Outpost19 Books


excerpt > Gabriel Blackwell > Madeleine E.


The Rooftops.

We have only a short time to please the living, all eternity to please the dead.
(Sophocles, Antigone)

God has given you one face and you make yourselves another.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

[EXT. San Francisco Roof Tops (DUSK)]

We open already in pursuit of something ineffable: the outline of a man Jimmy Stewart is chasing. We briefly see this man’s face in soft focus and shadowed, but, because we are not ready for it (how could we be? we have no context; we could ask “Will this be a main character?” but our next question would then be “In what?”) and because we never see it again, it might as well never have been shown. Can you remember what he looked like? Even after watching Vertigo fifty-plus times, I have no mental picture of him. Why is Stewart chasing this man? We will never know.

In Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, “Fred” (a pseudonym), an undercover police officer whose identity is kept disguised by something called a “scramble suit,” investigates himself, the person inside the “scramble suit,” Bob Arctor, a drug addict living with two other users, one of whom has informed on Arctor, precipitating Arctor’s investigation of himself. To make matters worse, Arctor has been given an adulterated form of the drug Substance D, “Slow Death,” which is causing his brain’s hemispheres to operate independently of each other, so that, as his investigation of himself progresses, he begins to see himself as someone else: “Bob Arctor,” suspect, as opposed to Bob Arctor, self. It is at this point in the book that the informant’s identity is revealed, to Arctor and to us, but, though things appear to be coming to a head, Dick chooses to then turn Arctor into a vegetable, incapable of even the most rudimentary investigation, and has the book follow him into this new passive state. The ensuing chapters are pastoral, as placid as the preceding fantasy was paranoid. It is an unusual choice, to say the least. Reading it, I felt sure each of the last twenty pages would bring a return to the frantic suspicion of the first two hundred, instilling in the reader, me, some sense of wholeness, of closure. Instead, I got banal scenes in a rehab center and on a farm, scenes that could have come from any of a thousand other novels, I felt, just not this one. And though in those scenes we find out what Arctor was supposed to find out, it is, for these last pages, as though we are reading some other book entirely, as though we have escaped from one narrative into another.

I was reminded of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, in which Waugh’s protagonist, Tony Last, in the middle of a nasty divorce in England—which story we have been following for two hundred pages—decides to go on an expedition to Brazil for which he has no real background. Such a turn of events would seem strange enough in the context of the story we’ve been following, but things get even stranger when Tony’s guide disappears, stranding him in the jungle. Tony nearly dies from disease and starvation, but is rescued by a man known as “Mr. Todd” who keeps Tony alive on the condition that Tony read Dickens aloud to him. The chapter had originally been a short story of Waugh’s, “The Man Who Loved Dickens,” and it is hard not to see its metamorphosis into the denouement of A Handful of Dust—a domestic drama if ever there was one, and as far away from an adventure tale as a book could be—as an utterly bizarre, grotesque deformation of the deus ex machina.

That term, deus ex machina, comes from Horace’s Ars Poetica, where Horace uses it as a criticism of the manner in which many Greek dramas were resolved. It may refer to an actual machine (machina) called a mekhane, used to lower actors onto the stage or allow them to fly above it. The terrified actor, partially blinded by his prosopon and strung up above a stage (made of stone, it should be remembered), attached to a system of pulleys and beams creaking from overuse, awaiting his one appearance on stage, destined to provide the play with the only sense of resolution or closure possible. He will need to get his feet under him and keep his chiton out of his own way if he is to have any hope of appearing godlike, not splitting his lip, shattering his kneecap, or losing yet another tooth. He opens his eyes: his own thin, frail ankles, the sock just barely clinging to his toes, straining to slip off and float slowly to the stage, the stage below, other actors crossing below him, trained not to notice this weight suspended above their heads—he must have hung there and wondered how it could possibly go well.

Some children born with damage to one of the brain’s hemispheres show few or even no developmental difficulties; hemispherectomies (the removal of one of the brain’s hemispheres) are almost exclusively performed on children because children have a much higher degree of something called “neuroplasticity” than do adults. Because of this neuroplasticity, the missing hemisphere’s usual functions can be accomplished by the remaining hemisphere. Difficulties seem to arise much more often later in life, when a hemisphere that has already been assigned certain functions is damaged. Cases where one of an adult’s hemispheres is damaged have led to anosognosia (the inability to recognize one’s own disabilities), aphasia (word-memory loss), and prosopagnosia (face blindness), as well as a host of other disorders. Whatever faculty has been disturbed by the damage cannot be replicated in the other hemisphere, or else can only be tortuously, circuitously replicated there. Again, though, damage to the same area of the brain, provided it occurs early enough in life, may not have any effect at all. One can only miss what one has already experienced.

A Scanner Darkly’s “scramble suit” projects a seemingly infinite number of different facial features in front of the wearer’s face, one at a time but constantly changing, in randomized combinations. Though the intention is to hide the identity of the person inside the suit, the effect must also be extraordinarily unnerving—anyone who has seen Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s “If They Mated” will know just how disturbing facial features from different people brought together in the same face can be. Imagine it: always changing, always throwing up new combinations. How could you even talk to such a thing? Because these facial features have been taken from living (and once-living) human beings, their number cannot be infinite. Mathematically, it is a certainty: the “scramble suit,” if allowed to go on operating long enough, will eventually betray its wearer. At some point in time, all of his/her features will be displayed, together. Perhaps the real intention isn’t to hide the wearer’s face at all—even though it would only be displayed for an instant, surely that would be enough time to cement the suspicions of anyone who knew the person inside the suit. Perhaps the real intention is to make that area of the body so hideous, so inhuman, that no one would ever think to look at it long enough to notice such a thing.

To a mind accustomed either to a predominantly psychological literary form, like the modern novel, or to a classical style of regular and logical narrative development, the sequence of scenes in a play by Shakespeare is likely to appear capricious and arbitrary. Like the relations between the various episodes within an individual scene, the relations between scenes are often determined by other than narrative concerns, and we will have no difficulty following the logic of a Shakespearean play if we keep this in mind.
(Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design)

I renewed my driver’s license just before my thirty-fifth birthday. I had originally received the license seven years earlier, when I moved to Oregon. I was in considerably better shape then, and clean-shaven. The person taking my picture had allowed me to keep my glasses on. Now, with a beard and a face showing the extra pounds of seven years of bad habits, I was asked to remove my glasses. The man behind the digital camera took my picture, and, just as I was about to leave, he asked me to please sit back down so that he could take another. I did so. He still looked concerned. Joking, I asked him, “What’s the matter? Am I blurry today?” He said no, but the computer, comparing this new picture of me to the one taken seven years earlier, did not believe that I was me. My identity could not be confirmed. It would need further corroboration. He called for a supervisor. Who was I? What name should go on the license, if I was not me anymore? Could it still be considered a “renewal,” if they determined that I was some other me?

Wallace Shawn, in My Dinner with Andre, says, “Heidegger said that if you were to experience your own being to the full you’d be experiencing the decay of that being toward death as part of your own experience.”

The same day I watched the documentary The Bridge for a second time, this message showed up in several places on Facebook:

PLEASE BE CAREFUL! . . . [sic]

Some hackers have found something new. They take your profile picture and your name and create a new FB account. Then they ask your friends to add them. Your friends think it is you, so they accept. From that moment on they can say and post whatever they want under your name.

Please DON’T ACCEPT a second friendship request from me, I have only ONE ACCOUNT.

I was watching The Bridge again because I had forgotten I had ever watched it to begin with. The Bridge is a documentary filmed over the span of a single year, about several people who committed or attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge; from the moment (0:03:07) when the white-haired man in the red cap climbs over the railing and the camera loses him halfway down, I couldn’t help but watch, even after realizing I was rewatching it. It reminded me of the footage of September 11th, of men and women falling from the towers, of the dread I felt that morning, watching it. News outlets were later shamed, persuaded that to show such a thing was in bad taste. It was erased from their histories, left out of their retrospectives and their memorial programs. But it is what I remembered best about that morning. I remembered that I had actually had to sit down when I first saw people falling. I was standing in front of the television after listening to the message on my answering machine telling me to turn on the television. On the screen, between news crawls telling me what I was seeing, there was smoke pouring out of one of the towers and the ash of a human being flitting through the air. I could not stand to see what I was seeing, so I sat.

I believe now that the dread I felt watching the news that morning, or, later, The Bridge, came from imagining myself in the place of the people I watched. I have a fear of heights, but this was much more than that—what I felt wasn’t, after all, mere fear, but dread, the feeling people describe as a “sinking” feeling, an experience, at least in the word’s archaic form, of awe or reverence. Not a matter of fight or flight, but of being completely and utterly helpless, unable to so much as move, as though one has lost all will.

What distinguished these experiences from fear, I think, had to do with a question they raised for me: What goes through one’s head on the way down? If I search my memory for anything approaching the feeling of falling, I can think of two or three jumps or falls from very modest heights. In these memories, I recall a complete erasure of myself from the world until well after the moment of impact, when my self seems to return, from where I do not know. Does one lose consciousness the moment one steps off into air? I’ve only ever jumped from a single story, maybe two, maybe just slightly higher than two. Most recently, on the island of Kauai, from the top of Kipu Falls, perhaps twenty or twenty-five feet above the pool below. What if the fall were longer? What if there was not only the moment of erasure I had felt but also a moment of impact, of being brought back to oneself, before the final, physical impact, a realization in midair that one has entered a situation from which one cannot hope to escape, that everything that follows has been entirely removed from consciousness because no conscious thought can alter it? What does one think about then? Isn’t that awe? I am reminded of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is opened—the opening sequence of the movie was filmed at Kipu Falls. Indiana Jones’s rival, Dr. René Belloq, and the Nazis for whom he has acquired the ark look down into the opening. Something there catches one of the Nazis’ eyes. The look on his face just before the skin melts off is the look I associate with awe: expectant, terrified, mindless. The only way to save oneself, as Jones somehow knows, is to close one’s eyes to this awe-ful force, to obliterate oneself before it.

Trying to find the exact height of the falls for this book, I learned that, over a five-year period (including the year that I was there), five people had died making the same jump I had, and, as a result of those deaths, access to the falls has now been closed off. I can remember nothing about my own jump now, just the rush of water up my swimsuit and my nostrils as I sank, unbelievably fast, into the pool. I thought that I would never stop sinking, that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the surface before I needed a breath.

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn the literature of the whole world—all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls. Thus the soul has gradually been turned into a Nazareth from which nothing good can come.
(Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy)

Rock-climber Mike Pont, interviewed by Garrett Soden for Soden’s book Falling: “When you take a big fall . . . everything gets really quiet, and very crisp and clear in your mind. You’re falling at whatever rate a human body falls, but it feels a lot slower. . . . I can picture it precisely, what it feels like.” But he does not say what he pictures, what it feels like.

The critic Robin Wood writes: “We do not see, and are never told, how [Stewart] got down from the gutter: there seems no possible way he could have got down. The effect is of having him, throughout the film, metaphorically suspended over a great abyss.” Perhaps. But who is Madeleine Elster, a mystery even in Stewart’s fantasy (which, in Wood’s metaphorical formulation, is the rest of the film), to this man, Scottie Ferguson, on the verge of death? Will I, too, dream of a complete stranger when I pass, forgetting my life and all the people in it in order to construct a final escape out of the search for a figment of the imagination?

“I hope we will too.”
“Meet again sometime.”
“We have.”

Is this film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, ostensibly the story of a woman who dies three times, actually the story of a man who dies just once?

According to the clambering hypothesis, primates developed consciousness as a reaction to their weight relative to their environment. For a bonobo or a proboscis monkey, it doesn’t much matter how sturdy the branch is it is hanging from or reaching towards—the monkey is so light, most branches will support it, and so no calculation needs to be made. But for the larger primates, like orangutans, that same action, hanging from a branch or swinging to another branch, is greatly complicated by their body weight. Each move in the canopy is accompanied by a complex internal set of calculations. “Does it look like it will hold?” is a meaningless question because it does not include one crucial element: “me.” “Does it look like it will hold me?” Falling out of a tree to one’s death is a high price to pay for being ignorant of one’s self. But if we do not know ourselves, we cannot know the consequences of our actions, cannot even have consequences or actions that are ours.

Falling is an “orientational metaphor,” signifying a lack of control. Thus, to “fall down on the job” means to fail to do something one ought to have done. “Fail” and “fall” share a common origin, the Sanskrit phálati, which means “it bursts.” “It bursts”?

Perhaps the greatest contradiction in our lives, the hardest to handle, is the knowledge “There was a time when I was not alive, and there will come a time when I am not alive.” On one level, when you “step out of yourself” and see yourself as “just another human being,” it makes complete sense. But on another level, perhaps a deeper level, personal nonexistence makes no sense at all. All that we know is embedded inside our minds, and for all that to be absent from the universe is not comprehensible. This is a basic undeniable problem of life. . . . When you try to imagine your own nonexistence, you have to try to jump out of yourself, by mapping yourself onto someone else. You fool yourself into believing that you can import an outsider’s view of yourself into you [and] though you may imagine that you have jumped out of yourself, you never can actually do so.
(Doug Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach)

To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.
(Edouard Levé, Suicide)

“The reality is that we seldom define things by essence; more often, we give lists of properties. And this is why all the lists that define something through a nonfinite series of properties, even though apparently vertiginous, seem to be closer to the way in which, in everyday life . . . we define and recognize things. A representation by accumulation or series of properties presupposes not a dictionary, but a kind of encyclopedia—one which is never finished, and which the members of a given culture know and master, according to their competence, only in part.” That is what Umberto Eco says, in his Confessions of a Young Novelist.

In Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, Hugh Kenner writes that the Encyclopedia is an invention that “takes all that we know apart into little pieces, and then arranges those pieces so that they can be found one at a time. It is produced by a feat of organizing, not a feat of understanding.” Thus Eco’s “representation by accumulation” is a “feat of organizing, not a feat of understanding,” which would seem a kind of diminution. Kenner makes his claim in the context of describing Flaubert’s achievements as a novelist: Flaubert recognized in the novel a closed system and perfected it by considering every bit in light of all of the others. Both the novel and the Encyclopedia are, after all, artifacts; they are controllable, artificial, and finite.

Kenner’s capitalized Encyclopedia is historical—compiled by Denis Diderot, it existed at a particular point in time, was printed and had boundaries (endpapers, boards, a binding). The process that he describes, however, is ongoing and unfinished. The production of an encyclopedia understood as an atomization of knowledge is a potentially infinite process; considered point by point, the acquiring of knowledge is simply a variation on one of Zeno’s paradoxes—each concept is really a collection of concepts, each of which can be explained as a collection of concepts, each of which can be explained as yet another collection of concepts, and so on. A book is an organization, finite; the process of composing a book is an attempt at understanding, infinite.

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.
Self evident enough to scarcely need Writer’s say-so.

Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.
Here perhaps less than self-evident to the less than attentive.
(David Markson, This Is Not a Novel)

Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo—fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us; it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
(Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

It is a cliché: “My whole life flashed in front of my eyes,” we say. The dead will never be able to tell us what happened in the moment of death, so we, the living, can speak only of the near-death experience. Still, the cliché seems questionable: What “eyes”? If it is just a “flash,” how does it register, and how much of it registers? Whether we register it or not, how much of our lives can pass in a “flash”? Is the flash actually the experience of relief, like the feeling of first scratching an itch, relief that we have reached the point where we can finally describe our life as whole, complete, finished?

Our experience of time is plastic, that much we do know. We have all felt it change: a few seconds seem to take hours to pass; hours pass in what feels like seconds. That, too, is a cliché. The cliché of the moment of death or near-death has its complement in this strange, subjective pliability of time. Scottie’s fall from the rooftop may have taken just a little over two hours, the movie’s running time, that instant for him (and for us) like entering a wormhole somehow, and at the end, at the bottom, just before the moment of impact, we have a view from a great height, looking down but not seeing. Why not? Can anyone really anticipate what the journey will be like or how long it may seem to take? A fall of seven or eight stories may as well seem like two hours, two years. It therefore seems just possible—doesn’t it?—that we are all already in that moment of passing, that our lives flash before our eyes because the lives we are living only seem to pass at the speed we have accustomed ourselves to, that we are all living in a kind of freefall, that our experience of life is really only an experience of the moment of death, that we are all already on the point of dying, and that this is why we pass out of existence in an instant. One moment alive, the next, not. A thread is cut. It is not only Scottie hanging from that gutter. We are there, too.

Although, properly speaking, we open the film with a stranger, a woman who will never again appear in it, neither Midge nor Madeleine nor Judy, a woman who is not credited (though appearing underneath the credits) and who seems to have nothing to do with what follows.

Saul Bass, on the (beginning of the) title sequence: “Here’s a woman made into what a man wants her to be. She is put together piece by piece and I tried to suggest something of this as the fragmentation of the mind of Judy.”

The ultimate abyss is not a physical abyss but the abyss of the death of another person. It’s what philosophers describe as the “night of the world.” Like when you see another person, into his or her eyes, you see the abyss. That’s the true spiral which is drawing us inward.
(Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (film))

Bass’s shot of the eye from which the spiral ascends during the title sequence mirrors or mimics a shot (or, really (appropriately), two shots) in Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” of a woman’s eye at an identical distance from the camera. Given that “Meshes” was filmed in 1943 (Vertigo was released in 1958), there is no reason not to think that Bass knew of and was perhaps even quoting from Deren’s film, in which a woman is first doubled, then trebled, and, by the end, either commits suicide or is murdered by the man she lives with.

I discovered this quotation while watching “Meshes of the Afternoon” on YouTube; below the video itself was the usual embarrassing thread of commentary from the site’s “users” but also this quote, from Deren: “The task of cinema or any other art form is not to translate hidden messages of the unconscious soul into art but to experiment with the effects contemporary technical devices have on nerves, minds, or souls.”

The disturbing figure in “Meshes of the Afternoon,” the black-cloaked, mirror-faced figure that the woman (Deren) chases three times, is not nearly so disturbing as the woman (again, Deren) herself, appearing in one particularly jarring scene with mirror-ball eyes bulging out of her sockets. But isn’t that a nun’s habit the mirror-faced figure is wearing? Bass, it seems to me, may not have been the only one quoting Deren in Vertigo.

We say the eye is the window of the soul, but what if there is no soul behind the eye, what if the eye is a crack through which we can perceive just the abyss of a netherworld? (Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema)

Psychologists distinguish between remembering something—which is to recall a piece of information along with contextual details, such as where, when and how one learned it—and knowing something, which is feeling that something is true without remembering how one learned the information.
(Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age”)

People suffering nervous breakdowns often do a lot of research, to find explanations for what they are undergoing. The research, of course, fails.
(Philip K. Dick, VALIS)

When told the script for what would become 1940’s Foreign Correspondent wasn’t “logical,” Hitchcock is supposed to have replied: “I’m not interested in logic, I’m interested in effect. If the audience ever thinks about logic, it’s on their way home after the show, and by that time, you see, they’ve paid for their tickets.”

Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.
(Jose Saramago, The Double)

At the end of a television show about a photo of an unidentified man falling from the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11th, the mother of the man the filmmakers have identified as the man in the photo says, “I hope we’re not trying to figure out who he is, and more trying to figure out who we are, through watching that.”

I had been given a job at a small college about fifty miles south of Portland as a visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, a seemingly prestigious but actually precarious position, and one I had won through what I had to feel was a kind of mistaken identity. I had published a book called Critique of Pure Reason, a collection of essays and fictions that never attracted even a single review; the hiring committee, tasked with full teaching loads and their own research, had no doubt hired me on the strength of its title and a few laudatory words from one of my future colleagues, a kind man who had not read the book either.

The appointment was for three years, but, because I’d begun in the spring rather than the fall, and because the college issued contracts on an annual basis, I was told, it was theoretically renewable for up to three and a half years. Instead, the college reversed direction and declined to renew my contract after just two and a half years. (Could it be that they’d found me out? Read the book?) Though I was never notified of the fact, it became clear that I would be out of a job at the beginning of the summer, and that whatever else I would be doing that fall I would not be returning to the college. I was, as a result, finding it difficult to focus on the book I was supposed to be working on, a study of the film Vertigo. Because of the nature of the academic year, though (I would have had the next three months off in any case, and would be paid as though I were working), I felt the burden of this new uncertainty as a rearrangement or duplication of my seasons rather than a milestone or a capstone or even just a disappointment: my summer had, in an instant, had another summer tacked on to its end, had suddenly become a sentence without a period. Looking for a job in that moment seemed somehow like eating a second lunch today because you had been told that, a week from now, you would have to miss lunch.

I had planned to make some progress on the book with my summer (despite not having a strong sense of what that would mean other than reading whatever came to hand and taking notes), but I now found I could not, no matter how much time I devoted to it. My anxiety about the thing, I think, stemmed from feeling no quickening, no critical mass or momentum as the project entered its own summer. When I came upon something that seemed worth copying out into my notes, I did so. But days—whole weeks, even—would pass without adding a single word to the manuscript. Once I had begun, I thought, I could finish, but I could not begin. I had no idea what was in the notes I was taking, and though I added these notes to the end of the document, I found my narrative stuck before the beginning of the film proper, in a sequence that, if the story had never become a film and been left a novel, would never have existed at all—it did not need to because it was not part of the narrative’s present action, and because all of the information it communicates is neatly summarized in the scene immediately following it, in Midge’s apartment.

This short introduction or prologue seems to stand outside of the Vertigo of most people’s memories: Who remembers the chase on the rooftops, really, or even the title sequence? Saul Bass’s Vertigo was not Saul Bass’s North by Northwest, and Bernhard Herrmann’s Vertigo, while undoubtedly memorable, was still not Bernhard Herrmann’s Psycho. People who remember at all remember a spiral—the one from the poster—or a warbling melody—repeated throughout—not the close-ups of the woman’s face or the careful ebb and crescendo of that opening theme. For most people, not even the moment when Scottie hangs from the gutter is part of their memory of the movie—it begins instead in Midge’s apartment, with its vague echoes of the more famous set of Jeff’s Village apartment in Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s presence, perhaps, and the fact that both of his characters are convalescent; that looming window and the world visible through it; the desexualized female). And just before the moment that scene opened, my book seemed to have closed. I could not manage to press on.

Though conscious I would be out of a job—was already out of a job—I was not careful with my money and could not stay at home with my notes. While my wife was at work, I took the bus to Powell’s and bought books I would not read, just for something to do. I went to the café around the corner from our apartment for coffee rather than making it myself. I went to the movies, even when there was nothing I particularly wanted to see. I took long drives out to the coast and back. I went to Pittock Mansion and the reservoir at Mount Tabor. I had no place to be and no reason to be any place.

Hitchcock: “We must bear in mind that, fundamentally, there’s no such thing as color; in fact, there’s no such thing as a face, because until the light hits it, it is nonexistent. After all, one of the first things I learned in the School of Art was that there is no such thing as a line; there’s only the light and the shade.”

Writers who worked on Vertigo:
Pierre Boileau (original story)
Thomas Narcejac (original story)
Norman Denny (Hitchcock’s English translator of D’Entre les Morts) Alma Hitchcock (throughout pre-production, production)
Maxwell Anderson (first treatment, June-July, 1956)
Angus MacPhail (second treatment/”structural layout” Aug.-Sept., 1956)
Alec Coppel (continuity (“numbered paragraphs with no dialogue”), fall, 1956)
Sam Taylor (script, 1956-1957)

Hitchcock, at the German film studio Ufa in 1924 to film The Blackguard, visited the set of F. W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann, where Murnau had a real train car set up in front of some small wooden cars, and then another real train car far off in the background, with extras getting out of it. “What you see on the set does not matter. All that matters is what you see on the screen,” Murnau is supposed to have said. Back on the set of The Blackguard, Hitchcock put dwarves in the background of a crowd scene, to give it a sense of perspective.

In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

Because my own life lacked structure, I looked for it in Vertigo. Being a film about doubles, one expects Vertigo to have two parts, more or less equal if not exactly identical, but, as I watched it and rewatched it, I started to think that the movie’s shape was more complex. The double is synonymous with the uncanny: Freud’s example of his idea of the unheimlich is a man catching his reflection in a mirror and believing it to be someone else. Clearly, I thought, Vertigo has an uncanny aspect—the half of the film before Madeleine’s “death” meets the half after Madeleine’s death in Scottie’s mid-film delusion/vision/dream as the self meets its perceived double in a mirror.

But now I saw this aspect in a different light, expressed in the film’s two divisions, not in the film’s two parts. In fact, I came to believe that the film had three parts. The first: before the police officer’s death, very brief. The second: from the scene in Midge’s apartment to the inquest and Scottie’s confinement. And the last: from Scottie’s release from the hospital to Judy’s death. Three parts—the self meeting its double in the mirror, the double, and the mirror itself, an element that needed to be considered, I thought. The mirror is where the self loses its integrity—one looks into the mirror and sees one’s self, but this self is experienced as Other (for instance, one does not look out of its eyes but instead into them).

One detail in particular convinced me of this structure: the corset that Scottie complains of in the first scene in Midge’s apartment. I had always ignored it before. It’s small talk, as almost nothing else is in Vertigo—Vertigo is a relatively quiet film, and when its characters speak, they speak in double entendres. Even after I started to think about it, I couldn’t assign it any particular significance, I merely suspected it hid some greater meaning. A corset seemed like a triviality, a minor therapy for a fall that had killed another man. So went my thinking—either Scottie had been rescued from the rooftop or he hadn’t. Black or white. This or that. If he had, there was no division there, no break in the timeline; we go from the gutter to Midge’s apartment with no significant jump forward in time. If he hadn’t been rescued, Wood was right: the whole film takes place in that last moment before he falls to his death. But now I began to think that the corset seemed to argue for another possibility, a botched or difficult rescue and a lengthy rehabilitation following it.

We later learn that a year passes between Madeleine’s death and Scottie’s discovery of Judy. Might there not have been a similar period between the death of the officer and this scene in Midge’s apartment? Long days and weeks spent in traction, full-body casts and physical therapies, restricted movement and unending pain, all of it happening off-screen in the blink of an eye? Something about the dissolve between scenes had always convinced me that barely any time had passed, but now I reconsidered. Why assume a short recovery or no recovery at all? It does seem, given the dialogue between Scottie and Midge, that Scottie’s position (his lack thereof, I mean; his unemployment, his “wandering”) is a new thing, a recent thing, but one can’t be certain of that—it may only be new to Midge. One assumes that Scottie and Midge are close friends, but this need not be true—when, after Madeleine’s death and one final appearance in the sanitarium, Midge disappears entirely from the film, Scottie seems more or less unaffected by her absence. Perhaps it is that Scottie’s retirement has given him the time to reconnect with old friends he hasn’t seen since college (which, given his evident age, was quite some time ago). Perhaps Scottie and Midge ran into each other because of the corset. Midge does the illustrations for some sort of apparel company—maybe she works for the place Scottie bought his corset from. Maybe they met in the lobby or at the entrance, Midge, is that you? How have you been? Come up to my place tomorrow, Johnny-O, we’ll have a drink and talk about the gay old Bohemian days. The only clues to just how much time has passed off-screen are buried deep within the dialogue.

If there are three parts, it is the film’s two divisions that are its structural doubles. One is the beginning of Scottie’s acrophobia, the other is (supposedly) the end of it. This gives us, separate from the two parts dealing with Madeleine/Judy, a third part, the very first scene, before the acrophobia and before Madeleine. More interestingly, if we take that scene, the scene designated in the script as the “San Francisco Roof Tops” scene, as its own part, the other two parts are more balanced; they no longer seem quite so lopsided in favor of the first “half” of the film (which is longer by twenty-five minutes than the second half), because there is no first half or second half, only first part, second part, third part. These three parts are by no means equal, but the two that had seemed curiously unequal—the only two parts of the movie, as I had previously thought—seem to be much closer to equal than before.

Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it. (Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer)

The hidden harmony is better than the visible.
(Heraclitus, Fragments)

In the book, D’Entre les Morts, there are only two parts. Quite literally: There is Part One, made up of six chapters, and Part Two, also made up of six chapters. The first part is about 90 pages, whereas the second part is only about 75 pages. What is it about the second part of this story that we all seem to want to avoid?

The spirals in Saul Bass’s title sequence, clearly meant to evoke the eye of the woman from whom they first appear to swirl out of, also quite clearly resemble a vagina.

How did people erase themselves like this? he wondered.
(Adam Ross, Mr. Peanut)

Francois Truffaut: Vertigo is taken from the Boileau-Narcejac novel D’Entre les Morts, which was especially written so that you might do a screen version of it.

Alfred Hitchcock: No, it wasn’t. The novel was out before we acquired the rights to the property.

FT: Just the same, that book was especially written for you. . . . As a matter of fact, Boileau and Narcejac did four or five novels on that theory. When they found out that you had been interested in acquiring the rights to Diabolique, they went to work and wrote D’Entre les Morts, which Paramount bought for you.
(Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock)

Throughout their partnership, [Boileau and Narcejac] produced novels that were puzzles requiring close attention, each combining startling twists of plot with characters at their wit’s end, grasping at any opportunity to find meaning.
(Auiler, Vertigo)

Hitchcock: “[Music] makes it possible to express the unspoken. For instance, two people may be saying one thing and thinking something very different. Their looks match their words, not their thoughts. They may be talking politely and quietly, but there may be a storm coming. You cannot express the mood of the situation by word and photograph. But I think you could get at the underlying idea with the right background music.”

It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string that ties them together.
(Michel de Montaigne, Essais)

An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.
(Bresson, Notes)

Research was Hitchcock’s detective work. . . . He relished the process of ‘putting himself through it’ in preproduction, scouting out real-life settings and real-life counterparts for the characters. He compiled notes and sketches and photographs partly for authenticity . . . but also as a springboard for his imagination. He always tinkered with the reality.
(Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock)

Are the cameras shooting the footage for The Bridge sited at Old Fort Point? The very spot Madeleine chooses to jump into the Bay from?

At the beginning, I think of endings. (Kate Zambreno, Heroines)

The only true purpose of a good list is to convey the idea of infinity and the vertigo of the etcetera.
(Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist)

How should we understand Saul Bass’s spiral descending into the woman’s eye at the end of the title sequence? A hint of who will suffer—not Scottie—from the vertigo of the title? Or is it more surprising that, instead of descending into the woman’s eye, it doesn’t emanate out from it (as it does at the beginning of the sequence)?

Not the work I shall produce, but the real Me I shall achieve, that is the consideration.
(D. H. Lawrence)

There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research, and then, when they have read everything that there is to read, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do they sit down to write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately.
(Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage)

At the urging of my agent, I had been looking for a “more personal” response to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for many months when, in September of 2012, Sight & Sound’s decennial poll named it the best film of all time, forty votes ahead of Citizen Kane, which had held that title for fifty years. Suddenly, there were a hundred pitches for books about Vertigo, two hundred, more. I was relieved. As I say, I had been looking for an approach already for some time and finding that nearly every frame of the film had been pumped full of meaning and carefully explained by its critics again and again. What could I have added? Now, I could instead give up, remain silent.

I had been perfectly content to watch the film over and over, to read books about the film’s production, books of film theory and literary theory that mentioned it, biographies of Hitchcock, Novak, and Stewart—I had always been more of a reader than a writer. I copied out little snippets of interesting text, more notes than I ever would have read over, all without producing a single word of my own. In the margins, I wrote comments like this one, my lame attempts at the “personal” response my agent seemed to want but which never came together as a single story. I wondered, in an email to my agent (perhaps as a way of avoiding going through all of these notes and making something whole out of them, I emailed him, telling him I couldn’t get through all of my notes, couldn’t make something whole out of them) if this collection of quotes from other books and my marginal notes might not be a more convincing and ultimately more worthwhile book than the book they were intended to produce; it wouldn’t really be a personal response to the film, but I didn’t see that as a drawback. It would be a kind of critic’s notebook, an assemblage, a commonplace book, but also an homage and an acknowledgement. My agent replied that editors would be unmoved. He told me to get back to work.

He also told me I was being naïve. The only reason he had taken the book on was that it was sold already. It was a variable that was not a variable at all, a thing that could be counted upon. There would be people like me who would buy it, and there would be many people like me—just think of everyone who had seen Vertigo. I had only to “tell my part of the story,” like varnishing a chair from Ikea and telling people I had made it. As a result of the poll, though, other writers—more enterprising than I was and less bothered by the idea of “value”—were now picking up the subject. There would be ten new books on the film by the end of the year. The moment, he told me, would very soon pass, and every day I delayed, the book was less and less likely to garner any serious attention—by which he meant “sell well.” It would not make it to the shelves; it would begin and end in a bargain bin somewhere. This did not boost my confidence in what I was doing. I had already been wondering what I had to contribute to the study of Vertigo, and now I felt sure the answer was nothing.

Madeleine E.

This is a book about a man and his girlfriend, who live together. She has taken a week off work, but doesn’t tell anyone why. She is going to have an abortion. She will need the rest of the week to recover. She would have taken more time off work, but she needs to work because the man is unemployed, and she supports them both, and she doesn’t make much to begin with. The man sits in the waiting room of the clinic with the girlfriend’s mother. The man feels as though something has caught up with him. He can’t imagine how things can get any worse, but he also can’t imagine that things will get better. He will always feel this wretched, he thinks. Nothing good will ever happen again. We do not learn what the mother or the girlfriend are thinking or feeling, but, really, what could be more difficult for either one than to find themselves in this situation?

As soon as the nurses have left her alone to rest, the girlfriend gets up from the operating table. She leaves the room she has had the procedure in and goes across the hall to where she left her clothes. She dresses and walks out into the waiting room. Alright, she says, let’s go. It has all been so quick, the nurses haven’t even noticed she’s not in the operating room anymore. The man and the mother don’t know the girlfriend isn’t supposed to be up and moving. The girlfriend faints on her way to the elevators, even while being held up by the man and her mother, and she sits on the floor next to the elevator for half an hour before she can finally make it downstairs and into the car. The man feels guilty about the whole thing. Not what happened after, but what happened before. Even though it was a decision they both made, he feels responsible. He even feels guilty about feeling responsible; it’s self-centered, he thinks. The last thing he would ever do is address the subject head-on. He avoids talking about it and tries to avoid even thinking about it. Forever after, the man can’t imagine the child that might have been, but he never forgets that it doesn’t exist. They never speak about it.

The man and his girlfriend had arguments before the abortion. After, they never argue. Not that they never disagree, but they don’t argue. Instead, both of them go silent. In part, this is because each feels like they have inflicted some injury on the other, something irreparable. They are careful not to make things worse. Not only was there the procedure and all the guilt surrounding it, but also there is the man’s accident, or what they call his accident. Two months after the abortion, things got so bad between them, the girlfriend left. She was gone for almost a month. Though he told no one, the man attempted suicide while she was gone. One day, he was supposed to meet up with an old friend, but he didn’t show up. The old friend called the girlfriend to see if she knew where he was. The girlfriend was the one who discovered him. He suffered permanent brain damage as a result of not getting enough blood to his brain for several hours. Now, he is a step slower than he used to be. He gets frustrated much more easily than he did before, but he doesn’t forget what he has done, and he tries not to take it out on the girlfriend. The girlfriend feels so bad she moves back in with him.

There are a few blank pages. We come back to these characters, but we can’t be sure where in time we are. Something has changed. The man and his girlfriend are walking in the park with a little girl. We learn that the girl is not theirs. It is the little girl’s fourth birthday, and she’s having a party in the park next to their apartment, so, when she has to go to the bathroom, they take her back to their apartment. She is the girlfriend’s friend’s daughter. The girlfriend and the girl’s mother are not as close as they used to be—jobs and motherhood got in the way. They don’t dislike each other, there was no big fight, they just never see each other anymore. When they were younger, still in high school, people said they looked alike. They were often asked if they were sisters—not twins, but sisters. While they are in the apartment, the little girl noticed a picture of the girlfriend, age five, stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet in the shape of a horse. The girlfriend took it down. See, she says to the little girl, See how much we look alike? The little girl nods: she looks more like the girlfriend than her own mother. Later, when they leave the party, the girlfriend starts crying. The man is confused, but he holds her, and then, in silence, they both get ready for bed. Later, much, much later, when he has no reason to remember this, he does remember it, and he figures it out.

I watched the film until the film itself became a kind of blindness.
(G.C. Waldrep, “D.W. Griffith at Gettsyburg”)

As reported by Michael Wilding, Hitchcock said, “The secret of suspense . . . is never to begin a scene at the beginning and never let it go on to the end.”

The first version of the script, written by Maxwell Anderson, was called Darkling, I Listen. In it, Scottie’s acrophobia first manifests itself during a sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge. At the end, Judy jumps from the Bridge. If, once retitled and rewritten, she had fallen from the gutter?

Keep reading:

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Critique of Pure Reason, and Shadow Man. He is co-editor of The Collagist. Read advance praise and more at here.

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