The vertiginous politics of ‘apolitical’ art

The other night in faraway New Zealand, I took my seat at the Michael Fowler Centre to hear what I thought would be the orchestral suite of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece, Vertigo. But I got more than I expected: I was delightfully shocked when it soon became apparent that the orchestra would play the entire musical accompaniment to the film while the film itself was being shown.

It thus became a movie night out like no other, for a film that is well deserving of the many accolades it has won, including Sight & Sound’s critics’ choice as “the greatest film of all time.”

The plot is a devilishly ingenious one.

San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson develops acrophobia, a fear of heights, and vertigo, after a policeman dies attempting to rescue him from a rooftop while in pursuit of a criminal. Scottie falls and sustains injuries and retires from the force. A college acquaintance, one Gavin Elster, hires him to follow his wife Madeleine, whom he suspects is being possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide. The sceptical Scottie, rendered beautifully by Jimmy Stewart, reluctantly agrees to keep tabs on Elster’s wife, played equally powerfully by Kim Novak.

What ensues is an elaborate web of deception, doubles, passion, seduction, loss and despair.

I had seen the film many times before, always fascinated by its psychological grip, and by the canny way that Hitchcock used colour to compose his scenes, and of course by Herrmann’s supporting music. Indeed, without Herrmann’s music the film would be deprived of most of its power to enchant and enthrall.

And as I watched, I mused too upon Chris Marker’s fabulous documentary excursion on the nature of memory and colonialism (and much else) in his own masterwork , Sans Soleil. Marker had seen Vertigo nineteen times and drew attention to the spiral of time in the coils of the hair of the dead Carlotta Valdes and the living Madeleine, to the eye of Madeleine and the eye of a painted horse at the Spanish mission, where time, memory and love would meet in a fateful tragic dance.

As the wonderful New Zealand Symphony played and the rich live sounds reverberated in the hall, I thought too about the deep links between what we deem to be political and apolitical. Vertigo is, if anything, devoid of any hint of politics in the generally accepted sense. Yet in its exploration of the intensely personal, in the domain of what men and women label love, the very seeds of the political structure at large, and all its many faults, may be seen, heard and felt.

Whom, why and what do we love? Did Scottie fall for Madeleine, or the person who impersonated her, Elster’s lover Judy Barton? Why would an eminently respectable and law-abiding member of San Francisco’s finest purposefully violate his legal responsibility, not to mention the responsibility due to a friend, by engaging with the person he knew to be his friend’s wife? And why would Judy, once she had recognised the signs of passion within herself for Scottie—why would she feel obliged to keep her pact with Elster at the very moment of this recognition?

These and many other questions rise and collide and roil about with every viewing, touching as they do upon the deepest psychological depths—those depths from which the overarching structure of the State has evolved.

All great works of art cannot but be political, even if they seem the opposite. It remains for us, as we consider them, to make the connecting links. So when we gaze at our political leaders, whoever they may be, what illusions do we weave, what repetitions do we seek, and how, when we think we strive for salvation, do we find ourselves in the dark?

Dr. Garcia is an American-born poet, novelist and physician who resides in New Zealand.

2 Responses to The vertiginous politics of ‘apolitical’ art

  1. What a fine analysis! I especially like the concluding paragraph, beginning:
    “All great works of art cannot but be political, even if they seem the opposite.” One can’t help but think of Aristotle, who declared “Man is a political animal.” [In modern parlance: humans are political animals.]

    We engage in power struggles, intrigues, and, as we observe others and ourselves, we endeavor “to make the connecting links.” Dr. Garcia wisely reminds us to be careful “when we gaze at our political leaders, whoever they may be…” to consider the illusions that we ourselves “weave… in the dark.”

  2. Art done on purpose for a reason dwells in one universe. Art created for no purpose other than it being born resides in another stellar universe.

    The artist creates, and the viewer completes the work.