Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"I should have liked to have lived here then": In which the Merdian posts his obligatory once-a-year post on Vertigo

Gavin Elster's office. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Yes, we've come to that point in the semester where I think, "Hey! Showing a film would be a good thing to do in a couple of my classes, pedagogically-speaking. Now: Whaaat am I going to show them? Whiiiiich will it beeee?" And, despite my sincere wish to show them something else (for my own sake, if not for theirs), I always end up choosing Vertigo. It really does work well for several purposes: as something most of my students haven't seen and so can approach more or less neutrally; as a primer on camera movement and the framing of shots; as a beginning point for discussing how point-of-view is far from neutral; as a reminder that, at its best, film is meant to be watched (in Vertigo, I realized this time around, there are two stretches of scenes lasting at least 10 minutes in which Scottie says nothing (both, interestingly, serve as well to introduce, in the first instance, Madeleine (this one almost 20 minutes long) and, in the second, Judy Barton) but which carry information crucial to the film); how setting can function as far more than a backdrop for dialogue and action but can actually be integral to those elements.

It's for reasons of that last point that I want to send the interested to Vertigo: Then and Now, in which someone has gone to enormous trouble to select certain images of San Francisco from the film and then go to the exact same spot and take a picture, from the exact same perspective as Hitchcock's camera, of how that place looks now (early 2000s). What's so striking to me about these comparisons is how much many of these places have changed in the 50 years since Vertigo was made. Vertigo, already so dream-like, begins to feel even more so as it becomes more and more unmoored, via those changes, from the physical reality of the city that had given rise to it. It's as though the film has now become, for us today, like those old framed prints of 19th-century San Francisco that the power-and-freedom-obsessed Gavin Elster has hanging in his office: both now become sites of an imperfectly-recoverable past on which can play the forces of fantasy, nostalgia, and obsession.

By the way, here are links to other posts I've written on Vertigo, for what they are worth:
"On seeing Vertigo for the umpteenth time"
A post about pillows and cushions
Judy Barton as pareidolia


Raminagrobis said...

Thanks for the great link.

This reminds me of an amusing fact that Slavoj Zizek has mentioned more than once: there's a major book on Hitchcock in which the author manages to go on for several pages about the importance of the setting in Vertigo. The thing is, he repeatedly makes the mistake of saying that the film is set in Los Angeles!

Some googling leads me to believe that the book in question is 'The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock', the critic Raymond Durgnat.

Raminagrobis said...

What's this? My comment appears to have fallen victim to a furtive link-assault by Amazon.

Other retail outlets are available, folks.

R. Sherman said...

Yes, we've come to that point in the semester where I think, "Hey! Showing a film would be a good thing to do in a couple of my classes, pedagogically-speaking.

"Meaning you get to kick back for a couple of hours and catch up on grading papers," he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek.


John B. said...

Grobie, that story you relate is indeed ironic. How someone writing about setting in Vertigo could make a mistake like that is baffling to me. As for the Amazon thingie, I've regretted adding that thing pretty much as soon as I did it. When I get a bit of time to search my template for the code, it's coming out.

Randall, I fear you're on to me. I did indeed grade some papers each time I showed it. But, each time, I still watched more than I missed.