Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) “Reliving the Memory”

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 (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, 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.

 

Vigorous 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

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) “Romantic and Soulless Killing Spree”

[This article has been edited on 11.3.2018]

Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first 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 can conclude 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.

 

Vigorous 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

Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” She decides that she will never hang around with another “hell-bent” type, no matter how in love she was. There is no tone of regret or sadness in her voice when she tells this, only indifference, although secretly filled with a yearning for life. The darkness surrounding them as they dance symbolizes the vacuum created in their souls and the ending of a romantic relationship.

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. Kit’s words open up a question regarding a relationship between a mass murderer and his presentation in the media. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers particularly deals with this issue in a tone of a powerful and psychotic satire. The media report the killings and people seem to be fascinated with them to a troubling degree.

Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence writes about a “great criminal” who inspires admiration in the masses due to his total disregard to the existing legal order. Kit as a mass murderer fascinates us when we see him on film, most likely due to Martin Sheen’s astonishing performance and his character’s ravaging individuality. This is particularly vivid at the end of the film when the policemen seem fascinated with Kit, ask him why he had done the killings and ask each other about their favourite musicians. Kit even gives them his personal belongings as mementos.

The question which should be posed is not only a relationship between mass murderers and media in real life, but also between presentation of mass murderers on film. There seems to be a triangular relationship regarding to mass murders involving the real-life events, the media and fiction. This is the essence of Kit’s words when he wonders what will the media say about him when he dies (since he is a fictious character, based on a real-life one, and contemplates the role of media when he is gone).

His narcissistic curiosity overshadowed with metaphysical questions explores another aspect of the relationship of a criminal and mass media, his fascination with his own projection which can be a motive for further acts of violence. During the film he records himself leaving fragments of his thoughts while having illusions of grandeur.

When the policemen finally catch Kit, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. The longing to be remembered is equally strong in human beings as to be remembered for something “extraordinary” (with and without quotation marks) and becoming a mass murderer fits that description in a gruesome fashion (think of Charles Manson). 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.

sunset-1625073_960_720

 

Hrvoje Galić

2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004) “Poetry of Destructive Love”

Wong Kar-wai is not just a movie director, he is a psychologist and a poet dealing with romantic love. His style is so nuanced and brought to perfection that he can be put in the same sentence with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri; the early poems of the aforemention poet are not his authentically, he imitated other authors, mostly Guido Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti’s poem Fresca rosa novella partially reads

Tu m’hai si piena di dolor la mente’

You have filled my mind with such agony

‘Voi che per li occhi mi passaste l’core’

You who grasp my heart through the eyes

 

We can see that in Cavalcanti’s poem visual tropes are often used. In the first part od Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, the main female character wears sunglassees in the night; if interpreted in the spirit of Cavalcanti’s poem, it seems that she doesn’t want anyone to fall in love with her (it is true that she does drug deals and wears sunglasses for practical reasons, but it may also be seen as a defense mechanism).

A part of one of Dante’s poems  published in his book Vita nuova reads:

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing

Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Pious Lady on the Right (Study for Dante’s Dream)

Note: The painting, The Pious Lady on the Right, although seeming to be at odds with the ideas presented, portrays the spirit of the aforementioned poem and Wong Kar-wai’s work; a woman is the victim of Amor as well as man.

The connection between Dante from Vita nuova, Cavalcanti and Wong Kar-wai is obvious – both of them find romantic love destructive. In his movies love is never actualized; it is a zero-sum game, but in the end his characters don’t end up with a zero; they end up emotionally crushed, but also enriched by the joyous experience of romantic love. 2046 is the final part of a loose trilogy Days of Being Wild – In the Mood for Love – 2046. Some of the characters from the previous two movies appear again in 2046, but transformed and severely emotionally “damaged”. 2046 tells us what happened with Mr. Chow after the events in In the Mood For Love. Structurally, the film can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Mr. Chow is a libertine lover; in the second he is a nostalgic and caring gentleman.

He engages with a woman who lives next door; she doesn’t succumb easily to Mr. Chow’s newfound charm. He has to “win her over”, after she slaps him when he presents her with a gift. They form an unusal relationship in which Mr. Chow makes the rules; he does not want to get emotionally involved. In the beginning, she is similar to Charles Boudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval, at least as much as we can tell from Boudelaire’s reflections about her in his poems; he often compares her to a cat.

The subplot in the film follows the motel owner’s daughter’s relationship with a Japanese man; although this relationship succeeds, precisely that fact is a catalyst for Mr. Chow’s intensified suffering. Mr. Chow is a writer, and he imagines a place called 2046 where people can recapture their lost memories and experience them again, possibly into eternity.

 

French philosopher René Descartes used to imagine that an evil demon of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to decieve me.” This “demon”, for Descartes, is our senses; applying this notion of Cartesian philosophy to the world of Wong Kar-wai’s movies leads to the conclusion that romantic feelings are such a demon. We can see plainly that in the end Mr. Chow’s life has lost its meaning, romantic feelings have played so many tricks on him that in the end he starts living the life of a gambler. Gambling is a game of chance and luck, symbolically it can be compared to romantic experience; he simply cannot surpass modus operandi he is used to.

Vigorous line:

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because in 2046… nothing ever changes.

Mr. Chow

During his voyages Odysseus encountered Phaecians, a highly civilized race who live the life of pleasure and enjoyment of poetry. The king offers him to marry Nausicaa, his daughter, and to live with them. After hearing the bard singing, Odysseus says:

My Lord Alcinous, what could be finer

Than listening to a singer of tales

Such as Demodocus with a voice like god’s?

Nothing we do is sweeter than this

For Odysseus, this is one of the greatest temptations he encountered during his journeys. Mr. Chow is tempted with 2046 as well; they both leave the place since they are aware that their life journey simply cannot stop there; they are destined for more. The Japanese man Mr. Chow imagines goes to 2046 and is simply lost during the encounter with a robot he falls in love with.

Both the Japanese man and Mr. Chow, who leaves 2046, are a significant part of his personality; he wants to live “among the Phaecians”, but his instinct tells him that it is utterly destructive to live an illusion and a lie. Escaping illusions and lies can be more harmful than living in them, but both Odysseus and Mr. Chow show moral strength and virtue and leave the place. They decide to live the life of pain and hardship.

The episode with Phaecians has another side to it. It represents the dangers of music and poetry to an individual’s well-being. Immersing oneself into life of aesthetic pleasure is criticized by Kierkegaard in his Enten-Eller. Although Kierkegaard presents aesthetical and ethical life as matters of existantial choice and implies that they are incommensurable, it is obvious (when his other works are considered as an argument supporting the thesis) that he is advocating religious life.

In his Politeia, Plato writes that Homer should be honored and then excluded from the polity. Plato saw the dangers poetry can bring. Wong Kar-wai and Dante are poets who are aware of the dangers romantic love and uncontrolled emotions can bring; we can only guess if Plato would include them in his polity.

End Note: I owe my gratitude regarding to the more nuanced understanding of Dante’s poetry to my former professoressa, Ludovica

Hrvoje Galić