Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (1958)

 

Alfred Hitchock’s desire was to make movies in which dream and reality are indistinguishable. In his Vertigo, he creates a nightmarish world in which Scottie (James Stewart) draws the female progatonist into a surreal ordeal, or it is the other way around; at certain moments we cannot really tell. The film is centered around several themes and reccurent motifs:

  1. The impact of psychological trauma on a person
  2. The necessity to preserve (relive) the memory
  3. Erotic obsesssion (l’amour fou – mad love)

The film opens with a tragic death of a police officer who was trying to save Scottie, and that very experience shook him and had a severe impact on him, although this is not mentioned in the film; he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, after that event. Psychological trauma he experiences later in the film is the perceived death of a loved person and a feeling of guilt because he did not prevent it because of his own incapability.

The scene in the courtroom after “Madelaine’s” death is surreal in its structure and it can mirror Scottie’s psychological state; the judge blaming him for her death because of his “weakness” seems to personify his conscience. In the hospital, Mozart’s music is played to Scottie while he is suffering from melancholia; his friend says that it won’t really help and it would be a wonder if it could; it amounts to playing cheerful folk music at a funeral.

Vertigo

The scene by the sea, when “Madelaine” and Scottie kiss each other, has the quality of a memory, of something that longs to be preserved. The whole set-up Scottie got into is imbued with the reliving of memories and pyschological traumas, a suicide, to be more precise, because a mother lost a child. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madelaine and her death; after meeting Judy his obsession can be materialized into another “object” of passionate love. Georges Bataille once wrote: “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” This quote can be compared to Scottie’s desires toward Madelaine and Judy.

In Scottie’s dream, we can see flowers disintegrating, him falling from the roof (the guilt complex) and looking into a tomb. The woman in the painting, who was presented as a great-grand mother of Madealine, appears as well. The colours change forming an esoteric nightmare of utter terror to the dreamer. Life and death, his own fears and sufferings, all merge into a singular uncanny experience.

Scottie is caught in a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling; this type of love deranges the senses and is essentialy an obsession, l’amour fou, as it came to be called by the surrealists. In other words, love is a type of madness. His need to relive the memories he experienced with Madelaine compels him to turn Judy into his doll, resembling Madelaine down to the most precise details. It is the same person, but at the same time it is not. It seems that in Vertigo Hitchock captures the spirit of erotic feelings in their fullest force. The title of the film does not allude only to Scottie’s fears, but to his desires as well.

 

Vigourous line:

“It is as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there is nothing but darkness.”

Madelaine

Broken Mirror

“Fragments of the mirror” may represent memories, what was once a whole, a life experience  now shattered into fragments of dispersed memories. Vertigo’s life force relies on memories, on the past and on the days long by, which need to be relived again. The darkness which represents death needs to be overcome so life can take its place. In Hitchock’s artistic world this is an illusion. Scottie’s sin is not his “weakness” and fear, it is his hubris, a belief that he can enjoy days that have passed.

 Memories cannot be relived again, and the very attempt to do this is a starting point for a nigthmare, more darkness and thus death. This may be the moral of Vertigo, told in a surrealist fashion which traps the characters into a corridor through which they walk, observing fragments, memories, trying to reshape them into life, but in the end they fail – tragedy is inevitable.

Hrvoje Galić

Terrence Malick, Badlands (1973)

 

Badlands is Terrence Malick’s first film and only a few directors have reached such virtuosity in their directorial debute. Other examples that come to mind are Orson Welles (Citizien Kane) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight). The film is loosely based on real-life events following the murders a couple had commited in 1958, in the United States.  In 1993 the United States National Film Registry elected Badlands for preservation since they considered the film to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. The film inspired a singer-songwriter Bruce Sprinsteen and his title song Nebraska; Springsteen saw it on television.

 

I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton

Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

(Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982)

 

Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find at that time; that very short story can be juxtaposed to Malick’s film;  O’Connor and Malick share their religious beliefs. One can wonder if Malick agrees with the title of the story; his oeuvre seems to confirm this assumption.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and a 15 year old girl Holly who start a killing-spree across the country. The way in which they end up together is peculiar to say the least. He seduces her and she quickly falls in love with him. They are both interesting individuals; we don’t know Kit’s background yet we can reconstruct Holly’s. At the beginning she says: “My mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man.” The act of keeping and burying certain important or symbolic items is present throughout the film; Kit does it often. Holly’s throwing out her fish after it got sick is of immense importance for understanding her character. She says that’s the only thing she did wrong. Since her father did not want her and Kit to be together, Kit shoots him. When her father died, his lips resembled those of fish; in Nick Cave’s words:

Well you know those fish with the swollen lips

That clean the ocean floor

When I looked at poor O’ Malley’s wife

That’s exactly what I saw

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, O’Malley’s Bar, 1996)

 

Since she threw out the fish and her father resembled one when he died, we may say that Holly felt guilty of her father’s murder. After his death, Kit burns Holly’s house while Carl Orff’s Passion plays.

 

 

The act of burning the house and Holly’s father killing the dog is, in part, what made Holly indifferent and empty. Everything she loved and cherished – was destroyed. Her indifference to the murders and the tone of her voice implies apathy; it can also be explained as a defense mechanism. When someone sees horrors and suffers greatly, one may become apathetic out of desire to prevent further suffering (he or she recedes as if into a shell).

Kit, on the other hand is psychotic; that very thing makes him an individual, different from the rest. At the beginning Holly says: “And as he lay in bed in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.” Kit’s seeing her in “beautiful white robes” may imply that he longs for innocence and purity he cannot find in this world. He is certainly an eccentric character and the scenes in which the officers befriend him tell much of his character.

 

Vigourous line:

“Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if they’d have the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he’d read what the papers would say from the other side.

Holly

Sunset

 

Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” Kit contemplates his path into eternity, he wants to be in contact with this world even after death; more importantly, he wants to know what people say about him. When the policemen finally catch him, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. This line may remind of David Bowie’s lyrics from his last album Blackstar:

 

Oh, I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

(David Bowie, Blackstar, Lazarus, 2015)


The last shot in the film shows the airplane soaring in the sky and we see a beautiful shot of clouds and the Sun. The airplane symbolizes the soaring of the soul into afterlife.

 

Hrvoje Galić

Ingmar Bergman, Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman is a director who can deliver more in a half an hour of a film than most directors do in their career. A true giant and a poet of human suffering; he deals with the pain of being a man in ways similar to those of Michael Haneke. Both of them show the causes and effects of psychic suffering, but in different manners. Bergman goes farther and more rivetingly than anyone else. In his film Persona he follows the actress Elisabet Vogler takes a vow of silence, she is mute while acting as Elektra (a possible allusion to Electra’s complex) and she travels to an island (a constant Bergman leitmotif) with Alma, a nurse who becomes infatuated with her and their personalities seemingly blend.

To emphasize the word seemingly, it must be said that it is much more complex than a simple gaze can suggest. Firstly, Elisabet is the one who seems to “overpower” Alma mentally. They are both mentally very strong; Elisabet is older and thus more experienced, but as Alma says later in the film, she is young and adaptable, she can change. The term which is predominant in the film is to analyze, it is another constant Bergman motif (e.g. Through the Looking Glass). At first, Elisabet analyzes Alma and betrays her and later Alma does the same to Elisabet, but in a much more cruel fashion. She strips her naked until Elisabet is completely crushed.

 

The psychoanalyst who (like many others) distanced himself from Freud – Carl Jung – defines the term persona as: “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression on others, and on the other to conceal  the true nature of the individual”. Elisabet is obviously trying to conceal and hide her true nature, which is revealed by Alma at the end of the film. But, as the psychiatrist suggests, that is simply not possible. Her reactions to the outside world reveal as much as her words. The merging of personalities surely does happen, but only in certain moments of weakness. In other moments, they are individuals who strive to accomplish themselves, each in their own way. Elisabet, as an actress, tries to exclude herself from her sorrows, while Alma follows her instinct for security and everlasting bonds.

Vigorous line:

Elisebet’s silence

Romaine Brooks

Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein

Throghout the whole film, Elisabet says only one sentence and Alma asks herself whether she heard it well and if it really happened. Elisabet may be compared to stone, while Alma with her remodeling of herself, with water. Stone statues are shown a few times during the film, and in one shot Alma is shown as she is talking to one of them. Lighting in the film is spell-binding, light is rather dim, pointing to the solitary pain of the heroines. The earlier mentioned Jungian term persona implies the mask one wears in public; this makes one’s personality mildly schizophrenic and this is the theme Persona deals with mostly. We can see this friction vividly in Elisabet’s personality.

She seems cold and indifferent, but when she watches the burning corpse on the television, we can clearly see her overwhelming sensitivity. One of the most important aspects of Elisabet’s character is that she is an actress. She is trained to decieve, to pretend to be someone else. Her voluntary silence shows the great strength of character, but also the inability to cope with herself and her surroundings. She simply cannot, not only live with, but live the mistakes she has made in her life. She seems to channel her hatred toward Alma, but the hatred is her own, directed at herself. Elisabet is played by Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time associate and companion.

In one interview when she talks about Bergman, she says that people who live with the darkness they possess in themselves, with the horrros of  solitary pain, transfer that energy toward others. This is precisely what happens in Persona, Alma becomes both infatuated with Elisabet’s charisma, but it is also utterly destructive for her. In the end, she repossesses herself but serves as an agent of destruction and fury. The final monologue is filmed from two angles, each showing the face of one of the heroines. It may be harrowing to watch, but Bergman’s brilliance and genius lies in presenting the darkest aspects of psyches. Another theme the film deals with is a failure of modern man to communicate with others (another constant theme in his work), the result is devestating, for the individuals and their well-being.

Hrvoje Galić

Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

“Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.”

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself (just like Odysseus did in Homer’s work) to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić