THEME AND VARIATIONS
by Max Goldberg
The Royal Road, Phoenix, and The Dragon is the Frame
D.A. Miller begins his 2008 Film Quarterly essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) by confessing that his initial experience of the film was not a happy one. “I was disappointed at not finding the Hitchcock thriller I already knew,” he recalls, “and incapable of appreciating the modernist art film that without warning had stolen its identity.” Rather than disavowing his early response, however, Miller uses it to pry open the film’s fundamentally elusive character. “Even when I most doggedly concentrate on the images before me,” he writes of subsequent screenings, “I find myself sidetracked—staring at peripheral details, fixated on private, incommunicable nuances, or held in the grip of a camera movement much too long after it passed.” This would seem a textbook case of cinephilia, albeit one negatively construed as missing the forest for the trees. Miller’s reasons for this admission of an ostensibly “bad spectatorship” becomes clearer when, following a guided tour of Vertigo sites in San Francisco (his own native city), he realizes that the film acts as a screen for his own childhood memories: “No wonder I can never find Hitchcock’s San Francisco in any fullness; I am too busy, in my reveries, looking for my own, as if Vertigo were, of all things, a documentary.”
This might well seem to overshoot the mark of the audience’s troubled identification with Jimmy Stewart’s detective and the film’s corresponding unraveling of male desire, and yet Miller touches on something essential here about the way Hitchcock’s film offers itself as both a parable and a form for approaching loss. Three recent films made under the sign of Vertigo use the film as a tool for plotting their own particular coordinates of mourning and melancholia: one, an essay (Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road), another, a narrative (Christian Petzold’s Phoenix), and the last, a lyric (Mary Helena Clark’s The Dragon is the Frame). Even sitting atop the BFI’s most recent poll of the greatest films of all time, Vertigo remains a curious kind of beacon—the light that reveals the surrounding darkness.
Jenni Olson’s earlier essay film, The Joy of Life (2005), is the rare contemporary work that might conceivably reshape one’s sense of Hitchcock’s original. At least I now find it difficult to watch the famous scene of Madeleine throwing herself into San Francisco Bay—a scene so indelibly composed that it defies all retrospective knowledge that this attempted suicide is a feint—without thinking of Olson’s eloquent plea for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. Olson remains a standout in the increasingly crowded field of the essay genre, not least because of the quality of her writing. In The Royal Road, as in The Joy of Life, her voiceover narration takes advantage of the element of time to weave its reflections on autobiography, local history, and film poetics.
Vertigo isn’t mentioned by name until the second half of The Royal Road, and yet Olson is nibbling at its edges even as she refers to Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Summertime (1955). It’s there in the broad outlines of the narrator’s recollections of her failed pursuits of two women—a story of impossible love played against the backdrop of Junipero Serra’s Royal Road, the route linking the California Missions and emblematic of the repressed history supplying Vertigo’s subtext. Olson’s narrator relates to both Madeleine’s wayward attraction to the past and Scottie’s desire for unavailable women. “Emulating the actors in my favorite classic Hollywood films, I happily acquired a new borrowed masculine persona,” she recalls of her adolescence. “Experiencing myself as a fictional character has been a mode of survival for me ever since.” Indeed, The Royal Road reminds us that a romantic identification with the movies is no less intense for cutting against the grain.
More specifically, The Royal Road overlaps with Vertigo in its visual depiction of a San Francisco marked not so much by its landmarks as their emptiness. “They are little pockets of silence and solitude, another world,” Robin Wood observed of Vertigo’s locations, and Olson’s stationary camera setups follow suit. The film’s plaintive images do not illustrate the narration so much as amplify its preoccupation with absence—the point of intersection between the film’s twinned themes of unrequited love and forgotten history. “It’s only on leaving her that I’m able to wallow in the details of our interactions,” the narrator says of her second love (both women are referred to as an unspecific if still intimate “she,” as in Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “He and I”). “I cherish these aftermaths, the immediate reminiscing monologue where I tell myself everything that just happened.” The Royal Road’s form testifies not to the past but rather to the solitary moods in which it is experienced—the fine-grained sensitivity produced by Madeleine and Scottie’s favorite pastime in the city, “wandering about.”
If Olson’s film interacts with Vertigo’s backdrops, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix directly incorporates its most outré plot elements—specifically, Scottie’s obsessive reconstruction of Madeleine in the person of Judy. No matter how many times you watch Vertigo, these scenes don’t get any easier. The late revelation of Judy’s flashback means that we approach her subsequent makeover from both points of view, with Scottie’s increasingly cruel behavior playing against Judy’s abject self-denial. Phoenix transplants this drama of mistaken identity to Berlin just after the war. American soldiers still wander the streets, and “returnees” are trickling back from the camps. One of these, a singer named Nelly (Nina Hoss), begins the film without a face. Her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf), herself a Jew collecting evidence of the still unnamed genocide, brings Nelly to a hospital for reconstructive surgery and warns against her deceitful husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who also played Hoss’s opposite in Petzold’s previous film, Barbara). The lure of a golden past proves irresistible, though, and Nelly finds her man bussing dishes in a nightclub. He doesn’t recognize her—not quite anyway. Pulling her aside, Johnny proposes that she looks enough like his wife to impersonate her in order to claim inheritance money, simultaneously confirming his treachery and opening a backdoor into her old life. Stunned, she follows Johnny back to his cramped apartment, telling him her name is Esther (“There aren’t many Esthers left,” he responds, a line characteristic of Petzold and Harun Farocki’s honed screenwriting).
Outlandish as its plotting may be—equally true of Vertigo, of course—Phoenix is scrupulous in its depiction of Nelly’s alienation and denial. “[The] opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of hallucinatory wishful psychosis,” Freud wrote of the early stages of mourning. In Nelly’s case, her narcissistic attachment to a romantic past is exacerbated by the fact that it was precisely this vision that gave her the strength to endure her ordeal; the loss of the dream makes her survival seem pointless. It isn’t easy to watch a protagonist acting against her own interests, still less so when she is a Holocaust survivor who maintains that she isn’t Jewish and flatly refuses her friend’s overtures to immigrate to Palestine (Lene functions similarly to Midge in Vertigo as a doomed voice of reason)—but then this is precisely the point of Petzold and Farocki’s characterization. The idea is not to ennoble Nelly but rather to illustrate the groundlessness of her situation. Contrary to the many empty calls to “never forget” littering film history, Phoenix challenges us to imagine how difficult it might have been to remember.
As in Vertigo, however, the dream of the past cannot hold. Cracks begin to show as Nelly and Johnny prepare to stage their phony reunion. When he brings a fancy pair of shoes for her grand entrance, she chides him for the implausibility of a woman returning from a concentration camp in heels. Masked by the frame of creating a hypothetical backstory, she begins to divulge details of her all too real trauma. His indifference is devastating. “I assure you, none of this lot will ask,” he says of their friends, and indeed they don’t. More damningly, he suggests that the romantic flourish is necessary to sustain the illusion: “They want Nelly, not a ragged returnee.” That “they” prods uncomfortably at the movie audience, especially as Johnny, more opportunistic than evil, is handsome enough to sweep us up in the beautiful lie.
Phoenix’s case of vertigo climaxes when Nelly emerges from Johnny’s bathroom as her old self, her hair dyed a dark shade of brown. It takes guts to quote the time-stopping moment in Vertigo when Judy, freshly blonde and back in the same grey suit, appears before Scottie in a bewitching shade of green. Johnny is equally dumbfounded by his vision from the past, but unlike Scottie he is predisposed against accepting illusion as reality. He recoils from Nelly’s embrace, telling her to save her performance for its intended audience. It’s only when Johnny is cast in the familiar position of accompanying Nelly on piano that he is shocked into full recognition. She reveals the terrible mark of the past and in so doing breaks the spell of the film’s stifling depth of field. Nelly exits the frame under her own power, grabbing at the open ending that was closed to Judy.
As a lyrical short, The Dragon is the Frame has little use for the heavy furniture of Hitchcock’s plot. Instead, Mary Helena Clark evokes Vertigo with a few scattered landmarks, phrases from Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the detection motif that draws itself like a heavy cloak over the film’s second movement (all it takes is a fleeting glimpse of the back of a blonde head riding the bus). Where Scottie pursues a spectral presence, Clark’s camera trails an actual absence: the film is an elegy for her friend, the artist Mark Aguhar. We see Aguhar’s doubled face in excerpts from their YouTube videos (Glamour, Why Be Ugly When U Can Be Beautiful?, Gay Gaze), memento mori about which Clark’s private visions revolve.
Freud noted “a loss of interest in the outside world” as being characteristic of mourning, and yet it seems more particularly to be a loss of interest in the social world that can in turn result in a sharp awareness of those “pockets of silence” Wood ascribes to Vertigo. While the logic linking Clark’s images remains necessarily oblique—such is grief—I am astonished by the concision with which she evokes my own sense of place in the Bay Area: a single shot of the sea and a few of the hills; the crown of a red flowering gum and a lone oak; the sound of a MUNI bus accelerating and a curve of neon. The subjects are common as pennies shining on the sidewalk and as rarely remarked upon.
When Clark does turn to a familiar landmark, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the view is radically simplified (red lines in fog and an unnerving buckling sound). The shots of Vertigo’s locations embrace imperfection as a given: the Mission Dolores cemetery as seen through a fence, the Hotel Vertigo (formerly the Empire) interrupted by streetlights. The point isn’t to approximate Vertigo so much as its spell. Once stricken with grief, after all, everything becomes a possible token for loss—a shop window as sure as a cemetery. This would seem to suggest the same sense of Vertigo driving Miller’s essay: that we may actually be closest to the film’s essence when we feel ourselves pulling away from it. He writes, “Irresistibly, my mind wanders, falls into daydreams or spins off into reminiscences related to the film by only the most finely customized tangents.” In such tangents one finds material for a thousand other films—a lineage reaching from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) to as yet unrealized quests for tomorrow’s yesterday.
MAX GOLDBERG is a writer and archivist based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in Cinema Scope and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications.