Wandering, Hanging, and Old Movies

A few weeks ago I headed to LA to visit a friend who moved there for a research gig at one of the universities. For two days I crossed the icy interior deserts of the Southwest, gunned my poor underpowered hatchback over seemingly endless mountain passes each higher than the last, and watched the land get drier and drier till it looked like the rusted-out surface of the moon and not a single building or road was to be spotted for tens of miles beyond the threshold of the highway. Then, I turned south and all of a sudden was rolling downhill amid what felt like a huge and growing stampede of wheeled beasts till I descended into a land of palm trees, green lawns, fountains and birds of paradise; of malls, billboards and huge dollish faces of starlets pouting from the sides of buildings.

I hadn’t realized what a strange place Los Angeles is. Even with a thousand-year drought hinting that the whole arrangement may be a lot more precarious than it was sold as, I have always thought of it from a distance as the standard big American city only bigger, a blend of power, fame and quiet struggling masses; a lot like the East but sprawlier and with milder weather. The sheer population in a place like this, too, generates its own normality: with 18 million other people squeezed into one basin, and high mountain strongholds hiding from view the stark deserts that stretch for hundreds of miles, it is easier to get caught up in the grind and forget where you really are. But as a newcomer I was startled by the isolation, and the way stunning geography and fragile ecology collide with seething human striving–like an enchanted Mediterranean kingdom that went over to the dark side, embracing tacky low-rise architecture, smog, smut and of course those tangled ganglia of highways.

My friend lives five miles from the Pacific, but he texted to say he was still stuck at work, so I passed his exit and went on to Santa Monica. As I stood on the beach on an almost-balmy December evening and gazed north at the mountains and cliffs that cut off the monster city’s expansion like a natural pressure valve, a strange mood took hold that I couldn’t place. It had something to do with adventure, and something to do with resignation–an impression of space and possibility and far away places, a hypnotic sense of the infinite. It was like the whole city was standing atop an ancient secret, something fundamentally quiet and inaccessible despite all the activity packed on top of it. There, then, for all my initial distaste, I thought I got a hint of what must have drawn all these millions to this place from the beginning.

The mood stuck. A few days after I got back home I found myself rooting around the house absentmindedly, not even sure what I was looking for. I gave up and decided to let the thing come to mind on its own. Soon I remembered: it was a DVD from years ago, that I felt sure I’d kept around. I started rooting around again, and just as I was beginning to wonder if I had given it away I came upon the thin little box. On one side it had an image of a man hanging by his arms, a look of cartoonish fear plastered on his face, and on the other side, the bulbous, violet silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t watched Vertigo in years, but I’ve never been able to forget it completely. It’s not a thing you forget, if you’ve grasped it–or should I say, if it’s grasped you. It’s not merely because of groupthink that Vertigo gets up there with Citizen Kane on so many critics’ Greatest Movies Ever Made lists. Although Vertigo is set in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles, I guess my encounter with the Californian coastline, which plays such a huge role in this Hitchcock masterpiece as to become almost as a character in itself, was enough to jar loose the memory of the film, and send it reaching up from the dust of my subconscious like some beguiling revenant. I popped the disc in and at once was ushered back into the old, twisting, tormented and sumptuous world that I knew so well.

Vertigo is all about longing for the deep ancestral past, for the mysterious and spectral, with all their lyricism and sometimes overcooked picturesqueness. The plot is circuitous: a seemingly quite normal, no-nonsense detective (Scottie) suddenly discovers a terrible flaw at the center of his character–one so profound he abandons his plans and his career and cuts himself adrift. He proceeds to meet and become enchanted by an enigmatic woman (Madeline)–a splendidly Jungian personification of his own anima, captivated by deathly visions and possessed by voices from the past. He wanders with this woman, or apparition, through Hitchcock’s meticulous, dreamlike, lore-drenched vision of the Californian landscape; he falls in love with her, assumes the role of her protector–and then loses her, through the very character flaw that nearly ruined him before.

Yet the story is not over. In its second half, the plot and perspective seems to swing 180 degrees, contrasting the supernaturally-tinged lyricism of the first half with modern, rational, causal explanation–the sober light of truth. The enchantment of the first half is deconstructed, shown to be a deliberate fraud, and explained out of existence. In the process, Vertigo becomes like a triptych of modern man’s disenchantments and his longing for lost illusions. By the finish, Scottie knows the whole truth; his last comforting illusion has been stripped away, but with it, his love.

Long ago, when I last watched the movie, I’d had a hard time with this second half, the way it shattered the remarkable mystery and romance of the the first part of the film while making it hard to ever recapture it on later viewings. (Contemporary audiences at the film’s release in 1958 were also baffled at this sudden change in tone, or at Hitchcock’s “giving away the ending” an hour before the finish.) The curious thing, which only struck me now, watching it years later, is that this second half actually does nothing of the sort.

It seems to be a common attitude these days, especially in scientifically literate circles, that all belief must work like mathematics. If a series of valid steps can be found that leads from your original belief to a blatant contradiction, then your belief is disproved and you must abandon it totally. This may be true for beliefs about clearly empirical questions like climate change or smoking and cancer, but in real life it takes a lot more than a story of “disproof” to eliminate an entire mode of experience, no matter how irrational or derided it may be. Art, religion, myth and magic continue to offer worlds of experience not to be found anywhere else, even after being “disproved” a hundred fold. What is essential is not always yielding to proof or disproof, but knowing when they are even the right instruments for the job.

Much the same can be said of the tension within Vertigo between its first and second halves. The earlier enchantment, the world of strange voices from the past and from beyond the grave, is not solved or “disproved” by the explanations that come later; it haunts us all the more in its apparent falseness, becomes part of a world that, though impossible to reach, is impossible to dispel. Explaining a thing does not suffice to explain it away for good, Vertigo seems to say: these are two worlds human beings must deal with, and do not be completely taken in by either one.

I’m reminded of a scene near the end of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” There, the consoling religion of Mercerism is “disproved” in a big TV expose. After, in a strangely touching exchange, the figure of Mercer appears to one of the main characters and admits the allegations are true:

“I am a fraud,” Mercer said. “They’re sincere; their research is genuine. From their standpoint I am an elderly retired bit player named Al Jarry. All of it, their disclosure is true…”

But then Mercer explains that though true, the disclosure has no effect in his own realm and that of his believers:

“…They [the researchers] will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed. Because you’re still here and I’m still here.”

Vertigo, too, says to us, “I am a fraud. Nothing of what you saw before is real, I was just messing with you. But also: it doesn’t change a thing.” Like life itself, the movie retains a note of the enchanted and undefinable despite explanation after explanation. Realism becomes too facile, standing atop a pile of impossible contrivances and haunting questions; the story of the first half has not really been eliminated, while the “truth” of Madeline’s death given in the second half is so convoluted and bizarre that it, too, may as well be a dream. In the first half, Madeline disappears entirely from a building without ever having been seen going in or out, as if she really were supernatural. Perhaps this is not a plot hole so much as a warning to us not to take the “rational” denouement of the film too seriously. Again like life, the movie never completely comes clean, never wholly reveals its truth or intentions.

At the end of the film’s first scene, Scottie is left hanging by his fingertips over a four-story drop, with rescue looking improbable to say the least. Most critical accounts of Vertigo note the way his escape is never shown or explained for the rest of the film. One interpretation, based on Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, is that the whole movie from that point forward is a huge and baroque hallucination with only illusory meaning, ending only in the moment Scottie loses his grip and falls to his death. This hallucinatory or surreal quality is undeniable in all that follows, but there is just no way to decide whether the entire movie is something that flashes before his eyes on his way to his death, or something that is “real”. Here, too, Vertigo seems to say, there are two worlds we must own up to, one made of proof, the other beyond proof or disproof.

A clue to this dreamlike lack of clear progression or answers appears in A. R. Luria’s “Mind of a Mnemonist”, an account of the memory feats and mental world of Solomon Shereshevsky (1886-1958). Shereshevsky, one of the most talented mnemonists of the 20th century, possessed extreme synesthesia–the mixing of perceptions across normally distinct sensory channels. The synesthesia was so acute that subtle differences in the sounds of words and the character of people’s voices would fill his mind with a profusion of associated colors and images, and make it fiendishly hard for him to focus on what was actually being said, or to recognize the same voice from one day to the next. In a striking passage describing Shereshevsky’s consuming involvement with this inner world of intermingling and wildly detailed sense impressions, Luria observes the strange psychological state that resulted:

“…there is another type of imagination whose activity is not directed toward the external world, but is nourished by desire and becomes a substitute for action by making action seem pointless. Indeed, how many idle dreamers are there who live in a world of imagination, transforming their lives into a ‘waking dream’…”

I can think of no film more dreamlike, more consumed with themes of memory, desire, obsession and inability to forget, than Vertigo–nor of one that exhibits a more synesthetic blurring of color, music, symbol, and character. It’s eerie that the world Hitchcock created in such lavish detail corresponds so well to the experience of this remarkable man, who died the very year the film was released. He, like Scottie, struggled to forget, was handicapped by an inability to keep different worlds distinct, and lost himself in a world of “substitutes for action”.

At the very end of Vertigo, Scottie faces the choice to die with his illusions or live on with an icy reality–to live on appeal, as Camus might say, or return to activity for its own sake, like a San Franciscan Sisyphus. Neither seems attractive just then, and the movie is agnostic about the answer, fading to black. I think back to my trip to Los Angeles, with all its elusive little impressions. What real reason did I have to go there? Much of the past year I have spent in my own world of wandering–and I have met my share of phantoms as well. Yet something came together on that beach. Is LA, like Scottie, hanging on by its fingers, perhaps dreaming of strange adventures while far from help, or about to make a bold existential choice? As I try to puzzle out this spiral-staircase of images and reflections and to find my own direction, I emerge only with an elusive reassurance, a lot like the one Mercer offered: I’m still here, and Vertigo is still here.

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