Friday, August 28, 2015

Twice the Vertigo ... still not much fun

I've always struggled with Vertigo -- the movie, not the affliction -- but the crowning of it as the best movie of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll made the condition all the more acute.

Whereas others -- specifically, the plurality of critics who responded to the poll -- have hailed it as one of the best movies of all time, I have never even considered it among my five favorite Hitchcock movies. Possibly not even among my ten favorite.

What can I say. This movie has always left me cold. Which it's supposed to do, I think, but cold in a way that you find stimulating and thought provoking. Not cold in a way that just makes you not want to watch it again.

But true enough, I have not wanted to watch it again, and have been stuck on just that single viewing, which probably occurred sometime in the 1990s. Just that single viewing of what is now reasonably considered The Greatest Movie of All Time. (Being a huge fan of Citizen Kane, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, and which got bumped from Sight & Sound's top spot by Vertigo, has intensified my Vertigo resentment since 2012.)

But the opportunity to reckon with Vertigo a second time arose when the other two guys on my podcast got enthusiastic about making this the next repertory pick for us to discuss, to balance out the new releases that usually comprise the podcast's discussion format. Because I have not been entirely comfortable with my minority feelings on Vertigo, I embraced this suggestion as my own opportunity to revisit it. We record on Sunday, and I watched it again last night.

Before I tell you how I felt about it on second viewing, I should tell you about the secondary meaning to the title of this post. As is quite appropriate for Vertigo -- a movie in which doubling is such a major theme, it's almost inescapable -- this was not only my second viewing of Vertigo, but I watched parts of two different Vertigos. Let me take a moment to explain.

As is always my preference when I need to get a hold of a specific movie to watch, I checked the library to see if it was available. It was, but it was being held in offsite storage and needed to be transported to one of the branches for me to pick up. A week passed, and when I checked on Tuesday -- cognizant of the approaching viewing deadline for the podcast -- its status was still that generic purgatory of "Offsite Storage."

So I cut my losses and just spent the $2.99 to download a rental from iTunes. As it turns out, I should have waited just one more day, because the next time I checked the library's website, my reservation of a Hitchock DVD four pack (including also Psycho, The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much) was "Awaiting Collection." I had to go to the library anyway, so I did collect it -- even though I had a copy on the computer at home. My reasoning had something to do with not wanting to annoy the library by reserving something and then never collecting it, especially on the heels of reserving two copies of Star Wars earlier in the month and then leaving one of them uncollected. I didn't want to get my name put on some list, or my picture hung behind the counter with a note that reads "Do not reserve to this guy."

I'd say it's a good thing I had both copies, but really, I only would have needed the iTunes copy. (The reverse, however, was not true.) I started watching Vertigo on DVD because it requires less setup (I don't need to connect my computer to the TV), but when the performance started suffering from the imperfections on the disc's surface, I didn't fight it for long before just switching to iTunes.

The funny thematic parallel notwithstanding, it wasn't a particularly successful second viewing of the movie. I wouldn't say I like Vertigo any less, but neither do I like it any more. And my suspicion of why I didn't like it very much in the first place seems to have been confirmed by this viewing: It's just not very much fun.

Whether a movie is fun or not does not typically play a huge role in how much I like it. If I graded movies only on how fun they were, I wouldn't have selected 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or United 93 as parts of my top 25 movies of the 2000s. But when it comes to Hitchcock, fun does really seem to matter to me.

In looking at my two favorite Hitchcocks, they are both exceedingly fun. These would be Rear Window (which is in my top 30 of all time) and North by Northwest (which is just outside my top 100). My three and four Hitchcock -- Rebecca and Psycho, though I'm not sure the order -- are not as fun, but they are both a laugh a minute compared to the somber Vertigo.

And perhaps the inclusion of Rebecca and Psycho in this discussion allows me to expand upon my definition of "fun" in this context. Certainly, both of those are very dark movies when compared to Rear Window and North by Northwest, which have dark moments but are overall more like popcorn thrillers. And in ways, both Rebecca and Psycho are far darker than Vertigo.

But just because a movie is dark doesn't mean it can't be fun. Speaking of Psycho, American Psycho is incredibly dark but also incredibly fun -- in fact, it is as fun as it is dark, if not more so. Psycho is like that in that it contains these cathartic releases of fear and tension, and has its own twisted sense of humor. I remember Rebecca less well because I haven't seen it since we watched it in my film class my senior year in high school, either 1990 or 1991, but what strikes me as fun in that movie is the gothic melodrama milieu of Daphne du Maurier's novels (another of which, Jamaica Inn, I read earlier this year, leaving it fresh in my mind. Jamaica Inn is a Hitchcock du Maurier adaptation that I have yet to see).

Vertigo doesn't meet either a traditional or a non-traditional definition of fun, and it has no sense of humor. Simply put, it's a drag. It's a deep dive into the sad psyches of scarred individuals who are manipulating each other. These manipulations take on interesting forms, and the "mystery" of Vertigo is fairly satisfying (if revealed too early in the narrative, and with too little fanfare, in that scene where Judy writes out her confession). But entirely too much time is spent on what amounts to stalking behavior, and a type of madness that I have seen explored in more engrossing ways elsewhere. Vertigo is neither fun nor "fun."

There's a lot more I can and will say about this movie, but I'll say it on the podcast this weekend. And speaking of the podcast, here's a link to our most recent one on Trainwreck if you would like to check it out.

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