The Meaning of Vertigo in the City of Collapsed Time

[W]ith the weight of Magna Carta, the [British Film Institute] proclaimed Hitchcock’s 46th feature the greatest film ever made, displacing Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign at the top.

The Guardian, August 2012

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 critical and commercial flop, Vertigo, is a film about obsession that is itself an object of obsession. Those whom it does not leave indifferent it tends to haunt, and as its subject is also a haunting (or several, at different levels of narrative reality), there’s an appropriately vertiginous dynamic between the film’s story and its reception.

The story is an adaptation of a French crime novel about a detective who falls in love with the married woman he has been asked to follow by her husband, an old friend. The husband says he’s afraid his wife’s been possessed by the ghost of a suicidal ancestor. The detective gets hooked on the haunted dame and wants to run off with her. However, his chronic fear of heights (which had forced him to retire from the force when it caused the death of a fellow cop) stops him from saving her when she (apparently) leaps to her death from a tower. He’s devastated; he breaks down. Later, still mentally fragile, he finds another woman who hauntingly reminds him of the first. He sets out to remake her in the image of his dead love, with disastrous consequences.

While the plot points are mostly the same, the film has access to a mythic visual iconography the novel does not. The femme fatale, Madeleine, is played by ice-blonde sex goddess Kim Novak; the detective “Scottie” by (the much older, but that’s Hollywood) everyman hero Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo cooks up a new character, career girl Midge, to be the luckless third wheel in a love triangle with Scottie. And the setting is transposed from grim, dark, wartime and postwar France to an idyllic, exquisitely beautiful and prosperous mid-century San Francisco and its wild, lush environs. I’ll come back to this.

But like its source (titled D’entre les morts, or Back from the Dead), Vertigo ends in death and failure – never auspicious for good box office in the US. Hitchcock described the film with typical ironic deprecation as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl – boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” He was publicly dismissive of his product in retrospect because it was a commercial failure, although it remained his personal favorite. He didn’t live to see Vertigo even make the BFI list, much less climb to the top of it. So, with the triumphant irony that characterizes our age of cultural production, his film has acquired a life entirely independent of his intentions for it. It is viewed as Hitchcock’s masterpiece at least in part because it is said to be the most deeply revealing of his own obsessions, a kind of reading he would likely have feared and despised.

In fact, the bizarre transformation of Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate guy-next-door, into the creepy alter ego of the obese, manipulative, blonde-obsessed Hitchcock is only one of the movie’s embedded mirrors (although it is also a lens through which many fans view the film, since Hitchcock, the ultimate obsessive-cum-auteur, has been an industrial-scale generator of character studies).

What is it about Vertigo that gives it such caché? I will give a personal reading, but for all those who share the obsession, there is a common thread: not theme, setting, imagery, story or characters in themselves, but the sheer beauty and elusiveness of the thing created of all these elements. Obsession through the ages has a common trait: its object appears beautiful to the obsessed, and also in some fundamental way, inaccessible. Beauty can exist without this quality of elusiveness – the Chrysler building is beautiful. Elusiveness can exist without being beautiful –the sources of human cruelty are elusive. But wherever the two conjoin with enough force, in someone’s eyes, obsession is born.

And then there is the power of cultural production – of what we call art. When a thing created by a complete stranger—a film, a novel, a poem—with no thought of you in mind, seems to reproduce elements of your personal experience but on a deeper level of understanding, you are strongly drawn to it. Two centuries after Kant’s Critique of Judgment and with an academic army of critical theorists and now neuroscientists having been deployed against it, there is still no satisfactory theorization of this “recognition” phenomenon. The most evocative creations can hold up – over spans of time and distance, sometimes even beyond the lines of force of hegemonic cultures – under the enormous weight of projection we place upon them. It would be a mistake to call this an eternal or atemporal phenomenon, as old school idealism would have it, but can be extraordinarily persistent.

Like Scottie’s Madeleine, the work of art continues to attract and invite us but defeat our ability to explain it, or our attraction to it, fully – to “explain it away” as she says at one point. Evidenced by the amount of testimony to this effect from insightful critics, filmmakers and fans, Vertigo holds up.

Pop philosopher of the Left Slavoj Žižek is a fellow obsessive. He is obsessed with more of Hitchcock’s work than I am, and this seems to be part of his strange philosophic quest to unite Lacanian ideas of psychology with Marxism in a kind of grand unified cultural theory. (They appear as resistant to unity as quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity – but there you are.) In his video series, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek portrays Vertigo as a descent into the bottomless abyss of male desire, which once unleashed, becomes infinitely capable of objectification, to the point of denying its object any independent subjectivity, and thus, ultimately, destroying it.

Good filmmakers like Chris Marker and Martin Scorsese have also described their fascination with the way romantic sexual obsession is portrayed in Vertigo. For the film’s most articulate fans, this is the subject. Boy meets girl, you know, and the rest is history.

Perhaps for this very reason, I fought hard against the siren call of Vertigo even as I succumbed to it. I was (and still am) tired of hearing Hitchcock lauded over and over as an unqualified master, when he was also a hack and a panderer, whose film subjects were unrelievedly trivial. I almost ignored Vertigo’s plot, which is impossibly overwrought, with its bizarrely mismatched leads inhabiting stick-figure characters, and its moments of high kitsch: Midge titillating Scottie by sketching “cantilevered” designer bras, the truly goofy mixed-media dream sequence that stands in for Scottie’s nervous breakdown after Madeleine’s death, or the spooky nun fatally popping up in that Freudian bell tower in the final scene.

To appropriate a phallic metaphor (ha!): I tied myself to the mast of my feminism against this film– I wanted to resist the idea that hopeless love, or if you will, the infinity of male desire, with its insatiable need for fantasy objects, is really one of the great “timeless” themes of narrative – because it gives women’s real experience: family, work, creative experience – much larger portions of our actual lives – such short shrift. And also because it seems such a creation of bourgeois culture. Some of the vast numbers of the world’s proletariat may experience romantic obsessions as tumultuous and passionate as anybody’s who ever lived, but most lack the spare time to make hopeless romantic desire the center of their existence. What really distinguishes bourgeois romanticism is the luxurious amount of leisure time the characters seem to have to pursue their obsessions.

On the other hand, movies, perhaps more than any other medium, are exponents of fantasy, and fantasy is de facto where our obsessions are most unobstructed and complete. Regardless of how distant Vertigo’s tropes might be from lived experience, romantic obsession and other fantasies of desire, power, and nostalgia are tidal forces of the dominant culture, and they still dominate most of the narratives it produces. And our psyches still reverberate with them, in the feedback loop that is culture, changing and changed.

Anyway I couldn’t dismiss Vertigo; it pulled me into its world, and it started to haunt me – if not to obsess me, at least to make me wonder what its hold on me was. I went back for repeated viewings. I saw it at the Castro Theater, one of San Francisco’s grand nostalgia spaces, a preserved specimen of the 1920s movie palaces that were once a fixture in many neighborhoods. (These in turn were mostly 20th century copies of Gilded Age European concert halls, which themselves paid baroque tribute to Ancient Greek and Roman theaters – architecturally, déjà vu all over again, to coin a phrase). I bought a copy of the meticulously re-mastered version of the film that was proudly debuted at the Castro in 1994, and watched it again and again.

I began to realize that unlike many of my fellow obsessives, I was perhaps most enthralled by Vertigo’s use of location – a breathtaking, oneiric San Francisco. Had I not actually lived in San Francisco, I realized, I might have become no more obsessed by Vertigo than Scottie was by any woman who didn’t remind him of Madeleine.

San Francisco has been elevated to the status of one of the movie’s characters by other fans. One needs to be clear, though, what “character” means in this context – Vertigo’s San Francisco is just about as real as the human figures that populate it– which is to say that it is an iconic fantasy.

And yet it’s embellished with real details of a real place, both in its numerous location shots and in many unnecessarily specific bits of dialogue: “The Mission – why that’s Skid Row, isn’t it?” “I want to know who shot who on the Embarcadero back in 1859.” “An engineer down the Peninsula designed it.” This is the movie equivalent of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” An unbelievable story is made more compelling by being set in a place with just enough embedded location identification to make it feel alive.

In any case, while the impossible plot was unfolding, while the protagonists were sleepwalking to their doom, while Bernard Herrmann’s brilliantly nerve-wracking music swirled around me, I kept looking at the backdrop: the wide, traffic-free streets, little mom-and-pop shops, North Beach walk-up flats, the neo-Classical colonnade of Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts (another nostalgia space) where handsome lovers decorated the green lawns. Coit Tower, not yet out-phallused by high-rise boxes. Fort Point, dark and silent under the great red bridge, empty of tour groups in pedi-cabs and faux trolleys. The fog-softened blue sky illuminating everything, making it softly incandescent. And the gorgeous coast on which the city sits: wild, rocky, with its grove of Sequoia sempervirens… “always green, ever living,” says Scottie.

It gave me a nostalgia for something I’d never experienced. A San Francisco I’d never actually seen, but in which I longed to live. A languid, heavenly city, frozen forever at the peak of its beauty – and almost uninhabited by other people. An uncanny, eternal place, where only eternal stories could be told.

The city I lived in was tantalizingly Vertigo’s San Francisco– except that it wasn’t. Just as Judy, the woman Scottie meets after Madeleine’s death is she – except that she isn’t.

But Vertigo also confronted me with the psychic experience I had of the San Francisco I actually did live in, which I had come to without direction and stayed in for decades without belonging to. That city felt impossibly beautiful and desirable but somehow vacuous, its wide sidewalks dotted with comfortable, empty-eyed inhabitants moving about in a kind of hypnotic trance, its core, inner realness inaccessible no matter how close you got to it.

In Vertigo’s early scenes, Madeleine appears to be wandering the almost empty city in a dreamlike state, compelled by her ghostly possessor. However, we later learn she is following an itinerary of pre-selected places, in a calculated and staged way, to play out a role that has been contrived for her. Madeleine, like the San Francisco she haunts, turns out to be an empty vessel, inaccessible to the smitten Scottie no matter how close he tries to get to her. In the second half of the film the reason for her emptiness is revealed: she is an illusion, entirely a creation of the villainous industrialist Gavin Elster, who sets the wheels of the plot in motion.

“The things that mean San Francisco to me are disappearing fast,” says Elster, as he sits in the plush office of a 19th century robber baron, with spider-like cranes moving goods around in a shipyard behind him. There’s a faint implication that the grimy business he runs on his absent wife’s behalf is part of what’s causing the disappearance of those things.

Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism broke a longstanding wall of ignorance and denial by demonstrating how imperial relations were an invisible backdrop for the great works of European literature. And just so, a “purely” romantic work of great power like Vertigo that elevates its backdrop to a mythic presence in the narrative can invoke and sustain such a reading.

So, eyeing the backdrop, I was struck by the fact that fifty years later those cranes, the Mission Bay shipyards – the film’s symbols of fast-paced industrial modernity – are long gone, obsolete within two decades after Vertigo was made. The old waterfront, a post-industrial wasteland twenty years ago, has in the last decade been filled up again with massive glass and steel boxes built to house the new growth industry: biotechnology. (One whose profits, like Elster’s murder plot, depend on erasing the boundaries between the living and the dead).

That is also the San Francisco I know: destined to be continually flooded and scoured by tsunamis of newly created wealth, and restructured in their wake each time.

I was dogged by a fantasy that the San Francisco that simultaneously haunted me and made me feel like a ghost on its streets actually was the mythical San Francisco of Vertigo. It was three dimensional and playing in perpetuity, incorporating changing buildings, businesses, cars, inhabitants – but underneath not really changing at all. Trapped in breathlessly perpetual but somehow cosmetic change under which was an odd, enduring stasis. It was the stasis of a projection, something that floats above existence, disconnected from material reality. Like a movie.

Indeed the forces at work in San Francisco today have been the same since its boom town beginnings–lust for profit, the never-ending quest to possess the un-possessable: all the wealth of the earth and its beauty too, forever. The ultimate fantasy: the ultimate Big Score. “Power and freedom,” says the murderer Gavin Elster, waxing nostalgic about the Gold Rush years. And what is that, speculated visionary filmmaker Chris Marker (pointing out that the words “power and freedom” are repeated three times in the film, at key points) but an attempt to conquer death, and thereby time itself?

For if there is a place that is the apotheosis of the “creative destruction” required by the restless empire of capital, San Francisco is that place – then and now, once and again. And how lucky, we citizens are made to think! Many places in the world see only the destruction – starvation, war, economic collapse, decay, abandonment. But San Francisco is desirable. It is the most desirable city in the country today, to judge by its rents and real estate prices.

This is where Žižek is on to something: there is a point after all where personal psychology meets macro-economics. And that point, in an era of capital triumphant, is the absolute unfettering of the desire for possession. Capitalism has declared that the desire for possession is, and must be, infinite (this is what it calls the “driver of growth.”) And thanks to continual technological revolutions driven by “engineer[s] down the Peninsula,” this desire still includes the possession of a kind of immortality, a triumph over time. Not by extending time now, but by collapsing it: The information revolution creates the illusion of an infinitely abundant and accessible now, where money and technology conjoin to make everything seem immediately possible.

But infinities induce vertigo in contingent psyches. Before, we left the infinite to abstract realms – the theists to God, the rationalists to mathematics. Now we’re in a system that hands it over to each of us. Meretriciously, of course, because we aren’t meant to have everything, just to want everything. What does this make of us, psychologically, but desperate little Scotties? And look what happens to him, and because of him. His vertigo is the fatal flaw that kills; his obsessive desire for an illusion ruins him and destroys those who love him. Maybe he is the Everyman after all.

What is physical vertigo but the sickening sense that there is no solid ground under your feet, that you are being pulled inexorably into a bottomless abyss? This is a legitimate psychic response to living in places that are constantly being destroyed and remade by money, that offer no possibility of living out the full circuit of a lifespan – or even a few years – in an environment that’s recognizable as the one you started out in. This is the capitalist utopia: the absolute antithesis of home.

Hitchcock, ever the technician of feeling, even came up with a unique shot to try to convey the physical experience of vertigo. It’s his famous dolly-zoom, where the camera rapidly tracks back while zooming in. It’s also another one of the film’s overreaches that descends into kitsch: if anything, the tricksy shot creates nausea more than vertigo – but that’s not wholly inappropriate. You could even say it offers us a symbolic bridge between the modernity of its moment (whose paradigmatic psychosomatic state, according to Sartre, was nausea) and the post-modernity of ours, where vertigo is the inevitable response to the unleashing of infinite pseudo-possibility and the apparent collapse of time. (You could say that – and it would be another example of Vertigo’s ability to bear up under even the most heavy-handed critical approaches.)

Vertigo’s plot offers the seemingly contradictory experience of two psychologically destructive states: the dizzying removal of limits, and simultaneously, paralysis, the impossibility of movement or change. It has the feel of nightmare—not in the sense of horror but of stasis, of being trapped, able to take no action that doesn’t lead to a pre-determined outcome. Such determinism calls to mind the fate of anything beautiful when its desirability is thoroughly objectified and commodified. It collectivizes the process Žižek attributes to the individual male psyche.

Thanks to the marketplace of desire, places can also be trapped by their own beauty, forced into a temptress’s role like Judy being manipulated and made over by two domineering men. They become aesthetic façades, scoured of much of the messy complexity of the living world. They are fantasy projections that invoke the eternal but are haunted by the specter of collapse: Like the wealth that concentrates in them, all aestheticized imperial utopias seem destined to buckle one day under the weight of the unsatisfied needs of the many and the insatiable desires of the few.

But finally, and tellingly, Vertigo is about being imprisoned by the past, not just in thrall to the non-existent future. It is a story in which an appropriated past is used to create a very real haunting, and a desperate and destructive nostalgia seeks to revive a corpse.

Back to Elster again, whose greed and power falsify and erase the very past he expresses his longing for. It’s he who appropriates the legend of Carlotta Valdez, the seduced and abandoned Spanish Mission girl who is supposed to be his wife’s ancestor – and while Scottie confirms her existence independently, we are never to know whether Madeleine Elster was “really” related to her or not. Elster uses the legend like Hitchcock uses the geographic detail: to make a fiction come alive, to entice us to believe an enthralling lie.

San Francisco’s historical persona is also relentlessly traded in the psychic marketplace today – pimped to tourists, transmogrified into colorful tales of the Barbary Coast, the Beats, the Summer of Love. And then, of course, there’s preservation, where rich patrons transform a limited number of physical spaces into changeless museums, the way token amounts of wildlife are preserved in parks and zoos. These are ways of attempting to moot the psychological consequences of the constant upheavals demanded by unlimited growth, by aestheticizing the past – and shrewdly turning it into another avenue of profitability.

But less marketable ghosts also haunt the city: the deadly anti-Chinese riot of 1877, the 1934 San Francisco general strike (the first use of tear gas on civilians for crowd control), the mass removal and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the bloody San Francisco State student strike, the White Night riots. There are ghosts of other utopias than the one envisioned by capital, ghosts particularly of darker, poorer people who sought to make this their home, displaced in the thousands by wave after wave of urban “renewal” and gentrification – so that places like the Fillmore, the International Hotel, South of Market and the Mission District have become synonymous with mass removal and relocation. Beneath all other historical layers is, of course, the bounty hunting and ultimate extermination of the original human inhabitants of the area.

The cleansed, aestheticized paradise that money seeks to create – the “hollow city,” the San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit called it – is thus filled with ghosts, swarming unseen on every corner. As San Francisco turns itself into an alluring illusion for each new generation that gets drawn here like Scottie’s moth to Madeleine’s flame – it is (and they become) haunted by the ghosts of what it is always destroying in order to remake itself. And the “freedom” promised by capital’s utopia turns out to be another kind of determinism for the mass of people who cannot be its beneficiaries. It is a never-ending cycle of return, the proliferation of ghostly, disconnected existences, the impossible longing for an ideal of union (for a true home is psychologically akin to the individual beloved), overshadowed by a more vibrant past that is being erased – imperfectly, but with ever-greater rapidity.

The great modernist writer Clarice Lispector warned that the “game” of contemporary life is always “to act as if you do not know” the underlying truths. This is our crisis-ridden economic shell game too: failing to learn from our failures, we repeat them again and again, the skies of our past filled with black swans.

Vertigo is a great, weird tragedy of the overweening desire for power, freedom, and possessive love; and the destruction of the real in pursuit of a ghost. San Francisco, Vertigo’s mythical backdrop, is also a real place where this recurring tragedy is being played out once again on the collapsed time stage of capital’s technologically sustained empire. The truth we all act as if we do not know is the foretold outcome.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? A Personal Journal of Radical Possibilities. Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.