This week marked the Vertigo 60th anniversary. The Hitchcock classic is widely considered not only his best, but one of the best movies period. And it just might be the ultimate sexy thriller. Its brilliance comes in many forms, but predominantly through the vivid imagery and symbolism used to convey themes and emotions. The fact that much of the plot is completely implausible would definitely be an issue with movie goers today. Ones concerned with making every little thing fit perfectly. But Hitchcock was never concerned with making sense to the viewer. During his famous conversation with director Francois Truffaut, (which would later be in the must watch documentary/must read book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch spoke of his desire to tell masterful, suspenseful stories. Sometimes you have to forgo believability to get there. Plus, as he put it, “logic is dull.”
I revisited the film this week for the Vertigo 60th anniversary and though the improbability doesn’t bother me, something else did come to mind. The film hasn’t changed. It was always teetering on a fine line of romanticizing obsession and exploiting male dominance over women. Much like the director himself was notoriously known to do with his leading ladies. But the society in which we watch Vertigo certainly has, in numerous ways.
Most notably, the #metoo era we live in now. Something that started as an outcry towards hidden sexual harassment and worse in the workplace has morphed into a movement. One which has caused us to begin acknowledging female undercutting in many aspects of our culture. Even beyond sexual harassment topics. In light of this cultural shift, I can still enjoy one of my favorite films just as much as before. But it is possible to watch it without the glaring issues of today’s world staring us in the face? Yes and no.
Strong, unapologetic women in films are being exhibited more today. From an all female remake of Oceans Eleven to powerful, badass, characters in Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow and Molly’s Game. In the upcoming, highly anticipated Halloween, the famed leading male role is reimagined as Jamie Lee Curtis. Many other films also highlight a strong or resilient woman. Whether it’s on the horror side, in Revenge, or the more human side, in Ladybird.
With all this change, though it’s thrilling, it can still be hard to watch Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie mentally overpower his love interest in Vertigo. Not only doesn’t she mind, she welcomes it. We watch as he transforms her, literally, into a symbol of (what he thinks) is a lost love. When the makeover’s complete, she’s not a person anymore. Just a canvas that he’s recreated in his own vision. So many times while watching, we want to yell at Kim Novak, ‘Stop letting him do that to you. Take control, girl!’. In fact Judy, as we know her, is manipulated by men through the entire film. First, by Gavin Elster, whose scheme to kill his wife uses Judy and Scottie as essential players. Then, by Scottie, a suffering detective and pawn in Elster’s game whose love for a woman who doesn’t really exist borders on psychotic.
Like many other films reminiscent of that era, we’re seeing women controlled by men. I can watch Rosemary’s Baby a million times, and I’ll still get upset watching her be led astray by the men in her life. When she finally does assert control, she’s incapable of regaining power. Later, the 70’s would bring the Stepford Wives, the cult classic where housewives are robotic creatures that live to serve and pleasure their men. A far cry from the strong, capable female protagonist of today’s films.
So, what’s to be learned from the Vertigo 60th anniversary. Times change and we must change with them. Or can we still appreciate art, even if it contradicts our societal beliefs. Can we live in a #metoo world and still watch women be powerless to men on screen? Of course. Because we’re still a society that adores beauty pageants, and Instagram personalities imitating the Kardashians. Many would say these it’s these women that are the powerful ones now, with their own control. While that may be true, its the return of the male gaze, the male’s perception, that keeps that power going in many cases. As long as that’s true, the strength a man has over a woman will always be illustrated in film. Whether it’s physical, in horror movies, or mentally, in the case of Vertigo.
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