Vertigo

This paper was presented at the Alfred Hitchcock conference For the Love of Fear convened by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, held from 31 March to 2 April 2000.

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The cinema is to space what the forest is to time. This may sound like a strange way to read Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), but reduced to its essentials, it is what I think the film is about. It is often said that Vertigo and Rear Window (1954) are films about the cinema. I think Hitchcock at his best makes films not just about film and the spectator’s relationship to film but also about media, film’s relationship to other media, and media’s relationship to space, time and veracity.

Even his less than classic works betray this interest. In Dial M For Murder (1954), Ray Milland calls his wife, Grace Kelly, from a hotel, this being the signal to the murderer in his employ to spring out from behind a curtain and strangle her as she answers the phone. After showing us Milland dialling the number, Hitchcock shows an automated telephone exchange whirring and clanking as it connects it.

This affect-less mechanism works just like Milland’s calculating mind. It enables a quite remarkable instance of telesthesia, of perception at a distance, in which Milland witnesses a murder yet is remote in space from its execution. Over and over again in Hitchcock, the vector both connects and separates. This is his great theme, the simultaneous engagement and disengagement of telesthesia, of perception at a distance. We are, Hitchcock says, at once arrested and let off the hook.

North By Northwest (1959) introduces us to Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, Madison Avenue advertising executive. “In the world of advertising there is no such thing as the lie, only the expedient exaggeration. You ought to know that.” Expedient exaggeration is what defines all communication in the age of telesthesia, whether our perception at a distance be the product of the telephone, television, telecommunication or cinema.

Every sign we receive is an index, Hitchcock tells us, but of what, we can rarely ever know. An index is a sign that is directly produced by a material effect, like a smoke signal. Only the index is always different from what it indexes. It tells us that something has happened, but only by being different from its cause. The index, in other words, need have no resemblance. It is not a representation.

The famous joke about the MacGuffin is a joke about an index. We’re not told, in the joke, what the MacGuffin looks like, but of the sign it causes. The MacGuffin catches lions in the Scottish highlands. That there are no lions in the Scottish highlands becomes the non-existent index for the non-existent MacGuffin.

Cary Grant, trying to track down the George Kaplan for whom the bad guys have mistaken him, goes to his hotel room and tries on Kaplan’s suits. “Obviously they have mistaken me for a much shorter man”, he says. But he is reading the signs all wrong. There is no resemblance between Grant’s Thornhill character and Kaplan, and there is no resemblance between Kaplan’s suit and his body. The suit, the hotel room — everything is an index of another process altogether.

Ironically, Thornhill’s advertising life is interrupted on the way to the theatre. On the way to a theatre of resemblances, we get a cinema of indexes. “You see there is very little sense in maintaining this fiction that you are deceiving us any more than that we’re deceiving you”, as Phillip Van Damme says to Thornhill.

But this is also Hitchcock’s pact with the viewer. This is not a cinema of resemblances. The hokey looking back-projections with which Hitchcock presents scenes of movement are not really meant to resemble anything. They are an index of cinema itself. We know the scenes are back-projections, an index of projection, because we know they don’t look anything like what they purport to look like.

“That’s funny. That plane is dusting crops where their ain’t no crops.” It’s the clue that comes at the beginning of the famous Prairie Stop 41 scene, in which Cary Grant is chased by an aeroplane. Of course it is not an aeroplane that chases him, but cinema – a back-projection. It’s Hitchcock celebrating his skill at manipulating telesthesia. He wants at one and the same time to cause effects, and affects, at a distance, and to show how it works, show the indexical quality of cinema.

Of course Hitchcock’s anxiety is that he won’t arrest the viewer’s attention, but will be found out. “How do we know it’s not a fake? It looks like a fake?” Cary Grant is, of course, no fake. “You’re no fake, you’re a genuine idiot.” This is all from the famous auction house scene, where Grant gets out of a jam by breaking up the auction. When Hitchcock doubts the value of his capacity to create telesthesia, he is at his most pessimistic and sharply funny. It’s the quality that gives North By Northwest its lightness and Dial M For Murder its sheer callousness.

Eve Kendall, the character played by Eve Marie Saint in a rare and luminous performance, gives her profession as industrial designer. This is also Hitchcock’s profession: the industrial design of telesthesia. Cinema, Hitchcock says, is the form of industrial design of images and stories, artworks and performances, that captures and reiterates all others.

Like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Hitchcock was not one for “rear window ethics.” There is only fear and desire in Hitchcock’s cinema, but fear and desire extended and distended by telesthesia. If in Vertigo Jimmy Stewart is troubled by the makings of just one image, in Rear Window he is Mr. Multimedia, grazing on a dozen shows at once.

He is attracted and repulsed by this image or that, but only the index really fascinates him. “How far does a girl have to go before you’ll notice her?” asks Lisa, played by Grace Kelly. She has to disappear, mysteriously. Miss Lonelyhearts getting bashed or swallowing handfuls of sedatives just doesn’t cut it.

In telesthesia, only the index matters. It’s not what the image looks like, it is what causes it. “Let’s start from the beginning Jeff. Tell me everything you saw. And what you think it means.” What is the actual chain of causation in telesthesia, not what is the imaginary coincidence of resemblances. Surprisingly, there is a rear window ethics in Hitchcock’s mature work. In a world filled with images, don’t interpret them, investigate them. Don’t be a psychoanalyst, play detective instead.

The amazing soundtrack to Rear Window has the film’s own theme song being composed as the film progresses. When Lisa asks where the songwriter gets his inspiration, Jeff quips that he gets it from “his landlady”. Is that inspiration sexual or financial? We don’t know. In investigating causes, best not to slip back into interpreting motives. The potential linkage of cause and effect is all, not the interpretation of motive, and indeed motive in Hitchcock’s plots is always profoundly uninteresting.

The Rear Window soundtrack features the song ‘Mona Lisa’, it’s other theme song – a song about precisely the inscrutability of the sign. The Mona Lisa’s smile is as inscrutable as the faces of Hitchcock’s stars, signifying nothing. Don’t ask what a work of art resembles, ask how it produces its differences.

Every kind of media of recording gets its moment in Hitchcock’s films, but is always subordinated to the designs of cinema. There is the auction house and the monumental sculpture in North By Northwest. There are acrobats, an LP record and two concerts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955). There’s fireworks and fancy dress in To Catch a Thief (1955). There is photography and fashion in Rear Window (1954).

Vertigo does its level best to make cinema the vector that recapitulates and redistributes all the others: there’s Midge’s graphic art, Elster’s model ships, Carlotta’s grave and her portrait in the museum, the Argosy bookshop and the heritage site of the Spanish Mission. Most strikingly, there are the sequoia trees. As I mentioned in the beginning, the sequoia tree is to time what moving pictures are to space.

In one of Hitchcock’s strangest scenes, Kim Novak, who is playing Judy, who is playing Madeleine, who is playing Carlotta, looks at the cross section of an ancient sequoia tree and pinpoints the rings in the wood when she, Carlotta, was born and died. These trees, she says, are “the oldest living things”. Scotty, played by James Stewart, explains their name. It means, “always green, ever living.” “I don’t like it”, retorts Madeleine, or maybe Judy. “Why?” Scotty asks. “Knowing I have to die”, says Judy, as Madeleine, possessed by the dead Carlotta. Or maybe its Kim Novak who says this. Or maybe Hitchcock.

Vertigo strikes me as the first film that really understands film’s relation to other vectors, the way it usurps the claims of other media as the bearers of both immortality and mortality. There’s a constant doubling and redoubling of every sign. Midge paints herself in place of Madeleine as Carlotta, based in turn on a painting. But Scotty rejects Midge’s portrait. It’s not about resemblances. It’s about indexes. Signs have causes, but they are different to their causes, and cause in turn more differences. This is what Scotty, the “hard headed Scot”, gets caught up in.

A great deal of the film has Scotty simply looking out of the windscreen of his car, following Madeleine. He is of course the cinema viewer, seated in the cinema, watching moving pictures. The reverse shot shows what he sees, and the windscreen seems about the same aspect ratio as widescreen cinema.

But this isn’t just a film about film and watching film. It’s a film about death, and the vectors through which death is remembered and experienced remotely. This is perhaps the first film that knows itself to produce an effect of telesthesia in both directions – in space and time.

The release of a film, its publicity, creates a simultaneous experience of its effects. But like any index, the cause and the effect differ. The industrial design of the film produces the index of the screen image, which need not resemble its causes, and the image that is the spectator need not mimic or resemble what passes on the screen, either. Unlike the sequoia tree, recording time with ring after ring in much the same way, cinema’s passage through time is much more troubled.

At any moment, the viewer can arrest mimesis and see the index, see the design at work. Scotty learns this the hard way, when he discovers that Judy does not merely resemble Madeleine, but was an instrument of her death. The necklace that was Carlotta’s, that was Madeleine’s, turns up on Judy, and Scotty arrests the procession of resemblances — and smells a rat. The viewer can fall in love with resemblances, or can play detective, looking at signs as an index of a process. The hardheaded Scot wins out over the romantic idealist.

Look at how signs are made, Hitchcock is telling us, not what they look like. Cinema has nothing to do with representation, and everything to do with production, industrial design. It is the production of telesthesia on an industrial scale. Across space, as people view the same film, live in the same aura of its publicity and star appeal, but also across time – and here Vertigo touches on film’s other axis, its mortality and immortality.

I really think Vertigo marks Hitchcock’s grave. While three or four good films follow, none surpass it. Other vectors of memory – museum, graveyard, bookstore – are mere props in Vertigo. There is no artform, no matter how imposing, that Hitchcock cannot turn to account as a mere prop or plot device. Nothing escapes capture or reiteration by cinema. The grandest concert can be brought to a halt by a Doris Day shriek.

But is cinema up to the job of memorial? In North By Northwest, the film Hitchcock makes right after Vertigo, there is no escape for the film hidden in the statue. The film, to be smuggled to “the other side” inside a work of art, but one merely bought at auction, doesn’t get there. Film is brought back down to this earth, this place of fear and flirting — the two human instincts on which Hitchcock’s crude but effective effects always play.

Cinema is everything and nothing — like the names of his best protagonists, Roger O Thornhill and Johnny-O Ferguson. The O stands for nothing. Cinema is nothing but the rot of time. And yet cinema is everything, swallowing every other means of culture whole. What is remarkable about Hitchcock is that he saw cinema at one and the same time as immensely powerful and utterly insignificant. Like the MacGuffin, the cinema is an index of what it destroys.