Vertigo, or the Beautiful Spiral of Uncertainty
by Hunter Vaughan — Oakland University
December 10, 2013 – 00:00
In my mind’s eye, no film better illuminates the Escher-esque maze of how cinema thinks, shows thinking, and makes me think than the master’s masterpiece: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo. A film in which form and content harmoniously coil into a spiral that bears closer to uncertainty the more it reveals, Vertigo is the pinnacle of what makes Hitch’s 1950s oeuvre a fulcrum for Deleuze: a rupture in the narrative and moral clarity of the classical, an introduction to the fragmented. Beneath the narrative, stylistic, and existential manifestations of this breakdown runs an underlying philosophical and ideological crack in the edifice of classical thought: uncertainty.
This delightfully crazy embrace climaxes the film’s baroque experiment in cinematic uncertainty. Polyphonically induced by a perfect storm of dialectical forces—the psychotic nostalgia born from James Stewart’s lustful cheek-pressing; the character-star conflict between Judy’s sincere desperation and Kim Novak’s proto-60s eyebrows; the dramatic irony of dramatic irony, of how many lies the spectator knows and how badly we crave to believe them; the carnivalesque variations of Bernard Hermann’s score—a rabbit hole opens up that we are invited to disappear through: a Bergsonian wonderland in which the visible looping of a previous setting brings multiple temporalities into coexistence and breaks down the barrier between the characters’ minds and bodies, between internal and external experience, blurring any distinction between the mental subjectivity of the characters, the sensory fabric of the text, and the psyche of the spectator. Viewing a film that plays so mise-en-abymally with the duality of cinematic identification (narcissism and objectification, projection and possession), we bask in the schizophrenic euphoria of simultaneous idealism and skepticism, and this circular tracking shot—enwrapping the reunited lovers and spinning both past and future into the present—unfurls Scottie’s subconscious puncturing of a truth he must consciously repress in order to realize a desire shared by characters and viewers alike. A momentary insanity: jouissance.
The cyclotron of stylistic elements provides a layer of connotative meaning that sifts through the duplicitous nature of reality and fantasy at the core of the film fable, carving new paths in the viewer’s brain and entreating us to delicious horizons of sweet, sweet madness. Welcome to the inter-subjective, the inter-temporal. The revolving camera that can never go home again; Pygmalion’s flawed recreation of an ideal; the spectatorial tear between convention and invention…this shot embodies the film’s beautiful experiment with thinking, with unthinking—with the seductive spiral of uncertainty.