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November 06, 2010, 1:30 PM

Finding Equilibrium in Hitchcock's Vertigo

Film Screening & Roundtable
Participants: Richard Allen, John Belton, Joe McElhaney, Edward Neresessian, Brigitte Peucker (moderator)

Vertigo (1958) is the Hitchcock film in which the confusion of ontological registers—of reality with illusion—takes center stage. Indeed, it's a case study of someone for whom this confusion is nearly pathological. The James Stewart character, Scottie, is duped by a performance with criminal intent, as he falls for a woman he believes to be Madeleine, but who in reality is a woman named Judy (played by Kim Novak) perpetrating a masquerade. Around this "false" Madeleine, a narrative is created that's designed to ensnare Scottie. The film concerns a mysterious case of "possession"—a staged fascination with death—played out in a series of silent tableaux, each of which aestheticizes and eroticizes the Madeleine figure. The film's narrative structure is circular and repetitive; it's been suggested that the film itself represents a distinct form of madness. "Vertigo is just a movie," writes Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed, "but no other movie I know so purely conveys the sealing of a mind within a scorching fantasy." What is the role of psychoanalysis in Hitchcock's work? Is psychoanalysis merely one "surface feature" of Hitchcock's work, as Richard Allen has suggested, subject to irony like all the others? What draws psychoanalytic critics to Hitchcock's work, and how, if at all, is this phenomenon related to its modernism?

The screening of Vertigo at 1:30 PM will be followed by the roundtable discussion at 3:30 PM.

Richard Allen is Professor and Chair of Cinema Studies at New York University. He has edited three Hitchcock anthologies; is editor of The Hitchcock Annual, the journal of Hitchcock studies; and is the author of Hitchcock's Romantic Irony. He is also editor of Film Theory and Philosophy, and co-editor, with Malcolm Turvey, of Wittgenstein, Theory and the Arts. He collaborated with Professor Ira Bhaskar of Jawarharlal Nehru University on curating a film festival entitled "Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema," and publishing a book, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

John Belton is Professor of English and Film at Rutgers University. He is the author of five books, including Widescreen Cinema, winner of the 1993 Kraszna Krausz prize for books on the moving image, and American Cinema/American Culture, a textbook written to accompany the PBS series American Cinema. He has edited three books, most recently Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, and edits a series on film and culture for Columbia University Press. Currently an associate editor of the journal Film History, he is a former member of the National Film Preservation Board and former Chair of the Archival Papers and Historical Committee of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Joe McElhaney is Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College, and is on the faculty of the Ph.D. program in theatre at the City University of New York. His books include The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minelli; Albert Maysles; and Vincent Minelli: The Art of Entertainment. His writings on Hitchcock have appeared in such volumes as Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, Hitchcock: Past and Future, and the forthcoming Companion to Hitchcock. He has published numerous essays on such figures as Roman Polanski, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fritz Lang, Chris Marker, Frank Borzage, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawks.

Edward Nersessian is Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and a Training and Supervising Analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. A practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst since 1973, he has served as president of the New York Psychoanalytic Foundation and was a founder of the New York Psychoanalytic Neuro-Psychoanalysis Program. Nersessian has served on committees of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Psychoanalytic Association. He is founding editor of Neuro-Psychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences, and has published articles and presented papers on curiosity, creativity, dreams, and other topics. He is co-founder and co-director of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination.

Brigitte Peucker (moderator) is the Leavenworth Professor of German and Professor of Film Studies at Yale University, where she also serves as Director of Graduate Studies in Film. She has written extensively on problems of representation in literature and film in such books as Lyric Descent in the German Romantic Tradition, Incorporating Images: Film and The Rival Arts and The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film. She is currently editing Blackwell's Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and finishing Aesthetic Spaces: The Place of Art in Film. All of her books on film include material on Hitchcock; she is also a contributor to the Hitchcock Centenary Essays and to the forthcoming Blackwell's Companion to Hitchcock.

This program is supported in part by funds from the New York Council for the Humanities, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


Discussion Board

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alan fair says:
Two things occur to me about the film; the phrase of Gavin's, "All that power, all that freedom" is repeated by Scotty on the final ascent, and I seem to remember that it is also a phrase used by the owner of the Argosy bookshop, this becomes, as it were, a litany for the decline of patriarchy, which of course, is constantly referred to by other means, Scotty's illness, the childish obsession with the breast, bras and Novak famously not wearing a bra. Secondly is the idea of the drive, the first time we have the POV shot is when Scotty sees, as it were the space opened up by the potentiality of his own death, which he then drives toward but in the end substitutes the death of the woman, she almost literally falls into the space opened up by that first 'Vertigo' shot. The film, we might surmise, is a film about the decline of patriarchy and its willingness to punish women for this process.

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