Falling for Vertigo

 

Went to see one of my favorite old films last night, Hitchcock’s now classic Vertigo. I write “now” because the film’s rise to lasting fame has been gradual, from an original position in the shadow of North By Northwest and Psycho, to its present-day status as one of the greatest films of all time. Actually, according to a critics’ poll recently released by the British film institute, Vertigo has now been voted the greatest film of all time, apparently dislodging Citizen Kane, previously a perennial winner of the accolade. While this is gratifying for the film’s legions of fans, many of whom were on hand at The Castro Theater to watch a restored print and to see a live appearance by Kim Novak, I wonder the following: what is it that changed, gradually or not, over the last sixty years to make this once (relatively) rejected film such an iconic piece of cinema?

It’s surely not the visual style of the film, which is unforgettably dreamy, colorful and strange, but no more so than it will have appeared in 1958. It can’t be the acting, which on the surface, will have seemed typical for the period. There was James Stewart, for example, more or less in his prime, being as expressive and likeable as he ever was, despite the dark complexity of his character. His co-star was the obligatorily beautiful Kim Novak whose acting may have seemed stiff upon the film’s original release, though her vapidity has a certain logic to it given the story’s themes. However, come back Grace Kelly, some may have pined at the time. And it can’t have been the direction, for again, in Alfred Hitchcock audiences were faced with a filmmaker at the height of his career, delivering one suspenseful gem after another. Indeed, it wasn’t until the latter half of the sixties that his commercial magic started to wane.

Only when I consider Vertigo alongside other Hitchcock films, observing its taboo themes, plus the nuances in the acting, or the hypnotic music, that its danger and fantasy shine through, justifying the delayed praise but also explaining a once tentative reaction. The plot features a retired police detective, played by Stewart, who discovers he has vertigo while on the job, which leads to the death of a fellow policeman. In the aftermath, he is approached by an old college friend to do a private job: follow this man’s wife, who is suicidal and probably crazy—possessed by an obscure historical figure in local (San Francisco) folklore named Carlotta Valdes. This friend wants Stewart’s Scottie character to follow his wife Madeleine and gather evidence for a later institutionalization. In Rear Window, Stewart made an injured voyeur a winning character. In Vertigo, he takes his Scottie character to another level.

Scottie reluctantly takes the college friend’s job but quickly sinks his teeth into the intrigue, following Madeleine from churches to department stores, to museums, and eventually to a private spot beneath the Golden Gate Bridge where she will jump into the bay so that Scottie can dutifully save her. He does save her from drowning and at this point in the story two things ought to be clear: first, that Scottie is falling in love with Madeleine, and secondly, that this will have been expected by Madeleine, and also by the friend that hired Scottie. So far, everything seems a little contrived, a little unrealistic (even for the fifties) and yet, as Martin Scorsese once remarked about this film, it doesn’t matter. This is shaping up as a doomed love story, not just a suspense thriller, though nothing is predictable. A viewer might pick up that the film’s title, a reference to Scottie’s affliction, is a metaphor for the “falling” experience of love and obsession that follows.

After the rescue, Scottie gets closer to Madeleine, who reciprocates his feeling, and becomes embroiled in her obsession, which is to emulate the suicidal mania of her alter ego, the long-deceased Valdes. Though he gets close to analyzing the ghostly elements, discovering the links in Madeleine’s dreams if not understanding her underlying guilt, Scottie fails to prevent his lover’s death, which occurs as she falls from the tower of an old California Mission—a predestined end. Or, that is what appears to happen shortly after the halfway point of the film. Thereafter, Scottie recedes into shame and frozen grief: he is institutionalized, having absorbed Madeleine’s apparent psychosis. Then he wanders SF streets, visiting places Madeleine frequented, and then visiting her grave. In another contrived sequence, he sees a Madeleine look-alike in the street and immediately approaches, asking this woman to dinner. By now, Scottie’s transformation from a zealous detective to a stalker (which seemed like it was coming all along) is complete, and for the remainder of the film, Stewart’s character gets creepier. Much to the film legend’s credit, this doesn’t render Scottie unlikeable, as his perverse pursuit of Judy (Madeleine’s seeming look-alike) is inflected with grief and endearing passion. Even as Scottie seduces the sympathetic Judy, and later controls everything from her clothing to her hairstyle to create a Madeleine facsimile, the audience retains its sympathy for him. As Judy emerges finally into the molded image of Scottie’s lost love, there is a sense of triumph alongside the painful tragedy that is hers and his.

The brilliance of this scene is layered with irony: from a medium that creates falsehood as a matter of habit, and from the mind of a great manipulative director, both a woman and an affair are brought back from the dead and thrust into a man’s fantasy. The film mirrors the actions of the protagonist, yielding a mixed feeling for an audience: one can admire the craft, the controlling of events, while finding reprehensible and sad the domination of the Judy character. And yet, things aren’t as simple as they seem. In the climactic sequence, Scottie learns what the audience already knows: that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, and that Judy was an impersonator, an opportunist paid by the college friend to lure Scottie to be false witness to a murder. Because of his penchant for vertigo, for “falling”, he cannot follow Judy to the top of the tower, so he doesn’t see that the friend has his already murdered wife in his arms, ready to drop her before Scottie’s hapless gaze.

Kim Novak’s Judy character, like Scottie, retains audience sympathy despite colluding with the murderer, partly because she seems like an exploited figure, but also because she is like Scottie: she is also acting out of misguided and reckless love. I think this the essential reason that Vertigo has enduring appeal: despite the perversion, the opportunism, the impulsivity and bad decisions, the fantasy of love remains an intoxicant, and Vertigo, with all of its color and cinematic verve, is like fifties psychedelia—a fantasy of dark love. The problem or not (depending upon one’s point of view) of non-wholesome love is that too many people in society identify with how complicated and twisted love can be. It can make innocent and lovely women like Kim Novak seem traumatized and a bit dull. It can make nice guys like James Stewart seem menacing.

Not everyone will get it, and even those who do might still try to simplify matters. As the end credits ran, I overheard stupid questions like, “what happened to the bad guy?” (Scottie’s murdersome friend), as if the just capture of that figure would have rendered the end satisfactory. Actually, it was irrelevant to the story’s point. During the Castro Q & A with Kim Novak, the now aged actress was troubled with questions about MeToo movement issues and how they related to her character in Vertigo. While praising the manipulative, neurotic genius of Hitchcock, Ms Novak made the worthy point that her Judy character represents women whose personhood is denied or subsumed within male obsessions. But even this perspective seems facile, for her character is not without culpability for having embroiled herself in a plot whose aims will have been clear from the outset. Perhaps one of the secret lessons of films like Vertigo—indeed, of art that takes time to infiltrate minds—is that we need art to tell us things that contemporary politics and topical comment can’t: that things aren’t as simple as they seem.

 

 

 

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Why Yelp?

 

Time out from another writing project, an absorbing piece my handful of readers will learn about soon enough, to address something that feels ripe: no, it’s not a political or social movement, though I suppose I could announce and hereafter hashtag one, just for the heck of it. A good friend said to me yesterday—tritely I thought—that the best way to promote something was to make it forbidden fruit. So, I should ban my own books, then, I biliously replied.

I was solicited a few weeks ago by an earnest young man representing a company that thinks itself a Titan of marketing and promotion –Yelp. Who am I to argue, I might say, though I did argue with the worthy young man, whose quick-delivery salesmanship hit most of the right notes, save for those that pertain most specifically to my business. On that I claimed to have insider knowledge—ideas that threw water on his—though our discussion stirred associations, made me think about the assumptions that live in my little world, which pervade the world around me, but which might be changeable, after all.

I have to say I was impressed with the amount of time this salesman gave me. One hour of unpaid time would be unthinkable in my position, though as I write that I remind myself that some do give free consultations, unwisely I argue in another blog (See “Why I don’t…” – ya know). For my salesman and good-buddy-for-an-hour I must have meant $s in terms of a commission he thought imminent, as I was encouraging of his product for the most part. In fact, had my then soon-to-be-crashing (as in permanently) phone not thwarted connection by dropping the call, I might have given him my credit card info, thinking it time to do my own bit of salesmanship with respect to my practice.

However, aspects of the plan, as it was naively presented me, didn’t feel right. My sales guy thought that with the investment we were contemplating, I’d add two clients per week, upon generating scores of inquiring calls or e-mails to my website. He seemed to think that generating volume was my primary need; he seemed to have an idea (perhaps after talking to one or two other therapist/social worker types) of the turnover of customers in my niche market, and of the value of customer feedback in generating further business. I had to say that his paradigm (now there’s a word in fashion) was an awkward fit with the model I was practicing. In a minute, I schooled him on the basics: taking on a new client isn’t just about filling an available time-slot. It’s about finding the right person: does the prospective client’s problem fit my scope of practice? Are that person or persons’ needs a fit with my experience and qualifications? Are they committed to a process that entails continuity, or are they looking for some quick advice, or to “get things of their chest”? More privately, do I have the mental space and energy to absorb in my mind the life (with all of its cast of extras) of this person?

“Got it,” said my guy. I think he did get it, actually, just before our connection disappeared. I was about to add that educated consumers don’t scroll or troll through Yelp to find good reviews of therapists. We’re not like restaurants, I’d have haughtily declared. In fairness, he’d sort of anticipated this response, having made a point about visibility being as or more important than the reviews themselves. Yelping, I might have added, seems to connote negative reviews, complaints, for “yelp” is onomatopoeia for pain, isn’t it? Furthermore, it’s not as though therapists can speak back to bad reviews, offering rebuttals, the way that other businesses might—because of confidentiality limitations. In that way, therapists, like lawyers and doctors, I suppose, are vulnerable in a one-way customer service dialogue. Marshall Field, the groundbreaking retailer of a century ago, gave the western world a now chestnut phrase to describe this unequal arrangement: “The customer is always right”. Not only did he seem to think this just, he offered it as a paradigm for good business.

I understand that businesses like Uber and Lyft are challenging this paradigm by providing a way for drivers to rate passengers just as passengers can rate drivers. This isn’t the first time these two precocious businesses have upset the apple carts. Think about it: think about the businesses, like mine, that rely upon or demand standards as codified by an overseeing authority. Uber and Lyft are bucking that system, implying that what they offer doesn’t need standards, doesn’t need training. And who’s to complain? Taxi-drivers? If this were happening in my business—if “life coaches”, for example, were taking over (via Yelp, no doubt) the therapy game—I’d dust off my protesting/marching shoes and say something. My forbidden-fruit friend seemed to bristle at Uber and Lyft’s latest game-changer. He seemed to think this a problem, saying it compromised privacy, this capacity to post a review of the consumer—that too much in our world is compromising privacy. Didn’t I agree, he asked, thinking me an indiscriminating advocate of this all-important value? I surprised him. Turn around is fair play, I said, thinking that customers have enjoyed an advantage for too long. After all, a consumer can do a lot of things to hurt a provider of services, with impunity: boycott (also de rigeur), spread a negative word, “yelp” in pain a bad review. What’s that thing a defensive retailer might say? “If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to buy it”. But until Uber and Lyft’s revisions, no one had truly altered the rules of dialogue between consumer and service provider. It’s been a while, I think, since “We have the right to refuse service” has taken center stage in a public debate (I guess I think the issue of gay people and wedding cakes a side-skirmish). Now I think that tact is pointing the way to something big.

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What about the squirrels?

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/graeme-daniels/blended2/

Okay, so I’m not going to be churlish about my Kirkus review. On the whole, their critique of Blended is positive and fair, given the limitations of space (allocated word count for the review), plus the needs/priorities of their readership. I particularly enjoy the compliment directed at my style: “Daniels writes in a fluid, elegant prose”, though I’m also aware by now that in the world of publishing, good prose isn’t what sells books. High concept or gripping plots are the order of fiction. Besides that, for those who may be interested in my modest family drama, the pieces between the lines, or the elements not commented upon, here’s my response to my best Kirkus review thus far—my filling in of the gaps.

First of all, regarding the summary: Kirkus generally does a good job of summarizing the plots of the books they review, and most of their efforts seem directed towards this task. In fact, blink once too often and you might miss what the reviewer actually thinks of a work. So, not too many complaints in this department, just a comment on what is missing. Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, does indeed have an altruistic (if waywardly so) bent, and is only thinly understood by her husband, Bill, adequately described here as benignly workaholic. Jacob, the stepson, is however, much more than a surly twenty-something who mostly gives silence to Tillie, as the reviewer suggests. Like the primitivistic imps that are the immigrant Pakistani couple’s seven children, Jacob is a rambunctious, unfinished dish at large in Tillie’s back garden and inner space. He recalls for her callow habits, dreams, and other lost ways of her own youth, and amidst the comic boyishness of Jacob, his ‘gross-out’ edge, there is within him a thoughtful streak that moves Tillie.

Passages about eating habits, misadventures around food, plus a certain amount of toilet humor may have thrown my Kirkus reviewer. There is little to suggest in his or her 700-word opinion that these parts of the book were much more than filler between plot advancements. I’m used to this: several of my novels feature tangents and other indulgences that bemuse some readers. It’s an aspect of what I believe is my surrealistic style. Symbolic phrases and cryptic elements abound, there to be seen if readers care about such nuance, and to be missed by the majority because…because they have better things to do? I don’t know. I think lasting art, or at least that which has captured my mind, is rarely there on the surface, seen or heard the first time one scrolls past. Elements, bits and pieces, aggregate and tell stories beyond the story. Seriously. Therefore, back to eating, belching and farting, the beta elements of my social chaos theme: The seven kids of my Pakistani family are meant to parallel Jacob’s persona, serving the “twinned lives of the two families” idea that the reviewer observes.

It’s gratifying that this aspect of the novel was noticed: “an admirable attempt to figure out something about America’s view of itself and the outside world”. But what about George, my Donald Trump stand-in who takes over leadership at Tillie’s ACS job and plays the bombastic vulgarian, crudely intruding upon civilized order until learning some humility at that subplot’s end? A happy resolution, I thought. Worth mentioning, I further think. What about the undercurrent of imperial corruption that lies within the working world of Bill and his not-so-benign corporate employers? Turns out they were the company that employed Bahram, the father of the refugee family, hence their emigration to the town wherein Bill and Tillie live. It also turns out that Bahram left his former job and country under a cloud, having been embroiled in nefarious events in Pakistan, a residue of which is exported to Bishop Grove and revealed in the novel’s climactic sequence. Wasn’t that worth mentioning? I also wonder.

And finally, what about my squirrels, those mute, intrusive yet ubiquitous creatures whose scrambling, ravenous pleasure feeds on us, somehow comments upon us? They chase each other, fighting over territory, competing over resources provided by hosts, and acting with entitlement, as if thinking they’ve been here longer than anyone or thing. Buy a copy of Blended and you’ll see a squirrel on the back cover, lurking upon a tree, gazing upon the Marsden household. Project what you like onto its expressionless void. Imagine who might take the squirrels’ places in another reality, locked out but coveting what’s in.

 

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Kirkus reviews Blended

Finally, a Kirkus reviewer likes one of my novels. Take a look:

 

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/graeme-daniels/blended2/

 

More later. Let me take it in…

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Who Cares

 

Been gone from this for a while. Several reasons: I wrote two blog articles for psychecentral.com, both of which called for some extra time and attention. Next, I’ve thought to give Blended some time to breathe—that is, to let the six or so entries devoted to it a chance to sink in. Fat chance, I think sourly, which leads me to the most personal reason for my absence: a certain discouragement and torpor. Nothing special, just the standard writer’s self-importance, feelings of petulance…immaturity.

Another priority was the preparation for January 4th, my latest chance to talk Tommy before an audience. I’d been wanting to present at Mechanics’ Institute (MI) in San Francisco for ages, and I said as much at the outset of my talk. Thursday night I had my moment before an eager crowd of sixty, there because of MI’s capable marketing team. I got paid nothing for my time and labor. That’s what I’ll say if the tax or music copyright watchdogs ever ask, and the truth is I’m not doing it for the money. The reason I talk is the reason I write. I want someone to hear me. I want an audience.

“Are you ready to rock?” exhorted my host, the activities director at MI. She’s a nice woman, supportive and interested. More than myself, even, she’d observed the potential for a discussion about The Who’s Tommy to bring out the fans amongst the MI membership. Actually, I’m not sure how many in the crowd were MI members. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I’m grateful someone knows what people want to hear. Anyway, six o’clock on Thursday rolled around. I knew my material, was ready to talk, and as I stood in the wings, waiting for the audience to take their seats, I felt close to stardom, I think. I almost noticed how it felt, rather like I did in Santa Fe in August. Then I began.

Fifteen minutes in, all was going well. My voice, ordinarily dry and halting when speaking to groups, felt limber and relaxed. I paced languidly before my audience, gazing out casually, leaving pauses for effect, breaking into a slight lilt when reciting pertinent song lyrics. I stared over heads a lot—a technique designed to limit distraction, preempt anxiety. I played one or two samples of songs from Tommy—did my arm-windmilling bit, aping Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and creative engine. The darkened room at MI made eye contact difficult. The few pupils I did meet seemed attentive and expectant, yet respectfully patient. An hour ahead of a promised Q & A session, I sensed the gathering of opinion. There was a handful of voices in the audience ready to challenge, to question or to share. I had suggested such an exchange at the beginning, right after the host’s rockin’ announcement. These people at MI: they weren’t like the staid crowd at the Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe. They might have known less about psychology than doctors or therapists. Indeed, they likely gave less than a shit about John Bowlby or Melanie Klein, or James Masterson and Allan Schore. But they did care about Tommy. They had a lot to say about The Who.

Some just wanted to share how they’d been at Woodstock, and watched in amused awe as Pete Townshend stuck his knee into Abbie Hoffman’s groin. A political comment, sort of. Another man chuckled as he relayed a Jimi Hendrix/Who anecdote. I played along, knowing it would be the infamous Monterey Pop episode wherein the two bands tossed a coin to see who would get to play first, blow hippie minds and make rock history destroying things. One is meant to guffaw in concert at these tall tales, finding humor in the macho interplay of legendary rock stars. Truth is, I find this kind of jocular reminiscing slightly painful. After all, what I’d shared was, as far as I was concerned, a rich, layered analysis of a celebrated pop icon, yet still the kind of treatment The Who had thus far been denied. I didn’t want to merely reminisce with fellow fans. I wanted to muse with them, bring a sense of historical texture, intellectual interest wrapped in love and passion. I wanted to spark thought on something they had enjoyed over time but not truly examined.

Thankfully, the storytellers weren’t the only faction in the audience. One or two had read Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, and wanted me to speculate on how Tommy related to its author’s history of child abuse. Questions like this were a welcome challenge, but it was nothing compared to a penultimate query that has stuck with me since. Seated behind a man who had shared apocryphal stories about The Who’s early Mod days was a slender, brittle, middle-aged woman. Wearing a frown, she raised her arm, waited her turn, but upon being called, made a chiding comment that The Who were “a band for men”, and further offered that their love songs, few and far between as they were, seemed fraught with themes of abuse and exploitation. Punctuating this comment was a leading question directed at me: as a therapist, surely I thought (The Who) an unbalanced and harmful icon (something like that). Through the dim light, I looked into this woman’s angry eyes, saw the withering incomprehension of a staunch Beatles fan, a feminist revealing her barely male-tolerating ire. I didn’t want to answer her question per se. I wanted to spend another hour on the subject.

Collecting my thoughts, I noticed that we were towards the end. My host, the MI events organizer, might have glanced at her watch. I thought of “Sally Simpson”, a lesser famous song from Tommy that some critics abhor, for reasons I’ve never understood. The song is about a girl who falls in love with the guru-like Tommy character from afar, and gets hurt trying to touch him at a speaking event. Stood before the crowd at MI, with the seconds spinning by, I knew what I wanted to say at my slightly parallel event. I just had to organize myself. Moments later I was sharing an anecdote: a story about the inspiration for “Sally Simpson”; an incident in 1968 when The Who supported The Doors on tour, and Townshend witnessed the uber-petulant Jim Morrison kick a female fan in a melee. The incident sparked Pete’s sympathy, plus a memory, perhaps, of how he’d once envied the attention other bands (like The Beatles) garnered from screaming, clinging girls. The Who’s early songs were as female-bashing as anyone’s, I admitted on their behalf to that angry-looking woman in the MI crowd. But the following lyrics from “Sally Simpson” show what Tommy and great rock n’ roll are all about, ultimately:

She knew from the start

Deep down in her heart

That she and Tommy were worlds apart

But her mother said never mind, you’re part is to be what you’ll be

 

We grow up

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Narcissus and Nemesis

A familiar story?

 

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was renowned for his beauty. The goddess Nemesis punished him for his hubris by drawing him to a pool. One day walking the forest, Narcissus was thirsty and went to drink from the stream. As he saw the reflection, he fell in love, not knowing it was him (he is unconscious). He bent down to kiss the reflection,  but it seemed to run away (ideals are elusive), and Narcissus was heartbroken. He would not touch the water for fear of damaging the reflection (his public image?), so he died staring at his reflection.

Tragedy?

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Apologies for the golden sperm

 

Not what you’re thinking, whatever you’re thinking.

I was walking along a dirt trail, getting some fresh air, post-wildfire air, with a colleague.

“What kind of feedback are you getting about your novel?”

I pause, considering the question for a moment, like I hadn’t thought about this kind of question already

“Apologetic”

“What?”

“Nothing. Inside joke. Look out.”

“Oh,” my colleague says, tracking my gaze and thus looking down. There lies a golden or mustard-colored slug sliming its way across the dirt path. I’d just saved its life.

“Talk about patience. See, it’s in no rush. It’s just doing its thing. Ask it ‘how’re you’re doin?’, it might say ‘gettin’ there, taking it one slithering inch at a time”

“You’re a comic” My colleagues responds familiarly. He knows already my habit of personifying things, ideas. It’s my thing.

“Imagine it gets three quarters of the way across, then a vehicle comes by and crushes it. Fate. Now that would merit an apology. That would crush its spirits”

“Different perspectives. Life is relative,” my colleague says, joining if not really adding to the whimsical mood.

“Good thing it doesn’t have our perspective, actually. No thinking. No disappointments. No pain.”

“Ugh” my colleague utters. Now I track his gaze. Up ahead, a second slug appears, similarly colored, only this one was sliced in two.

“It’s a slug exodus,” I say. “Somebody owes it an apology, even though it’s tougher than us. Think about it, because we can. God didn’t give it anymore than it could handle. Look at it, the head. It’s alright, really. It’s smiling, knows its place in the universal order. It doesn’t think as we know it. Doesn’t have a self. As long as one of them makes it, it primitively knows. It lives its truth–like sperm. in fact, they even look like sperm. Golden sperm”

Weird. That’s what my colleague’s face says. He looks at me. He wants to look away, I can tell. Maybe he wonders if my novel is weird, too. He’d know if he read it.

“Sorry, friend. Better luck next time,” he says reverently, looking down at the slug. We look at each other. We appraise.

“Well, somebody should say it,” I say.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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