From Chapter 15: Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (Pages 213 – 227)
In 1958, when VERTIGO
first came out, movies were not quite the willed, eternally accessible experience they are today. You couldn’t just pop down to your local video rental place or order up the film online. You had to wait for the movie to appear in its own good time, first in a theater in your neighborhood and then, at unpredictable intervals, on TV. Sometimes it would come back to the theaters as a revival, but that too was unpredictable – especially so in the case of
VERTIGO, which for complicated movie-industry reasons was actually taken off the market for over fifteen years. If you saw
VERTIGO at all during that blacked-out period, it was likely to be in a bootleg or film-archive version, not in a commercial theater, and certainly not on television…
I have very clear but incomplete memories of that first viewing (at age ten), and they are mostly visual memories… A decade and a half went by before I saw the movie again. This time I was in my mid-twenties, a graduate student at Berkeley… I can still, nearly twenty-five years later, recall in detail the powerful impact of that second viewing. I wasn’t expecting it, since my response the first time had been mainly cerebral, but this time I was swept away by feeling. I am tempted to say, “It was as if I had never seen the movie before,” but that is exactly not what it was: I was aware, even at the time, that what I was getting was the benefit of a second viewing. The first time I was too caught up in the suspense, and if that is your primary motive, the end of
VERTIGO can be a bit disappointing. But once you know how it ends, you are freed to focus on the emotional progression of the film. For the first time I saw how much the movie was about loss, and about second chances – both subjects that I newly and deeply cared about, at the age of twenty-four. What had seemed melodramatic and hokey to me before now seemed tragic and true: this was what love was like, I thought, and nothing other than Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra had shown it to me so clearly…
The longing to be haunted by something richer and more mystical than one’s own daily existence – that is what
VERTIGO so cunningly enables us to feel. You can call it romantic love, or the movies, or fiction, or ghosts, or history
(VERTIGO, at various times, calls it all of these), but whatever you decide to call it, you will not be able to rationalize it away by pointing to its invisibility, its patent
nonpalpability. Whatever it is, it is there even when it is not there…
You can come up with lots of ideas about the self-referentially filmic aspects of
VERTIGO, but you can only really feel the moments that are about love, or loss, or being inhabited by something or someone else – all those things I thought the movie was about when it affected me so powerfully at the age of twenty-four.
I have seen the movie four or five times since then, and no viewing has been quite so overwhelming as that second one.
(VERTIGO is, after all, about second chances, and second chances only: there is magic in that number two.) But I have never seen it without noticing or feeling something new. It is a movie that never goes dead on me…
Once I was a ten-year-old child whose life was almost all imagined future. Now I am a middle-aged adult with a substantial past to remember. I am utterly altered and yet still somehow the same, and I know this because there in my memory are the books I once read (and the movies I watched, and the paintings I saw), waiting to be taken out and looked at anew. The view from here is a different one, but there is also something familiar about it. That, I suppose, is what makes the process of rereading at once so pleasurable and so unnerving. I have loved being surrounded by my ghosts in this way. I will be sorry to let them go.
FILMS FOR TWO ADDENDUM:
Wendy Lesser did her undergraduate work at Harvard and her graduate work at Berkeley, with time in between at King’s College, Cambridge. NOTHING REMAINS THE SAME is Leser’s sixth book. The other five are:|
A DIRECTOR CALLS
HIS OTHER HALF: Men Looking at Women Through Art
PICTURES AT AN EXECUTION: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder
THE AMATEUR: An Independent Life of Letters
THE LIFE BELOW GROUND: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature & History
She also wrote the preface to the Vintage Classics edition of THE AMERICAN by Henry James, and served as the editor of HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography.
Lesser has already received numerous honors and awards including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She writes frequently on books, dance, film, & television for the NEW YORK TIMES, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, and other national publications. She is the founding editor of
THE THREEPENNY REVIEW.
Lesser lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband, Richard Rizzo, and their son Nick.
FILMS FOR TWO appreciates Wendy Lesser’s perceptive answer to an important FAQ (“Why are some films better the second time around?”) and we are grateful to her for allowing us to use selected excerpts from the chapter on
VERTIGO in her 2002 book NOTHING REMAINS THE SAME as our August Feature. For instant gratification, follow these links:
The table below provides the names of 12 films
recommended by Wendy Lesser for multiple viewings. One caveat: please
keep in mind that we began FILMS FOR TWO
in 1999. Our method of selection is to try to stay current on new
releases, and fill in “history” as films appear on our premium
cable stations. Therefore, although we’ve seen most of the films she
has named, some of our own favorites have yet to be included in our
database (e.g., DEAD RINGERS).