Every great seduction, whether in the motion pictures or in real life, comes with a soundtrack. So what is the most seductive scene in movie history?

      Chitch This scene only lasts ninety seconds. It is filmed inside an exclusive San Francisco restaurant. We see a man at the bar, an ordinary man, an ex cop, the victim of bad luck, now a reluctant private eye. He is everyman. He could be you or I or any other poor fellow about to be mesmerized by a woman of spellbinding beauty.

      Everyman is sitting alone at the bar of the restaurant, nursing a drink. Beside him, through a doorway, is the glamorous, unobtainable world of San Francisco high society.  The private-eye is at work. He is there to find, to see, to watch a woman who is dining at the restaurant before attending the San Francisco opera. He has never seen this woman before. Nor have we.

      The movie camera captures the ordinary and the extraordinary, side-by-side. It soaks the elite San Francisco crowd in sumptuous reds, golds and greens. The man, in contrast, is filmed wearing a dark suit. In the eye of the camera, everyman and San Francisco high society appear in parallel. But they never touch. This is black and white cinema painted in glorious Technicolor.

      We see the woman before he does.  She is a head-turning blonde, everyman’s fantasy. She is wearing a silk green cape draped over her bare shoulders and, underneath, a tight little black evening dress. Her only jewelry is a pendant, as green as the silk cloak, hanging above her cleavage. But she is not all flesh. Covering her hands are black opera gloves, extending up her arm, beyond her elbow. These gloves give her a surgical appearance. She resembles a surgeon of the human soul.

      The private eye looks through the doorway at the woman.

      And then the music starts. The romance swirls around us. There would be no great seduction without this soundtrack. Love, the orchestral music announces to us, in a swirl of violins. But it is a vertiginous music, knowingly saccarine, simultaneously complex and inviting. A soundtrack for the Garden of Eden, perhaps.  You can look but you better not touch, the music warns its listeners. It is Catholic music for this most uncompromisingly Catholic of movies.

      The music was composed by Bernard Herrmann who, as film historian David Robinson tells us, is the “best” movie composer of all time. But Herrmann wasn’t a Catholic, unlike Alfred Hitchcock, the movie’s director. Hitchcock made it in 1958 for Universal Studios. He called his creation Vertigo and professional critics consider it, with Orson Welles’ 1939 Citizen Kane, to be the greatest movie ever made.

      This scene from Vertigo took place at Hitchcock’s favorite San Francisco restaurant, Ernie’s, located at the bottom of Russian Hill, on the edge of North Beach. It was filmed by Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s long-time cinematographer. The woman’s dress was designed by Edith Head, the Hollywood costume artist who won eight Academy Awards during her illustrious career. Art direction for this scene was managed more longtime Hitchcock collaborators, Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, both nominated for an academy award for his work on Vertigo.

      Hitchcock’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart, plays the private-eye, Scottie Ferguson, an ex cop suffering from a fear of heights. The woman’s name is Madeleine Elster and she is played by Kim Novak, the smouldering actress who, in Vertigo, Hitchcock bullied into the performance of her life.

      In Vertigo, Novak plays two women, one real, one fake. She impersonates the blonde heiress Madeleine Elster; but, in real life, she is Judy Barton, a brunette shop assistant from Kansas. In the scene at Ernie’s, Judy is dressed up as Madeleine. The real Madeleine is about to be murdered by her husband Gavin Elster, Ferguson’s classmate from Stanford University, intent on absconding to Europe with his dead wife’s fortune.

      There are a number of great seductions in this short scene from Vertigo. Gavin Elster and Judy Barton are seducing Scottie Ferguson. Gavin Elster has seduced Judy Barton, both literally and otherwise, into playing the role of his wife. Hitchcock, that old rogue, is seducing us all, of course. So is Burks’ cinematography, Head’s little black dress and Ernie’s glamorous restaurant in old San Francisco. Then there are Novak’s seductive grey-green eyes, her cleavage and her bun of blonde hair. The greatest seduction, however, is Herrmann’s soundtrack. Without the music, nobody gets seduced.


Bridge_vertigo_1It is 2020 in San Francisco. We -- you and I -- are on Baker Beach, the little sandy alcove on the Pacific side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

What can we see?

We see a fat man on a beach. With his rolls of flab and his shiny bald head, he resembles Alfred Hitchcock. But it isn’t Hitchcock. His name is Palomar. He is sitting on Baker Beach and gazing out, westward, at the limitless promise of the Pacific Ocean. From his pocket, Palomar retrieves a titanium case half the size of a paperback book. It is his iGod, the celestial media player of choice for 2020’s always-on consumer. A combined satellite networked computer, interactive television and creative media studio, iGod, provides immediate and immaculate wireless access to every single movie, song or book ever created.

Palomar is stealing an afternoon from his real life as the founder of a Silicon Valley technology start-up company. He is in the security business, supplying small enterprises with peer-to-peer software that guards against identity theft. But the identity theft market is a crowded space, it hasn’t been a great sales quarter and he’s flying out to Las Vegas the next day for a series of investor meetings. Palomar needs an afternoon to himself. The poor guy is under huge pressure. He wants to remember how to dream again.

It’s movie time. Palomar is in the mood to watch some moving pictures. Given that iGod can access any movie ever made, his biggest problem is that he has too many choices. He contemplates switching on the machine’s proprietary “Mooviemood” ™ software feature, which selects a movie that it knows he is in the mood to watch. But that would involve connecting the player to his frontal lobes.

“Blast,” he mutters under his breath. “I left those damn wires in the car.”

As Palomar wirelessly contemplates his options, he shifts his gaze eastwards, from the Pacific Ocean to an equally panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the grand edifice linking the San Francisco peninsula with northern California. Set against the deep blue Bay Area sky and sea, the old bridge appears still, like a framed photograph. This vision triggers two memories in Palomar’s mind:

  • He remembers a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock’s old motion picture Vertigo filmed at Fort Point, beneath the bridge.
  • He remembers an afternoon in his life long ago when he had taken a young blonde woman called Kay to a rock and roll concert held at Fort Point.

The first memory gives Palomar an idea. Leaning over iGod, he speaks gently to it. As if he’s talking to a friend. “Bring me the bridge moment in Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo,” he requests. “You know, the scene of the attempted suicide.”

iGod’s voice recognition software interprets Palomar’s command and delivers his wish. Still seated on Baker Beach, with the screen on his lap, he begins to watch Vertigo. Shot from underneath the south-east corner of the bridge, this is the scene when Scottie Ferguson swims to Madeleine Elster’s rescue after she has thrown herself into the Bay. To Palomar, the meaning of this scene is intimately bound up in his own memories of the gig he had attended with Kay all those years ago.

Palomar watches the scene several more times and, in spite of the brilliant broadcast quality of iGod’s high-definition screen, each viewing leaves him more dissatisfied. To him, the scene is incomplete. Palomar hungers for more a personalized media experience. Watching the movie has made him want to be Scottie Ferguson. His desire is to be rescuing the beautiful Madeleine from the Bay. Palomar wants to get into the movies.

“Go to my digital locker,” he instructs iGod.

Palomar selects a digital image of himself taken fifteen years earlier. He then drags and drops it onto a static Jimmy Stewart icon. Now he is watching an alternative version of Vertigo with himself as the hero. iGod broadcasts a younger and slimmer version of Palomar bounding down the step toward the ocean and throwing off his hat before diving into the water. Palomar thinks the scene is realistic, particularly at its climax when having pulled Madeleine out of the Bay, he carries her back to her green Jaguar and whispers (in Jimmy Stewart’s voice), as she lies in his car:

“Madeleine, oh Madeleine.”

The next step is personalizing the audio. Palomar switches on iGod’s digital microphone and, leaning toward the machine, begins talking.

“Kay, oh Kay,” he says.

At first it sounds as if he is saying “okay, okay.” But after several more takes, he makes a recording that sounds as if it comes from his heart. He then drags and drops this audio file onto the movie, replacing Scottie Ferguson’s voice with his own.

The increasingly personalized scene satisfies Palomar for only a few moments. Something is still not quite right. As he watches the scene again, he hears the problem. He doesn’t care for the music. The original score 1 is too creepy, too lacking in melody for him. The movie needs some more cheerful music, he thinks. It needs his music. Palomar wants melodies that remind him of that moment with Kay, back in 2006, under the bridge. Nostalgic music. He closes his eyes and transports his mind backward. It must have been around 2006, he figures. The band was U2, whose socially conscious, spiritually exuberant rock music helped the younger Palomar shape his sense of justice about those less fortunate than himself.

“Search,” Palomar instructs. “Search U2 concert.Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty oh six.”

iGod immediately replies with electronic access to thousands of electronic commentaries known, in 2020, as CiVis (Citizen Videos), the personal digital broadcasts that came to replace the older network television news shows. He scans the CiVis of U2 fans who had attended the Fort Point concert in 2006. Some commentators spoke only about Bono: his media ubiquity; his relationship with Steven Jobs; his recently awarded Nobel prize; the successful “Bono Digital Living Room” suite of products and services; his speech about the African crisis given on the morning of the concert to world leaders in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Other CiVis, made after 2006, review U2’s history retrospectively. The metaphor of the bridge is used frequently – broadcasters describing U2 as the band that bridged the physical and digital ages. There is much commentary on U2’s historic 2007 decision to allow all their music to be freely distributed in the public domain. Some suggested this was the birth of U2 as an independent marketing company; other said it marked the end of the conventional record business and the birth of what one CiVi called:

“The commoditization of music and the swallowing up of autonomous culture by the advertising industry”.

Mostly, however, the CiVis concentrated on the music. The high-point of the concert, it is generally agreed, was the first song of the evening, “Vertigo”: Hello, Hello, being the two words Bono simultaneously used to welcome the crowd and to launch into the first great hit of the digital age.

Palomar orders iGod to play U2’s “Vertigo”. On its embedded high resolution surround-sound loudspeakers, the music sounds alive. As if Bono and U2 really is on the beach with him:

Hello, hello
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel.

He remembers dancing with wild abandon that night with Kay under the bridge. As U2’s “Vertigo” plays, Palomar activates the motion sensor setting on iGod’s three chip miniDV camera, The fat man then gets up and begins to move to the music. He remembers an old television commercial for the Apple iPod music player, a primitive version of the iGod. The commercial featured a svelte, silhouetted version of Bono dancing crazily to U2’s “Vertigo”.  Palomar wants to replicate this. He dances to become Bono.

The camera follows Palomar as he gyrates alone on the empty beach in San Francisco. The jiggling of his body contrasts with the calm water on the Bay. As he dances, he takes big noisy gulps of oxygen from the air. His heart pounds against his chest. Sweat drips from his face onto the sand.

When the song ends, he falls to the ground. He lies there breathing loudly, not entirely unlike a beached walrus. It takes him several moments to recover. He then goes back to his authoring -- dragging and dropping the digitalized audio file onto the movie. U2’s “Vertigo” is now the soundtrack for Palomar’s version of Vertigo.

As he finishes, the video telephone on iGod buzzes. The screen identifies the caller with a photograph. It is Kay, his wife. Palomar directs the camera to remain focused on him. In spite of his sweaty body, he wants her to see him on the beach and he wants to see her.

“Hello hello Kay, honey,” he greets her image which is relayed to him in high- resolution real-time video and audio.

In Palomar’s eyes, Kay looks even better than the technology broadcasting her image. She looks fabulous, pretty much perfect, he believes, for a woman in her late thirties. Her hair appears as blonde as it was in 2006, her eyes just as blue and her skin equally unblemished.

She’s a movie star, Palomar thinks, possessively, as he consumes her image on the screen. His movie star.

Kay is calling from their home in the Santa Cruz mountains, just north of Monterey. She is speaking to him on her own iGod, a device identical to Palomar’s except that Kay’s is a red Stanford University edition, the color of blood.

“Hi, honey,” she greets him. On the real-time video, her voice synchronizes perfectly with her lips. “The Bartons just called. They can make it tonight. Can you be home by six?”

He nods. “Kay, you remember that U2 gig we went to under the bridge before we were married?”


“I’ve created one of my special movies.” He grins. “You want to co-direct?”

As a hardware device, iGod contains two layers of LCD screen, one built beneath the other, thereby giving the viewer the three-dimensional spatial depth to watch two sets of images simultaneously. So Palomar can look at Kay on the video phone and, at the same tiem, watch the movie running behind the digital image of his wife. 

Kay is laughing at Palomar’s work. “Stick it on the server,” she tells him. “I want to play too.”

Having accessed the movie from their digital locker box, it doesn’t take long for Kay to become as creative as her husband. She drags-and-drops a younger and blonder image of herself as a replacement to the grey suited, blonde Kim Novak. So the romantic scene is now made up of Palomar retrieving Kay from the Bay and then carrying her to the green Jaguar. Kay makes other changes too. She washes the technicolor from the scene and remakes it in the shadowy black and white of a classic 20th century movie like Citizen Kane (1941). Most dramatically, Kay replaces Palomar/U2’s “Vertigo” with a Vertigo soundtrack of her own.

Kay is a professor of Comparative Media at Stanford University. She specializes in the work of W.G. Sebald, a late twentieth century writer with a not insignificant literary following. Ever since Sebald died in a car crash in England in December 2001, his artistic work has grown in stature. Some critics -- such as Kay Palomar and her Stanford colleague Anne Barton -- have acclaimed Sebald as a significant figure in the canon of western writers. His unusual voice has been compared to the Argentinean Jose Luis Borges, the Frenchman Marcel Proust and the Czech writer Franz Kafka. As Palomar and Barton wrote:

“Sebald makes non-fictional events appear memorable. His memory turns the Technicolor of day-to-day life into the black and white verisimilitude of actual experience…. Sebald transforms the easy transience of life into the hard truth of a story.”

Sebald’s first book, Vertigo, is – amongst other things – the memories of a trip the author made in Venice during the Eighties. Although the published version of Vertigo is long out-of-print in 2020, its digital issue sells consistency well. In 2020, Sebald’s Vertigo is #101,204 on the Long Tail, a few thousand places below his most popular work, Austerlitz.

Accessing the digital version of Sebald’s Vertigo is child’s play for iGod. Kay has chosen to replace Bono’s song with a passage from Part II of the book, a section entitled All’ estero (which iGod automatically translates into English as “abroad”) . She then uses the media player’s text-to-speech function to turn the book’s words into speech using the synthetic voice of Sebald himself. The words are broadcast with the accent of a scholarly European gentleman: an authoritative, Dirk Bogarde Death in Venice sort of voice:

When the train had arrived in Venice, I first went to the station barber’s for a shave, and then stepped out into the forecourt of Ferrovia Santa Lucia. The dampness of the autumn morning still hung thick among the houses and over the Grand Canal. Heavily laden, the boats went by, sitting low in the water. With a surging rush, they came from out of the mist, pushing ahead of them the aspic-green waves, and disappearing again in the white swathes of the air. The helmsmen stood erect and motionless at the stern. Their hands on the tiller, they gazed fixedly ahead.

To most people, the combination of the dreamy Venetian narrative and the movie image of Palomar carrying Kay out of the San Francisco Bay might seem strange. But media, particularly the personal media of 2020, is all about interpretation and Palomar loves what he hears.

He closes his eyes and smiles at the self-made production. He hasn’t read Sebald’s Vertigo, but he knows why Kay has chosen this particular passage to overlay the movie scene.

It is because of Venice.

Palomar and Kay honeymooned in Venice and the city held a special place in their collective hearts. In addition, he suspects that Kay remembers he is flying to the Las Vegas Venetian Hotel and Casino the following day for his important investor meeting. It is her way of wishing him luck, her private message to him.

Palomar now had a taste for Sebald’s Vertigo. He wants to know more about this dead European writer’s interest in Venice. He wonders too if there are any other strange Vertigos out there, waiting to be discovered. But before he can ask Kay, she is gone from his screen, back, he assumes, to her academic research.

“Search Vertigo,” Palomar orders iGod.

The media player provides him with all the “Vertigos” ever created. In addition to Hitchcock, U2 and Sebald, this includes Paul Auster’s 1994 novel, Mr Vertigo, Bernand-Henri Levy's 2006 travelogue American Vertigo and a post on the obscure The Great Seduction blog entitled "Digital Vertigo."

Palomar who, like most men, fancies himself as a great seducer, him, is intrigued by such a provocative title.

“Bring me Digital Vertigo,” he instructs iGod.

The iGod's text-to-speech software is on random, but the voice broadcasting from the media player sounds to Palomar like that of the sales director at his Silicon Valley start-up, an Englishman called Smiley. As Palomar listens, a feeling of deja-vu creeps up on him. He’s seen this scene before. Somebody is stealing his identity. They are describing him without his knowledge:

We saw a fat man on a beach. With his rolls of flab and his shiny bald head, he resembles  Alfred Hitchcock. But it isn’t Hitchcock. His name is Palomar.

Palomar tries to hold in his belly. Fat? He isn’t fat. A tiny bit chubby perhaps. Kay always said he looked “distinguished”. But fat? No. That is untrue. A false version of the real world.

“You aren’t seeing me right,” Palomar says, to nobody in particular.

He hears the tinkle of laughter. His eyes dart around the beach, but it is entirely empty. He hears the laughter again. It’s no more than a mechanical sounding giggle. It originates from close by. His eyes scan the scene on the beach. But all he sees is the blank screen of iGod, his personal media player, waiting impassively for its next command from him.

To Palomar, the only possibility is an impossibility. He looks sharply at iGod. What if the celestial media player really has a mind of its own, he wonders. What if it observes him and records him? What if iGod authors Palomar without his permission?

Worst of all, at least in Palomar’s mind, what if it represents him as a fat man?

“That would be a nightmare!” he blurts out. To be watched all the time. Like a picture in a museum. Like being in somebody else’s movie.”

Palomar remembers a book by an English writer that he read as an undergraduate at Stanford. It was Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, like Sebald, a dead European writer.  Palomar remembers Nineteen Eighty-Four to be about a place where there is no privacy, where nobody can escape the all-seeing eye of the camera. He is tempted to request iGod’s help in remembering more about the book. He resists for a few minutes, suspicious that the celestial media player will play more creepy tricks on him.  But, in the end, Palomar’s reliance on the all-knowing machine is so complete that he feels lost without it.

He picks up iGod and holds it close to his sweaty face. “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Palomar orders. He no longer sounds as if he’s talking to a friend. “Take me to Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Blood_on_the_tracks Here in Silicon Valley, it would be nice to know why some people are lucky and some aren't. A convincing explanation would require an author closely acquainted with fortune. It would need familiarity both with second chancers such as Steve Jobs and with rookies like Sergei Brin and Larry Page, those lucky boys at Google, who have accumulated a more substantial fortune over the last five years than the English monarchy has collected in a millenium.

The source of luck, both good and bad, has always intrigued people. Bob Dylan is good on luck. Think of his “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” from Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan's own creative second chance:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

Like a crooked pack of cards, Silicon Valley is indeed stacked with guys standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts. The question is whether the festival is all over or just beginning. The question is whether we are all planning for a fall.

One of the earliest published writer on luck was the 16th century Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote extensively on the cause of good fortune. In his short book, The Prince (written in 1514, but published posthumously in 1532), an essay of advice to his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli explains that fortune favors the bold thus advising his Prince, not without controversy, to always act decisively:

Fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.

In 1958, almost 500 years after Machiavelli wrote his Prince, Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo, his motion picture about bad luck.  He took the idea from a 1956 French novel called The Living and the Dead by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s a classic Hitchcock nightmare. An ordinary, innocent man falls into spiral of deceit, suicide and murder. There is no reason for this, no metaphysical justification. It’s just bad luck in a world without meaning. A cruel twist of fate.

For Scottie Ferguson, the innocent central character of Vertigo, (mis)fortune was not one woman, but two – blonde Madeleine and the dark haired Judy. Vertigo is a movie within a movie, the first featuring Scottie’s relationship with Madeleine, the second with Judy.  Scottie’s great luck, his second chance comes at the end of the second act, after he has dressed Judy up to look like Madeleine and then realized that they are, in fact, the same woman, and that, in his misfortune, he has been the victim of a murderous confidence trick.

Recognizing this truth makes Scottie bold. Maybe his luck will change. Perhaps fortune is, indeed, a woman. Following his revelation, he drives Judy from San Franscisco, down the peninsula, south of the then sleepy town of San Jose, to the little Spanish colonial mission of San Juan Bautista.  Scottie drags Judy to the scene of the original con – across the mission’s green, through the church door and into a narrow spiral of steps leading up the tower. He seizes her hand. She struggles.  Their claustrophobic fight is more pathetic than heroic since, in reality, they are equally unlucky victims of the same crime. And then Scottie fires his words, amongst the most resonant ever written about luck:

One doesn’t often get a second chance, I want to stop being haunted. You are my second chance, Judy. You are my second chance.

The words were probably written by Samuel Taylor, the movie’s screenwriter, but Hitchcock might have even written them himself, given the close collaborative relationship he had with Taylor. Just as Hitchcock’s movies included his own cameo appearances, they also contained fragments of autobiography. For Hitchcock, California, and Hollywood in particular, represented a lucky second act. As a promising young movie director, Hitchcock came to America in March 1939 on the invitation of David O. Selznick, the movie mogul most famous for producing Gone with the Wind (1940).  Like so many lucky immigrants (for example, Karl Rossman in Franz Kafka's Amerika),  Hitchcock made his American entrance on March 6th 1939 through New York Harbor, sailing past lady luck herself, the Statue of Liberty, on board the Queen Mary before taking the train westwards, out to California.

Selznick had signed Hitchcock to make Rebecca (1940) and seven other films – and he went on to direct thirty two movies as an increasingly iconic Hollywood figure. But there was probably nothing lucky about Hitchcock’s ascent to greatness. He could have just as easily -- like the unlucky Orson Welles -- fallen out of favor with the studio chiefs and out of fashion with the viewing public. But as a talented pioneer of a new type of thriller movie as well as a familiar face on the revolutionary medium of television, Hitchcock made the most of his second chance in California. He stayed until his death in 1980, establishing his home in the Los Altos Hills (then a rural retreat, now a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb) and making many of his movies on location in the Bay Area.

One of those locations was the mission town of San Juan Bautista, fifty miles south of Los Altos and the scene of Scottie Ferguson’s second chance in Vertigo.  San Juan Bautista, originally settled by the Spanish in 1797, is also connected to one of the luckiest second acts in American history. In 1846, about 100 years before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in California, the American population of the state was no more than 500 people. Gold wouldn’t be discovered by James Marshall at Sutters Fort until January 1848, thus unleashing the State’s first great wave of good luck hunters. In 1846, a group of 87 pioneers, led by an Illinois farmer by the name of George Donner, set out for California. Included in the party were Patrick and Margaret Breen, recent immigrants from Canada and their seven children. In the winter of 1846-47, the Donner Party, as it became known, got trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few miles north of the modern town of Truckee, not far from the current route of the Interstate 80 highway. The nightmare of the Donner Party’s ordeal is worse than anything even Hitchcock could have dreamt up. Tortured by starvation and cold, the living were forced to eat the dead in order to survive the brutal winter. What bad luck! Of the original pioneers, only forty five souls would have the good fortune to experience their second acts in California.

All nine Breens survived. The senior Breen, Patrick, not only came down from the pass, but he transformed his ordeal into media. His diary, from which historians have depended for their accounts of the tragic journey, is now the property of the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.  Patrick’s eldest son, John also made much of his lucky second chance. Having arrived in California, he settled in San Juan Bautista and, in 1848, went to the gold fields, returning in March 1849 with $12,000 in gold. He invested the money in the biggest house and stables on the square in San Juan Bautista and in buying 400 acres of land in the San Juan Valley. John Breen’s stables are easy to see today – Hitchcock filmed them in Madeleine’s final scene in Vertigo, before her fake suicide.

Since 1846, California has become American’s second chance, the stage of generation after generation of entrepreneur, eager to make their fortune. Many of these pioneers, like Hitchcock, John Breen and the Silicon Valley crowd, got lucky. But not all these second acts have ended as happily. Take another Scott as an example – this one a real person rather than a movie character. Arriving in California as the acclaimed author of a number of novels including The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood to write screenplays. But he never took to the movies and the movie business never took to him. He was hired, then quickly fired, by the mogul David O. Selznick, to write the screenplay for Gone With The Wind. By the late Thirties, Fitzgerald was washed up, a has-been, a bad luck Hollywood failure and a drunk. In 1940, the same year that Selznick gave Hitchcock his first chance in Hollywood, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. In addition to a wife and daughter, he left an unfinished Hollywood novel called The Last Tycoon based on the life of the mogul Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald also left us with some much quoted autobiographical sentence on bad luck:

"There are no second acts in American lives."

Even after death, Fitzgerald can’t quite shake off the great seduction of California. We look back to Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and that whole West Egg scene to make historical sense of Silicon Valley. It has become common-place now to juxtapose the Twenties and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 with the Nineties and the Silicon Valley crash of April 2000. It doesn't take a F. Scott Fitzgerald to see that both decades were characterized by excessive optimism, an irrationally exuberant bull market and an evangelical faith in future prosperity. The Twenties invented the new media of radio and the movies; the Nineties invented the new media of Internet and cellphones. What good luck; what ill fortune.

One can’t but wonder what sort of history of luck an outsider-on-the-inside like Fitzgerald would have written, had he had the (mis)fortune today of doing his second act in Silicon Valley, next to Steve and Larry and Sergei, amidst the vertiginous hype of Web 2.0, the trumpeted second coming of the digital media revolution. But this time the bad luck is ours. Today, there is neither a Scott F. Fitzgerald, nor an Alfred Hitchcock, a Bob Dylan or a Niccolo Machiavelli to help out. The festival might, indeed, be over and the boys could all be planning for a fall, but we've got to work out the consequences of it all for ourselves. Today, those consequences remain unrecorded, unwritten and unfilmed. And here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the place that is reinventing the technology of media, we continue to wait with uncharacteristic patience to learn why some people are lucky and why some aren't.


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.