Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Vertigo (1958)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock.

WHAT: In the moment from Vertigo frame-frozen above (though better discerned when in motion), Kim Novak casts two separate shadows on the bed in her Empire Hotel apartment. As B. Kite writes in the script of his video collaboration with Alexander Points-Zollo entitled The Vertigo Variations, Novak "steps out of the bathroom into a lime-green sea spray of light; a little intimation of eternity inducted through a neon sign." This scene that plays a crucial role in practically every analysis of Vertigo from Chris Marker's to Roger Ebert's to Kite's. But I've yet to come across a reading or review that mentions the twin shadows, despite their resonance with the themes of the film, the character, the scene.... These shadows are not simply Novak's of course; they are also Judy's and Madeline's and perhaps even Carlotta's. 

There's so much to say about Vertigo, so much to see in it. I know not everyone thinks of it as Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece, but I do. I always try to take advantage of opportunities to revisit it in a cinema setting.

WHERE/WHEN: Vertigo screens this afternoon at 3:10 PM at the Pacific Film Archive as part of a lecture & screening series; tickets for all screenings in this series are sold out, but to quote the PFA ebsite, "A limited number of rush tickets may be available at the door." It also screens there tomorrow evening at 7:00 PM, and also at the Stanford Theatre six times between March 21 & 24.

WHY: So far I've been using the PFA's Hitchcock series to see films I'd never gotten around to seeing before, like Saboteur and The Paradine Case. But, to quote B. Kite once again, "we only begin to see Vertigo when we already know it; when its plot holds no surprises. When every moment is already locked into a cycle of repetitions it assumes a living-dead weight comparable, for once perhaps genuinely comparable, to Greek tragedy." So although thanks in part to its Frisco Bay setting, it's probably the most frequently-shown Hitchcock film in these parts, it's also one I'm most eager to see again on the big screen, especially at the PFA. Read on...

HOW: Vertigo is screening at the PFA in a now-unusual format: an IB Technicolor print struck prior to the controversial 1996 restoration prepared by Robert Harris and Jim Katz. According to a Moving Image article by Leo Enticknap, Harris and Katz embarked on their project with the aims to create "preservation elements to take the film well into the next millennium" as well as "an entertainment which would work well with modern audiences." In their quest for the latter objective, the pair decided to make substantial changes to Vertigo's soundtrack, turning a mono mix into a stereo one and even re-recording sound effects. For many Vertigo enthusiasts, this tampering harmed (I've even heard one purist use the word "destroyed") the experience of watching the film. Yet the Harris/Katz restoration (should I put scare quotes around that word?) provides the basis for most versions of Vertigo that people see today, whether the 70mm prints that periodically come to the Castro Theatre, the 35mm prints that have played other venues in the past fifteen years or so, and even most DVD copies (a mono -soundtracked Vertigo disc is only available commercially to purchasers of a box set). 

So the PFA screenings of Vertigo this week are rare anomalies. Will they provide noticeably better viewing experiences for those who attend? I suppose that's a matter of opinion, but they'll surely be more authentic to the experiences audiences prior to 1996 had watching the film. If you don't believe it, take a test; attend the PFA this week and the Stanford (which is sticking with a print struck from the 1996 restoration) next week and see what you think.

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