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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
Falling
Emmy Chang • A centennial tribute to the maker of Vertigo
September 1999

Alfred Hitchcock made 52 movies, and one terrifying one.

Why does Vertigo retain its hold on us? For me, its seminal moment must come when we find Jimmy Stewart staring, stricken, at a woman who reminds him
hauntingly of a dead love. He knows it can't be her, and that to attempt to make the new woman into the old would be an offense against both; but he cannot stop himself. The look on Stewart's face in that moment is exactly the look it wore when he experienced actual acrophobia, staring from high up in a building to the hard street far below. Stewart's experience as he looks at Kim Novak is of not physical but moral vertigo, the feeling we have when the right thing to
do appears as far away to us, and as shattering, as that distant pavement. In an ordinary suspense film we are merely voyeurs, watching bad things happen to good (and bad) people; the characters and their sins remain external to us. But the shock of Vertigo is that we cannot sequester ourselves from it. We are watching Stewart when he looks at Novak-but far more than that, we are watching ourselves.

And the film never relents; for it reminds us not only of the worst wrongs we do each other but of the ferocious need that drives us to them: our essential
incompleteness, our desperate loneliness. The film's most awful lines are surely these:
 

Novak: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
Stewart: Yes... yes.
Novak: All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.


They are the unsophisticated words of an unsophisticated working girl, but they are no less powerful for all that. (And anyway, contra the poets, most of our important moments are ineloquent.) For we too are asking those questions every day: If I do it, will you love me?—If I do it, will it keep you from leaving me? It is the small death we live whenever we find something we need, and know we could lose—or have already lost. Hitchcock, who was always ahead of us, may even have consciously engineered the connection between the dizzying rise and fall of the San Francisco streets, and the phrase (which first appears in As You Like It), "falling in love."

I couldn't move after seeing Vertigo for the first time, and still feel a little weak when I see it again now. Many great books and most great music can be as
powerful as this—but very few great films take something away from us, violate some former illusion of our completeness. I do not know what programmer had
the idea of broadcasting the theme from Vertigo on WMNR Fine Arts Radio one evening this June, but the instant panic I felt on hearing it proved a lesson in
itself. Today's suspense films spill oceans more of blood than Vertigo, but I cannot imagine being stricken with terror by the theme to The Shining. And
that can only be because Hitchcock, ever ambitious, is playing with the highest stakes there are. For to some extent, though we must love a movie like this, some part of us has to wish we could remain safe from it; as some part of us—the wiser part-has to wish we could remain safe from the unspeakable terror of the fall into love.

They call this a "cult movie," and certainly to the unconverted there is something a little peculiar in the way the film restorer's eyes glowed when he announced in 1997 that enough new prints of Vertigo had been made to last us well into 2250. In the end perhaps all that can be said to those who have not yet fallen under the spell, is: See the movie. Better still: Fall in love, hard—and then see the movie. (The former may even be worth enduring for the sake of the
latter.) The two psychic cataclysms illuminate and may even complete one another because they shatter the dual illusion of our safety, from each other and from ourselves.

-Emmy Chang '97 is an alumna of Silliman College

 

   
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