Horror writer Robert Dunbar posted on Facebook about the fact that Vertigo beat Citizen Kane in the prestigious Sight & Sound film. That got me thinking — always a dangerous prospect. I remember having a fascinating conversation with Dunbar about Vertigo specifically and Hitchcock in general at the World Horror Convention some years ago…must have been in San Francisco, 2006. I had just been introduced to Dunbar by P.D. Cacek. As I recall, Robert and I both share a great love for this film, but at the time I weighed in much more heavily on the “Hitchcock is a sadist, and that’s why he’s cool” side of a minor philosophical debate over just how warped Hitch’s mind is/was. Dunbar, to his credit, was willing to take a much more humanistic and whollistic view of the master’s brain, which got me thinking (then) about just how much I was reading my own motives into Hitch’s, and (now, again) about just how completely lost I was in despair in the years when I first saw Vertigo, and still (even more so) that year that I met the esteemed Mr. Dunbar.
Things were not good for me in those years, emotionally. That’s why I celebrate life now with such angry delirium, because I never know when the bell jar might drop and I’ll be stewing in my own sour air.
While I love Citizen Kane, I’ve always found it a bit too in love with its own artistry, at the cost of its humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I freakin’ love Welles; the man may be the most interesting son of a bitch ever to make a film. If his Macbeth doesn’t leave you twitching on the floor, if The Stranger doesn’t make your head spin, if his performance in The Third Man doesn’t awe you, then I’ll personally inform your next of kin that you’ve been replaced by a Body Snatcher. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Welles presided over the greatest non-hoax in radio history (not counting, of course, Vrillon’s 1977 invasion of the UK, which was technically a television hoax and also was a hoax [ I hope], which Welles’s War of the Worlds wasn’t.)
But Citizen Kane, like everything by Welles, is best when it’s viewed through the prism of culture. Like the film I consider to be by far Wellse’s most interesting, F for Fake, Citizen Kane dominates because it rips a hole in the fabric of reality, not because it exists in flat narrative space. But where Hitchcock drilled a hole in screen and pumped cyanide in, Wells tore through the screen ready to brawl. His ambitions were in many ways greater, but he never had the control of Hitchcock.
Between the oeuvres of Welles and Hitchcock there’s ample fodder for a PhD thesis in any field you want, perhaps most notably clinical psychology, except that sounds far too much for comfort like the beginning of a Welles or Hitchcock film in which the psychologist does not meet a happy end.
But between Citizen Kane and Vertigo, I far prefer the latter, because I have always valued control over audacity — for deep psychological (and possibly psychiatric) reasons that may become tellingly obvious if you’re weird enough to stick with me for a while.
And I remember what a fucked-up experience it was the first time I ever saw Vertigo.
You see, the first time I ever saw Vertigo I was incredibly depressed. I’d left my apartment on 14th Street to wander the streets, as I often did, which sounds more dangerous than it is when you wander toward Church instead of Capp, and when it’s early on a weekend afternoon, as it was, instead of three in the morning, as it occasionally was when I wandered in those days.
This time, the weather was beautiful and I was ugly, or thought so. I wandered for hours, my mood not improving but the sense of motion being helpful.
I found myself walking past the breathtaking Castro Theater, which I was lucky enough to be able to call my neighborhood movie house (along with the Victoria Theater and the utterly imcomparable Roxie, one of the greatest movie houses on the planet).
The Castro is gorgeous, in case you don’t know. It’s got a beautiful facade, it’s on a lovely block that just happens to be one of the two or three gayest damned blocks in the nation, possibly the gayest, possibly not just in the nation but in the world. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood and as if that’s not enough it has a freakin’ organ. And no, that isn’t a double entendre. The Castro Theater has a bloody pipe organ, which gets played before select performances and as accompaniment to silent films. The Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer joins the Spreckles Organ at the even more breathtaking (if that’s possible) Palace of the Legion of Honor on this Bach lover’s very long shortlist of San Francisco’s lesser-known pleasures. There are far too few pipe organs in the world, just like there are too few people watching Hitchcock movies. It seems like I never stop hearing how great they are, but every day I encounter people who haven’t seen them.
Anyway, on this particular afternoon it turned out I had rolled my meatwad of dispair to the Castro’s doorstep just a few minutes before an afternoon showing of a brand new 35mm print of (wait for it) Vertigo!
I had never seen the film, although I loved at least a dozen of Hitchcock’s other films by then. I have my sister Lisa to thank for this — she introduced me to Psycho and Rear Window when I was young. I’d devoured many Hitch films on VHS by the time I saw Vertigo — among them favorites-to-this day Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train (screenplay by Chandler from a novel by Highsmith, incidentally) and the screechingly brilliant The Birds, which bears a certain terminal similarity to Vertigo for reasons I’ll go into later.
So I was tangled up in blue and I had money in my pocket. The film nerds were positively shitting themselves and smearing it on the walls over how unbelievably significant this new print of Vertigo. And it’s never a bad time to see a flick — any flick — at the Castro Theater. I figured, “WTF, life couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it?”
I paid my ten cents (or whatever it cost in those days) and delivered myself unto the tender mercies of the esteemed Mr. Hitchcock.
Life couldn’t possibly get any worse? How wrong I was!!
Mr. Hitchcock’s Mercies are not always tender. Sometimes they are not tender at all.
I’m not one of those people who just falls into a movie and the experience is awesome even if it’s a bad movie or I just don’t like it. Especially on the big screen, alone, I experience films so viscerally that I often become quite a dick about them, actually. That’s why — fair warning — disgreeing with me on the ending of Birdy might get you punched in the face some day. (See? Now you have something to look forward to!)
Those of you who have not seen Vertigo, or those for whom it’s just a great escapist film, may forget what it’s about. It concerns a guy who is paralyzed by his — well, call it fear if you like, though in psychological terms I don’t know that it’s accurate to call vertigo “fear” as such. It’s a weird, paranoid, beautifully evocative and seductive film packed with the beautiful and the beautifully hideous.
But unlike in Psycho or The Birds, there isn’t a whisper of ugly in Vertigo. Within Vertigo‘s visual language, violence is made ugly by the removal of beauty. In Vertigo, beauty just vanishes. You don’t see it pecked apart or even running down the drain. It’s just gone. The visually hideous is, therefore, left revealed only in the resulting spin within Scottie’s brain. It’s ugliness by imbalance…a puke-inducing destabilization of the self, like the devotional whirling of dervishes crossed with the spinning of baby chicks down a funnel in Baraka. Scottie Ferguson twirls because beauty is gone, and he can’t find it…and he’s not too damn sure who took it, but he thinks he’s pretty sure he knows for certain whoever took it isn’t who he thinks he knows he thinks it isn’t who he thinks it is. Spin spin spin, like the propeller on a Liberator. Spin, Scottie, until you’re the engine of your own destruction.
Vertigo is no less tense and no less scary than The Birds or Psycho or Rear Window (which uses a similar language of off-camera violence). But personally — maybe because of the way I first saw it — I still find Vertigo the most sadistic film by a truly sadistic director.
Watching it that day at the Castro, choked by my depression, I had the sense of Hitchcock sitting in front of me politely saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, did I just punch you in the nuts? Here, like THIS, is that what I did? Oh, did I do that? THIS? I did THIS? Oh, I’m sorry, here, let me do it again just to make sure I know what you’re talking about.”
My paralyzing depressions and my impulse toward artistic brutality are good friends and mortal enemies. They’re also each others’ psychoanalysts, not to mention each others’ landladies, proctologists, bosses-from-hell and occasional pityfucks. They have many late-night discussions over Crisco and MacTavish, and often, without warning, reach the spontaneous decision to murder each other once and for all. In that, they remind me of many great artistic partnerships down through the ages.
Jimmy Stewart may have been wholesome to a fault — to my way of thinking, much more wholesome than Hitchcock, whose work I both love and distrust. But you don’t fly B-24s over Bremen, Frankfurt and Berlin without learning how to be shit-scared and deliver your lines anyway. I didn’t know that then — I didn’t even know Stewart had served in World War II, let alone in one of the highest-risk professions a fighting man could have in World War II — not to mention way the fuck up in the air. Vertigo indeed. (Wanna know another interesting Northern California fact? Lt. Stewart — then in his thirties — was a four-engine flight instructor at Mather Field, now Mather Air Force Base, near where I grew up in Sacramento.)
Anyway, some of you may not be familiar with Vertigo. I can’t imagine why you’d give a damn about me if you haven’t experienced Hitchcock, since compared to him I am, at best, an anklebiter of terror. But in case you haven’t gotten around to Vertigo yet, I won’t spoil the ending. Just know that I love endings, at least when it comes to films and fiction. I consider the ending of Vertigo to be the most completely fucked up thing I have ever seen. Remember how I said I felt like Hitchcock was sitting in front of me and he kept punching me in the personals? I think I was overstating it, because ultimately Vertigo is a deceptively subtle film. Really, the end came — and still comes, even though I know it’s coming — as a complete surprise.
Vertigo‘s brilliant final shot hit me like a suckerpunch — a kiss for the damned.
I started laughing. I laughed like a fiend. I howled like a maniac.
I thought it was the funniest, most perverse thing I had ever seen a filmmaker do.
This was a warped and heinous crime against art and humanity, and as such a stroke of the most admirable brilliance an artist can be capable of.
To this day, I find the ending of Vertigo so unbelievably disturbing and funny and weird and creepy and tragic all at once. When I saw it that first time at the Castro, I absolutely could not believe I had seen what I had just seen. Nobody would actually do that, would they?
Oh, I laughed and laughed and laughed, probably for like a minute solid. I laughed until I cried. If I’d had popcorn and Diet Coke in my belly, I would have spewed it all over the Mighty Wurlitzer.
The other moviegoers, politely filing out having chats about what a genius Hitchcock was and how beautiful Kim Novak was, clearly thought I’d gone completely insane. Which I probably had, although some years before and this was really just a late-arriving memo. This was a weekend afternoon showing of a new Hitchcock print at The Castro Theater, mind you. They tolerate eccentricities in that neighborhood. The bar for crazy is pretty high.
That day I proved beyond eccentric. How charmingly Hitchcock talked me into putting my head in his filmmaking guillotine! He did not help my depression, but then, he wasn’t trying to.
Cut and print, Mr. Hitchcock.