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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Vertigo Is Too Good For This

A year or so ago, AFI updated its 100 Years 100 Movies List. Though personal favorites like Fargo and The Third Man fell off the list, it was a general improvement. The Searchers and City Lights rose into the Top 20. Sunrise and The General made the list. The African Queen and Forrest Gump dropped (though Gump shouldn't be on the damn list). They even put my favorite Hitchcock in the Top 10. I love Vertigo immensely, but should it be in the Top 10? Based on its merits, of course. However, when we consider what this list is meant to do, Vertigo seems much more comfortable in its original place, below Psycho, Rear Window and North By Northwest. Allow me to explain.

This list is a list for beginners. It's for those teenagers who are starting to get into film and want some indication of quality that does not include the Star Wars Trilogy or the LotR Trilogy in their entireties. Any cinephile who knows his/her way around the internet knows that They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? is the ultimate source for generally accepted great movies. But the AFI list wasn't designed by cinephiles for cinephiles. It has decidedly middlebrow tastes (hence the Forrest Gump) with a slight eye for quality (hence the Citizen Kane among others). But if someone with little cinematic experience goes into Vertigo, they may come away with a bad taste in their mouth. After all, Vertigo needs you to understand a few things before you go see it.

As Ed Copeland so eloquently states, a full appreciation of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's films, and particularly Vertigo, depends on a basic understanding of Stewart's collaborations with Frank Capra. Before you watch Vertigo, you should watch either Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or preferably It's a Wonderful Life. Without one or both of these, you can't appreciate just how wonderfully Hitchcock perverts our notions of the Average American Man.

Secondly, Vertigo is often described as Hitchcock's most personal or self-referential film. After all, for the first third of the film, Jimmy Stewart plays a man who stands off in the distance and watches a woman. He, like LB Jeffries before him, is an obvious surrogate as voyeur. However, Vertigo departs from this formula by expanding our knowledge beyond Scottie's and making Judy the audience protagonist. This is utterly shocking, though it takes a better understanding of Hitchcock to understand just why this is so surprising. Hitch's playing with the notion of the Hitchcock Blonde, but that requires knowledge of Hitch and his blonde ambitions. Though any number of Hitchcock films would help satisfy this void, I've always thought Baby's First Hitchcock (TM 2008) should be North By Northwest. It's Hitch's most straightforward thriller, and a good way to introduce a new viewer to some of the usual ideas and techniques Hitch uses in his presentations. Maybe add Rear Window or Notorious, or The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version, really). But a good experience with Vertigo requires much more than just an open mind.

Trust me on this one. I had only one Hitchcock film under my belt the first time (Rear Window, for the record). The experience was not a pleasant one, and I spent a good couple of years convinced that Vertigo was one of the most overrated films I had ever seen. I didn't understand just what Hitch was doing and how carefully he created his world and the overwhelming sense of doom that covers the movie. A second viewing, this time with some Capra and a lot more Hitchcock behind me, it was exceedingly obvious that my first experience was a mistake based on a general lack of knowledge of Hitchcock and understanding of his themes. Vertigo is a film that grows with every viewing, and especially with a greater understanding of what makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock Film. Just ask Marianna Martin. She can tell you exactly what comes with a well informed viewing.

Of all the good decisions that the AFI made in their updating, and there were quite a few, this is easily the worst. Someone who approaches this list with a pair of fresh eyes will look for the films at the top of the list, and they will find a deep, complex and challenging film. That film probably won't hit them in the right place, because there is so much more that should be experienced. As much as it hurts me to say it, this is a film that deserves to be much lower on this list. It is too good a film for its position.

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Blogger pacheco said...

I know this post is about Vertigo, but I'm compelled to ask about something else based on one of your comments:

What's with everyone's hate for Forrest Gump?

Now, you didn't say "It's a TERRIBLE" movie as some have, all you said is that it doesn't belong on the list, so I might be assuming too much when I use the term "hate" but I'm just wondering why everyone in the blogosphere seems to have so much beef with the movie. Is it as good as some of these lists put it as? No, of course not. But I've seen so many people bash and bash it with such malice! I haven't seen it terribly recently, but last time I did, I still enjoyed it. It can be manipulative and sappy, but so can a lot of movies.

Anyway, I was wondering if you can shed some light on that (but let me know if I've pinned the wrong guy on the wrong comments thread).

Oh, and I haven't seen Vertigo yet, that's why I don't feel qualified to comment about it :-).

2:13 PM

Blogger Dan E. said...

You haven't pinned the wrong guy, and I certainly don't think Forrest Gump is a terrible movie. From what I understand of the critical appraisals, one of the chief complaints is that the film is a big old pat on the back to baby boomers. The film lives and dies by nostalgia, even as it tackles the "tough issues" of America's treatment of veterans (Lt. Dan, you got new legs).

On thinking about it, and particularly the technical aspects of it, the film itself seems to be an homage to Citizen Kane, seen at a much lower level. After all, wasn't Welles a pioneer for putting himself in the same frame as film of Hitler's speeches? Gump does the same thing, except this time with LBJ. The plot structure is similar (the telling of a man's life story via extended flashbacks), but Gump falls short (very short) in that it never really challenges the audience. Gump is loveable. He is mentally handicapped, making him a sympathetic character from the start, and there is nothing that makes us reconsider his character. People around him are flawed, but they eventually see the light (even Jenny comes back) thanks to his influence.

He is such a key component in history, that it's simply astonishing. From teaching Elvis to dance to coming up with "shit happens" for a bumper sticker, Gump defined pop culture. Though it's never meant to be taken seriously, it stretches many people's (or at least my) tolerance for such coincidence. The closest comparison I can make is Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo on Rome. It seems history revolves around these guys, and that sort of narrative annoys me.

For what it is, Forrest Gump is a decent movie. Most people who complain about it just don't like what it is. It's too sentimental, or it's patronizing the audience. These are the common quibbles people have, and I agree to a point. Then again, sometimes I think of Mary Wilkie talking about fashionable pessimism. I think a lot of people don't like it because it's your standard "people go on" story. Tragedy befalls the people around Gump, but they manage to go on through it with his help. Gump just happens to be one lucky SOB, and a lot of people are annoyed by that.

I'm not sure if I've actually made any sense here, but I hope I got some of the point across.

As for Vertigo, well, that's the one film I really don't mind people saying they haven't seen. It's one that people shouldn't have thrust on them, that they should take at the right time. Cause when you get it at the right time . . . it's my #4 of all time.

4:11 PM

Blogger Brian said...

Interesting. I think you have made a strong case here for Vertigo's placement on a bottom rung of the AFI 100. However, my own experience with the film (which, if you catch me in the right moment, I will happily call my favorite of all time) is slightly different. It was one of the first Hitchcock films I ever saw, as a teenager, having still only barely touched my feet into the shallow end of the pool of Hollywood films made before Star Wars.

I saw it, the Birds, and Rear Window one week when they were broadcast on network television and my dad taped them. And I'm pretty sure the Birds was not the first of those three that I saw, because I distinctly remember thinking it didn't live up to the promise of the other two, a thought I doubt I'd have formed quite that way if it had been the first.

If I had to guess, I would say Vertigo was actually my first Hitchcock film. And though I found it utterly mysterious, its arc of sexual obsession far above my head (as, I must concede, most non-kid-targeted, non-James Bond, non-sci-fi films were in those days for me), I loved it. The haunting music, the frightening suspense aspects, the twisty plot, all made a huge imprint on my on that evening in the mid-late 1980s.

Maybe it's a generational thing- I notice I'm significantly older than you, even if I was born long after Hollywood's Golden Age ended. Maybe it's a San Francisco thing; as a native-born son of Hitchcock's favorite U.S. city, I've always enjoyed seeing my hometown in a movie (no wonder a View to a Kill was my favorite James Bond film). But I just thought you'd like to hear my own personal history with Vertigo, which I've now seen over a dozen times.

1:57 AM


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