Thursday, August 29, 2013

Catharsis and Purification: INLAND EMPIRE as Religious Viewing Experience

Poster of David Lynch's movie involving capital white letters



There has been quite a lot of criticism on David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE so that I felt intimidated approaching it despite a generally favorable penchant for this director's work. My Lynch initiation happened with the sublimely mysterious Blue Velvet, followed by the entertaining and surreal, at times downright creepy series Twin Peaks (first - and most likely only - time I saw cherry pie combined with Zen Buddhism on television).  

Wild at Heart disappointed and left me cold the first time around but I saw its merits and comedic value after repeated viewings. Lost Highway I did not care for much, and although overall praised I did not think Mulholland Drive to be that outstanding. Good yes, but for Lynch it seemed rather "average" (though the silencio scene does still creep me out). Heck, I even enjoyed the generally panned Dune, but I simply adored the straight-edged road movie Straight Story told with a heart.


Normally, I would have simply overlooked the negative reviews had it not been for the unpleasant experience of watching Eraserhead, a film that was praised by most but I thought that it was Lynch just being weird for no clear rhyme or reason. As one critic had said, all the characters in Eraserhead seemed to have undergone lobotomy treatment; what was fodder for amusement felt silly or rather unfunny in this case. (But again I must give it another chance and perhaps I did not get it the first time around.)


So when critics compared INLAND EMPIRE with my nightmarish experience of confusion and boredom of Eraserhead, it was enough to keep me at bay (plus its almost three-hour running time and the fact that Lynch had apparently improvised as he went along added only fuel to my existing doubt). It took me more than seven years (a symbolically appropriate number in itself) to approach this underrated gem of a movie. And just like previously panned movies like Goya's Ghosts or The Soloist, many critics plainly got it wrong. (Though I must admit that a lot of them got it right too and, in fact, they praised this wonderful movie for its various merits.)


But back to the movie itself. The movie is not without its flaws (I still think it is a little too long and errant for my taste) but the same flaws are also its strengths. By rambling through scenes, Lynch is immersing us deeper and deeper into the psyche of its main character(s), while holding and balancing us gently but firmly in its narrative web. It may lack polish (pun intended) and a coherent script (!), but none of this takes away from the unique experience of this film; it rather adds an irresistible nightmarish aura to the movie.


Some have commented that the movie is incomprehensible and plot-less. The latter is true as the story is not linear nor does it have a discernible sequence of events or actions (all we are told is that actions have consequences). A movie without plot is not a bad thing per se, at least nobody could claim that it has any plot-holes since there is no plot to begin with.


Hence I shall do away with the elements of plot, and at the same time reduce the chances of spoilers by simply looking at some of the many themes that this movie covers or deals with. My main focus here will be on the medium film and its spiritual or emotional repercussions on the viewer.


First off, there is the quest for identity or identities. This is not only about identity in our lifetime, but also across time and perhaps even involving past lives. Yet it is also about “losing one's identity,” that is to forgo what one sees and defines on a superficial level (name, looks, status) and to dig deeper into the core of who one really is. Equally, it is about losing one's identity - or sanity for that matter - in order to immerse oneself in a created or fictional identity, the character one is supposed to “play.”


The movie also sheds light on the barrier between fiction and reality. In this case, the film they are shooting within the film is related to “real” events, that is real in the sense that fiction becomes meshed up and embedded with reality or that the imagination may become as real as the real thing. As the movie is cursed from its onset, any repercussions of this fictional entity will have consequences upon the real lives of the actors, as Nikki finds out with Sue.


But it is not only that. The life of the actress Nikki becomes altered because of and through her role and interpretation of the character Sue. She not only embodies her, but also takes on, Christ-like, her problems, sins or suffering upon herself. This is why I think that the movie is a religious experience involving a sense of atonement.


After Nikki goes through hell, she redeems both herself and her character, who in this case turns out to be a real person watching and following closely Nikki's performance and actions. Although Nikki is acting, she is also improvising and redirecting her own actions as can be seen in the crucial scene of the movie theater towards the end when time stops and becomes the present. By overcoming evil, Nikki paves the way for Sue to become purified, and Sue feels overwhelming catharsis in the process as most of the time she has tears of relief streaming down her face.


If you have no clue what I am talking about, do not worry because I will try to put it in more abstract terms. The movie makes also a statement on the viewing experience. It is a blend of Rear Window and Vertigo. We become the ones who are watching, but this experience changes us consciously as well as subconsciously.


Similar to having this actress reli(e)ve her demons from another person, we are getting rid of our own in the viewing process. We become, well temporarily and symbolically at least, purified and released from the grip-hold of evil. It is a cathartic experience that we can grow from if we open ourselves to this journey.


Although these themes have existed in most of Lynch's movies, they have never been as clear as this one, which is an ironic statement I know this being his most enigmatic work. But for me there was a feeling of closure, which many viewers and critics must have missed out on, not a logical closure of loose ends, but an emotional and subconscious one.


The final song and dance number, so typically atypical for Lynch, alongside the group of girls with bad attitude who are reminiscent of a Tarantino film on acid, combine to culminate in a spiritual release. The penultimate song is emotionally uplifting and liberating, while the final dance is spiritually entrancing and enhancing. This movie then turns from a nightmare of a woman in trouble into a prayer for good while seeking and beseeching the guidance of the Lord.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ode To Cinema: The Beauty and Magic of Movies

Old-fashioned ticket office with displayed prices



Movies are like women: They are charming and fascinating; some you fall in love with at first sight, while for others repeated "viewings" are necessary. Notwithstanding, there are some who are simply not your type no matter how closely and frequently you may look. What makes me immediately fall for a movie and not for another one remains a mystery, the same way love is difficult to fathom or predict.


In fact, girls have generally proven more elusive to me, whereas movies have been constant and approachable since my shy and philosophically-inclined adolescence. To a large part, they have created my identity and self-awareness. They have been fodder for my imagination and even my penchant for writing stems from this magnificent art form. Although I wanted to become a writer at the age of eight, it was the discovery of movies that made me dream of becoming a director one day (and I am still waiting for that day to come!).


Although my love for books and writing is endless, there is a mysterious je-ne-sais-quoi quality to movies that eludes my grasp. Perhaps because it is a combination of various departments and disciplines that so appeals to me.


First off, movies are visual. That type of information always makes an immediate impact on people. You can read about the Titanic, and it may leave you cold. But watching it unfold in front of your very eyes will likely affect you to a stronger degree.


Second, film also combines the art of writing. There are pieces of dialogue that often sound original and authentic. Words are used to stronger effects via the performance of the actors. Movies often aim to create the illusion of real situations and life-like relationships. There are many films that are so well-written and original in their ideas that I feel inspired to write as well.


Third, movies use music to move us. Music has also been an important and essential part of my life, and I am impressed how many directors are skilled in combining the two seamlessly and effortlessly to make us feel the complete gamut of magical properties that surround movies.


I am from the MTV generation and must say that I find the idea of combining music with images quite thrilling and original, if done well that is. There are some videos that always stick in my mind and, in my view, enrich the listening experience. Unfortunately, videos have fallen in quality, mostly due to a general lack of depth or artistic motivation in the current mainstream music scene. To see glowing sweat and hot dancing people on screen is not necessarily my idea of art.


Yet although you have valuable and tasty ingredients, it does not mean that the stew will be worth its salt. In fact, it takes an imaginative director with attention to details to put them all together to strike a definite and lasting chord in the viewer's mind. It is indeed amazing how one has a limited range of notes in music, but can create an infinity of sounds and compositions out of it. The same applies to film-making which, if done well, can create an authentic and genuine work of art.


I think the movies that stick with me are those that not only stand out in their style and content, but also in their honesty. This applies to all art forms, but it is even more striking in film. If the incentive is to simply reach fame or make money, then the discernible and knowledgeable viewer will not fall for it. By this I do not mean that a well-made action film will not thrill. But it will have a tougher time to make the all-time personal movie list.


There are some films that I will never forget and that I have watched more than a dozen times. Like good music, I will never tire of them. And the more I watch, the more I appreciate all of its elements and details coming together. They move me no matter what my situation or context.


They can uplift me, and that even counts for the sad and tragic movies. The conundrum is this, no matter how dark or pessimistic the movie may be, the fact that it is presented in such esthetic forms will help it transcend all of its darkness transforming it into a thing of beauty.


That is art to me: Something that has been created out of honesty and with feeling, be it pain, joy, suffering, or grief. It transcends all of that and becomes pure magic in the mind of the viewer. But which movie affects us more depends on a number of factors and is often difficult to predict in advance. One thing is for sure, cinema is beauty and magic personified and watching them is a modern day religious ritual.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How Size Does Not Matter: Why Goliath and not David is the real underdog

The Young David fighting against armed and laughing Goliath
David and Goliath by Osmar Schindler



The biblical story of David and Goliath is familiar to most of us and is embedded deeply within our cultural psyche. David, the underdog, the short man armed with only a sling took on “uncircumcised” and armored Goliath, the Philistine giant. It seems that from the onset everyone assumed David to get his ass kicked and that he must have been suicidal or “lebensmuede” (tired of living) to even think about getting into a fight with this giant.


This rooting for the good guy underdog who eventually - seemingly against all odds - wins the fight has been exploited countless times in our modern culture. You may think of Rocky who manages to get the win despite the fact that most of the time his opponents look stronger and are probably more experienced.


We see this phenomenon frequently in sports where the unfavored team shows heart and stamina and causes a major upset by winning unexpectedly. All of this may predate to the legendary battle of shifty David and haughty Goliath. But my question is was David really the underdog?


This question would have never crossed my mind had not my friend and colleague Enrico T. - an Econ instructor with substantial knowledge, ideas and a Spanish name to boot - brought up the topic with me during one of our classroom breaks from teaching. While quickly munching on my peanut-butter sandwich in the instructor's room (I usually skip breakfast in the early mornings and the break is short) I let the sandwich digest in my belly and the ideas ferment in my mind.


His theory goes that contrary to popular belief it was Goliath who should be deemed the real underdog. He must have been at a decisive disadvantage due to his size and stature. Think about it. He would definitely lack ability and flexibility and would come up flat-footed compared to the quick and fleet-footed David. Cartoon images come to mind when the giant tries to grab the dwarf who escapes between his legs and runs to and fro driving the giant crazy and perhaps make him stumble and fall flat on his face.


Also if you think about athletics and health, Goliath would equally be at a disadvantage. In most sports, with the definite exception of basketball sticking out like a sore thumb, athletes who are too tall cannot perform as well as those who may be of short or average height. Which players come to mind when we think about soccer? Maradona and Pelé who are not known for their height.


The same happens with physical ailments. In fact, their gigantic size is often caused by a tumor in the brain. Due to their immense size, the organs of giants have to work harder putting a significant strain on the health of these people, including their blood circulatory system. It may come as no surprise that the life expectancy of giants tends to be lower than that of other people.


We also know that David was good with his slingshot, not to mention that he had previously slain a lion and bear with his bare hands. In this way, he could have easily done serious damage to the giant Goliath. The latter would have had a hard time to duck, let alone catch this little springy guy who had a devil of a shot with his pebble hitting Goliath right between the eyes. Moreover, Goliath was also additionally burdened with his armor, large shield, and heavy spear.


So there you have it. What may have seemed as a definite battle to lose on the side of David is in fact a decisive advantage for shorty. He won the battle fair and square, but all things considered, it was his to win in the first place. It was Goliath who was the real underdog, the David of the account, and hardly the other way around.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To Have or To Be by Erich Fromm: Surviving Consumer Society

Book Cover of Erich Fromm



Erich Fromm's highly influential and fascinating book To Have or To Be? deals with the question of authentic and creative personal existence and identity in a world in which most are driven by greed, lust, and power. In fact, Fromm divides human existence into two modes: those who define and live life according to what they have and own, and those who simply thrive in the art of being. Although it is posed as a question, it is evident from the start which answer the author chooses and favors.


It also comes as no surprise that most of us are living in the "having" mode for which both we ourselves and our social environment are to be blamed in equal measure. The book excels in showing us the causes and symptoms of our harmful, if not pathological modern day existence. 

By putting the mirror in front of our eyes, Fromm makes us see that we are indeed living in a sick society; our social environment is feeding us lies about who we are, while at the same time, we are willingly swallowing and consuming them. Not unlike Plato's cave allegory we find ourselves bound and trapped in a shady consumer society; it, in turn, molds and fashions our tastes and ideas according to its selfish and profit-oriented needs and desires.


Our identity has become a fiction that we all believe and agree upon. To start off, our essential and most misguided delusion is to assume that life or existence is our possession. We have a name; we have a body; we have a job; we have friends; we have a family – wife and children, we have a house with or without a garden; we have a car; we have a future. Even our interpretation of God reflects our very own need for belonging and possession.


People caught up in this mode are misled into thinking that the more belongings and money they have; the more valuable and the better they are. This belief and attachment to things is the main reason for our unease and maladjustment. 

We value others and ourselves according to possessions and possessive qualities – having beauty or intelligence; even spirituality becomes something one has and not what one is. (Think of our linguistic bias when we say we have sexual intercourse, which is not something we can have, but is - or should be - a type of mutual experience).


But the problem with money and possessions is that our greed is infinite and will never stop. There is always more down the road or in the neighbor's house, and the happiness we are chasing becomes ever so elusive and fleeting despite a growing savings account in the bank. 

In order to increase our assets, we need to lie; we need to put on a fake persona and a phony smiling face; we need to exploit others and treat human beings as objects. At the same time, we need to fear our competitors and stab them in the back, metaphorically (I hope!). We are constantly paranoid because all our money can be preyed upon: Thieves can steal them from us, and then we will be left with nothing.


We know that we will die one day, but we postpone that thought to the remote corners of our mind. When the time seems to be approaching, we write up our last will; our testament thus ensures our own immortality regarding our possessions, and we rest assured that they will be handed over to our children complete and intact.


This is the world we live in. Our existence and time is intimately and intricately tied with money and possessions. Our education is about acquiring and having knowledge; we wish to have skills that will further our value on the market so that we can get a job that provides us with a good salary. 

And with that money, we ourselves further the aims of the consumer culture and become good consumers like a cog in this mega-machine. That this way of life is dangerous for human existence is best exemplified in Fromm's statement that greed and peace preclude each other.


Is there an alternative to this mode? Fromm proposes the mode of being, which has been promoted by the great masters of living. You may have your own list of favorite thinkers and philosophers on the matter, but most of us may agree upon, religious ideology aside, the Buddha and Jesus.


Siddhartha Gautama gave up his worldly belongings to live on the streets like a beggar, while the Son of God and Man came riding on a donkey and at best owned the clothes he was wearing (though that has been a point of contention by some). Both of them exemplify the state of being and show the delusion and suffering that money, or more importantly, one's attachment to it, brings.


The person who chooses the state of being does not see himself as property to be sold or loaned. He enjoys his studies for their own sake; he develops his own qualities not to put out them on the market but for his own immaterial wealth. He lives life with joy; every moment is precious and golden. 

He does not see love as a possession; he is not jealous or envious, and he likes to share and give materials as well as share his time and being with others in an unconditional manner. He is satisfied with what he has and appreciates all that is given to him. When property or money is taken from him, he suffers no loss or pain. None of that is essential to his identity nor to his well-being.


But what makes the person in having mode happy? For some time, he believes that the growth of money or fame are a source of happiness. But since he is alienated from life and others, since he cannot truly love but sees everything as his possession, he gets pleasure in different ways. 

He may travel around the world or have plenty of indiscriminate sex. And for a while, he has and feels pleasure; yet it lacks the constancy of joy, and once one's desire has been satisfied one looks for repetition or variety. This could end in a never-ending and vicious cycle of destructive habits to relieve one's anxiety.


What ought we do about the whole issue then? Fromm has some interesting perspectives on this. First of all, and I fully agree with him on this, we need to develop our own critical thinking and redefine and refine our sense of personal identity. This is more difficult than it seems of course.


Along this path, we may need help from our society and government. Interestingly, Fromm criticizes communism for misinterpreting and misrepresenting, if not outright distorting Marxian ideas. The problem, is that communism is not getting rid of greed and avarice; it is simply promising consumption to all. And it does so by treating humans as objects the same way capitalism does. So it is not liberating them but enslaving them to an even higher degree.


For Fromm, it is the corporations who have to take a more human approach regarding their enterprise. First of all, they need to fairly compensate their employees and value their customers and must be driven not only by profit, but also by ethical standards. Secondly, they should stop producing things that no one really needs and that distract from the health and well-being of their consumers.


To ensure that we do not become prey to the indiscriminate materialism of consumer society, Fromm proposes to make advertising illegal. That is an interesting although hardly feasible idea. It is advertising that makes us want and desire things we do not need in the first place; it is advertising that sells news and distorts media; it is advertising that brainwashes and controls us to think and feel a certain way so that companies and politicians can profit from it all. Also, there are a lot of stereotypes that advertising promotes so that it can sell its products at any cost and means necessary.


His other ideas, of active involvement of people in politics and his idea of welfare as yearly income for the poor may be commendable but may seem rather naive in the face of human nature. Fromm firmly believes that humans are good and that they are not intrinsically lazy, that they would not take advantage or try to profit from such benefits. 

In reality, I think most people are not only selfish but they would try to take advantage of such situations, which is why there is a lot of misuse and abuse of funds that are destined for the needy and end up in the wrong hands and pockets.


This book is and has been for decades an eye-opening experience. For all those who feel alienated and displeased with their lives and existence, this book may not offer self-help in the conventional sense, but it guides us in the correct direction. 

Unfortunately, organized religion, with its own focus on greed and ambition does not become useful in this matter. Rather one must cease to see and abuse God, people and nature as our possessions or instruments, but we need to experience them fully and with open hearts and minds and with all the fibers of our being. This is what the Buddha meant when he said, if you ever run into the Buddha, kill him!





Postscript: At this point, I would like to thank Open Road Media and NetGalley for bringing this book to my attention. In fact, this is an organization that uses ebooks to spread knowledge. They have a commendable selection of books by Erich Fromm, and there is a specifically assigned Reader Concierge to assist one with one's reading and for recommending certain books.


They kindly sent me an invitation with a PDF copy of To Have or to Be? But I must make a confession here. I do not like reading books electronically since for me a book needs to be smelled, touched and felt physically in my hands. This may be part of a "having" mode I cannot get rid of, or at least as a type of temporary possession since I borrowed the book from the public library.


Although I promote the growth of technology, there is a line I draw when it comes to books, which is why Kindle readers and electronic versions have not been popular with me. Notwithstanding, I again want to reiterate that this should not take away from the efforts of organizations like NetGalley that take reading seriously and make it handy and convenient for the individual.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sex, Drugs and Jazz: The Excesses of the Beat Generation

A man walking in the middle of the road towards the horizon



Kerouac's book On the Road can be easily considered the Bible of the Beat Generation. It depicts a rebellious lifestyle that was in sharp contrast to that lived by most people of the era. It contains the seed of the later hippie movement and was marked by some of the following characteristics: a spontaneous outburst of existence underlined by a spiritual longing with a burning, almost corrosive desire for life. It was less about finding reasons for the what of living, but rather looking for the how, different ways and manners of living life to the fullest.


Their philosophy was fueled by the careless and excessive use of booze and drugs, some ideas of Zen Buddhism, and the improvisatory nature of jazz music. In fact, jazz can be used as a fitting metaphor here. Not only is the style of Kerouac's influential novel inspired by jazz, but so is the daily life of one of their prototypes and heroes of the movement: Dean Moriarty (also known as the real life person of Neal Cassady).


Jazz music is known to be based on the mood of the moment. It is, just like Zen, aiming for and existing firmly in the present, and like our daily experience it is unique, fleeting and changing from moment to moment. This is the life proposed or lived according to the Beat Generation, a life that is based on the probing satisfaction and enjoyment of the here and now with worries and questions about the future kept at bay.


Although it may sound interesting and inspiring in theory, it is a complete mess and disaster when applied to real life. Although many may hail the character of Dean Moriarty as a hero, a revolutionary of the oppressive status quo, I see him as a petty criminal and irresponsible fool who goes through life like a hyperactive child.


The problem lies in what we may define as identity here. What does it mean to be yourself? Are we really our feelings, the moment to moment states? Are we our desires? Is life about the gratification of those budding and bubbling emotions that surface within our consciousness, the incessant neuron firing squad?


If your answer is yes to those questions, you may be inspired by such a lifestyle that is so deeply rooted in the here and now that the future never exists. That may be good when you are young and single and for a limited and designated time, but not when you have a family to care for (in Dean's case a trio of wives and various kids along the way). Apparently the real life inspiration Neal Cassady in his later years told his son not to follow in his footsteps.


This kind of lifestyle is also like a foot that pushes the gas pedal glued to the floor. What happens is that the speedometer will break and you have no idea of how fast you are going. And the end effect will be that unrecognizable piece of steel junk that the once beautiful Cadillac has been reduced to in the novel.


In other words, you cannot live a whole life like that. And if you do, you end up dying prematurely like poor Neal and its very same author Jack Kerouac. It is a sad finish to a life that simply knew or accepted no limits.


In fact, they seem to have overlooked one of my favorite maxims in Buddhist philosophy, the fact that one ought to live life in moderation. I am far from denouncing drug or alcohol use nor am I saying that one ought to live a chaste life. But what I strongly believe is that the sky is not the limit when it comes to living life of sensual pleasure and gratification; one should know when to go and when to stop.


It is all right to rebel against unjust ideas or to live life according to who you are but, whether we like it or not, life comes with plates of responsibility. First and foremost, we are responsible toward ourselves. Identity has different layers; it is best to respond to the most profound level of our being.


For example, part of me may want to let loose and get drunk or high to the point of no return. This may be acceptable as a once-in-a-blue-moon type of releasing steam, but I highly doubt it to be a good strategy for one's daily existence. There is hardly anything spiritual about it, rather it seems that one is simply adopting the view of an eternal teenager. Just acting upon your feelings of pleasure is not going to get you very far in life and is not rewarding to the spirit.


In the case of Dean's restlessness, we see that he never feels comfortable nor at home no matter where he finds himself. He always keeps pushing, moving and looking for something new, be it a new place, a new experience, a new girl. His life is based upon surfaces instead of depth; had he chosen to stay with one place and person and explore each in depth would have brought a more lasting and spiritually satisfying connection than changing all of those more often than one changes one's shirt.


A better way would be mindfulness. Most of our feelings are the surface waves, while the pearl is still hidden in the bottoms of the dark and profound ocean. It is through patience and watching one's feelings that one can dig deeper into one's personality and get to what one – or one's higher Self - really wants. In such a view, one may disregard physical pleasures and instead turn to the deeper spiritual joy one gets by going to the park with one's family, by reading a book (like One the Road) or by watching the sunset.


Speaking of joy, I believe none of them experienced it in a profound way. They lived on shooting-star bliss and just like drugs the effects would be overwhelming for a moment and then would vanish into thin air. Hence they would attempt to repeat it again so that they can feel pulsating life again and not become numb to the world. Daily routine life is seen as losing steam on the passion for life, but it does not have to be so.


The word “beat” is an interesting and ambivalent word choice indeed. At times, in its happier moments it signifies “beatific,” to bathe oneself with the glow of the endless and holy beauty of the world. Yet most of the time, it means “beat” in the sense of downtrodden like a car that hardly goes. There is a profound despair mixed with insufferable sadness for these Beating poets who are fatherless and rootless and are on the road through vast and equally desolate lands.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hitchcock's Vetigo: On Directing and the Many Layers of Reality


Drawing of man caught in a spinning circle



I had seen Alfred Hitchcock's movie Vertigo (1958) more than fifteen years ago and had a vague recollection that I had enjoyed it. All I recalled about it was that there was an ex-police officer (James Stewart) suffering from high anxiety, and a mysterious beautiful woman (Kim Novak) who confused and misled the poor guy. Finally, he ended up in a mental asylum, which believed in treating patients with classical music. Since I am a fan of Mozart and Beethoven and enjoy the field of psychology immensely, the implications of musical treatment for psychological ailments was what has stuck with me all those years.


But re-watching Vertigo recently made me appreciate it so much more. As a youth, I had never been very impressed with Hitchcock who seemed to me rather conventional in his themes and approach. I could not get my head around the fact that the Cahiers du cinéma, those ingenious masters of the nouvelle vague, the French New Wave, should be interested in this Hollywood-style director, and I partly blamed Hitchcock for “ruining” dear François Truffaut's career (similar to Yoko's generally detrimental influence on John's work) who after the remarkable Jules and Jim made mostly second-rate - and in comparison rather ordinary - mystery flicks in honor of his British idol.


My prejudice against Alfred Hitchcock had persisted for quite some time until I watched Rope and more recently my second and hopefully more mature viewing of Vertigo. In fact, ever since Rope I have set myself the goal of re-watching and re-evaluating all the main Hitchcock films. There will be a number of spoilers on the movie Vertigo coming up ahead so I recommend those who have not yet seen this particular movie to do so as quickly as possible and to return to this post with an untainted but opinionated mind.


As a mystery movie, it was generally well-done and entertaining. Contrary to some opinions, I did not find it too long and definitely not boring as Hitchcock does grab into his cinematic bag of tricks to entertain. His use of camera shots to induce a sense of vertigo in the viewer and the nightmare sequence that predates and prefigures computer technology are rather breathtaking and original. Not to mention the curious opening title with close-ups of a woman's face with swirling lines all over, including within her eye balls. It somewhat reminded me of a Bond flick especially when combined with the enigmatic Bernard Herrmann score.


The main surprise regarding the storyline was the fact that Hitchcock decided to reveal the film's core mystery half way in. Why would he spoil his own surprise, I thought. He could have kept us in the dark guessing until the very end as most such films do. The punchline came too soon and stole some of the momentum of the movie.


Then I realized that the focus was not the story, but its hidden themes. The first part was merely a prelude to what was to come. This movie offered indeed a personal statement on the director's own obsessions. He was giving us a glimpse of his work and soul wrapped up in the mysterious garment of a thriller. From this view, there is so much more underneath what may seem an ordinary thriller. The movie gives us various layers of reality and all of them not only reflect upon directing but the medium of film itself.


Let us begin with the female lead. In the movie, she is hired as an actress to impersonate Gavin Elster's wife. She has been trained and modeled to look and behave like Madeleine. Her job is to mislead Scottie but in the process they both fall in love with each other. She is not who she seems, but Scottie falls for her portrayal since he loves Madeleine. (Interestingly, Scottie himself has also another name, John, which seems to involve another, a somewhat different or separate identity within himself.)


Some time later after the main incident and half way through the movie when Scottie runs into her, she is Judy Barton and not Madeleine. He sees the similarity between the two, and this obsessed character, one of the most interesting early anti-heroes, tries to model her according to his ideal of women. He insists that she wear the same clothes as his beloved Madeleine and even demands that she change the color of her hair.


This type of obsession could have turned out to be even more tragic had she not actually been the person he took her for, but rather a stranger. It would have shown how perturbed his obstinate mind really is, unable to love anybody but his lost love. By making Judy the same person who has indeed played Madeleine and by having her fall in love with him, there seems to be a glimpse of hope and even redemption in this process. She wishes that he would love her for who she really is and not for the person she was paid to play.


Yet the movie turns tragic. Scottie is so blinded by the rays of his lost love, perhaps additionally fueled by the enormous amount of self-blame and guilt that he will not love her until she acts (again!) as Madeleine. This might be a statement on both the director and the medium of film. The director is obsessed not only with details but with his (blonde) female leads as well. He becomes a master who can fashion them according to his liking. On the set, his beautiful leading actresses are lions that only he with his talent and fame can actually tame, and, at least during filming, he can generally do with them as he pleases.


Furthermore, a movie is a reflection of reality. Scottie had missed his first chance, and so may have Hitchcock. By recreating or directing those scenes in a movie, the director would also be given a second chance. This may be the case of all those auteurs who make personal films. They are not only overcoming their traumas, but are reshaping them and somehow redeeming themselves through the creation of an alternate reality. Film can magically turn out differently from what life is and has been; you can rewrite and overwrite reality to your liking.


As previously noted, it all turns tragic in the movie. By trying to get his second chance, Scottie in the film screws it up. Towards the end, Judy mistakenly believes that Madeleine's ghost has reappeared on the tower taking a nun for the dead woman's ghost, and Judy jumps to her death. For the second time, and this time for real (at least regarding on-screen reality) Scottie loses her. There are no end credits, and it is all an abrupt statement or punch in the stomach. We feel and get a sense of cynicism, the dramatic irony of this whole situation, but we find it hard to laugh not unlike the shower scene in Psycho.

As Judy herself says, the whole thing was part fiction and partly real. This is the stuff of movies. They cannot be the same as reality. At the same time, reality itself is deceiving. So we have mirror in mirror images. And all of this will make us feel dizzy, the fitting title of this masterpiece by Hitchcock.