Jacques Rancière - Cinematic Vertigo: Hitchcock to Vertov and Back
The Vertigo Effect, a series of more than 25 films marked, in one way or another, by Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic, commenced last night at BAM. Below, we present Jacques Rancière's essay on the film from Intervals of Cinema, which casts back to Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera to uncover the faultline Hitchcock's work straddles.
Understanding the art of moving images means first understanding the relation between two movements: the visual unrolling of images specific to cinema; and the deployment and dissipation of semblances more broadly characteristic of the narrative arts. In the western tradition, the second aspect is dominated by the Aristotelian logic of inversion. The plot is a sequence of actions that seems to have a certain meaning and lead towards a certain end. But as the sequence unfolds, expectations are dashed: the alliance of causes produces an entirely different effect from the one anticipated; knowledge becomes ignorance and ignorance knowledge; success changes to disaster or misfortune to happiness. How can the unrolling of moving images be married to that particular logic for unveiling the truth behind appearances? I would like to show that the most perfect synchronization of the two movements includes a fault. And I will attempt to understand the philosophical meaning and political weight of that fault. So I will talk about the relation between vision, movement and truth. And by the same token I will have to talk about the relation between cinema, philosophy, literature and communism.
I will start with an auteur and a film that seem to unite in exemplary fashion the movement of cinematic images and the unveiling of a truth hidden behind appearances. Alfred Hitchcock, better than any other director, used the visual glamour of the moving image to serve plots constructed on the Aristotelian model, a sequence of acts to stimulate and toy with the audience’s expectations. And Vertigo is the pinnacle of that art. To summarize the plot briefly: the hero, Scottie, a former police officer, suffers from acrophobia. An old school friend hires him to shadow his wife, Madeleine, worried that she has become obsessed with her great-grandmother, who committed suicide, and may be tempted to follow her example. Scottie agrees and verifies Madeleine’s fascination with death. When Madeleine leaps into the San Francisco Bay, Scottie saves her from drowning. They spend the next day together, and the two profess their love for each other. But when she leads him into a bell tower, his fear of heights prevents him following her. Stuck on the ground, unable to climb the stairs, he sees her fall to her death. He has a breakdown, and after his release from a sanatorium, he meets a girl, Judy, who strongly resembles Madeleine. He undertakes to fashion her in the dead woman’s image. In the attempt he comes to understand that he has been duped: the woman he had been hired to follow was Judy disguised as Madeleine, and her pseudo-suicide concealed the murder of the real Madeleine by her husband.
At first the deployment of images in the film seems to coincide exactly with the logic of the story. This harmony is summarized from the outset by Saul Bass’s credits, in which a play of abstract spirals weaves a connection between three ovals that enclose suggestive physical features: a pert mouth, a distraught eye, a pretty chignon. The titles give the visual formula of the narrative logic which will bring three vertigos together: Scottie’s acrophobia, the murdering husband’s manipulation to make his wife appear suicidal, and lastly Scottie’s obsessive fascination with the false Madeleine. The whole visual apparatus seems oriented towards playing along with the intrigue at first, then in a second phase playing along with its exposure. In the first part, the mise-en-scène is determined by the capture of a gaze: in the restaurant, Kim Novak’s profile appears for a moment in isolation, cut off from any relation with her surroundings. It is both the profile of a woman inhabiting an ideal world and the cipher of an impenetrable secret. It marks the beginning of the inversion which is to transform the gaze of a detective investigating an obsession into a gaze itself obsessed with its object. The second part of the film follows an inverted version of the same path. It makes the development of Scottie’s ‘illness’ coincide with his dawning awareness of Madeleine’s simulated ‘illness’: by chasing his own illusion, by fashioning Judy visually in Madeleine’s image, Scottie discovers that Madeleine was only a role played by Judy. The visual obsession followed to the end leads to exposure of the intellectual intrigue.
This conjunction may rightly be considered perfection as an artistic mechanism: the romantic or symbolist story of the man fascinated by an image comes to be subjected exactly to the Aristotelian plot involving peripateia and recognition. Nevertheless that perfection hides a fault. There is good reason Gilles Deleuze found Hitchcockian cinema simultaneously the completion of the moving image system and the index of its crisis. Hitchcock, Deleuze tells us, invented the mental image in cinema. But the mental image means two things: from one angle, an over-image that encloses all the others. Hitchcock fits action images, perception images and affection images into a system of relations that frames and transforms them. But from another angle, the mental image is the image that has escaped from the directed frame of the moving image, evaded the formula of response to a received change with an executed change. For Deleuze, Scottie’s acrophobia in Vertigo and Jeff’s plastered leg in Rear Window symbolize that paralysis of the driving system – crisis of the movement-image leads to revelation of the time-image. The two characters change from active heroes into passive onlookers. In this they anticipate the ruin of the directed movement-image system and the cinematic advent of the contemplative stroll.
Deleuze is a little hasty however in identifying the ‘crisis’ of the action image with the ‘weakness’ that takes the character over to the contemplative side. There are in fact two sorts of ‘passivity’ and their effects are completely different. Scottie’s vertigo is not going to ruin the logic of the moving image. Indeed it is necessary to the success of the murder plot. But there is another sort of passivity too, which while also serving the plot has the potential to overload it: Scottie’s fascination with the character pretending to be fascinated by death. This is what I called the romantic or symbolist story interlaced with the Aristotelian story of the mechanism. The director’s art seeks to adjust them exactly to each other, making the first the instrument of the second. In the first part it is obsession, carefully orchestrated through a constant play of Madeleine’s appearances and disappearances, and through the acceleration and slowing of movement that the manipulation is able to continue. In the second part, it is the character’s mad wish to restore the exact image of the dead woman that leads him to discover the truth. But to describe the events thus is to over-simplify the visual story in the film. There are at least two episodes where the coincidence of the two logics is defective, because they tell us too much: one about the obsession, the other about the scheme.
The first of these occurs at the connecting-point between the two parts. It shows a nightmare Scottie has after Madeleine’s death. In it Hitchcock seems to be recalling the ‘surrealist’ dream composed by Salvador Dalí for Spellbound. The kernel of Scottie’s dream is the ancestress Carlotta’s bouquet of flowers, the one Scottie has seen in her portrait in the museum and which the false Madeleine has continuously recomposed. Here the bouquet explodes into a blizzard of petals before Scottie’s head separates from his body and glides through space towards the cemetery where an open grave awaits him and the Mission belfry where this time it is his own body that crashes onto the roof. The episode arouses a certain discomfort. Perhaps it had not been necessary to go to such lengths to make us aware of Scottie’s mental vertigo? This intensified representation of vertigo is certainly debilitating and reduces it to a bad dream to be forgotten. And what follows in the second part of the film is indeed a story of healing. Scottie will not throw himself off the belfry to join the dead woman. Nor will he imitate the hero of the Boileau-Narcejac novel D’entre les morts from which the film is derived. Instead he kills the false Madeleine when he tries to make her admit she is the real one, the dead woman – or death itself – with whom he is in love. Hitchcock and his scriptwriter have chosen a simpler relationship to the truth: the one that admits the scheme exists. But here we find the second narrative fault at the very moment the audience is discovering the truth. Instead of a single revelation scene there are two. Well before Scottie has understood the scheme by noticing Madeleine’s necklace around Judy’s neck and forcing her to confess, Judy herself has revealed everything to the audience by reliving the scene and writing a confession letter only to tear it up unsent. The sequence spoils the perfection of the plot by explaining the truth instead of letting us discover it with Scottie. And this narrative fault is accentuated by the visual weight of the way the truth is uncovered: by images of the murder we see are returning in Judy’s mind and the letter she writes to Scottie whose contents, moreover, are read by a voice-off – a method that seems a touch passé for a 1958 movie.
In this way the director feels obliged on two occasions, by dint of flashy effects, to break the possession storyline and dissociate the two ‘vertigos’: Machiavellian scheme and morbid fascination. The incongruity of these superfluous episodes becomes clear if we compare the film to the novel. The book only has a single revelation, delivered in the last chapter by Renée, who is the false Madeleine Judy in the film. It clearly favours one logic: fascination. The hero escapes from the role of witness to ‘suicide’; as a result the husband fails to benefit from his crime and dies trying to evade arrest. So the scheme has failed. A single reality is left: the hero’s passion for the dead woman, a passion that drives him to kill the false Madeleine to make her real and join her in death. The novel locates this attraction to death in a well defined context: the hero’s passion and the murder of the real Madeleine take place in the spring of 1940 as if in prelude to the German tanks about to converge on Paris. The discovery and killing of the false Madeleine take place in Marseille during the collapse of Nazism. But the plot of this ‘detective- thriller’ obeys an earlier model and one specific to literature: the story of the fascination with the image and the power lurking behind the image: death, the wish to return to the void. D’entre les morts belongs to a lineage of thrillers belatedly influenced by late nineteenth century literature and its inspiration Schopenhauer: behind the detective-thriller and Aristotelian logic – revelation of the truth dissipating appearances – lies the nihilist logic of illusion as the real truth of existence. Behind the vain insight into trivial schemes, there lies the real one, that of the blind wish to return to the void, to the inorganic. The illusion that inhabits the love-struck advocate of that woman falsely dead is a deeper truth than the secret of the murderous husband’s scheme. That still belongs to the lie of life itself, the lie with which life persuades us that it has a purpose. Truth obliges us to expose that lie to the point of admitting – of acquiescing to – the void. Such is the vertigo into which Boileau and Narcejac’s hero draws the false Madeleine. Everything happens as if the real Madeleine were dragging the woman who has usurped her identity into the abyss. The thriller plot thus recalls that of a late Ibsen play, Rosmersholm. From beyond the grave, Pastor Rosmer’s wife, who has been driven to suicide by the scheming of the underhand Rebecca, drags her husband into the same torrent, along with the woman who has taken her place. ‘Madeleine’s’ jump into the Seine or San Francisco Bay is the heir of that dive into the torrent of Rosmersholm, which itself inherited something from the plunge into the ‘supreme pleasure’ of emptiness sung by Wagner’s dying Isolde. Recognizing the truth behind life’s schemes is identical to recognizing the unconscious mechanism that leads life to destroy itself through its own derisory intrigues.
The nihilism that marked literature in the era of Ibsen, Strindberg and Maupassant, and that was adapted to their own purposes by the authors of thrillers and other so-called minor genres, is rejected by Hitchcock and his sceenwriter. Scottie will be released from his vertigo both literally and figuratively. He will unmask the murder plot and climb the belfry. He will not kill the false Madeleine; she will throw herself into the void. She will not be drawn into Scottie’s illness. She will be punished in a manner appropriate for a culprit. And she will return to nothingness – a fitting end for something that was always an illusion. With Judy’s confession, the director reveals himself as the supreme manipulator who invents illusions and vertigos at will. He will do it even at the cost of weakening the imaginative pull of the story. In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock appears in person at the beginning of the film to tell us what follows is a true story. This time by contrast, the redundant and overloaded episodes of Scottie’s nightmare and Judy’s admission are there to make us understand it is only fiction: the spiral patterns in the opening credits, Scottie’s acrophobia, Madeleine’s chignon, the vertiginous scheme, the plunges into water or the abyss – all arise from the same single manipulatory logic, combining the overall emotion of the plot with the feeling of each shot. This forces him to draw in bold but visually unsatisfactory strokes. Thus, the confession sequence mixes in an improbable fashion the points of view of Scottie, Madeleine and the truth that encloses them. This piece of ‘clumsiness’ reveals the handicap cinema has in relation to literature. As words are only words, they can always correct or alter the semblance they have created. Literature eagerly uses the power it derives from the insubstantiality of words to show the identity between the truth of life and its falseness. Cinema is in the opposite situation. It has the capacity to show everything words can say, to deploy all its visual force, all the power of palpable impression. But all this surplus power has a downside: the art of images struggles to achieve what the art of words can do: subtracting even when adding material. In cinema, an addition remains an addition. So correcting apparent appearances is always a risky operation. Think of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, made four years after Vertigo. We have seen the bandit fall after the inexperienced lawyer Tom Stoddard fires a shot at him. Later we learn the truth when the same scene is reshot from the other side of the square and we see the bandit was actually shot by the hidden Tom Doniphon. But this truth comes too late: it cannot annul what we have already seen and thus acquires the aspect of an interpolation. In Vertigo, the situation is better because we had not seen what happened at the top of the belfry. Nevertheless the importunate truth presented to the audience cuts across the direct linear deployment of semblances. The film then has to go on about Scottie’s obsessive wish to make Judy the same as Madeleine, and about the false, fabricated character of the obsession. The filmmaker, who so far has been using Scottie’s ‘madness’ to play with the audience, now has to make the audience complicit in the game he is playing with his character.
The terms of the problem are simple enough. Either we accept the ‘literary’ and ‘nihilistic’ law of identity between the deployment of semblances and the pathway to truth; or we reject it as inappropriate to the means available to the art of moving images. Another way then has to be found to ensure homogeneity of the two logics. The surrealist way is to decree sovereignty of the dream over the appearances of real life. But we know what its weakness is: dream images always have to be signaled as dream images with arbitrary combinations of objects in the same shot, or arbitrary ordering of a sequence of shots. Here again, too much richness is damaging: the dream rhetoric destroys the dream. So Hitchcock is reducing surrealism to a functional role in illustrating nightmares. But the character’s nightmare and confusion are declared fictional, shown to be considered products of the director’s artifice. So we get neither the falseness of life nor the reality of the dream. All we have is the machinery of fiction placing the powers of the cinematograph under the control of the old Aristotelian logic of realism. The director introduces himself as the manipulator of manipulation, the well-meaning conjuror who invents and melts simultaneously into a single continuum the wonders of confusing true with false and dissipating that confusion.1
But that gap between literary nihilism and the straightforward faith of cinematic artifice perhaps masks a more complex relationship cinema has with itself. There was a time when cinema believed it was capable of settling, through the new means of the truth machine, the conflict between the old poetic logic of realist schemes and the new literary logic of equivalence between truth and falsehood. There was a time when cinema had set out to deploy a vertigo of the gaze that was neither a fictional expedient nor a life sickness, but an explosion of the energies of a new world. Watching Saul Bass’s opening credits, unfurling those abstract spirals that symbolize the capture of the gaze, on seeing the close-up of James Stewart’s fascinated eye from which the letters spelling the word “Vertigo” and the name “Alfred Hitchcock” emerge onto the screen, one is reminded of another film punctuated by the incessant appearance of an eye and the multiplicity of swirls of which that eye is the witness and recorder. I mean of course Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. While all of Hitchcock’s movies have a signature shot in which we have a glimpse of the director’s characteristic silhouette, in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera we see the camera and the cameraman all the time – as a giant perched on the roof of a building for example, or dwarfishly reflected in a beer glass. For Vertov the camera’s and cameraman’s omnipresence represented the presence of the eye recording reality. His cinema asserts a fundamentalist position: rejection of fiction, rejection of the art of storytelling. For Vertov, as for Jean Epstein and many of their contemporaries, cinema is as opposed to stories as truth is to falsehood. The visible is not for them the seat of palpable illusions that truth has to dissipate. It is the place where energies that constitute the truth of a world are made manifest. Hence the dual status of the machine-eye. It appears first as a supreme manipulator carrying everything off into the dance it is organizing. Several times in the course of Vertov’s film, it is seen metaphorically in the form of a conjuror who amazes children by making things appear, disappear and change shape. And in the final episode, which shows an audience watching the film we have seen being made, the camera work is directly identified with a magic trick. We see the camera emerge without assistance from its box, place itself on the tripod and bow to the audience like a conductor, before the crank handle starts turning – by itself – to orchestrate the ballet of overprints and vertiginous connections across all kinds of different movements: dancers’ entrechats, touches on piano and typewriter keys, accelerated gestures of telephone operators pulling and inserting plugs, aircraft in the sky, trams, cars and carriages in the street. And all of this is symbolized by a woman’s face in the centre of a whirling that could be from the machine itself or a fairground roundabout.
Here cinema appears as the magical apparatus operated by an invisible conjuror playing on a universal keyboard. The conjuring filmmaker at first suggests the figure of the demigod engineer, intoxicated with speed and machines, or of the party leader orchestrating the great mobilization of energies to construct the new life. But that mobilization itself has an odd side: apparently it cares little to know what uses are made of those energies, or to distinguish between them by age or function. Work on a cigarette factory production line, the snapping of a shoeshine boy’s rag, labour in the depths of a mine, the mechanism of a cash register, a dressmaker’s stitching, a film editor’s cuts, the treatments in a beauty salon, all caught up in one rhythm. During the same period Eisenstein, with The General Line, was making a point of contrasting the ‘old’ with the ‘new’. He organized the progression from old-time processions to the new machine and forbade his heroine to attend to her appearance. The beauty salon sequences in Man with a Movie Camera blur the separation between old and new, as between truth and semblance. The barouche in which fine ladies parade is liable to be accelerated by the camera to the speed of socialist machines. All movements are equivalent when they can be connected with movements of analogous form and at the same speed. Vertov’s Marxism seems unaware of any opposition between the real motion of productive energies and the semblances of class society and all its spectacles. Even the despised fiction film is redeemed when the figures on the poster are caught in the dance bringing them into communication with the movement of mechanisms, the throwing actions of basketball players or the horses turning on a roundabout. There are no semblances and reality. There is the universal communication of movement, leaving no place for a truth hidden behind appearances nor time for the deadly fascinations of the gaze: the radiant young woman in the beauty institute contrasts not only with Eisenstein’s austere Marfa but also with Judy in the hairdressers’ in Vertigo, persecuted by the crazed eye that wants to make her face coincide with Madeleine’s. What Vertov’s camera suppresses is the delay or interval that makes it possible for the gaze to put a story to a face. It is that interval that provokes Scottie’s obsession with the false Madeleine. And that interval is also the one behind the obsession of the narrator in Proust for Albertine. The swarming Odessa beach filmed by Vertov contrasts not only with the quiet deserted places to which the false Madeleine leads Scottie in the spiral of her trap, but also to the beach at Balbec where the narrator transformed a fleeting apparition into a love object.
The omnipotence of the machine-eye is thus inverted. It is only a transmitter of movement. The working of the camera finds an exact symbol in the telephone exchange where the operators do nothing but insert and remove the jack plugs that complete communications independently of their own will. The ‘conjuring’ sequence when we are shown the camera moving of its own accord then takes on a very different meaning. The machine-eye’s automatism sidelines the imperialism of the gaze along with its servitudes. No need to deploy narrative strategies to remedy the paradoxical defect of the image machine, which is that it shows too much. This machine’s real power is the power to eliminate: it dismisses the couple of the eye that manipulates appearances and the eye in thrall to them. When there is no longer a story to illustrate, the cinematograph is no longer in the service of any scheme. None exist any longer, only movements; and it is itself a privileged movement, the one that connects and synchronizes all movements. The machine-eye achieves naturally what literature had to achieve through artifice: the disappearance of any obvious sign of art in its product. Cinema, by the same token, has no need to link its fate to the assertion of a truth about the falsehood of life. The truth of the movement machine is the equality of all movements. But that equality is not the nihilist equivalence of the manifestations of a blind life. It is the rhythm of unanimous life. It is true that that unanimity was not invented by the cinema. Literature had already sought a remedy for its private nihilism. But for that it had to deny itself, to reduce itself, with Marinetti, Mayakovsky or Cendrars, to a pure accumulation of machine-pistol words that suggest intensities without transmitting them. Painting too, with Boccioni, Severini or Balla, had set out to transcribe the dynamisms of the racing car or popular dance. But it never managed to fragment its surface into enough facets to become equal to the dynamism of all dynamisms. So cinema offered itself as the art that could become what all the others could only dream of, the one capable of adapting to rhythms of the new life. In Vertov the single dance of synchronous dynamisms thus identifies with the communist deployment of all energies. What the machine-eye offers here is not simply an artistic response to literary nihilism. It is also a political response to the secret paradox of Marxist communism, which is hidden by the misleadingly obvious identification between the development of productive energies and the construction of a new society.
This paradox is simply stated: the time when scientific socialism aspired to refute utopian socialism by linking the communist future with the intrinsic development of productive forces was also the time which had broken with theories assigning a purpose to life and giving science the task of understanding that purpose and defining the means to attain it. ‘Life does not seek anything’: that was the nihilistic secret that gnawed away at the more optimistic developments in nineteenth-century science (and scientism). Marxist science covers it up by transforming the absence of goals into a strategy of ends and means: it explains that the march to socialism should accommodate the deployment of productive forces, that it cannot anticipate the development of the process or impose its wishes on the march of events. But behind the idea of science following the movement of life, there lies a more secret knowledge: the destructive presentiment that such movement is going nowhere, that the wish to transform the world is not underwritten by any objective reality. That is why scientific rigour is forced to invert itself, to assert itself as the pure need for the violent act against authority to impose political management on the unending movement of productive life.
It is in relation to this intimate break that deployment of the machine-eye’s movements takes on its political meaning. While driving out nihilism, by celebrating the intoxication of movement and speed, Vertov’s cinematic harmony retains at least one nihilistic principle: the movement of life has no goal or direction as symbolized by the equal consideration given to the workers down the mines and a woman’s beauty treatment; to the machines of modern industry and conjuring tricks. All those movements are equal. Where they come from, where they are going and the purposes they serve – production, play or simulacrum – are of little consequence. They comprise the same eurhythmy of life expressed in the vision the communist Vertov shared with the future Nazi Ruttmann: the symphony of the great city between its laborious early-morning awakening and the pleasures of the evening. So the bust of Marx or the image of Lenin can exude their serenity amid fairground stalls and beer drinkers. The directed movement of socialist construction is bestowed on the symphony of all the movements, in which life states nothing but its claim to equal intensity. Cinema offers itself as the immediate achievement of a communism existing solely in the relationship between all movements and all intensities. The self-dismissal of the eye, always in control or being controlled, to the profit of movement, gives us the formula not only for a new art, but for the immediate realization of a new world. With Vertov, cinema comes up with its own communism: a communism of universal exchange of movements, free from the dilemma between waiting for the right objective conditions and direct intervention. It is this utopia of cinematic communism that subtends the Deleuzian view of Vertov as the director who puts perception into things ‘in such a way that any point in the space discerns for itself all the points on which it acts or which act on it […]’.2 This utopia implies a thoroughly defined idea of the machine. The camera is the machine that places all machines in communication by redeeming them from the imperialism of goals, whether that of the engineers of the new life or that of scheming artists.
The Deleuzian view clearly favours this aspect. But Man with a Movie Camera can be seen in two exactly opposed ways: as the perfect illustration of a technological voluntarism that subjects all reality to the imperialism of a panoptic eye, or as the dismissal of all optical imperialism to the advantage of free communication of movements. The film offers a perfect balance between the two opposite positions. And cinema emerges as the art privileged to unite opposites: the extreme of voluntary alignment of all movements under the control of a centralizing eye, and the extreme of abdicating all intent to the profit of free development of living energies. In this sense cinema is much more than an art; it is the utopia of a modern world that may be naturally communist. But this cinematic communism can also be seen, and has been seen by its critics, as the unresolved tension between the ‘formalistic’ acrobatics of the centralizing eye and ‘pantheistic’ capitulation to the flux of things as they are.
This idea of cinematic utopia leads us in roundabout fashion back to Hitchcock. Godard provides the detour: the first image in his Histoire(s) du cinéma, the one that sets the meaning and tone of the many episodes to follow, is taken from Hitchcock. It shows us the sneaky gaze of the reporter in Rear Window lurking behind the gaze of his still camera. We know too that Godard dedicated the only monographic episode in Histoire(s) du cinéma to Hitchcock and that it is included in a section entitled ‘Conquest of the Universe’. The auteur of Vertigo here embodies the specific power of cinema discreetly to capture the gaze and the mind. But this is done at the cost of a singular operation: Godard inserts shots of the chignon, of the simulated drowning, of the walk in the sequoia forest or the passionate kiss into a continuum other than that of the film. That continuum is constructed by extracting from the dramatic continuity of Hitchcock’s films a number of objects: railway lines, the flight of an aircraft, the sails of a windmill, a woman brandishing a broom or clutching a handbag, a falling bottle, a man climbing a staircase. In short, he treats Hitchcock’s images as if they were Vertov’s. But the formal analogy underlines the heterogeneity of the components and of the operation itself. The images are no longer atoms of the great dance of the world’s energies, connected by a machine that cuts and splices film. They are dream images slipping over each other, melting together or separating once again in a continuum of digital metamorphosis. Vertov dismissed the attraction of gazes and the fascination of stories. Godard dismantles Hitchcock’s stories to extract fascinating images. And it is with those images of fascination that he tries to construct the history of cinema and that of his century. Two formulae summarize that history. The first speaks to us of the Hollywood dream factory: ‘Communism tired itself out dreaming of factories like that.’ The second carries a diagnosis of the future of cinema borrowed from the critic Michel Mourlet: ‘Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world in accordance with our desires.’ Godard thus links two themes. One concerns the displacement of utopia: the Hollywood dream factory is seen as the fallout or interception of the twentieth-century utopia, that of the new mechanized world. The other concerns the betrayal of cinema: it is presented as having relinquished its vocation as a vision machine relating phenomena to each other to become a glamorous machine in the service of ‘stories’: the ones in Hollywood scripts or the ones put out by destructive dictatorships bent on reshaping peoples. Histoire(s) is thus an enterprise of redemption: Godard’s fragmentation is intended to deliver images and their potential from subjection to stories. By inventing original relationships between films, photographs, paintings, newsreels, music and so on, it retrospectively gives back to cinema its role of revelator and communicator which it had betrayed by enslaving itself to the storytelling industry.
This tale of fall from grace and redemption gives rise to two reflections. Godard touches on a sensitive point by underlining that the forms of fascination put to work by the great Hollywood directors are the fallout or remains of the cinematic utopia. The technical inventions and communication machines celebrated by Vertov’s symphony become, in the work of émigré directors who had experienced Europe at the time of futurism and expressionism, the instruments of a scheme, a maleficent relationship or an obsession: the still camera in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang), the tele- phone in The Blue Gardenia (Lang) or Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock), the train in Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock), the aircraft in North by Northwest (Hitchcock). In Vertigo this role is played by the automobile. Apart from some muted traffic noises, Scottie seems to be driving in a state of weightlessness, guided by a gaze that is already elsewhere, being drawn towards the next trap: the portrait, the cemetery, the waters where the simulated suicide took place or the belfry of the real crime. The machine leads to where the gaze allows itself to be drawn by fascination. The movement leads to the traps: the gaze is a principle of illusion. And the San Francisco where the bustle of the main streets fades repeatedly into the silence of a deserted hotel, museum, cemetery or riverbank seems to carry the loss not only of the imaginary Carlotta Valdes but of Vertov’s turbulent and crowded Odessa. But one can draw from it a somewhat different conclusion than Godard’s: Hollywood never achieved the factory that communism had dreamed of. It merely recycled the elements of the communist mechanical dream to the profit of the old art of storytelling. But the fact that this transfer was possible reminds us that an art is never just an art; at the same time it is always a suggested world. And its formal methods are very often the remains of utopias aimed at much more than pleasing its audience, with the very different objective of redistributing the forms of palpable collective experience.
The second reflection concerns the form of redemption operated by Godard. He wants to rescue cinema images from their subjection to the storytelling industry. But to do so he must unite two different ideas of the image: he considers the image to be the icon on which the features of the palpable world in all their uniqueness are directly imprinted; but also he considers the image as the sign which combines to infinity with all the others. Godard wants both the power of the gaze present at the birth of things and that of the machine which dismisses the centrality of the gaze to put everything in communication with everything else. He wants to do a Vertov with icons extracted from Hitchcock, Lang, Eisenstein and Rossellini. But in doing so, he obscures the tension at the heart of Vertov’s enterprise, between the communication of movement and the centrality of the gaze. In Man with a Movie Camera, both the eyes of the camera and of the cameraman are omnipresent, but that omnipresence is also a continuous self-suppression: to be the instrument of the universal communication of energies, the camera should function blindly, like a telephone exchange. The eye can only connect things if it does not linger on what it sees, if it does not try to look. Godard has to evade that disconnection of the gaze from movement to identify the icon-image from which stories hang and the sign-image that puts everything in relation with everything else. By the same token he seems to evade the ‘communist’ dilemma at the heart of the cinematic tension between the gaze and movement. The dilemma is not technical but philosophical and political. It is the dilemma of sameness between the absolute of the will that overturns the forms of the palpable world and the absolute dismissal of the will to the profit of the energies of a life that does not seek anything. In his enterprise of redemption, Godard obscures the secret divorce that haunts the most accomplished marriage of image with movement. That is why this redemption of the past also announces the end of the history of cinema. The task of a modern cinema, a cinema that has taken the measure of its own historical utopia, would perhaps be to return to the disjunction of the gaze and movement, to re-explore the contradictory powers of the stoppages, delays and disconnections of the gaze.
1. This compromise is well illustrated the other way round in a recent film by Monte Hellman, Road to Nowhere. That film, inverting the fictional logic of Vertigo, makes the logic of deployment of semblances truly vertiginous. Road to Nowhere presents itself as the story of a film made about a fraud scandal ending in a double suicide. But the account of the film’s shooting is intercut with sequences the audience attributes to the film being shot, when really they recount the murder plot – involving the production of a false film – that the criminal couple has used to escape by staging their suicide. Late in the shooting of the ‘real film’, the female lead with whom the director has fallen wildly in love is killed by a character who plays adviser on set, who is then killed by the director. The audience is then invited to deduce something never stated or shown as such in the film: that the alleged actress had in fact been complicit in the real crime which had been to usurp the identity of the actress hired by the criminal for the false film and murdered to make the suicide of his partner believable. But no reliable sign enables us to separate out what has ‘really happened’ from the film we see being shot. The reality of the machination and the dream of a director obsessed with a face become inseparable. The relation between reality, fiction and fiction within fiction becomes inscrutable at the cost of making the film an unidentified object to the Hollywood industry or – which boils down to the same thing – the manifesto of a film director excluded from a system based on a balanced relation between the wonder of semblances and the narrative that dissipates them.
2. Gilles Deleuze, L’Image-Mouvement, Editions de Minuit, 1983, p.117.