Sunday, April 16, 2006

A(n over?)reading of about 2 seconds total of Vertigo

First of all: a belated Happy Passover and Happy Easter to my readers. I hope your holidays were happy and safe and blessed.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have a thing about Vertigo. It is such a strange film: the plot isn't terribly complicated, but as the mysterious Madeline tells us regarding her mystery, "There is no way to explain it." That's probably true, and I should be happy with that. But while I can't fully explain Madeline (or Scottie, either, for that matter), I can at least take a stab at describing and speculating about four quick shots in Vertigo, widely separated in time that would never be missed if they weren't in the film but nevertheless ARE there and thus must matter in this otherwise carefully-shot film.

Below the fold you'll find some tedious speculation about, of all things, shots of cushions and pillows in Hitchcock's masterpiece.

For a long time, I have wondered about that moment in Scottie's apartment, after he has brought Madeline home from her swan dive into the bay, when he invites her to sit by the fire. He picks up a couple of pillows and drops them on the floor, and we actually have a shot of the pillows landing on the carpet. Why show that? What purpose does that serve? It just never made sense to me . . . until last week, when I was watching the film with one of my classes.

This time, my attention was drawn to the second big scene in the film, in Midge's apartment, where we get some lighthearted banter (and important exposition) between Midge and Scottie. At the climax of that scene, where Scottie tests his theory that he can overcome his vertigo by climbing a step-stool, the camera gives us a tight shot of his foot stepping on the cushions of the stool. "Ah-ha," I thought: stepping on the cushions will lead to an episode of Scottie's vertigo; inviting Madeline to sit on the pillows serves as a prelude to Scottie's ever-growing emotional vertigo where she is concerned. Cushions serve ironic functions in these scenes: they are meant to soften landings, but they signal coming landings that are anything but soft.

This casts a more meaningful light on a brief moment in Midge's apartment in the scene following Scottie's and Madeline's kiss along the shoreline. Midge has been painting a parody of Portrait of Carlotta, as we'll soon see; at any rate, when she hears Scottie approaching, she quickly hides her copy of the museum's guidebook . . . under a pillow on the top cushion of her step-stool. Madeline's apparent obsession with/possession by the ghost of Carlotta leads to Scottie's obsession with Madeline--and, as viewers know, Scottie's vertigo plays a crucial role in his pursuit of Madeline.

The final scene involving cushions and pillows takes place in Scottie's apartment again; this time, though, the visitor is Judy Barton, a young woman who bears a striking physical resemblance to the now-dead Madeline. Judy so wants Scottie to love her that she has just agreed to wear the same kinds of clothes Madeline used to wear and will even change her hair color to match Madeline's. Scottie invites her to sit by the fire with him, and he tosses a couple of pillows on the floor, just as he had done in the earlier scene with Madeline. In this scene, though, the camera doesn't show the pillows landing on the floor. That could be because, while that earlier scene was one that leads to Scottie becoming more and more enthralled by Madeline, in this scene the enthralling is complete--HE is possessed by the memory of Madeline and has just wooed Judy into playing that role for him.

Of course, these moments I've just described may just be coincidences, happy accidents; or, you're thinking, Hmm: a whole blog post on two seconds of film--now go get some sleep. Well, yes to both. But I think it's a measure of this film's attention to detail elsewhere that something like the shots of pillows and cushions have the potential to cause the viewer to ponder, to wonder.

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Ariel said...

Apparently I've only just brushed the surface of Vertigo. Next time Lindsay and I watch it, I'll make timely remarks about the significance of the pillows. She'll be all the more impressed if I imply that I noticed, though. I'll have to think about attribution. ;)

Winston said...

Wow! I've seen Vertigo maybe 2 or 3 times and never noticed the cushion thing. If for no other reason than to see and pay attention to these 4 shots, I now have to see it again... Hitchcock was the ultimate master at hidden symbolism.

R. Sherman said...

Just so you know, I bought Vertigo from Amazon today. It's all your fault and I'm sending the EMBLOS your way when she see's the AMEX bill.


John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, gentlemen. Your comments make me feel a bit less self-conscious about writing a post on pillows in a film.

Ariel, without trying to estimate, let's just say I've seen Vertigo A LOT already and will be showing it 3 more times this semester . . . and yet, each time, I see something else I hadn't noticed before but which seems significant (the operative word here being "seems"). Good luck in working out the ethics of attribution.

Winston, as I just said, the more you watch, the more you will see. This film just keeps deepening and expanding with every viewing, just like Hamlet does.

Mr. Sherman, I would think the EMBLOS would adore you for buying it--in which case, I'll be happy to bask in the glow of her approval as well. Enjoy.

Andrew Simone said...

Do you have any thoughts on Rear Window? That was always my favorite film.