Tuesday, June 15, 2010

vertigo, and going to another place

Growing up in a quiet suburb in the late 1950s and early to mid 1960s, outings of any kind were a much-appreciated treat for my sister and me.

We weren't the kind of kids who had bicycles and roamed in joyful freedom around the neighborhood, and while comfortable, our family certainly wasn't well-to-do. We weren't accommodated in the building of treehouses or go-carts; we weren't taken on extravagant vacations, and we weren't able to become Girl Scouts.

As much as possible, our folks did take advantage of what the area had to offer, for which I'll aways be grateful; I've written elsewhere about treasured family weekend trips to nearby world-class museums: the M. H. De Young and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. And I have more of those memories to consider, in time.

Spending the night at our grandparents' houses was definitely special: the change of environment, the break in routine, all the fuss made over us. In retrospect my paternal grandmother seemed especially aware of how happy it made us to stay up late and watch television.

We watched television with our parents, of course, but with an earlier bedtime. At home I remember a succession of movies, many of them old even then, and the three-network television programming of the time. But my first vivid memory of being drawn into a feature film and being really affected by it was the night we sat cross-legged in a tiny living room in Richmond and watched Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Vertigo was released in 1958, but I don't know the exact year we saw it. For sake of discussion, I'll assume I was about ten or eleven years old at the time, making the year 1963 or so. Maybe it goes without saying (or maybe not), but on that night long ago, we saw this Technicolor film on a black and white television set.

This post would be the length of a college thesis if I were to begin assessing all the nuances of the film itself. And as fascinating as I'd find that journey, I'll more appropriately simply fire off a few memories, ideas, and talking points. Some points are actually subsets of others, but no matter.


Vertigo has a definite creepy otherworldlineses to it. Even for someone as young and unsophisticated as I was, this was a fascinating exposure to the power of film to create a mood. This, I now understand, was a big element of the Hitchcock filmmaking gift. I'll never forget how the film made me feel, and how fascinating it was to discover that a film could be like that.


The musical score by Bernard Herrmann played a key role in the mood of the film. My father was always a big BH fan, and while growing up I began to pay attention to the music of film. Finally, as an adult living here in San Diego, I would have the opportunity to hear sections of several Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock film scores played by our symphony orchestra. Hearing the sounds of real strings filling a warm accoustical space from a good seat is always a delight, but hearing music from Vertigo played live was unforgettable.

the mysteries of adulthood

Because Vertigo has a primary theme of obsession, part of the film's power to me as a child was its suggestion of a strange, even frightening world beyond mine. This feeling remains intact for me in viewing the film as an adult, prevailing even though I can now greater understand the deliberate artistic outlandishness of the film's plot and devices.

My younger self watching Vertigo for the first time, this feeling resonated with the adultness of staying up late, being allowed to watch an adult movie.

local relevance

The steep, vertiginous streets of San Francisco... the venerable Palace of the Legion of Honor... these places were already personally familiar to me. [link to Vertigo's museum scene]

Kim Novak sat in front of a portrait of Carlotta; I had stood in that same wing of the museum. This link to the real world-- my world, at least on special occasions-- made the film even more engaging.

Alfred Hitchcock and my Grandmother let me sit by the fire inside a chic San Francisco apartment that night with Jimmy Stewart; I glimpsed the dimly-lit world of the famous Ernie's restaurant (now long gone, where I had hoped to go someday, but never was able to); I was witness to a shopping spree in an upscale department store, complete with models posing in elegant ensembles; I held my breath at the eerie power of an ancient California forest.

There was something very alluring about all of that.

going to another place

There are probably dozens of idiosyncratic reasons why, decades later, I still have dreams about my Grandmother's house. It might well be that the simple activity of watching a certain movie, there, forms a part of that complex equation.

Bricks with moss growing on them in my Grandmother's garden. Narrow wooden stairs. A cedar chest with a Sonja Heni doll inside. Rumaging in a box of glittering costume jewelry. A movie late at night, nobody telling me to go to bed, and a strange world created by a movie director and a group of actors and crew.

Sometimes on these overnight adventures, my sister and I would sleep downstairs in the tiny bedroom that faced the brick patio garden. That bed had a headboard that was also a bookcase: Zane Grey paperbacks, mostly. The room's other bookcase, to the right as we faced out into the hallway, had hardcover books like I Married Adventure with its zebra print cloth cover.

Other years, we would sleep in the main bedroom at the top of the wood stairs, listening to cars glide down the street and the buzz of an old electric radio, the light from a nearby street lamp finding its way in through the wide slats of old Venetian blinds across my Grandmother's dressing table and onto chilly wood floors.

Both profound and trivial, this exemplifies a dazzlingly complex process, all the mysterious and oddly powerful little parts that make up who we are, our ethics and dreams and aesthetics, what we're drawn to, and enact, again and again across the decades. Remembering the same events of my life from different vantage points, flirting at times with an oddly pleasing kind of mini-obsession, I sometimes feel like I'm trying to solve a mystery.

Eventually I would work in film, many years of art-related work primarily in a specific niche of the movie industry. Just between us, I rarely speak out loud about my persistent dreams of writing and directing. After all, everybody wants to direct.

Meanwhile, I still dream of small gardens with brick patios and moss, and thick flowering perennials, gladiolas, honeysuckle, and fuschias. I would despair when my father sold my Grandmother's house shortly after her death. Maybe he was purging something and moving on, not wishing to keep it as a box for memories. Maybe he's right, and we don't need it.

Long ago, someone who used to be me spent the night away from home and watched a movie. Transported.

One of the realizations I now have about Vertigo was that it taught me, indirectly but deeply, that a film may be a lot of things, but at its core-- like books and memories and dreams and photo albums and plans for the future-- it's all about going to another place.

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