If there was ever a movie that showed how a work of art can reveal far more about its maker than its maker ever wanted to reveal, this is it.

VertigomovieI’m reading a biography of Hitchcock right now, and the map that the author draws of the artist’s strengths, weaknesses, and abusive and possessive impulses — they’re all here in Vertigo, as if Hitchcock is both pursuing his fantasies and confessing his sins. The way he obsessed over women of a certain “type,” women who were not his to own manipulate (even if he thought they were, or hoped they were); the way he pursued “the next model” of a certain woman when she would not consent to his ownership (Grace Kelly, for example); the way one leading lady almost always looked suspiciously like the last one… you can see it all in Vertigo.

The movie is such a tangle of frustration, anxiety, desire, rage, arrogance, and self-loathing — and yet, it’s much more than just a psychoanalyst’s dream or a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged misogynist.

Vertigo‘s reputation has improved from its original reception (which was mixed) so that it has surpassed, according to many cinephiles, even Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as the “greatest movie of all time.” I’ll allow it. I would never call it my favorite movie, but its concentrated complexity is a singular achievement — so long as we admit that Hitchcock make have been somewhat oblivious of what he was “achieving.” Perhaps “unleashing” or “exposing” would be the better words.

Vertigo - Scotty's breakdown
© Universal Studios – All Rights Reserved

Welles’s film creates a portrait of America’s greatness and its fatal flaws: its dreams, its hubris, and its tendency to let “the pursuit of happiness” become the path to self destruction. Hitchcock’s film does the same thing, and in ways that better diagnose “this present American darkness.”

Vertigo shows the archetypal American hero in a confounding predicament: the suave and sexy private detective becomes obsessed with someone who is, as far as he knows, both unreachable (she’s another man’s wife, and thus “forbidden fruit”) and unsolvable (her problems are problems he can’t solve, try as he might). And so, unable to cope with the inability to get what he wants — the satisfaction of solving her puzzles and the triumph of winning her heart — he tries to bend reason to his will in order to control and possess her.

He suffers the consequences of that: He loses what was never really his to begin with. And then, his ego fractured, he becomes obsessed with regaining the fleeting illusion of that “glorious past,” moments when he thought he really “had” her. In fact, that relationship was never authentic, nor was any of it ever really his own. And so he becomes increasingly destructive in his efforts to recreate, and repossess, that past.

Vertigo - Redwood
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I’m probably just too preoccupied with our long national nightmare — this current election season. But I couldn’t help thinking about this: Perhaps those who say “Make America Great Again” are trying to force a world that is beyond their control to look like a world they think they once owned. Perhaps that world they remember wasn’t as ideal as their nostalgia tells them it was; perhaps the idea that it was “theirs” was a symptom of their myopia, an illusion that the Internet has erased. Perhaps it’s the deception of nostalgia that is compelling so much destruction.

And perhaps I’m reading too much into all of this — but man, watching Vertigo this week, it sure feels like a movie for this moment. So much more than a case of “Artist, know thyself,” it reads like a diagnosis of an national epidemic: “America, know thyself!”

Vertigo - Midge
© Universal Studios – All Rights Reserved

Even more, it feels like a movie that cries out for feminist criticism. (Thank goodness, there is some.)

And I might even dream of a sequel — one in which Scotty at last turns to Midge, the “friend” he takes for granted throughout the film, and tries once again to turn her into a copy of his precious Madeleine. (Really, get rid of the glasses, change her wardrobe, and she could do a fair imitation.) But Midge resists, names him as the sick and twisted bastard that he’s become, and starts standing up for herself. Instead of basing her hopes of happiness on winning a detective’s love, she paints her way, canvas by brilliant canvas, to freedom.

Whatever the case, it’s Midge I’m thinking about at the end of the film. It’s her happiness, her future, that is important now.

I think I know how she’d vote.

P.S. I went back and listened to U2’s song “Vertigo” to see if there were any correlations. Didn’t find much to write about. But it did occur to me that this track from Achtung Baby might as well be the movie’s theme song:

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