I won’t bore you with show sketches this week but if you want you can always see the newest ones here. I wrote about the ridiculous over-marketing of van Gogh for the Reader, reviewed Hillary Chute’s book about how comics portray war for the Trib, and stopped by my pal Nick’s radio show to chat.
I haven’t watched Vertigo since long before the American Film Institute named it the best film of all time. Seeing that it was kicking off the Music Box’s 70MM Film Festival gave me the perfect chance to revisit it and find out whether my view of it has changed. I’ve always hated Vertigo. I’m not much of a Hitchcock fan in general. They’re manipulative, misanthropic, and ultimately hollow at their core. I rarely find their plot machinations compelling and many of the special-effects and other film techniques used have not aged well. I can’t watch more than a few minutes of The Birds these days without laughing; was this ever really considered terrifying? It has to be a joke. Still, a lot of intelligent people revere the man’s films and what better way to give the most acclaimed one of all a fair shake than at the largest aspect ratio available?
Arriving an hour and a half early the lady at the box office tells me I’ve lucked out because someone swapped out their ticket minutes before; I score the last seat in the house. An hour later I settle on an aisle seat perfect for easy escape. I set down my coffee under my seat and go to use the rest room. Returning a few minutes later, a woman is idling uncomfortably near my seat. “I didn’t see it,” she says, pointing at my coffee cup, whose entire contents are now all over the floor. I check that my coat, which I’d tucked under the seat isn’t soaked, then tell her to move along. Is the universe telling me I’m just not meant to change my mind about Hitchcock?
There’s a festive air in the theater. Birthday groups and dates chatter in anticipation. The movie begins and I’m compelled by the title sequence of geometric shapes, diagrams, and faces, all scored to Bernard Herrmann’s music. The first sequence—a rooftop chase resulting in the death of a policeman—sets up the premise of the film and instantly takes me completely out of it. The funhouse effect Hitchcock uses to show Jimmy Stewart’s vertigo makes me suspend the disbelief needed for me to follow the story. The banter between him and Barbara Bel Geddes seems stilted and unnatural. She’s supposed to be in love with him and to him she’s supposed to be just a pal, but I don’t believe any of it. Hitchcock often plays these games where the surface plot isn’t really what it’s all about. The aim is misdirection, a cheap magician’s sleight of hand. The problem is that beyond the trickery is a howling emptiness. The fear in his films is a rollercoaster fear, rather than one caused by any actual lived experience.
There are many ways to enjoy a movie, especially when it’s projected on a very large screen. For a few minutes I content myself with the ’50s color panoramas of San Francisco and with the strangeness of Kim Novak’s painted-on eyebrows. A lot of the early part of the movie consists of Stewart driving around the town after Novak. The repeated shots of him inside his car, with the city projected by blue screen through its rear window over his shoulder, is of course a commonplace technique of that era’s filmmaking. But it ratchets up the theatrical unreality of the whole story. What I see is Stewart pretending to drive, with a movie of a city for background. The whole film is this way: people pretending to do one thing while actually doing another. Then Novak jumps into the bay, Stewart rescues her, and they’re suddenly in love.
To Hitchcock, people are rats he can train to run through his elaborately constructed mazes. His characters are rats he can torment and we’re the rats who should feel grateful he has not gotten his hands on us. We’re meant to suffer vicariously through the poor rats on screen, then feel relief after the torturer has been vanquished at the end. The only times watching his films when I haven’t felt my strings being pulled is when an actor transcends the machinations of the plot with the intensity of their performance. It happens with Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Robert Vaughn in Strangers on a Train. Not coincidently, those are both villains. Bad guys are always much more compelling in Hitchcock films, occasionally they even almost seem like full-fledged human beings.
About an hour into Vertigo, after sitting and thinking about everything but what’s happening on screen, I decide to leave. I don’t know what the movie is about or why anyone likes it. Prior to going to the Music Box I had little expectation and even less memory of what I’d thought of it, aside from a vague dissatisfaction. Walking out I’m more puzzled than disappointed. I just know I don’t want to sit and watch those two characters play their sick games on screen for my amusement. I guess I hate the greatest film ever made and don’t know what to make of that. p.s. A week after Vertigo I managed to sit through the entire running time of 2001: A Space Odyssey; another one that’s really hard to love, though I did really admire it on the level of design.