'Vertigo': Love makes suckers of us all
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - September 2, 2012 - 12:00am

Citizen Kane or Vertigo? Every 10 years, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine conducts an international survey of critics to determine the films currently regarded as the greatest. Since the 2012 poll results were released a month ago cinephiles have been arguing over the shock result: Citizen Kane, which had occupied the number one position for 50 years, has been toppled by Vertigo. A thriller. By a man who made entertainments. “It’s not even Hitchcock’s best!”

It’s wonderful that people are debating films with such passion, given that the rest of the world doesn’t care. Show them Kane or Vertigo, and in two minutes they’ll be tweeting how bored they are. It only makes the cinephile a romantic figure, a knight fighting in a lost cause.

My opinion, unsolicited, permanently sullied by my enjoyment of Adam Sandler movies, is that I admire the hell out of Citizen Kane, but Vertigo I love. Is love, being an emotional argument, lower than an intellectual assessment?

Whenever I watch Vertigo I come away disturbed and disorientated, as if I’d expected a different ending from the one I’d seen before. This is, of course, the definition of insanity. (I don’t see why we should put spoiler alerts for 64-year-old movies, but here it is. By the way I’m leaving out the best details so you’ll have to watch the movie.)

John Ferguson, “Scottie,” is a retired San Francisco police detective with a debilitating fear of heights. He was briefly engaged to Midge, a very nice girl; they remain close friends. A businessman named Gavin Elster asks Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster. He claims that Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of a woman long dead; he’s afraid she will kill herself. Scottie declines, but then he sees Madeleine and is smitten. He follows her and prevents an apparent suicide attempt. They fall in love, but she commits suicide anyway, and Scottie’s fear of heights prevents him from saving her. Scottie is hospitalized after a nervous breakdown.

A year later Scottie meets Judy Barton, a woman who looks amazingly like Madeleine. The audience knows that it is the same woman, but Scottie doesn’t. We learn that Elster had hired Judy to play Madeleine so that they could fake Madeleine’s suicide and get Scottie to witness it. In fact Elster had killed his wife for her money and Scottie was the convenient dupe.

One of the pleasures of watching Vertigo is spotting the doubles and mirrors. Madeleine was supposed to be haunted by a dead woman, now Scottie himself is haunted by the dead Madeleine. Scottie proceeds to make Judy over in the image of the dead Madeleine. Judy is in love with him for real, but all he wants is to recreate the dead Madeleine so he can save her this time.

Scottie is in love with a false memory — an image of a dead woman who never really existed. But what is a movie if not a false memory? It never happened, but it lingers in our minds like an actual event. There are movies we remember more clearly, in closer detail, than we do episodes from our own lives. Or else we mix them up in our minds until we can’t tell where true life ends and the movie begins. The collision of life and cinema produces a kind of vertigo.

Alfred Hitchcock strings us along masterfully. At the start we think we’re seeing the truth, and halfway through the movie we learn that it was all a set-up. The lush imagery and the fabulous San Francisco travelogue was all part of Scottie’s romantic fantasy. Even after we know it’s a lie, Scottie clings to it. He wants to reenact the lie, down to the dead woman’s wardrobe and hair color. Scottie is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. He’s mad.

The filmmaker and critic Chris Marker was probably Vertigo’s biggest fan: his obsession with the movie was not unlike Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. In his essay “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo),” he notes that the second half of the movie is a mirror of the first, and then he proposes that the second half is a dream.

Halfway through the movie Scottie has a breakdown, rendered in weird and rather quaint animation. Midge visits him in the hospital and finds him a virtual catatonic. “You don’t even know I’m here,” she says, then she tells the doctor that Scottie is still in love with the dead Madeleine. And then we never see Midge again. Why would a major character disappear without explanation?

Because, Marker suggests, the second half of Vertigo happens in Scottie’s mind. It is the dream of a madman. He points to that famous scene in the hotel after Scottie completes Judy’s makeover and “brings back” Madeleine. Scottie and Judy embrace, the camera moves around them, and the scene changes to the stable where Scottie kissed Madeleine. We’re seeing through the obsessed Scottie’s eyes; how can we trust what we see? Scottie has been duped, and now we are duped, duped so completely we don’t even notice.

A few years after Vertigo was released, Marker made his best-known film, La jetée. Its hero, like Scottie, is obsessed with the image of a woman seen in a dream. He goes back into the past to recover her. The week before Vertigo was named the greatest film of all time in the Sight and Sound poll, Chris Marker died. He was exactly 91 years old — he was born and he died on the same day.

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