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24 August 2014
In steering away from the shot, scene, sequence, or stylistic reactions this blog typically takes, this week’s piece hopes to investigate something a bit different for Chris Columbus’ 2001 fantasy adventure Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The film, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s immensely successful Harry Potter series, stays very close to the text. Cinematically, the film plays it safe, perhaps too safe to sustain a lengthy or detail oriented analysis. Therefore, to depart from the norm, the focus of this reaction will be a change made in the American book, and subsequent film, from its UK counterpart; in the UK the first book in the Harry Potter series, as well as the film adaptation, are titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, yet the American book, and adapted film, are titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Scholastic, the American publisher for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, explained the change. According to them, the term philosopher has a different connotation in America than in the United Kingdom. What this really means is the term philosopher, in America, is less attractive to readers than in the United Kingdom. Sorcerer, however, is attractive to American readership and reasonably synonymic to philosopher (a stretch, but the assumed ideology of Scholastic). Thus, a change was made; Americas only know the first book in Rowling’s magical series and the first film of the series as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Yet, even synonymic words have their own respective significance; however similar sorcerer is to philosopher (debatable), the two words are not the same, and changing the title does change meaning.
To begin, the philosopher’s stone is a well-known myth (perhaps better know in the UK), and it directly relates to alchemy, a philosophy dating back to before the Common Era which had a tremendous impact on chemical science. In short, alchemy looks for material perfection and spiritual enlightenment. Put another way, alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone (an object with the power to turn invaluable or less valuable metals into silver and gold), use the stone to change materials, and then extract the elixir of life from the center of the stone for spiritual enlightenment.
Alchemy also emphasizes metaphor and symbolism. For example, alchemists once believed the philosopher’s stone was a tangible object, but they also realized its figurative significance; the creation of a stone that could produce greatness and then allow people to achieve their Great Work, or complete enlightenment, is a metaphor for the human experience; people are creations that have the power to produce greatness and, perhaps, achieve enlightenment in the end, according to an alchemist philosophy.
All that said, when Scholastic published Rowling’s book with the title Sorcerer’s Stone, for the simple sake of better appealing to American audiences, something significant was lost: alchemy and the meaning it offers the Harry Potter series.
Because alchemy is deeply metaphoric and symbolic, and Rowling understood that, she uses a reference to alchemy and its prize symbol, the philosopher’s stone, be figurative herself and communicate something about her protagonist: Harry Potter, through the course of this series, is created, produces greatness, and eventually achieves enlightenment. It is a brilliant juxtaposition Rowling explores in her initial novel of the series. Yet, it is changed, and therefore meaning is lost.
Even though the American text and film discuss the Sorcerer’s Stone as through it is the Philosopher’s Stone, it is not. The name change robs the novel and film from a purposeful allusion to replace it with something meaningless; there is no Sorcerer’s Stone myth; barring this novel and film, there is no such thing as the Sorcerer’s Stone.
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17 August 2014
Adapted from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo captures of the fictional tale of a penniless orphan who lives in the walls of Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, tirelessly winding and tending to the station’s clocks. Interestingly, the film, which is more pointedly historical fiction, ties in the biographical narrative of Georges Melies, a turn of the century Parisian filmmaker. In real life, after an inspired period of filmmaking, Melies lost his film studio and reels of work to the Great War. As a result, Melies came to work as a toymaker in the Gare Montparnasse. This is where, in Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly film, Hugo and Melies’s stories intersect and Hugo’s fictional narrative serves as a catalyst to tell audiences the biography of a legendary filmmaker.
As background on Melies, the filmmaker made films when cinema was in its earliest stages of development. Like children, Melies played with cinema curiously and excitedly. There was no established etiquette for film or any expectations on films by the film community. Frankly, there was barely a film community. Melies was free in cinema, learning all he came to know about the medium through his own experimentations. Thus, when telling of Melies’s life in cinema through the medium of cinema (clever), what is better than juxtaposing Melies’s life with a child’s adventure? Figuratively, Melies’s beautiful, daring, tragic, and triumphant adventure in cinema enhances alongside the narrative of bright-eyed, precocious Hugo.
Poetically, Georges Melies’s inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring filmmaking style is not only discussed in Hugo, it is also the muse for the film’s own inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring moments. For example, Melies was one of the first filmmakers to use color in film. In his time, films were all black and white; however, Melies’s films were hand painted with color (as mentioned in Hugo). Vibrant color is a significant use of imagery in Scorsese’s Hugo; the vivacious shades of reds and brights in the Gare’s flower shop, the warm shades of gold and luminous natural light used during various daytime scenes, and the bleak and cold colors used behind the Gare’s walls where Hugo lives all set tone in the film, making Hugo, which is already a visual experience, an even more visually stimulating experience, as stimulating as Melies’s hand-painted A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Moreover, Melies’s filmography includes experiments in multiple genres of filmmaking: fantasy, drama, sci-fi, comedy, and horror. Melies was not a director who continued to release the same type or style of film over and over; he was not fearful of mixing genres in one film. Recognition of Melies’s genre inter-play also finds its way into Hugo. Scorsese’s Hugo is a “family film,” if one was to force it into one category, but it is also full of tragedy, fantasy, and action. In other words, like Melies work, Hugo is dynamic and vast; Hugo explodes with imagination, while exploring cinematic elements ranging from film noir all the way to animation. Very unusual, very experimental, but also very inspired and inspiring.
Furthermore, Hugo also pays tribute to other silent films, such as Safety Last! (1923). In one particular sequence of the film, as Hugo, yet again, must run and hide from Inspector Gustave Dasté, the station’s security, Hugo dangerously dangles outside the station, clinging to a clock’s handle. Not only is it an allusion to one of the most famous scenes in Safely Last!, but earlier in Hugo the title character and his friend, Isabelle, sneak in a cinema and watch Safely Last! The children watch this death-defying scene from a noteworthy moment in cinema’s silent era and, later in the film, Hugo reenacts the stunt when cornered by Dasté. In that regard, it is not only the film Hugo that pays homage to Safety Last!, but the character within the film also pays his respects to a new, creative, albeit dangerous, action inspired by Safety Last!
And, it is not just the references to silent film Hugo uses to pay homage to international silent cinema; Hugo itself uses silent sequences, namely the film’s opening, which undoubtedly and intentionally is inspired by Melies, his contemporaries, and the films of the silent era, to help viewers understand and celebrate silent film. The establishing shot begins with the golden gears of a clock turning, which dissolve into a bustling nightscape of Paris, likening the motion of a clock with the motion of the city. The scene sweeps the City of Lights until it finds the Gare Montparnasse, and then sweeps in to the train station, through the bustling city within a city—full of travelers and station workers—to a clock hanging high above the center of Gare Montparnasse. In this clock, peering out from behind the number four, Hugo Cabret looks about the station, noting its people, particularly the regulars: a flower shop owner, bookshop owner, and the station inspector. Satisfied, Hugo retreats from his vantage point behind the number four, entering his world, the world behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse; Hugo slides through the secret passages of the station to yet another clock, this one with a view of a toymaker and his shop. On the counter sits a wind-up mouse, which has Hugo’s complete attention. Patiently, he waits for the toymaker to fall asleep, slips through a vent in the wall, quietly and slowly makes his way to the toymaker’s counter where the mouse rest, and puts his hand out to snatch it. “Got you, at last,” says the toymaker, the first words uttered in Hugo.
This opening explodes with information, action, and tension, yet no word it spoken until the toymaker’s line. Here, in the opening, Hugo makes a claim about the power of silent film. The symbolic likening of a clock’s gears to Paris by night speaks of movement and time (or, perhaps, movement’s relationship with time), which will become a significantly important topic in the film. The sweep into the station, matching the bustle of the station and its trains with the speed of the camera is equally communicative to a visual audience. And, of course, the image of a bright-eyed boy standing behind time, the timekeeper; the boy who reveals a world behind a world that is as interesting, full or movement, and effected by time as the world audiences first meet. And, finally, as the boy creeps toward a toy mouse (cleverly falling into a mousetrap), we finally hear it, “Got you, at last,” and wonder might that be Hugo’s filmmaker commenting on the magic of silent cinema that he just captured in his opening sequence? The opening sequence is one of the film’s strongest, not just because Scorsese knows how to make a film, but because it feels as though the opening pays tribute to silent film and embraces the best of it, allowing audiences to read the images without being told what to see.
Tell someone something, s/he has knowledge; show someone how something works, s/he has an understanding, perhaps even an appreciation. This is, potentially, what Scorsese had in mind as he worked on Hugo. Hugo allows Melies’s cinematic impact and influence to evolve throughout the film, not simply telling people about this noteworthy director, but exploring Melies significance and the way silent film works to help audiences recognize filmmaking of yesteryear, understand its impact, and appreciate its contribution to international cinema.
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10 August 2014
The Wizard of Oz, one of Warner Borthers’ most successful films, has been adored by audiences since its release in 1939. Not only is the film a visual treat—particularly for its original audiences who were amazed to see color, vibrant color, flood the screen when protagonist Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) discovers she is “…not in Kansas anymore”— but The Wizard of Oz is also a heroic tale of adventure and escapism designed to pull in moviegoers who are eager for adventure and interested in escaping, if only for two hours in a darkened movie house.
In a snapshot, Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on their farm in early 20th century Kansas. Battered by the Great Depression, and the rich, ruthless Almira Gulch who despises Dorothy’s beloved dog, Toto, Dorothy leads and lonely and difficult life. When a “twister” hits the Gale’s farm, knocking Dorothy unconscious, she is transported, farmhouse and all, into a new world, perhaps “somewhere over the rainbow,” as she once wished. In this new world, a magical place called Oz, Dorothy finds herself in trouble; her farmhouse landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. Glinda, a “good witch,” and the munchkins of Munchkinland, thank Dorothy for killing a wicked witch, giving Dorothy the witch’s ruby slippers as a reward. Unfortunately, the other wicked witch, the Wicked Witch of the West, is upset with Dorothy for killing her sister, and even more upset that Dorothy now has her sister’s ruby slippers. Afraid of the witch, and desperate to return home to Kansas, Dorothy sets out on an adventure to find her way back home; advised by Glinda to “follow the yellow brick road,” Dorothy heads to the Emerald City where the Wizard of Oz lives, a magical wizard who can surely help with Dorothy’s seemingly perilous situation. Along the way, she befriends Scarecrow (who has no brain), Tinman (who has not heart), and Cowardly Lion (who has no courage), and decides to take them all with her to the Wizard of Oz. Once Dorothy and her new friends arrive in the Emerald City, Dorothy realizes that with one journey’s end comes a new adventure, this one more dangerous and frightening than her travels on the yellow brick road. With her friends, Dorothy must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West if she wants the Wizard’s help in returning home to Kansas.
Like many, I saw The Wizard of Oz a time or two in my childhood, but I had not rewatched the film as an adult until recently. Even as an adult, perhaps with a better understanding of the cinematic significance of this classic, I still enjoy the story, the sights, the music, and, of course, the performances. Yet, when I rewatched the film this summer, I realized my youthful misreading, a misreading which missed the darker, rather ominous side to The Wizard of Oz.
After Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City, but just before they are to see the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West appears in the sky, writing a cryptic message in black smoke: “Surrender Dorothy.”
As a child, I assumed the Wicked Witch was speaking to Dorothy, telling her to surrender herself, or at least the ruby slippers, if she wants to escape the witch’s evil curse (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”). However, as an adult, and recognizing the witch’s smoky message does not contain a comma (direct address), the witch’s message is not intended for Dorothy. In fact, the witch is addressing everyone except Dorothy, but specifically the people of the Emerald City and their distinguished leader, the Wizard of Oz. The witch is not threatening one (Dorothy); she is threatening an entire society and its leadership (citizens of the Emerald City) in her attempt to “get” the innocents.
Importantly, this scene from the film is not in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, from which the film was adapted; this scene was created by screenwriters specifically for the film. The word “surrender” is military language, and that makes sense in for a 1939 audience. By the film’s release date, war in Europe was inevitable; the official start to WWII was only months after The Wizard of Oz’s release. Even though America would not formally enter World War II until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the world was feeling the threat of war by the late 1930s, specifically the effects of rising Nazi Party. Undoubtedly, The Wizard of Oz is a story about friendship, growing up, and perseverance, but, because of the historical moment the film was made in, the film also has some rather noticeable undertones, many of which warn of war. This “Surrender Dorothy” scene and other scenes with the Wicked Witch of the West communicate these undertones, likening the film’s conflict to the world’s impending conflict (WWII), and the film’s antagonist to the world’s antagonist of the late 1930s, Nazi Germany.
When the Wicked Witch of the West tells the Wizard to “Surrender Dorothy,” she communicates a war sentiment and, along with her army-clad flying monkeys, war is inevitably declared between the witch and the wizard, with Dorothy caught in crossfire. All of a sudden, in this fantasy adventure, realism sets in; war is inescapable, even over the rainbow, in the merry old land of Oz.
Taking this point further, in one shot the Wicked Witch of the West sends her flying monkeys after Dorothy and friends; the witch looks down toward the action from a balcony in her castle. The shot is memorable for two reasons: 1) Victor Fleming (one of the film’s many directors, but the one who eventually received credit for The Wizard of Oz) uses a Dutch angle, a type of shot invented by Germans in the early 20th century, and 2) at the left side of the shot a large statue of a bird looms over the witch’s bidding. It is not clear what type of bird this is, but it is a bird of prey, strong and stoic. Moreover, bird statues are often captured throughout the witch’s lair, all similarly predatory birds. In one of her rooms, as she watches the flying monkeys depart her castle and as she consults her crystal ball, another bird statue is in the left of the frame.
These bird statues surrounding the Wicked Witch are, perhaps, alluding to the Reichsadler, an “Imperial Eagle” or “National Eagle,” or the Parteiadler, the “Party’s Eagle,” both symbols adopted by the Nazi Party in the 1930s. Technically, the Reichsadler is an eagle looking to its right and the Parteiadler is an eagle looking to its left, and neither of the aforementioned bird statues from The Wizard of Oz are direct examples of this Nazi symbol, yet the suggestion is there. Filmmakers would not dare use a literal, obvious symbol of Nazi Germany to villainize the Wicked Witch, but creating a symbol for the witch that is similar to a Nazi symbol communicates to 1939 audiences just how evil and maniacal the witch actually is, justifying Dorothy, the innocent protagonist, in killing the “trouble [that she] melts like lemon drops.”
The Wicked Witch of the West is a terrifying villain. Not simply because she is green, can fly, throws fire, casts curses, and harms the innocent. The Wicked Witch of the West is terrifying because her depiction, both consciously and unconsciously, references the world’s greatest threat of 1939, Nazi Germany. The witch speaks in military language, surrounds herself with flying monkeys wearing fatigues, and decorates her lair with symbols similar enough to Nazi symbols that a likening between the two is evident.
This is not to go as far as saying The Wizard of Oz is a film about the eve of World War II and the Nazi Party, or that The Wizard of Oz is explicitly a war film. Yet, it is undeniable that war is a part of The Wizard of Oz, and one argument the film makes rather boldly is that war is inescapable, an argument that proved to be correct just months after the film asserted its claim.
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3 August 2014
Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 drama Little Women, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical 19th century novel of the same title, works to represent Transcendentalism, a movement Alcott felt passionately about. In brief, Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement promoting the belief that innate goodness exists in Nature and natural beings (including people), and that Society corrupts Nature’s goodness. Transcendentalists, who are richly independent people, find power in their individuality and connectedness to the natural world.
Little Women, the novel, is written from the transcendental perspective, and Armstrong, offering the cinematic lens through which to play out her adaptation of this piece, enhances the transcendental philosophy through an abundance of exterior shots. Also, Armstrong focuses specific attention to natural references in certain interior shots to juxtapose this focus with other interior shots that have no references to Nature; the interior shot without references to Nature symbolize Society in Little Women.
Be it spring, summer, fall, or winter, Armstrong sets scenes in nature, highlighting the natural world as a significant setting for her film. Being attentive to detail and authenticity, Armstrong films several exterior scenes in Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott lived. Even Alcott’s actual home, Orchard House (now historically preserved), which is also the name of the March family’s home, is filmed for Little Women. Not only is the natural world brought into the film, but Alcott’s Nature, the very spots she wrote, the woods she walked in, and the trees she was once shaded with, are all featured in Armstrong’s film, enhancing authenticity and the film’s transcendental setting.
Taking this point on exterior shots further, the three surviving March sisters—Meg, Jo, and Amy—each fall in love in the film. Love scenes between each sister and her respective lover are filmed in exterior shots. Meg and John share their (presumed) first kiss on Orchard House’s front step, underneath the door frame of the open front door. Additionally, they marry on Orchard House’s front lawn, surrounded by friends and family. Amy and Laurie fall in love in the parks of Paris, where Amy is training as an artist. Nearly all of their interactions, leading up to their return to Orchard House, takes place outside, under and amid trees. Lastly, Jo and Bhaer confess their love for one another on the road leading to Orchard House. It was necessary for Armstrong to set the film’s most romantic, love-filled scenes outside, in exterior shots, directly connecting the natural beauty of love with Nature itself.
Moreover, some of the film’s interior shots feature references to Nature, keeping the transcendental philosophy present throughout the film. In Orchard House, Nature is everywhere. The house is rustic, full of floral arrangements, floral patterns on linens and papers, fresh fruit, animals, animal images, and even garland. For example, when Jo writes Little Women and binds the pages for shipment to New York. Tucked in the rope, Jo slips a red flower. Even an interior close-up on the book includes Nature. Or, when Amy and Laurie arrive at Orchard House, after Beth’s death, and announce their marriage. Amy walks in carrying a bouquet of flowers, adding Nature in the interior shot. Even the name, Orchard House, alludes to trees, bountiful symbols of life.
Other interior shots, like Aunt March’s house, the dance Meg and Jo attend, and New York (excluding Jo’s room), have few to no allusions/inclusions to Nature. These interior shots seem to represent the opposite of Transcendentalism, Society. These interior shots are some of the darkest places, figuratively speaking, for the March sisters. Jo sits, bored and trapped, in Aunt March’s mansion when she is forced to read to her. Even later in the film, after Aunt March passes and Jo inherits the house, the audience believes Jo will turn the mansion into a school, but the last time viewers see the inside of Aunt March’s former home is it barren and lifeless. Hope exists in Jo’s plan, but the interior shot of this particular setting remains a place without Nature; a confining space in need of a transcendental renovation. Armstrong juxtaposes Aunt March’s house with Orchard House to demonstrate part of the transcendental philosophy: a poor home connected to Nature is richer than a mansion deprived of Nature.
In New York, Jo meets a much less natural world than she is used to. Wood planks replace dirt, buildings replace trees, and accessories replace flowers strewn around rooms. Aside from Jo’s bedroom, references to Nature are minimal in New York, which compliments Jo’s frustration and struggle in this city. Jo does not find success in New York, despite all her efforts to write and practice her skills. It is not until she returns home, to Orchard House, with Nature, that she achieves success as a writer. Armstrong intentionally omits references to trees, flowers, animals, and other common symbols of Nature in the New York setting to subtly reinforce Society and the hardship this unnatural institution causes people, namely Jo who is talented enough to be a published writer, but oppressed by Society in New York, far away from the transcendental roots which foster and nourish her individuality and power.
Alcott once wrote, “Wild roses are fairest, and nature a better gardener than art.” Figuratively, the March sisters are wild roses, each a natural, transcendental individual. And, to capture these “wild roses” in her film adaptation of Little Women, Armstrong went to the literal roots of Transcendentalism, nature. Her consistent and abundant use of exterior shots highlight the Transcendentalism as an intrinsic element of the film’s setting. Also, her juxtapositions of interior shots—those full of references to the natural world with other completely void of natural reference—subtly uses setting to claim the transcendental philosophy that people are limited and oppressed by Society when removed from Nature, but will thrive as individuals when connected to the natural world.
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27 July 2014
When you are Alfred Hitchcock and you have already made Psycho, what is next? What do you work on when you already achieved such cinematic success and stardom? Perhaps the answer is…go back to your roots. Well, to be fair, not all the way back, but Hitchcock did return to Daphne du Maurier’s literature, as he did in the 1940s when he made Rebecca. This time, Hitchcock went for one of her short stories, “The Birds.”
In short, Hitchcock’s adapted film, also titled The Birds, follows the developing relationship between a San Francisco socialite, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), and California native Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Melanie follows Mitch to Bodega Bay, California, a small coastal town, where Mitch lives with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and young sister (Veronica Cartwright). Shortly after Melanie arrives, birds begin migrating to the area and attacking people. The first attack is by a seagull on Melanie, but within hours the attacks escalate to swarms of birds attacking the entire community, killing several who dare to fight. With no help from the outside world or explanations about why this is happening, Mitch and Melanie, along with Mitch’s mother and sister, barricade themselves inside the family home and prepare for battle in an unforgettable cinematic climax.
The climax of the film is when Melanie explores the Brenner’s attic, discovering the birds have broken into the home and suffering one final, near-fatal attack by the lingering flock. Melanie’s discovery has interesting meaning, yet there is not much that prompts Melanie to wander off from the Brenner’s and investigate the restricted, dark areas of the Brenner home. So, why does Melanie’s adventure in the attic such a successful climax to The Birds if it is difficult to understand why she investigated in the first place?
First, the climax is successful because the “Master of Suspense” knows exactly how to build anxiety and excitement, simultaneously, in viewers, and he knows that his viewers are hungry for this tension, especially in a post-Psycho world. This final attack on Melanie is, perhaps, his most suspenseful moment in the film, the moment Hitchcock spreads his wings (pun intended) and gives viewers exactly the thrill they seek in The Birds.
Why is it so suspenseful? Apart from the narrative detail that Melanie is alone in the scene, a large part of the scene’s suspense is its silence. As Melanie approaches the attic, turns the door’s knob, and discovers the birds, not a sound is heard. Even diegetic sound is quieted so that the silence of the moment is deafening. Sounds distracts sight, but without sound all the audience can do is sit anxiously awaiting whatever danger hides behind the door in the attic.
In addition to the silence, the scene is also an allusion to Psycho. Released three years after Hitchcock’s most infamous cinematic success, Melanie’s walk up the stairs in The Birds is reminiscent of the pivotal staircase in Psycho which leads to Mrs. Bates’ bedroom. Moreover, even though Mrs. Bates is not in her room, she is behind a door, a door which separates a hidden, dark, forgotten room in the Bates’ home. So, as Melanie slowly turns the attic door’s knob, the audience continues to be, unconsciously, reminded of the Psycho, heightening the scene’s suspense.
All this suspense occurs before Melanie is actually attacked in this climax. And, this anticipatory tension prepares viewers for so brutal an attack Hitchcock film’s the moment in fragments. Never once does Hitchcock use a long shot in this scene; instead, Hitchcock stays in medium and close-up shots. Hitchcock in not the “Master of Suspense” for no reason, and this unforgettable climax points out why. By filming the birds attacking Melanie in fragments, viewers have a restricted/limited view of the event. Instead of shielding their eyes from the grotesque, traumatic attack, viewers are shielded by Hitchcock’s cuts. And, what do viewers do when cuts quicken the pace and the image becomes unclear? Viewers look closer, focus harder. This offers Hitchcock an opportunity he cannot pass up. Injected into the montage of cuts where birds peck at Melanie’s hands and feet, and between cuts of Melanie desperately swatting at crows and seagulls, there are shots of birds flying directly at the camera, as though viewers are Melanie and the birds are going to fly right through the screen and attack those watching. This clever, sudden break of the fourth wall comes at the peak of the audiences’ anxiety; therefore, the perfect time to give viewers the thrill they seek.
But it is not simply the suspense Hitchcock creates in this climax that makes the scene effective; the climax of The Birds is a metaphor, and the comparison it draws helps the audience connect to the film on an unconscious level that only Hitchcock, and the few directors of his caliber, could accomplish.
Asking why Melanie goes to the attic is like asking why viewers go to see The Birds? Metaphorically, Melanie represents the viewers. The climax is about confronting fear, being attacked by the unknown, and experiencing trauma. This is what Hitchcock viewers are doing when watching his film, and, on that level, they can relate to Melanie’s experience. As all great horror, thriller, sci-fi, etc. films do, the human experience is shown on a slant and/or in an extreme, but it is a human experience nonetheless. Sometimes de-familiarizing oneself with reality (as one perceives it) is an excellent way to see reality clearly. Hitchcock, experimental as always, plays with this idea. It is not that viewers are all people willing to wander into a killer bird infested attic alone, but viewers of The Birds are people willing to venture into the dark, an isolating place, and experience a trauma they know awaits them.
From this perspective, the climax of The Birds is successful, not only because it satisfies viewers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for suspense and thrills, but also because it validates their hunger. On this deeper level, one completely unconscious to viewers are they watch the film, The Birds does not only capture a story, it captures its audience.
In the end, no one knows why the birds attack or if they will attack again, but viewers do not need to know the answers to these questions. Viewers got what they needed from the aforementioned climax, and what they needed was validation that seeking out the unknown and confronting fear is necessary. Viewers did that, as they watched Melanie do that; therefore, in the final shot, Hitchcock leaves viewers in the unknown, challenging them to continue seeking and daring them to continue confronting fear.
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20 July 2014
Marjorie Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), called Midge by her good friend John Ferguson (James Stewart)—whom she calls Johnny or sometimes Johnny-O—is a secondary character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo. Midge, as she is most often referred, is a “plain-Jane,” glasses-wearing realist. She is articulate, intelligent, independent, and a talented artist. When the film begins, the audience meets Midge, having left her paintbrushes behind, pursuing a career as a brassiere designer. According to Midge, the job “pays the bills.”
Sadly, Midge is in love with Johnny, who happens to be her former fiancé from their college days, but Johnny does not see Midge romantically anymore; to Johnny, Midge is a great friend who he can go out for beers with. Even when Johnny, a detective, suffers a terrible trauma on the job, and Midge cares for him, Johnny is still unable to see Midge as a lover; addressing herself on more than one occasion as “mother,” Midge is maternal, not sexy. Nevertheless, the two seem very close and spend a lot of time together…until Midge disappears from the film without any explanation. Although unintentional on Hitchcock’s part, in Vertigo Midge vanishes without a word, communicating to viewers that independent and self-reliant women are easily discarded.
As stated, Midge is a sensible woman; pragmatist would be an accurate way of describing her. And, initially, this characterization compliments the equally pragmatic Johnny. As a detective, Johnny would have to be a logical thinker, reliant on evidence in decision-making, and in complete emotional control. Yet, when Johnny suffers a near death experience, he decides to quit the police force. Even though Midge encourages him to stay, Johnny refuses to return to work, perhaps fearful that the acrophobia and vertigo he now has as a result of the trauma will present him obstacles on the job. Unbeknownst to the two friends, Johnny’s refusal to return to work is the beginning of Midge’s end.
With spare time available, Johnny meets with an old friend from college, a friend Midge does not remember—which should have been a red flag to Johnny about this mystery friend’s credibility, as Midge seems the type of person who would remember everyone. This old friend hires Johnny to watch his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). According to him, Madeline may be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a young woman jilted by a lover and driven to suicide. Despite the supernatural nature of the case, Johnny takes on the investigation, a decision which will eventually push Midge out of his life.
As Johnny becomes more and more involved with his case, Midge begins questioning his investigation. Johnny shares little with Midge, perhaps because he knows her sensible mind will not take his case’s ghostly circumstances seriously, or because his interest in the sultry Madeline distracts Johnny from acknowledging Midge. Either way, the more invested Johnny becomes in Madeline and her apparent possession, the further away he moves from Midge, despite Midge’s efforts to remain a part of his life.
The once pragmatic friends are now an awkward pairing; Midge is still as matter-of-fact as ever, but Johnny begins to slip into a world full of illusions. Had Johnny talked to Midge about the case, as she seemed to want him to, Midge, likely, would have helped Johnny see the facts through the illusions. Midge would have been his anchor, rooting him on logic and reality. However, Johnny goes willingly into the world of illusion.
This decision leads him right into another trauma, Madeline’s death. One may assume Madeline’s demise would end his investigation and restore his life to what it was before he took on this case, but that is not the direction Vertigo takes. Instead of returning to reality from his world of illusions, Johnny enters a new world, one of complete delusion. And, remembering how reality-based Midge is, a world of delusions is no place for Midge and she, literally, disappears from the film without explanation.
There are a few ways one can read Midge’s disappearance. First, in her final scene, the audience sees Midge standing alone in a hallway of the sanatorium Johnny has been placed in. Juxtaposing this final shot with her current status in Johnny’s life, Midge is standing in the place she does not belong. She tries to keep footing in Johnny’s life, but as his illusions turn to delusions, she no longer belongs with him. And, in Midge’s final scene, she stands in the hallway of a sanatorium full of people out of touch with reality, a place this woman, who is grounded in reality, does not belong. And so, in one of the film’s dissolves, Midge disappears.
From a feminist perspective, Midge’s independence seals her fate in Vertigo, a fate worse than death, eradication. The other women in the film (Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy) all die; their stories are each carried through to an end. Their deaths are linked to the men each woman loved: Carlotta eventually kills herself after the love of her life discards her, Madeline’s husband kills her, and Judy’s accidental fall to death is the result of an argument with Johnny. Yet, Midge does not die like the other women; she is not granted an ending. And, the difference between Midge and the other women is that Midge is independent, meaning not romantically or financially bound to a man.
Carlotta, Madeline, and Judy’s deaths are all tragic, but Midge’s disappearance is the film’s greatest tragedy. She is not given the dignity of an ending, of some closure; standing alone, she effortlessly dissolves as Hitchcock moves into the next scene.
Of all the things that can be said about the “Master of Suspense,” careless is certainly not one of them, is it? Can it be possible Hitchcock did not realize the implication about women and their worth he was making when he created an independent, intelligent, talented women, then undercut her by portraying her as completely undesirable, and finally allowing her to simply disappear without a word or care?
The answer is no, he is not careless. Hitchcock did not make Midge disappear, the studio did. Hitchcock filmed a final scene for Vertigo, one that was only discovered in the 1990s. After Judy’s death, Johnny returns to Midge’s apartment, not only recuperating the film so that Johnny returns from his delusion into reality, but also highlighting Midge, showing women can exist on film without being sex symbols; strong women can survive a film unchanged. Unfortunately, Hitchcock lost his last scene when his cut of Vertigo was censored. Amid the subliminal and subversive messages intentionally communicated by Hitchcock lies a unplanned message: women who are not attractive to men and dare to exist without a man deserve to be discarded. Terrifyingly, Vertigo’s 1950’s audiences did not take issue with Midge’s disappearance or its implications.
Retrospectively, early in the film, while in the bookshop inquiring about Carlotta, Midge and Johnny listen to the shopkeeper reminisce about the past, when Carlotta’s lover “threw her away.” The shopkeeper explains that men could discard women easily because “they had the power and they had the freedom.” The shopkeeper suggests times are different now; in the film’s world, men cannot abandon women as easily as they way they could before. Yet, apparently that shopkeeper, like Johnny, struggles with some illusions. In the film’s fictional world men are still abandoning women. And, even more frightening than that, upon Vertigo’s release in 1958, men have found a reel way to continue abandoning women in the real world. Inadvertently, Hitchcock proves the shopkeeper wrong by making Midge disappear, successfully abandoning a woman in Vertigo for all the world to see.