Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Disappointment Artist

I've just begun reading Jonathan Lethem's book of essays, The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005). The very first essay in the book is called "Defending The Searchers," and it's about his (mainly futile) attempts to convince college classmates, friends, roommates and casual acquaintances that John Ford's The Searchers something more than "a racist antique...dredged out of our parents' bankrupt fifties culture."

First, though, there's the painfully funny (or is it just painful?) scene of his first viewing of the movie, at a college film society screening that he's arranged. Mocking laughter and catcalls greet the first part of the film, while Jonathan feels confused and defensive. At one point, when the film breaks, he gets up and scolds the audience for not giving it a chance. Then comes a scene of "such giddy misogyny, such willful racism" that it stuns Jonathan into numbed bewilderment for the rest of the film. Wasn't this supposed to be Scorsese's favorite movie? The movie continues to haunt him, though, until after multiple later viewings he is able to finally come to terms with it.

I've only seen The Searchers once, when I was in college, and giddy misogyny and willful racism seem like pretty accurate descriptions of what I remember seeing that night. But this post isn't intended as a challenge to Jonathan's perspective on the film--I'm not really competent to talk about it in any depth. It may really be as complex and self-critical as he claims ("The Searchers is racist the way Huckleberry Finn is racist," he reports telling a friend). No, instead this post is about my own parallel experience with a problematic film, one that I dismissed on my first viewing, but one that ultimately got under my skin to such an extent that I'm still working out its meanings: I'm talking about Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Be forewarned: spoilers follow.

Willful racism may not play much of a role in Vertigo, but giddy misogyny sure does. Or so it seemed to me on my first viewing, at a movie palace in 1983 (Vertigo had just been re-released by the Hitchcock estate after a decade out of circulation). When the lights came up at the end and scattered applause was drowned out by sustained booing, I was silently on the side of those who were being vocally dismissive. This was supposed to be Hitchcock's masterpiece? A movie in which the main character, James Stewart's San Francisco detective Scotty Ferguson, spends half the film bullying some poor salesgirl (Kim Novak's Judy) into replicating the exact image of the woman he still loves but thinks is dead? A movie in which Scotty's response when Judy objects to dyeing--dying?--and restyling her hair to match Madeline's is "It can't matter to you!"? A movie in which Judy has to die in order for Scotty to be cured of his vertigo? Feh!

I had assumed that because Scotty was played by an immensely sympathetic actor that Hitchcock intended the audience to fully identify with his perspective. I hadn't actually seen many Hitchcock films by this point, so I was unfamiliar with just how ambiguous Stewart's roles in previous Hitchcock films--Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window--actually were. And I didn't realize how problematic "identification" is in this movie.

But something about the film must have continued to bother me. A decade later my lover was arranging a screening of Vertigo for an international conference of psychiatrists (!). She asked me if I wanted to sneak into the mid-afternoon screening (this was before the film's restoration, and it was rare to have a chance to see it on a big screen). I couldn't resist the setting, so I agreed. From my third-row seat, as the introductory panel discussion among four or five psychiatrists began, the entire event already seemed enclosed in quotation marks. (Hilariously, Vertigo contains a scene where a pedantic psychiatrist in heavy black hornrims explains the zombie-like Scotty's affliction as "acute melancholia together with a guilt complex." Scotty's been prescribed a daily dose of Mozart--and probably off-screen shock treatments, this being the 1950s. In any case, the asylum scene is hardly a ringing endorsement of the methods of modern psychiatry.) Before the movie had even begun, the irony meter was pinging off the scale.

And then the film started, and from the first moments I was completely transfixed. Bernard Herrmann's sweeping, powerful score; Hitchcock's swirling, disorienting camera; James Stewart's anguished portrayal of Scotty; Kim Novak's coolly erotic Madeline and pleading, insecure Judy--I was amazed by how much better the film seemed ten years on. And how could I have so misread the ending, when Scotty, shattered, utterly bereft, gazes down from the ledge of the tower? I've now seen Vertigo more than a dozen times, and it becomes richer with every viewing.

A major part of what changed my perspective was Tania Modleski's brilliant book of essays on the women in Hitchcock's films, The Women Who Knew Too Much (Methuen, 1988/Routledge, 2005). A few months before my second viewing of Vertigo I'd picked up her book because it discussed some of the other films I'd finally gotten around to seeing at my friend Glenn's urging: Blackmail, Rebecca, Notorious, and Rear Window, among others. Each of Modleski's essays offers an extremely perceptive and nuanced close reading of a particular film, and each substitutes for the simplistic myth of Hitchcock's alleged misogyny a much more subtle and ambiguous analysis. After my second experience with Vertigo I reread her essay on it, "Femininity by Design." She describes how, at the moment in Judy's hotel room that the camera lingers with her, and where we discover the solution to the mystery, Hitchcock creates an identification in the viewer that's split between Scotty and Judy for the rest of the film. But she also points out how identified Scotty is with Madeline, the nonexistent/murdered woman--the end point of all his yearning being the abyss into which he gazes in the film's final moments.

Another critic with insightful things to say about Vertigo is Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In Looking Awry (MIT Press, 1995) he describes how Vertigo exemplifies the mechanism of desire, in which it's precisely the unattainability of something that makes it desireable. Once we've attained it, its former allure is diminished. And indeed, that's what happens in the final minutes of Vertigo. After Judy enters the hotel room as Madeline (to the sound of Herrmann's trembling strings echoing Scotty's anxiety), and the famous 360-degree kiss, there's a fadeout. When we fade back in, "Madeline" has reverted back to Judy, and Scotty seems distracted, pensive, not joyous. It's at this moment that he is finally able to see that Madeline was Judy all along. He's attained his desire, only to discover that it was an illusion from the first. And it's Judy who must pay for his disillusionment with her death. (In fact, for every woman in the film--Carlotta, the real Madeline, "Madeline," and Judy--being the object of men's desire results in death. The one exception is Midge, who tries and fails to make herself the object of Scotty's desire.)

Sorry, I can keep going about Vertigo forever. But in closing I want to return to the (far from exact, I realize) parallel between Jonathan's experience with The Searchers and mine with Vertigo. Sometimes the movies (and books and music and art) that are most immediately appealing don't end up sustaining our admiration, while those that are difficult, that we have to work a bit to understand (or that we find ourselves deliberately resisting), wind up being the ones we return to again and again. Not always, of course--some works just grab you and never let go, and some are truly dislikeable. But this sort of conversion experience has happened enough times for me to think that a reflexive dislike of something might just be my brain's perverse way of alerting me that I might really end up enjoying it after all.


  1. Movie viewing is a very subjective thing... I can remember taking two of my friends to see Kenneth Brannagh's "Henry V" - a very inspiring film to me. About two thirds of the way into the movie, when the thief is hung (after exposure of a conspiracy earlier in the movie), one of my friends turned to me and she asked, "Does he kill all of his friends?" Another perspective, which would have never occurred to me, but just as valid as mine.

    Let me say that I am a fan of Vertigo - and also of Rebecca and Rear Window. Regarding Hitchcock and misogyny, I haven't done the reading, but Hitchcock was in the business of horror, and I think he figured out that we respond to on-screen images of horrified women as, if not more, viscerally than horrified men.

  2. Scotty R Us. I mean, isn't obsession and desire the motor of consumer coinage? Actually, this movie isn't about Scotty at all - it's about Judy. I'm Judy. I'm the one crying, "I love you, Scotty!" even as he drags me up the stairs and spits derision in my face. Because only Judy is REAL. Scotty is in love with his own phantasm. Judy is in love with Scotty. Those who cry "misogyny" identify with the wrong character.