LIFE WITH THE DULL BITS CUT OUT

VertigoDo we have a moral obligation to develop technology?

At last year's TED show down at the Monterey Convention Center, Kevin Kelly, one of Silicon Valley's most principled idealists, made an astonishingly utopian remark. On a panel entitled ASTONISHMENTS, he said:

"Imagine Mozart before the technology of the piano. Imagine Van Gogh before the technology of affordable oil paints. Imagine Hitchcock before the technology of film. We have a moral obligation to develop technology."

No, Kevin, I don't think Alfred Hitchcock would have agreed. Hitchcock didn't care for abstractions such as the concept of moral obligation. Defining his work, he once said that “some films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” Then, Hitchcock added, with his trademark brevity, “what is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”

Hitchcock excelled as a story teller. He wanted his plots to be human rather than banal or fantastic so that the audience could, in his words, “identify” with the movie’s characters. Hitchcock’s plots feature ordinary people placed into extraordinary stories.  We can all imagine being in a Hitchcock movie. That’s what makes them so scary.

Hitchcock spent more than fifty years cutting out the dull bits out of his movies and slicing life up into human drama. The richest slice of cake that Hitchcock ever served up was his 1958 motion picture Vertigo. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo features the music of Bernard Hermann, the camera work of Robert Burks, the graphical design of Saul Bass, the costumes of Edith Head and the screenwriting team of Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel. Hitchcock’s movie is so dense with the complexity of life that, like the most lavish of chocolate gateaux, it is best consumed in small bites, one morsel at a time.

Hitchcock's Vertigo is a drama about seduction.  It is the story of an everyman, an ex cop called Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), seduced by an ethereal San Francisco blonde, a woman who calls herself Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) but who is actually an earthy Kansan brunette called Judy Barton (also Kim Novak). Filmed against San Francisco’s dreamy skyline, Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most dystopian lecture against abstract, idealized love. It is a cruelly realistic movie, entirely devoid of moral obligation, about an ordinary man’s obsession for something that doesn’t really exist. It competes with George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, two other dystopian visions that place everymen in extraordinary situations, as the most believable and thus the most nightmarish works of the 20th Century.

There are no dull bits in Vertigo. But amidst the movie’s brilliance, one scene stands out. Half way through the story, Hitchcock lets his audience in on the lie at the heart of his narrative, thus leaving Scottie alone with the Madeleine of his dreams. So in the second half of the movie, the tension, Hitchcock’s real story, is watching what it’s like to have one's core belief, one’s faith, destroyed. Vertigo is a psychological striptease show. We all become voyeurs as we watch Scottie Ferguson recreate Judy as Madeleine, dye her hair blonde, change her clothes, alter her hair style. We fear for Scottie’s sanity as he descends toward making the same mistake twice, falling for the same invented woman, getting seduced by the same object of desire.

And then, exactly 1:58:23 into the movie, Scottie Ferguson wakes up. In this scene, filmed in a downtown San Francisco hotel, Scottie associates a bright red necklace Judy is stringing around her neck with an identical necklace that Madeleine had worn. The truth, the terrible truth, is instantly revealed. As the walls of illusion crumble, Hitchcock’s camera dwells for a few seconds on Scottie’s face. Hermann’s music wails with recognition. We can see it in Scottie’s eyes. They narrow, they deepen, they glow with knowledge, they ache with reality. 

Such is life with the dull bits cut out. Astonishingly simple. No moral obligation. A slice of cake.