Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bernard Herrmann

My ten great movies #6: Vertigo

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Like many great works of art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination—perhaps more than any other movie I’ve ever seen—because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film ever produced in America. In many respects, it’s the most mysterious movie ever made, but whenever I watch it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics: the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, and the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, a sick joke or sucker punch that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair.

Vertigo takes so many insane, unjustifiable risks that it inevitably feels flawed in places, despite long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. As David Thomson writes: “It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.”

Next week: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2015 at 9:00 am

Deeper into Vertigo

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Exactly seven years ago, on August 6, 2005, on the blog that I used to maintain with several of my college friends, I wrote the following:

In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics’ poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It’s always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.

I’ll need to wait until next week, when Sight & Sound publishes the full results of its critics’ poll, to verify my second prediction—although at this stage In the Mood for Love is clearly the Wong Kar-Wai film to beat. And while my prediction about Vertigo, which did indeed top the latest list, may seem impressive, it isn’t quite as smart as it seems: last time, Vertigo came in second to Kane by only five votes. All the same, I’m almost never right about this sort of thing, so you’ll excuse me if I take some satisfaction in this rare display of prescience.

Still, in some ways, it’s a shame, because Vertigo deserves better than the crushing weight of expectation that such an honor inevitably confers. It’s undeniably a great movie, certainly one of the best of all time, but it’s also a film that gradually imbeds itself in your subconscious, growing in your imagination over the course of many years, with levels of meaning that can’t be fully appreciated after an initial viewing. I have the sinking feeling that a lot of people are going to watch Vertigo for the first time because of this poll and come away wondering what the big deal is about. It took me years to sort through my own feelings about Kane, a cheeky, flashy, shallow masterpiece that has been unfairly suffocated by its own reputation. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to watch Vertigo again in the way it deserves. But probably not for a while.

I’ve written about Vertigo numerous times on this site, so for my full thoughts on this extraordinary movie, please see here and here. It missed my recent rundown of my own top ten films, but only by the narrowest of margins, and while it may not be my favorite film overall, its greatest moments soar higher than those of any other movie I can name. In particular, as I’ve said before, the hotel room scene culminates in the greatest shot in the history of cinema, and its third act is among the most emotionally overwhelming. For the moment, then, let’s give the obligatory nod to Hitchcock while also acknowledging the film’s other makers, especially the screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, who adapted the novel D’entre les morts and added the crucial shift in point of view that lends the movie much of its impact, and the composer Bernard Herrmann, who delivered a score that contributes, more than any other I know, to the movie’s hypnotic spell.

As for the rest of the poll, it’s exactly what it should be: an endless source of surprise, argument, and inspiration. Everyone will have their own list of omissions—mine is that there’s nothing by Powell and Pressburger and no sign of Casablanca—but overall, these are fascinating movies that provide enough imaginative fuel for a lifetime. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to watch more Tarkovsky (I hadn’t even heard of Mirror, which made the top ten on the directors’ list) and finally finish Metropolis, which has remained paused halfway through in my Netflix queue for years. But more than anything else, the list is a reminder of how inexhaustible the world of great movies really is, even for those of us who care about it deeply. As I’ve written before, when I discovered the 1982 edition of the Sight & Sound poll sometime in the third grade, it changed my life forever. Thirty years down the line, it hasn’t lost any of its power.

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

The deceptive simplicity of The Artist

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Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, the loving homage to silent film that has unexpectedly become the movie to beat at the Oscars. It isn’t hard to see why: this is one of those cinematic stunts, like Memento, that has to be done exceptionally well in order to be done at all, and from its opening scene, with the hero of a silent melodrama insisting to his captors that he’ll never talk, you know that this is a movie blessed with an abundance of ideas. Nearly every scene contains some kind of inspired visual or structural gag, from loving recreations of classic silent comedy routines to nods to Citizen Kane and Singin’ In the Rain, as well as the predictably clever, but still amusing, use of surprise sound effects. It’s so blissfully inventive, in fact, that while I was watching it, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, at least for a movie not made by Pixar: I settled in happily to see what it would do next.

It’s a little surprising, then, to realize that while the movie lavishes so much care on its individual scenes, the overall story is cheerfully formulaic. With a few small exceptions, the story unfolds precisely as we expect, tracing the rise of one star and the fall of another with a literalness that makes A Star is Born seem like the height of sophistication. Unlike the silent films to which it pays tribute, which often had a loose, anarchic sense of story, The Artist follows the Syd Field structure to the point where it’s almost anachronistic. With its neat division into three acts, complete with false crisis, real crisis, and all the other obligatory beats, this is a film that will be studied in screenwriting courses until the end of time, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The execution is seamless, and not without its pleasures, but it still left me wishing for more in the way of real suspense or surprise.

Later, however, I began to wonder if this apparent simplicity is more complex than it seems. For one thing, it was probably impossible for a film like The Artist, which asks so much of a modern audience, to tell anything but the simplest, most classic story. As I’ve said before, when a movie pushes complexity in one direction, it often has to give way in another, which is why the characters in a film like Inception, for instance, can seem so schematic: push complexity in every direction, and you risk of losing the audience entirely. In some respects, then, the classic structure of the plot of The Artist is as much of a stunt as its obvious technical feats. The movie is a clockwork device that has been cut away to show us its inner workings: even as its story plays on our emotions, it invites us to see how it does it. In that respect, it does what the third act of Adaptation tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to do, which is to comment on the nature of formula while working as a story as well.

Or perhaps I’m giving Hazanavicius too much credit. There’s one revealing moment, in fact, where The Artist is too clever for its own good, which is in its use of five minutes of the Bernard Herrmann score from Vertigo. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as Kim Novak apparently does, I agree with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter: “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.” It isn’t quite a fatal misstep, but it’s a questionable one, especially when The Artist doesn’t engage the music in any interesting way: as an homage, it’s on the level of one of those novelty reels, with the music from Psycho spliced over a romantic interlude, that the Oscars uses every few years to demonstrate the power of music. Although Hazanavicius quickly recovers, with an inspired title card gag, it makes us wonder for a moment if he’s as smart as he seems. Which is too bad, because the rest of The Artist is the work of a director who is manifestly as smart as they come.

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

Still obsessed with Vertigo

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No other work of art is so central to my love of movies as the last forty minutes of Vertigo. There are movies I admire more, but none I find as emotionally devastating, or as endless in its implications. It’s full of classic moments and images, some of which take several viewings to fully understand, but I may as well start with the most famous: the scene at the Hotel Empire, which you can watch here if you must, culminates in what is simply the greatest shot in the history of cinema. As the camera pans around Stewart and Novak, with Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score swelling in the background, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to the reasons we watch movies in the first place, in a sort of gorgeous rhapsody on love, art, and death. As Roger Ebert writes: “This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.”

Not surprisingly, I’ve been obsessed with this movie for a long time. After hearing about it for years, I finally saw it in college, in a study carrel at Lamont Library, watching it on videocassette with headphones on a tiny television set. Later that evening, I came down with some kind of fever, and spent most of the night tossing and turning, convinced that the events of the movie had somehow been part of my own life. The second time I saw it was on the big screen, at the late lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, and the experience there was equally wrenching. And I’m not the only one who responds to it this way: when I showed it to one of my college roommates, he ended up in a fetal position. Vertigo tells us things about art and life, and how we’re driven to transform ourselves and others, that few other works have managed to express. As David Thomson notes, it’s a movie that grabs and haunts the viewer, especially for certain sensibilities:

It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.

Watching it again with my wife last night, the implausibility, the hysteria, and the cruelty were all on clear display. It isn’t a perfect movie, although it has long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful, and painful. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that no other American film is so staggeringly complex in its final emotional resonance.

It’s no accident, then, that I’ve been revising and rewriting Vertigo in my head for much of my life. After seeing it in college, I spent the better part of that summer working on a story that would fuse Vertigo with another great American film of startling depths: John Ford’s The Searchers. The project, to put it mildly, was more than I could handle, and I never came close to finishing it, but the vestiges can still be seen in the names of two important characters in The Icon Thief: Maddy and Ethan. Since then, Vertigo has remained a personal and professional touchstone, a movie that I’m constantly revisiting and engaging, for reasons that I can’t always explain. All I know is no matter how many times I see it, ninety minutes into this remarkable movie, when Novak turns to the camera and the screen goes red, I’m sucked in and can’t escape—not any more than she can.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

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