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Hitchcock Annual (1994) - Engendering Vertigo

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A theme which haunts Hitchcock's Vertigo — musically, thematically, critically — is repetition.

As described by Kathryn Kalinak, the music Bernard Herrmann composed for Vertigo's title sequence features "arpeggiated chords played in contrary motion in the bass and treble voices."1 Though perfectly mirroring each other, the treble voice descending as the bass voice ascends, the effect is one of dissonance — given the particular chords themselves, the harmonic intervals between them, and the lack of clear distinction between melody and harmony lines.

A kindred symmetry of formal elements leading finally to dissonance and dissolution is enacted in Vertigo's narrative line — in the way its action doubles back upon itself, constructing and deconstructing its own discourse on matters of similarity and difference, innocence and guilt, past and present, illusion and reality. Tania Modleski is hardly alone in hearing these repetitions as voicing the call of death, though she voices that call in the voice of another; she explains Scottie's embittered interrogation of Judy on their second ascent of the mission tower by reference to (feminism's) Freud and his theory of the difference between mourning and melancholia, where repetition, "as Freud has shown, is linked to unfreedom, to masochism, and to death."2

I gather these thoughts as prologue in part because Vertigo has so fascinated film critics over the years as to make any additional remarks on the film seem obsessive or obsessed — for being so obviously uncalled for, hence uncanny. Equally uncanny are the debts I have lately incurred to the work of Stanley Cavell, an uncanniness marked by the fact that Cavell's contributions to film study have been confirmed as much by repression as by elaboration. Though Modleski has lately accused Cavell of engaging "in conversations with himself," there have been precious few interlocutors for Cavell among the cadres of professional film scholars.3

There is good reason for film scholars to avoid Cavell. His vision of the task of criticism is capacious and intricate; it rivals at every turn the standard "SLAB Theory" (SLAB = Saussure-Lacan-Althusser-Barthes) by means of which a whole generation of film professors has undertaken to characterize the ideological force of the cinematic apparatus.4 Though Cavell avows a specific loyalty to the transcendental romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau, it is his general claim that romanticism — as represented by such as Descartes and Kant and Rousseau and Nietzsche (in philosophy) and Shakespeare and Coleridge and Poe and Kleist (in literature) — fully anticipates the critique of culture undertaken more recently in the work of (in the names of) Marx and Freud, Lacan and Derrida. Certainly it is my more modest claim that Cavell's The World Viewed is the equal of Metz's The Imaginary Signifier when it comes to pondering the way cinema turns alienation into something like rapture; that Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness is fully the equal of Mary Anne Doane's The Desire to Desire when it comes to discussing how film genre is intricate with concepts of gender identity and social legitimacy.5 Indeed, Cavell is unabashed in claiming that marriage is a trope of the social contract as the latter is elaborated in Milton and Locke and Lévi-Strauss while remaining fully mindful that marriage is equally a trope (and a tool) of patriarchal oppressiveness, as he elaborates via repeated discussions of Nora's revolt against Thorvald in Ibsen's A Doll House.6 And there is nothing in the annals of academic film study to match Cavell's sustained reflections on the reaches and depths, the attunements and disappointments, of human language.7

Repetition, voice, alienation, identity: all are topics under study in Cavell's analyses of film genres. Crucial for our purposes are Cavell's "derivation" of "remarriage comedy" from its (mostly Shakespearean) sources in classical comedy and his subsequent derivation of "the melodrama of the unknown woman" from remarriage comedy, derivations which are describable (mythically) as a matter of conversation or interpretation or negation: "Let us think of the common inheritance of the members of a genre as a story, call it a myth. The members of a genre will be interpretations of it, or to use Thoreau's word for it, revisions of it, which will also make them interpretations of one another" (PH 31). "Interpretations," that is, where a feature in one instance takes the place of, "compensates" for, a related feature present in some other version of the story; "Negations," however, when the revision or substitution in question finally changes the story, makes it some other story.

Thus "remarriage comedy" derives from or interprets classical comedy, for example, by replacing the marriage ceremony which typically concludes the New Comedy story with a threat or fact of divorce between characters somewhat older and more maritally experienced than their New Comedy peers. "The central idea," writes Cavell in "The Thought of Movies," is roughly "that the validity or bond of marriage is assured, even legitimized, not by church or state or sexual compatibility" but "by something I call the willingness for remarriage, a way of continuing to affirm the happiness of one's initial leap. As if the chance of happiness exists only when it seconds itself. In classical comedy people made for one another find one another; in remarriage comedy people who have found one another find that they are made for each other."8 In a number of instances this recovery of identity is expressed or troped by incest — as when, in The Awful Truth, Lucy Warriner proves her commitment to marriage by posing as her husband's sister, as if she and Jerry had "grown up together," "thus staking a final claim to have known him intimately forever" (PH 60).

Remarriage comedy also interprets classical comedy by shifting the folkloric "death and resurrection" feature of romance from the Old Comedy senex to the female member of the romantic comedy couple. Cavell often describes remarriage comedy as a "comedy of equality" (PH 82), equality understood as a matter of mutual acknowledgment or recognition; but he is careful to mark the asymmetry of social power which leaves the female characters, if not exactly dead, then at least in a state of uncreation, "as if the women's lives heretofore have been nonexistent, as if they have haunted the world, as if their materialization will constitute a creation of the new woman and hence a creation, or a further step in the creation, of the human."9 Because men, in their villainy, hold social power, the heroine's (luckily, happy) task in remarriage comedy is to find (or refind) a man, call him a husband, who can provide acknowledgment in the form of education or, as Cavell puts it citing Milton, "conversation." In remarriage comedy, Cavell avers by reference to It Happened One Night, "talking together is fully and plainly being together, a mode of association, a form of life, and I would like to say that in these films the central pair are learning to speak the same language" (PH 88).

And what distinguishes remarriage comedy from the subsequently derived "melodrama of the unknown woman, ' ' especially in view of their shared concern for the recreation or metamorphosis of the human female,...

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Leland Poague teaches at Iowa State University and edited A Hitchcock Reader with Marshall Deutelbaum. His book Another frank Copra has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.


Profound thanks for their timely comments and encouragement are due to Susan Poague, Richard Ness, Loring Silet, Neal Bowers, Nina Miller, Thomas Kent, Christopher Brookhouse, and Lesley Brill. A longer version of this essay is scheduled to appear in an exhibition catalog on the works of Pedro Almodovar curated by Christian Leigh in connection with the 1993 Venice Biennale.

  1. Kathryn Kalinak, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 5.
  2. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Routledge, 1988), 98. Cited hereafter as WWK.
  3. See Tania Modleski, Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist" Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), 11. Film critics who have addressed Cavell include Dana Polan, "The Light Side of Genius: Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the Screwball Tradition," in Comedy/Cinema/Theory, ed. Andrew Horton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 131-152, and Marty Roth, "Slap-Happiness: The Erotic Contract of His Girl Fnday," Screen 30.1-2 (Winter-Spring 1989): 160-175. See also Naomi Scheman, "MissingMothers/Desiring Daughters: Framing the Sight of Women," Critical Inquiry 15.1 (Autumn 1988): 62-89.
  4. David Bordwell, "Historical Poetics of Cinema," in The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches, ed. R. Barton Palmer (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 385.
  5. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), cited hereafter as WV, and Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), cited hereafter as PH; Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1982); Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana Univ Press, 1987).
  6. On the use of marriage as a type of the social contract see especially Cavell's "Two Cheers for Romance," in Passionate Attachments: Thinking About Love, ed. Willard Gaylin and Ethel Person (New York: The Free Press, 1988), 85-100.
  7. Nearly everything Cavell has written bears on the question of language-theory. Citations for the present essay are drawn from The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), cited as CR, and In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), cited as IQO.
  8. Stanley Cavell, "The Thought of Movies," in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes (San Francisco: North Point, 1984; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 13. Cited hereafter as TOS.
  9. Stanley Cavell, "Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman," in The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis, ed. Françoise Meltzer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 232. Cited hereafter as PC.
  10. Stanley Cavell, "Naughty Orators: Negation of Voice in Gaslight," in Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Sariord Budick and Wolfgang Iser (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 343. Cited as NO.
  11. Stanley Cavell, "Ugly Duckling, Funny Butterfly: Bette Davis and Now, Voyager," Critical Inquiry 16.2 (Winter 1990): 217.
  12. Cavell, "North by Northwest," TOS 171.
  13. Cavell, "What Becomes of Things on Film?," TOS 181.
  14. Marian E. Keane, "A Closer Look at Scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock, and Vertigo," in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986), 231-48; Wendy Lesser, "Hitchcock's Couples," in His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art (Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press, 1991), 121-44.
  15. William Rothman, "Vertigo: The Unknown Woman in Hitchcock," in The "I" of the Camera: Essays in Film Cnticism, History, and Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 152-73. Cited hereafter as IC.
  16. Leland Poague, Another Frank Copra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
  17. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). Cited hereafter as MI.
  18. Stanley Cavell, "What Photography Calls Thinking." Rantan 4.4 (Spring 1985): 11.
  19. Rothman, "Virtue and Villainy in the Face of the Camera," IC 77, 78.
  20. Rothman and I cite different language from Brooks, though from the same passage of argument; I believe I have not distorted his view or use of Brooks in so doing.
  21. Stanley Cavell, "Postscript (1989): To Whom It May Concern," Critical Inquiry 16.2 (Winter 1990): 280. Cited hereafter as PS.
  22. On "the feminine man" concept see Tania Modleski, "Time and Desire in the Woman's Film," Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984): 19-30, and Cavell, PS.
  23. Robin Wood, "Male Desire, Male Anxiety: The Essential Hitchcock," in A Hitchcock Reader (cited), 228.
  24. David R. Shumway, "Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage," Cinema Journal 30.4 (Summer 1991): 7, 11.
  25. Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 10. Cited hereafter as DK.
  26. Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque: Living Batch, 1989), 47.
  27. On this point I am specifically indebted to Lesley Brill's The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 219. Professor Brill's analysis echoes my own, in charting Vertigo's ironies against a background of romance, though his version of that background is drawn largely and productively from other Hitchcock films. I, obviously, rely on Cavell and Brooks.
  28. Thomas M. Leitch, Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 203.
  29. Kaja Silverman, "Male Subjectivity and the Celestial Suture: It's a Wonderful Life," Framework 14 (1981): 16-22. Two other deeply thoughtful articles on It's A Wonderful Life are: George Toles, " 'No Bigger than Zuzu's Petals': Dream-Messages, Epiphanies, and the Undoing of Conventions in it's a Wonderful Life," North Dakota Quarterly 52.3 (Summer 1984): 43-66, and William Rothman, "Hollywood and the Rise of Suburbia," East-West Film Journal 3.2 (June 1989): 96-105.
  30. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988). Cited hereafter as BL.
  31. See Modleski, WWK, and Deborah Linderman, "The Mise-en-Abime of Hitchcock's Vertigo," Cinema Journal 30.4 (Summer 1991): 51-74.
  32. William Rothman, Hitchcock-The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 340.