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Down with Genre!

August 18, 2006

Several regular readers have brought up Vertigo recently so I thought this would be a good time to publish this paper I wrote in college. (Actually, I would have done it sooner but I just figured out how to transform my old WordPerfect files from gibberish into usable Word documents.) It was originally titled “Generic Rupture and Identification in Vertigo.”

Vertigo is a movie (1) brimming with rupture. Each rupture in the film is a moment where our narrative expectations are undermined. These moments are both visual and structural shocks to highly conditioned Hollywood movie-watchers. With each rupture, we effectively have to readjust our understanding of the movie, and redefine what kind of story it is. For what makes Vertigo so effective is the way that it continually confuses us about its genre. Each rupture is a disturbance in our embedded understanding of a specific genre of classical Hollywood film. With each rupture we must decide what genre the film “really” is.

Genres are fundamental to understanding Hollywood movie-making. Even more importantly, they are fundamental to understanding the spectator’s experience of watching a Hollywood movie. Genres are necessary in movies because they are highly efficient, extremely complex signifiers. A movie’s generic identification — High Noon is a Western, Sleepless in Seattle is a romantic comedy, Aliens is science fiction — allows a movie to dispense volumes of information before a viewer even enters the theater.

However, by 1958 (the year of Vertigo’s release), generic identification was so strong a signifier of a film’s identity that generic expectations were embedded in movie-watchers’ minds, conditioned nearly into reflexes. By 1958, genres were more than suggestive signifiers, they were institutionalized sources of narrative expectation. Spectators, by virtue of entering a movie that was sold in a certain way, engaged in a generic contract (2) with every narrative. What makes Vertigo so shocking, even now, forty years after its initial release, is the way that it continually violates the narrative expectations that are encoded in the generic contract.

From the beginning of the opening credits, we are confused about what type of movie we’re watching. The credits sequence hints to us that we’ll be engaged in a dark, serious (potentially very psychological) sort of movie. The sequence introduces all sorts of mysteries — Whose face is this? What is she looking at? What are these spirals? — that we sense will be resolved, either explicitly or thematically, during the course of the film. Coupled with Bernard Hermann’s score, these images serve notice to us that we are most certainly not about to watch a screwball comedy.

The opening chase on the rooftop then continues to raise questions about what sort of movie we’re about to watch. In the credit sequence, our questions were purely visual, related to fixed images. In the chase scene, our concerns are based around more structural, more narrative questions. Who is this man dressed in all white? Why is he running? Who are these two he is running from? Why is Jimmy Stewart, dressed as a normal Joe, chasing a man across rooftops?

This scene hints that we may be watching some sort of crime thriller. At the very least, this scene continues in a similar tone from the credit sequence. It is dark, mysterious, edgy. Serious.

But immediately after this scene (3), our security in the visual and narrative integrity of the movie is ruptured. We see Midge working peacefully at her design table. We see Jimmy Stewart seated comfortably in a chair, engaging in vaguely innuendo-laden talk with this woman we’ve never seen before. The time is daytime. The space is well-lit and comfortable. These characters are secure in a way that neither the viewer, nor the characters in the preceding scene, have yet been. This abrupt change in tones is the first (and most minor) rupture.

We immediately learn that both Midge and Johnnie-O (Jimmy Stewart) are well-educated, comfortable middle class friends. Because Midge is also a sophisticate, and because Jimmy seems interested in everything but her, we are prejudiced into thinking of the movie as a screwball comedy. Now, we’ve figured it out. We chalk up the first scene as a narrative device used to demonstrate that Johnnie-O is a real man, a brave man, a man worthy of the spectator’s sympathy. Now, shocked by the danger of his profession, he is ready to settle down and the only thing needed to complete his domestication is a wife. The perfect set-up for a screwball comedy, or perhaps a modern romance, along the lines of a His Girl Friday. The edge has been dulled.

There are many small representational clues in the scene in Midge’s apartment that lead to the overall sense that we are watching a screwball comedy. Despite knowing that this is Jimmy Stewart’s movie, that his gaze will probably predominate, the most definite point-of-view shots in Midge’s apartment center on Midge. Her gazing is emphasized in a way that Scotty’s is not. As David R. Shumway notes, “What distinguishes screwball comedies… is that the woman is never merely an item of exchange between two men; she is also presented as a desiring subject… men are also gazed upon.” (4) Further, marriage is a central subject of the conversation, and as Shumway argues, “screwball comedies typically construct the viewer as subject of [a] romance so that he or she must feel marriage as the thing desired.” (5)

There are other reasons that our narrative expectations are prejudiced. If a viewer has seen Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much, we are heavily prejudiced into thinking of this movie as a “Hitchcock” movie starring “Jimmy Stewart.” These other two movies are both marked by their humor and domesticated violence. Both movies involve their protagonists in very dangerous situations revolving around a murder, but they both retain a light-heartedness about them. Both movies are laced with comic scenes. More importantly, both movies end comically, emphasizing that the characters involved, while threatened, make out secure and happy. The paraplegic Jeffries in the end of Rear Window even has a smile on his face.

Even if a first-time viewer of Vertigo has not seen either Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much, he has probably seen another Hitchcock movie. At the minimum, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and Hitchcock’s over-exposure have led a viewer to gain a sense of what Hitchcock movies are about: “One of the reasons that the career of Hitchcock is so fascinating is that he was one of the very few directors… whose name has always been as important on a movie marquee as that of an actor appearing in one of his films.” (6)

By 1958, a spectator was led to expect from Hitchcock movies a mixture of thrills and dark comedy, hints of perversion, seemingly perfect murders, lots of suspense, and scenes drenched in comic irony. What he is not led to expect is utterly explicit perversion, a tone of intense sobriety, the murder of a major protagonist half-way through, and a character who actually does go insane — all of which, of course, are hallmarks of Vertigo.

Once Johnnie-O enters Gavin Ellster’s office, the movie gradually shifts tones again. Again the spectator is insecure in his ability to locate this movie in a genre. The sense of confusion is dulled, however, by our understanding of Hitchcock movies, which always seem to involve the entanglement of a protagonist in a situation out of his control. Moreover, from seeing detective thrillers like Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon, we know from the second that Scotty visits a rich, faintly effeminate man who wants his wife spied upon, that the detective is going to be involved in something over his head. So it is actually not too difficult to reconcile the impending detective story with the preceding screwball set-up, because we’ve probably seen it before. It’s called The Big Sleep.

The movie continues, playing off the tensions between the comfortably domestic comedy between Johnnie-O and Midge, and the ever more mysterious detective work of Scotty. But these tensions are fairly pedestrian to Hollywood stories, which flirt with other genres, but rarely outright violate the expectations of their own generic self-identification. In fact, the introduction of Madeline as the object of Scottie’s gaze creates a romantic triangle between Scotty, Midge and Madeline. This triadic structure is a fundamental convention of screwball comedies, which create couples at the exclusion of a desirous other. (8)

During the first quarter of the movie, we suspect there is a crime to be solved and a romance to be had. Even the suggestion of supernatural influence indicated by Madeline’s disappearance from the McKiddrick Hotel is not that disturbing.

Because the movie is a Hollywood movie taking place in the contemporary era, Madeline’s “ghostliness” (9) only draws us deeper into regarding the story as a detective thriller/mystery. We don’t know how Madeline disappeared but the fact that she did makes us want to know her secrets even more. And because we’re accustomed to myriads of detective thrillers that solve seemingly impossible mysteries with mouse-trap-like logic, we suspect that her disappearance will be solved in a highly satisfying, comforting matter.

When Madeline jumps into San Francisco Bay, the movie again switches tracks, genre-wise. Afterwards, of course, Madeline and Scotty become involved in an intense love affair. By involving the investigating subject with the object of investigation, the narrative is only fulfilling our expectations of detective thrillers. The romance between Scotty and Madeline is perhaps more mystifying and intense than most detective movies, but the difference is one of degree, not fundamental structure.

The movies continues playing with the detective thriller and screwball/romance genres in an intense, but not shocking way, until Madeline falls from the tower. This fall is the second major rupture in the movie.

First and foremost, losing the partner from a romance (Jimmy Stewart’s partner of all partners!) half-way through the movie is an enormous shock. Visually, we are confused because we don’t see the fall directly. We get a split-second oblique view of the fall, shown in a shot that takes full advantage of the spectator’s desire to know. She is only seen through a window frame, which violates our expectation that any major death in a movie should be shown as blatantly as possible. Especially if the protagonist is a star. Otherwise how are we to know it’s dramatically important?

So both our structural and our visual expectations are violated. All of a sudden the possibility of this movie being a romance or a detective thriller is seriously jeopardized, if not outright annihilated. How can it be a romance without a lover? How can it be a detective thriller if the mystery is solved (that is, when Scotty reveals to Madeline the logic behind her ghostly remembrances)? Moreover, how does a Jimmy Stewart-Kim Novak movie precede without Kim Novak?

The spectator’s sense of shock (and suspicion of being tricked) is analogized in the next scene, when we see Scotty sitting voiceless and immobile at an inquest. During the judge’s summary, Scotty is consistently belittled and his manhood is continually called into question, and he can’t do anything. We sense he is being persecuted, much in the same way that we were persecuted by Madeline’s fall, a momentous instance of generic violation.

In fact, Scotty’s desire to know Madeline’s secret, his shock at Madeline’s death, and his odd sense of persecution are all (almost exactly) parallel to the spectator’s viewing experience of the movie up through the inquest. WE want to know Madeline’s secret because as viewers conditioned by omnisicient cinematic perspectives, we want to know everything. WE are shocked at Madeline’s death because her death violates so many of our narrative expectations. WE feel persecuted and victimized by the story because we feel like we were entitled to a romance or a detective thriller. Because these scopophiliac sensations are all so analagous with Scotty’s anxieties, the spectator, the WE, is drawn into an intense identification with Scotty.

Since Jimmy Stewart is Scotty, we over-identify with the character even more because he is the last stable signifier of narrative expectation. If the movie is no longer a romance, and if the movie is no longer a detective thriller, at least it’s still a “Jimmy Stewart movie.” A Jimmy Stewart movie comes with its own narrative expectations, those being what we expect from nearly any movie centered around a Hollywood superstar. Since Jimmy Stewart is always the protagonist (and NEVER, EVER the villain), we can at least expect that Stewart will be a stable, if occasionally distraught, protagonist and source of identification.

From early on in the movie, there have been subtle hints that this movie will be a standard Stewart movie. As in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as in It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart seems confronted by a perfect mate, here in the person of Midge. Another Stewart characteristic is fainting, which he also does in both of those key texts. Stewart is always threatened by a terrible disintegration of his life that is out of his control. In Mr. Smith, it’s his credibility as an honest man, in Wonderful Life, it’s his comfortable domestic existence. So here, in Vertigo, his position as a detective is threatened, but we expect that threat to be overcome in the course of the narrative.

Instead, however, we get a Jimmy Stewart who completely breaks down. Breaks down?! Stewart may teeter, as in It’s A Wonderful Life, but he never falls over the edge. Moreover, one of the unspoken assumptions of Hollywood narratives is that the protagonist never becomes so psychologically distraught that he shuts down his ability to direct the narrative. But here, with Scotty’s dream and his institutionalization, Stewart seems castrated from the story.

The dream is also an intense rupture (rupture #3) of our visual expectations from Hollywood movies. Hollywood movies, with few exceptions, do not segue into dream sequences, especially sequences as self-consciously artificial as the one in Vertigo. Hollywood movies, on the whole, attempt to maintain the illusion of naturalism. While no one really accepts classical Hollywood movies as real, we suspend disbelief for the sake of the movie’s naturalistic allure. Vertigo violates our expectation of naturalism’s visual consistency.

In the rare occasion that Hollywood movies do allow dream sequences, the fantasy is rendered in the most naturalistic style possible. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is swept away by the tornado and goes to Oz. Upon returning, it appears as if her experience might have just been a dream. But if we as a spectator can’t pretend that it was real, then we have been betrayed by a story of no consequence or actuality, so we take the more comfortable option. It’s A Wonderful Life is disrupted by Jimmy Stewart’s visit with the angel Charlie. In a prolonged fantasy sequence, Charlie shows George Bailey what the world would be like without him. But, once Bailey leaves the bridge, we are left to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t a dream. In these fantasies, Hollywood movie-making seeks to naturalize the surreal; Vertigo seeks to magnify it. In Vertigo’s dream sequence, the surreal is emphatically artificial, out of place, and anti-natural.

Seduced into over-identification with Scotty, the viewer is traumatized by the revelation of Scotty’s psychosis. Once we see Scotty walking and talking again, we are comfortable again, but this comfort implicates the viewer in Scotty’s sickness. We, as the viewer, betrayed twice, by the death of Madeline and by Scotty’s mental collapse, want to see a return to the more comfortable cinematic world before Madeline’s death. Then we knew what we were watching. We knew what to expect.

After Scotty’s breakdown, I wonder if our narrative expectations haven’t been so violated that we actually read the movie as non-generic. The only genre the movie would seem to belong to at this point is psychological thrillers, but that judgment really only works in retrospect; at the time, that classification wouldn’t make much sense (it only begins to mean anything once Hollywood becomes overtly interested in psychological perversion in the 1960s ). (10)

From the breakdown on, we share the same sense of being lost, of confusion, of “What to do now?” that Scotty seems to express. We identify with Scotty’s attempts to return to places where Madeline was, because we want to see her returned too. In the world created before her death, we were secure we were watching a movie “starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak,” a movie that was part romance, part detective thriller. Scotty’s quest for a return to the past is emblematic of the spectator’s desire to reseal the generic contract.

The moment when Scotty spots Madeline in Judy is an ambivalent one for the viewer. Depending on one’s level of foreknowledge about the movie, Judy is either a person who looks nothing like Madeline, or Judy is Kim Novak’s second role (as advertised on movie posters and trailers of the time). If the viewer doesn’t know that Judy is played by Kim Novak, Scotty’s desire to see Madeline in Judy is discomforting. We may be able to understand from a psychological perspective, but as a viewer, it is not what we feel we would do. Hence, identification with Scotty is diminished.

If, however, we know that Judy is played by Kim Novak, then we know that Scotty sees something beyond immediate external appearance in Judy. In that sense, he is like the spectator, who possesses a secret knowledge that Judy, minus the make-up and hair coloring, looks exactly like Madeline. It is almost as if Scotty’s obsessional mind-set allows him to see through the spectator’s eyes. Nonetheless, his project of finding Madeline in Judy still is a bit discomforting because we know that this is Kim Novak in her SECOND role of the movie. Since Novak is a Hollywood actress, the spectator presumes a naturalistic division in the identities that Novak assumes in the film. Therefore, Scotty can never reclaim the real Madeline from Judy.

That all changes, of course, with Judy’s flashback. The second the flashback begins is so shocking that it alone qualifies as the fourth major rupture. The fact that a barely introduced, barely likable character would carry so much narrative weight that she would merit a flashback is almost inconceivable in a classical Hollywood text.

But the flashback also works to boomerang our identification back to Scotty. Much has been written about how the abrupt change in perspective in the flashback splits our sympathies between Judy and Scotty. (11) While we may now sympathize with Judy, we also now sympathize more with Scotty because Scotty’s obsession to transform Madeline to Judy is now a realistic project. Moreover, we hope to see Kim Novak returned to her original, beautiful, appropriate form.

The revelation about Judy’s past also helps boomerang the story back into its original generic location. The movie can again be a romance. We as the spectator are in fact fully indicted in the romance, wanting to see a return of the past loved one. The rupture actually works more like surgery; painful at first, but ultimately (or so it seems) reconstructive. Judy’s flashback restores the narrative to its original romantic project.

The intervening scenes between the flashback and the final ending are very problematic, however. Re-introduced into a romance, the viewer can only be disturbed by the unfamiliar course the movie takes. Scotty’s obsessive manipulation is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in American movies up to 1958; it lays bare all that has been implicit in so many other movie romances.

Our identification with Scotty becomes very troubled by his attempt to reclaim Judy as Madeline. His intense fetishizing of every aspect of her appearance, his barely controlled urge to violence at her attempts to resist, his empty attempts at bringing her to places he associates with Madeline — none of this is wholly sympathetic, none of it is generically familiar.

The whole drive to the monastery is laced with dread (as if Hermann’s score weren’t enough). Again, there is the disquieting silence that the spectator may or may not recall from the investigation scenes. Moreover, Scotty’s statement — “One final thing I have to do and then I’ll be free of the past.” — is clearly intended to make us think that Scotty will murder Judy/Madeline. But Jimmy Stewart? Murdering his object of affection? It doesn’t seem possible. But then again, since we have seen so much rupture, so much generic violation, it almost seems inevitable that Jimmy Stewart will kill Judy/Madeline. Engaged with a filmic world where genres are made to be broken, the spectator feels a fatalism about Stewart’s intentions and Madeline’s chances for survival. If a movie can abruptly switch from photo-naturalism to avant-garde animation, if a movie can suddenly weigh the perspective of a random, unsympathetic character more than Jimmy Stewart’s perspective, if a movie can kill off its starlet heroine half-way through — then why, why the hell why, can’t it allow Jimmy Stewart to murder the heroine again?

Despite the disturbing nature of Scotty and Madeline’s interaction in the tower, the final minutes of the movie seem to offer resolution to many of the major plots. Scotty overcomes his acrophobia — a perfect illustration of Bellour’s tenet that, in classical Hollywood texts, ends reply to beginnings. Once the pair reaches the top of the tower, we see that Scotty does not kill Madeline. So our fear of another generic violation is dashed. We are recomforted by the sense that all will be explained to, all will be righted for, Scotty. The resolution to the detective thriller and romance plots is imminent. We expect, once the explanation is given, that Scotty and Madeline will kiss, and probably, hopefully, the movie will end. We are seduced into believing in the movie’s generic recuperation.

But again, our expectations are dashed. I’m not sure if the fact of Madeline’s second death (rupture #5) is as shocking as the manner of it. It is not at Jimmy Stewart’s hand. It is not premeditated. It may, or may not, be a suicide. It may be an accident. At the minimum we know it is instigated by a nun. The only word that can probably describe both its effect and its structural significance is “shattering.” No genre can contain freak accidents. No viewer can be expected to expect a freak accident. The generic illusion has been cruelly exposed.

“The sensation of vertigo is conveyed to the spectator by the most direct means, subjective shots using a simultaneous zoom-in and track-back that makes the vast drop telescope out before our eyes… The sensation has been explained, I believe, by psychologists as arising from the tension between the desire to fall and the dread of falling.” (12)

Many writers have described the movie’s effect as vertiginous. This is not exactly the case — few viewers leave Vertigo feeling dizzy or short of breath. The experience of watching Vertigo does, however, mirror the visual effect of the famous vertigo shot that Wood describes. Much as Scotty is both lured and repelled by great heights, the viewer is lured in by Vertigo, only to be repelled, only to be lured in again… and then, of course, to be repelled even more violently the next time. Track in, zoom out. Zoom out, track in. It doesn’t make any difference to Hitchcock. Either way, you’re going down.


1 I use the term “movie” because my paper is an exploration of viewer response from the standpoint of an assumed spectator, circa 1958, not of a highly trained student of film. To call Vertigo a “film,” I think, would weaken its nominal connection to generic conventions and place it more in the realm of the avant-garde.2 “Generic contract” is Barry Keith Grant’s term. From “Experience and Meaning in Genre Films,” Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995): 115. In this essay, Grant argues that a film’s aesthetic quality is based directly in a viewer’s experience of it, a point I couldn’t agree with more. Grant says that “an analysis of the generic contract in operation, its actual dynamics, becomes crucial.” I hope my paper is something like what he would like to see.3 Brooks Robards, in his essay “California Dreaming: Dream Sequences in Hollywood Musicals, Melodramas and Horror Movies” in the collection Beyond the Stars II: Studies in American Popular Film, ed. Paul Lokides & Linda K. Fuller (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991), makes the interesting but dubious claim that the opening chase sequence is a nightmare, while completely ignoring the much more obvious dream sequence later in the film. While I don’t agree with his interpretation, his study of the evolution of dream sequences in Hollywood movies from the silent era to the 1980s did help me clarify my understanding of the way that classical Hollywood texts treat dreams.

4 David R. Shumway, “Screwball Comedies,” Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995): 386.

5 Shumway: 382.

6 Gene D. Phillips. Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema. (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1990): 57.

7 Mysterious, I think, not so much because of the content of the investigation, but because of the filmic choices Hitchcock makes. For one, there is no dialogue from the moment that Scotty begins following Madeline to the point that Scotty asks the museum attendant about what painting Madeline is looking at. That’s well over five minutes of dialogue-free film. Secondly, Hermann’s score begins again when Scotty begins following Madeline. If I had to name one affect to associate with the score, it would be dread.

8 Shumway: 384.

9 In her essay “The Concept of the Fantastic in Vertigo” in Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films, ed. Walter Raubicheck & Walter Srebnick (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), Ann West argues that Vertigo, due to its mixture of dreams and necrophiliac imagery, is a metafictional text about the fantastic. She claims that Vertigo is a non-generic film precisely because it does not satisfactorily explain its fantastic events. While I don’t disagree with this reading, I believe it is an idea of which the average American viewer from 1958 would be completely unaware. Vertigo can only be thought of as fantastic fiction by a film connoisseur, or by a viewer brought up in a tradition of non-Hollywood films.

10 A trend discussed in detail in Ethan Mordden’s essay from Medium Cool entitled “Mrs. Bates is Watching You.” The essay is a rather rambling, shallow instance of individualistic pop criticism (mindful of Pauline Kael, but without her depth) whose important point can be summed up in one sentence, the essay’s final one: “But from 1960 on, Mrs. Bates will be allowed.”

11 Robin Wood’s “Vertigo” and Tania Modleski’s “Femininity by Design: Vertigo” are only two among many essays that make this claim.

12 Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films. (New York: Castle Books, 1969): 109. Although this is the only time I directly quote from Wood, this entire essay owes a great deal both to Wood’s approach and to his style.

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