[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
« Nous sommes des rejetés de la jetée. » (Le bassin de J. W.)
Vertigo has the central place in Malick’s experiment. It is always good time to ask why.
This film now at the peak of its critical success has known innumerable homages, allusions, metaphorical uses and remakes. This post gathers three authors who kept an intense, if not obsessive, relation with what is probably the most obsessive and implacable film ever made.
The way these three played with Vertigo’s ghost was different and always personal. Each one has his own Madeleine. But what is interesting to confirm in all of them, part of the crème de la crème of French cinema, is the identification of Madeleine with cinema itself: miracle and curse. Hope it will be useful to understand the game Malick is playing since 1973.
“I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.” (Sunless)
Not much time was needed so that Vertigo (1958) would prove to have a particular place in the mythology of cinephilia. Apparently, the first group of fanatics appeared in France. They published on the film. They made films influenced by it. The disease spread all over the world. And so on.
|Jules et Jim (1962) and To the Wonder. Marina has la peau douce.|
Truffaut, as you would expect, showed immediate influence. Although not an “expert” - with few exceptions, not even a fan - of his filmography, I would say that Truffaut took several years to develop a particularly intimate (as intimate as the other two directors here mentioned) relation with Hitchcock’s masterpiece. When we arrive to The Green Room (1978), the color of Scottie’s insanity room, it was definitely in his heart.
|The candle of candles, the candle of cinema, The Tree o Life.|
Frankly, I have some difficulty to be in tune with Truffaut and his chapel. Some present The Green Room as a story of a failure, a fatal failure, identifying with Truffaut’s cinema, or cinema itself. Anyway: candles lighten to each of his “friends” - more in the spiritual sense than biographical - like Doinel did with Balzac, and the protagonist’s wife portrayed in impeccable profile in the green room. It would be consensual to say that The Green Room transformed Madeleine in some sort of personification of Truffaut’s cinema, the temple where his religion of memory takes place, very much in Malick’s way. This play with a photo by Truffaut is exactly of the same type we often find in the American’s work. In this respect note that Truffaut’s chapel is not far from a museum. (Adorno knew one was not far from mausoleum...) A museum of still images. Still images are produced, stolen, adored, collected in Truffaut’s films. Played with, like with Summer with Monika’s still, stolen - from Bergman - in Les quatre cents coups to inspire the film’s final shot, frozen in a still image. Truffaut shot and buried by the camera in his own film.
If the hypothesis exposed in My Dear Wife is right, Godard was immediately catch in Madeleine’s spiral too. And in a much more dangerous way. Because in Vivre sa vie (1962) - just four years between the two films - the spiral designed by the director already embraces other living creature and one linked to him by affection. In this film Godard insinuates a use of his wife similar to Scottie’s use of Judy. Near the thin red line, this experiment is closely attached to the memory of cinema, as Karina’s name, haircut, etc. are cinephiliac fetishes. Not to speak of Madeleine’s profile, of course.
|La jetée (1962) and Les statues meurent aussi (1953)|
“He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory - insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” (Sunless, 1983) In that same year of 1962 we find the first - and probably yet to be surpassed - open declaration of obsessive love to Hitchcock’s film, La jetée. Where will we find something nearly as intense? In Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003)? Each one to answer.
Marker, who gave us one of the best comments on the film (last version published in 1994) saw Vertigo as a film about power and freedom, «.... he imagined Scotty as time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it. Inventing a double for Madeleine in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him ...» (Sunless). More than once and in more than one way (including explicitly) he presented La jetée, his 1962 “photo roman” as Vertigo’s remake.
How can one deal with Hitchcock’s nightmare of obsessive repetition? Repeating it, might be an answer. Inventing a double for oneself in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to oneself. Double meets double. Sounds familiar?
La jetée. A cemetery, museums, birds, stuffed or not, flowers, corridors... The voyager in time finds, recognizes the woman he is searching in that fatal profile. We would not need the sequoia in the Jardin des plantes where “the hand pointed to a place outside the tree, outside of time,” to know immediately that also Marker was mad about Madeleine.
|A “museum, which is perhaps that of his memory.” («… un musée qui est peut-être celui de sa mémoire. », La jetée). Suppress perhaps.|
It was indeed an extraordinary coincidence that La jetée was shot in tunnels latter occupied by the Cinémateque française. To what extent it is a film about cine-philia - impossible, mad cinephilia - is difficult to determine. C. Lupton puts it like this: “The woman herself represents cinema as the object of the man’s desire: it is the film that seems to wake up as she does.” (2005) Galatea waking to her lover.
|Must be imagining a photo roman...|
The reference to Hitchcock is clear. The rest is uncertain and that is part of the spell of the film. Some find a touch of Metropolis in those creepy corridors. We can develop more crazy interrogations. There is that Neapolitan ruin where Rossellini films a famous scene of Viaggio in Italia (1954). The statues. Those shots with the woman sunbathing... Mere coincidences? Would the hammock be some kind of memory of Eisenstein?
Don’t ask me. In the long corridors of La jetée little light enters. But that the eyes play a main role in the voyager’s experiment - as in ours - there is no doubt. Eyes where lives the infinite and hypnotizing spiral of Vertigo.
You certainly will not consider an exaggeration to call mad about Madeleine to a man who wrote in his comment to her film: “Obviously, this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart. But do those who don’t deserve that we write them [anything at all]?” (« On l’a vu, ce texte ne s’adresse qu’à ceux qui connaissent Vertigo par coeur. Mais est-ce que les autres méritent qu’on leur écrive ? »)
“Hitchcock’s first major find was to slow the rhythm of her "passage" to a virtual freeze-frame (he came very close to this limit but was careful not to reach it fully).” (The Pygmalion Effect)
Stopping in motion. Some of the finest films (and other works of art, by the way) made under Vertigo’s inspiration are as precious to interrogate Hitchcock’s masterpiece as the finest written analyses. In La jetée, for example, we notice that Marker did more or less the inverse, accelerating the rhythm of the photos to a virtual movement as the woman awakes, and looks to the camera. Inversely, Marker’s film is saying that Madeleine’s profile is at the border of photography. (After all, Vertigo’s camera is identifying with Hitchcock’s photographer, James Stewart in Rear Window...) From this perspective, nothing more natural than to find a photography of a double of Madeleine as an image-memory of a dead woman in The Green Room; or Karina opening Vivre sa vie framed as that truth that 24 times a minute becomes a film.
To stop oneself on a detail, to frame it, to detach it from the rest, to adore it. Photography often serves fetishist practices, as Truffauts’s films eloquently show. Curiously, these practices are intimately related to cinephilia. Doinel steals Monika’s still. In La nuit américaine, during his dream, the director steals Citizen Kane’s promotional stills. Our emotional relation with cinema is often built on details: the way a word is said, a gesture, a song, a particular shot. These are the treasure’s cinephiles collect in their memories. And that they try to revive and to combine in their films. Analyzing Jules et Jim’s supposed hesitation between desire for movement and nostalghia for immobility, Ludovic Cortade diagnosed a "Pygmalion complex" to Truffaut («... il est pérmis de déviner dans Jules et Jim une conception du mouvement faite d'hésitations entre le désir de mouvement et la nostalgie de immobilité, ce qui apparenterait Truffaut à un nouveau Pygmalion. ») To a certain point, this hesitation might describe the cine-phile as a cine-creator: between the adoration of the works of the past and the desire to use, to profane them in order to produce a new film. The fascination for the Mother (image) and the desire to substitute the Father (narration), if you like that sort of talk.
“While in principle a frontal shot suggests confrontation, dialogue, or exchange, the profile [of Madeleine], on the other hand, is pure spectacle.” (The Pygmalion Effect) Certainly not the profiles of the mentioned films, at least in the sense that subject and object do not interact. In them we have nothing more, as Monteiro would say, than the spectator turned into spectacle. Spectaculum as spectare at the speculum of cinephilia. Or the cinephile as his own spectacle. Doinel looking at the camera.
Obviously, the way of nature is addressed to those who know the history of cinema by heart. But do those who don’t deserve anything at all? Certainly, but they would better search it somewhere else.
|“This was the heavenly loveliness/ Of my Circe, and the sweet poison/ That could transform my thought.” (Gods Comedy, Camões, inspired in Petrarch, Canz. 213: very photographic poems) Look up for the beautiful quotation of Goya in Come and Go...|