Friday, December 29, 2006

"There's no bringing her back": Judy Barton as Pareidolia

Image from "A Hank of Hair and a Piece of Bone," a photo-essay on Hitchcockian motifs by Alan Vanneman.

(Note: readers who wish can see my earlier posts on Vertigo here and here. Also: I'm going to assume that the reader knows Vertigo and so will dispense with a plot summary. Those of you who haven't seen it, though, are warned that you'll likely run into things below that you'd probably rather not know before seeing it.)

Here is another of those way-leads-on-to-way posts:

Via Paul's recent posting of the KGB Carnival, I visited The Angry Astronomer's brief post on pareidolia--the specific example being workers in a chocolate factory reporting they were seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in the chocolates they made, and the Church's rather direct discouragement of such behavior. My curiosity led me to good old Wikipedia's entry on the word, and I was interested to read there that pareidola can be an auditory as well as a visual phenomenon. And that led me to wonder (again) about that moment in Vertigo when Scottie talks with Judy Barton at her hotel after seeing her on the street and following her there.

Before going on I'd like to address something. The quibblers among you might argue that Judy is more accurately a palimpsest, but I'd say that that is true as far as Gavin Elster is concerned. Scottie, though, is another matter, which I hope this post will make clear.

Below the fold, you'll find yet another indulging of my, um, preoccupation with this film.

The specific moment I referred to above is Judy's response to Scottie's telling her that she reminds him of someone:
I've heard that one before, too. I
remind you of someone you used to be
madly in love with, but she ditched
you for another guy, and you've been
carrying the torch ever since, and
then you saw me and something clicked.
(Aside: My source for this passage appaers to be a copy of the shooting script for the film, seeing as it contains material that clearly is not in the released film and which I'm very sorry to know the existence of because even a brief perusal of it shows that at least some of what didn't make the final cut for the theatrical release is as fascinating as what did and thus means that I have still more of this film to immerse myself--and probably my reader(s)--in. As I say, I'm sorry: knowing this thing exists is like offering liquor to a recovering drunk.)

As I watched Vertigo this summer with one of my classes, what struck me about this passage was not the words but, rather, their sounds--in particular, this phrase:
"madly in love"
In the film, it seemed to me, Judy seems to stress especially hard a couple of syllables:
"madly in love"
I can't pretend to know how (or even if) Scottie understands those stresses, but here's what my hearing them made me think:
"madly in love"="Madeleine"?
Of course, given the fact that Scottie is not only going everywhere he had seen or been with Madeleine but also mistaking any woman wearing grey suits or with piled-up platinum-blonde hair for her, it doesn't seem too far-fetched to imagine that at a subliminal level he could be hearing "Madeleine" in those syllables, too.

So why is Scottie's subsequent involvement with Judy more an example of pareidolia and not palimpsest? I think the answer lies in something we don't see onscreen as well as two things we do see.

One of the great mysteries (some would say "implausibilities") of Vertigo for me is this: It's clear that Scottie sees Madeleine nude; after he fishes her out of the Bay, the very next scene shows her dress and what are supposed to be her undergarments (hmm--another example of pareidolia) hanging up in the kitchen of Scottie's apartment. Though less overt, I think one can easily read Scottie's insistence that Judy transform herself to appear as Madeleine had as his prerequisite to their becoming lovers--how else to read that ecstatic kiss and embrace there in Judy's apartment when she comes out of her bathroom in complete, looks-like-Madeleine mode? So, to put the question directly: when he and Judy get nekkid, why doesn't he recognize that she and Madeleine are one and the same? After all, he remembers, as few heterosexual men would, precisely the style of "grey suit" Madeleine wore; you'd think he'd have at least a hazy recollection of this ravishing woman's body. But no.

The answer to that mystery, I think, is that Scottie isn't interested in this woman's body--in fact, in a real sense he doesn't see it but only what he (or others) can project on to it. We learn that through two things we do see. The first is when Judy asks Scottie's help in putting on her necklace, the scene which sets in motion the film's conclusion. She turns to him, her necklace easily visible to him, but it's not till he stands behind her to put it on and sees its reflection in Judy's dresser's mirror that he recognizes it as the same necklace that Carlotta Váldez is wearing in the portrait at the museum. It's in that moment that he realizes that Judy and "Madeleine" are the same person.

But Scottie isn't in love with Judy, or even with "Madeleine." We learn that, I think, in the film's final scene, when Judy and Scottie take turns unravelling Gavin Elster's elaborate plot and its immediate aftermath and Judy embraces Scottie, telling him (reminding him?), "You love me." Scottie's response appears odd, to say the least:
Too late... too late... there's no
bringing her back.
"Her"? Surely he doesn't mean "Madeleine"--after all, the woman Scottie fell in love with and thought had killed herself is there, right there, in his arms. No: I think Scottie means someone else, which we get a hint of in this earlier exchange, after Scottie and Midge return from the Argosy Book Shop.

Is she pretty?


No, not Carlotta. Elster's wife.
Scottie is in love not with a woman, and not even a woman pretending to be someone she's not, but with the pretended woman, the image. He's in love with an illusion, with representation, with reflection, with the ultimate Unattainable Woman. Midge, no dummy, gets this (though not the depths of Scottie's obsession) long before Scottie does (assuming, of course, he ever does), painting her parody of the Carlotta painting as her response to and critique of it. But her joke falls flat for Scottie: his devotion (what else to call it?) for Carlotta makes her--or, rather, the mythos he has invested her with--sacrosanct and Midge's parody blasphemous. Scottie seeks truth, reality, in images and icons and reflections, and in so doing reshapes his understanding of the world through that lens. Seeing images of the Virgin in chocolates seems pretty harmless by comparison.

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