this was all tied up in multiple factors in addition to my will alone. As I recall, late 2010 was when the floodgates were opened as far as allowing the little guy to watch tv and movies (since he turned two that September) and it was not long after that we bought the portable DVD player for him to make long car trips a little easier on all of us. And right around that 2010/2011 transition must have also been when I started riding the VRE more frequently, which meant I spent less time behind the wheel and more time making use of said portable DVD player. The device wore out finally, not too long ago, but has already been replaced, since at this point it’s hard to imagine living without one. Heck, when the little girl turns two this spring we might have to get a second one.

But if 2011 was the year I started ratcheting up my rate of consumption of movies, 2012 was the year I got serious about film. Obviously joining the 1001 Movies Blog Club was a big part of that, on the one hand holding myself to something of a structured schedule for checking out movies that other people (who don’t necessarily share my geeky aesthetic sensibilities) select, and at the same time evaluating those movies not as good or bad time-fillers but as works I should share my thoughts on with others, instead of just talking to myself (as I’m wont to do). And the fact that all these movies would be, arguably, part of a super-canon of worthwhile film meant that in addition to stretching outside my comfort zone I’d be filling in some important gaps in my personal knowledge.

So after making it through all of 2012 and not just sticking with the 1001 Movies Blog Club (in my own catch-as-catch-can way) but honestly enjoying it immensely, I decided that in honor of the new year I should keep things going by making time to – finally! – watch one of the most lauded films on the entire 1001 list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Of course, Vertigo is essentially review-proof. Last year, it knocked off Citizen Kane (which, thankfully, I did get to watch in college) from the number one slot on the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time. Kind of a big deal. It should probably be enough to say that I’ve now seen it, and you may safely assume that I enjoyed everything about it. It’s mesmerizing (both the visuals and the score), it’s thought-provoking, it’s technically innovative, it’s basically everything a connoisseur of cinema could want to feast on, and on top of that it’s a compelling story delivered almost entirely through the stellar performances of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. If you’re hoping that I’m going to pull out some contrarian take on how Vertigo is overrated and deeply flawed, I am sorry to disappoint you.

So on the one hand, what’s great about Vertigo ends up getting a short answer (everything), while on the other hand, what’s interesting about Vertigo could potentially get an answer so long that it would run over the limits of a single blog post, or even the multiple posts I indulge in from time to time (on your Cabins in the Woods and Dark Knights Rising and whatnot). And even that would, I’m sure, be highly redundant with the vast amounts of scholarly criticism about the film out there in the world. I’ll try to restrain myself by focusing on one or two element in particular that I found personally meaningful. (Spoilers follow; yes the movie is 55 years old but after all I hadn’t seen it before this week, either.)

After going on as I did yesterday about the importance of conflict-embodying villains in fiction, I was fascinated by Scotty’s character arc. I suppose it depends a lot on how much stock you put in distressed mental states as extenuating or exculpatory circumstances, but Scotty starts out the movie as a pretty clear-cut hero type and yet by the end of the movie he’s … if not the villain, at least playing the part really well, doing wrong things for all the wrong reasons and all but guaranteeing that things will not end well. He’s a victim, too, of the machinations of a murderer and his accomplice and also of his own obsessions. And I think it’s the final bell tower scene of the movie that really puts Vertigo over the top, in the way that everything comes together as Stewart, and Novak too, portray these complicated multi-layered characters in such a heightened state. (Also, the undiluted terror of nuns who come out of nowhere, which goes without saying.)

Madeleine/Judy, too, works her way through the three classic archetypes; maybe the argument casting her as a hero is an uphill one, but villain and victim can’t be denied. A villain is always, practically by definition, proactive while a victim can be proactive or reactive or even passive. Sometimes victimization occurs in spite of best efforts, because the forces arrayed against the victim are so much stronger, but sometimes the victim is nothing but a sacrificial lamb. And I do think it’s unfortunate that Novak plays the victim so passively in the climax of Vertigo. I was expecting a lot of the movie to seem dated, but clothing and automobile styles aside I really found most of it timeless, except for Madeleine/Judy’s feminine passivity in the climax. And yes I’m filtering things through my own modern sensibilities (sensitive-New-Age-guy with a wife I love and a daughter I’m trying to raise right) but nevertheless there was a part of my brain wondering why Madeleine/Judy would let Scotty manhandle her up the bell tower stairs. With her physical safety in mortal peril you would think she would be able to break free and run away, unless the implication is that she wants to be manhandled and forced to submit to a man’s will; the gender politics are pretty skewed either way, not necessarily in the known universe of 1958, but to me. At the very least, it’s understandable why directors would want to revisit (and revise) the formulations of Vertigo after the sexual revolution, with somewhat shifted power dynamics; if anything it’s kind of surprising that more of them haven’t.

Except that updating the classics always sets you up to pale in comparison, and that goes double for classics-among-classics like Vertigo. It’s not a perfect movie, but no such thing exists, does it? The best we can hope for is movies that amaze with their triumphs and tics altogether. And just the fact that Vertigo lives up to its hype is pretty amazing.

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