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A Case-Study of Vertigo – Hitchcock & Mental-Image

November 10, 2008 | By

For quite a long time now, cinema critics have been paying homage to him in different ways; here, in this essay, we will try to identify the ‘architecture’, the ‘technology’ of a specific image-unit he contributed to the craft of film-making.

“In all these respects, it is not sufficient to compare the great directors of the cinema with painters, architects, or even musicians. They must also be compared with thinkers.”

– Giles Deleuze,
Cinema 1, Introduction to the English Edition.

We must sharply distinguish between philosophy and cinema, or any art-form. None of them enjoys a primacy over the other. In a simple and inadequate way, we can say that philosophy moves through the creation of concepts, while art moves through the creation of new qualitative combinations of sensations and feelings. Thus, cinematic units, such as shots and frames, movements and images, take on a different significance; they are units that ultimately propagate cinematic thought. Philosophy, or anything else, does not provide the thought-material inherent in cinema; it is capable of thinking through its own structure. Cinema in this sense is not a reflection of written literatures and philosophical discourses, but an emerging medium of thought. Only by accepting this, we can grasp the significance of what Deleuze is hinting at in the afore-quoted lines. Like all art-forms and other disciplines, cinema had to hide its own specialties after its birth, and had to emphasize upon its semblance to and obedience of other forms, such as, literature, photography, and painting; only in its maturity, it started to reveal its own nature, as a new medium of thought. This is the fundamental difference between the old and the new era of cinema. And between this ‘old’ cinema and the ‘new’ stands Alfred Hitchcock.

For quite a long time now, cinema critics have been paying homage to him in different ways; here, in this essay, we will try to identify the ‘architecture’, the ‘technology’ of a specific image-unit he contributed to the craft of film-making. This image, which will be called the ‘mental-image’ [not the image of the mental state. It is an image with an explanatory function. It stands outside the ‘objects of action’ and interpret their state. In other words, it is a discursive image] in this essay, is not simply a matter of technicality; it is a matter of the possibility of contemplating a new kind of thought previously untenable through the form of cinema. When Hegel gave us dialectics (of his own model), he was not merely presenting a new rhetoric, he was opening up a new way of thought. Similarly, Hitchcock’s mental image opened up a new realm that made Godard, Fassbinder—- ‘new’ cinema in general—- possible. The advent of the ‘mental-image’ was the ‘crisis of the action-image’, the crisis of physical continuity within a film. It will be banal to ask whether Hitchcock was conscious of it or not, —-may be he was just at the right time at the right place—- what is important is that we see the emergence of this new image chiefly (although not exclusively) in his films.

To study this image, we will concentrate upon Vertigo (1958), one of his representative films. We will not take up the endeavor to sum up the film’s narrative, simply because a summary will not help the reader at all to understand my project. Literary cannot supplement what is visual.

A Case-Study of Vertigo - Hitchcock & Mental-Image

Diagrammatically, Vertigo is all about downward spirals accentuated by three culminating “falls”, which is acknowledged (by the director) by using the diagram prominently during the title sequence of the film. A spiral can be seen as a “dialectics” between two contrary forces, such as action and reaction, attraction and repulsion, life instinct and death drive etc, with a centre or common point. The spiral of Hitchcock is not Hegelian in the sense it does not move upward, but move towards a vortex, a black hole. It is also not the ultimate synthesis, but just a process that is repeated again and again. This spiral diagram is clear in the shots of the film; for the sake of convenience, I will discuss three shots, 1) where Gavin Elster tells Scottie that his wife is being haunted by someone dead; 2) when Scottie first sees Madeleine at the Ernie’s; 3) the famous zoom in/track out point-of-view shot that evokes Scottie’s acrophobia. 1) At first, we see Scottie and Elster in conversation in a deep focus mid shot. When Elster comes to the point of revelation, first, the camera forward-tracks and zooms into Elster’s face, then, cut, close-up of Elster from low angle when he reveals the fact. A forward curve. Action. In the next shot we see a close-up of Scottie’s face, and then the camera tracks backward quickly in a curve. Scottie expresses bewilderment. A backward curve. Reaction. Together, they form a spiral, a spiral that at once becomes the leitmotif as well as the cinematic object: not just a symbol, but a mental-image, “an image that which takes as objects of thought, objects which have their existence outside thought, just as the objects of perception have their own existence outside perception”. [This is what we meant by the “crisis of action-image”. We will discuss this at the end of this article] 2)

At Ernie’s we see Scottie sitting at the bar. It is a mid-shot. Scottie looks towards his right to scan the milieu. The camera tracks backward rapidly in a curve, as if repulsed by the whole business. At the corner of this wide vision, we see the exposed back of a woman with ice-blond hair wearing a blue-back dress with green lining. The camera tracks forwards to the left, as if helplessly attracted by the figure. Backward track. Repulsion. Forward track. Attraction. Here the mental-image (remember, not in traditional term, which means seen in one’s mind. Here mental-image is a real cinematic image) becomes clear in its spiral nature: attraction/repulsion. 3) This is a famous point-of-view shot invented by Hitchcock. The camera simultaneously tracks out and zooms in to create the effect of acrophobia. We should note the simultaneous “backing out” and “plunging forward” of this action-image. It cannot be an action-image then among such ambiguity (have you heard of a physical action where you simultaneously go forward and backward!!), it is a mental-image. It analyses the condition behind Scottie’s (and later in the film, Judy’s) attraction/repulsion: death wish/life instinct.

A Case-Study of Vertigo - Hitchcock & Mental-Image

There is a valid criticism against the analysis we have just put forward: are we not “imposing” certain schemes over the narrative on our own? And even if we are not, why must a camera correspond to the character’s behavior? (Cameras do not generally jump of the roof when the characters commit suicide!) The first question is easily answerable, answered many times in the past: both the psychological duality and the spiral nature of the shots are explicitly notable in the film, we are merely pointing out that they share similar qualities. Scottie’s love for Madeleine in almost a clinical case of death drive: he at first sees Madeleine as the reincarnation of the dead Carlotta Valdes; at least, the irrational mystery of Madeleine’s character becomes a magnet for him. In fact, Scottie’s obsession about the Madeleine as Carlotta Valdes and his fetishism (as well as sadism) that forces Judy to become Madeleine is strongly reminiscent of Freud’s analysis of Wilhelm Jensen’s novella Gradiva. Through the second question, we come to our vital point: the spiral schematics of Vertigo is not merely a reflection, an appropriation of psychoanalysis, but an instant where thought itself is becoming the object of the image. Why is that so unique? We are coming to that.

What are the constituting units of cinema? Images, of course. The first thing to realize here is that, in cinema, IMAGE=MOVEMENT. There are images and intervals; they are the constitutive units of cinema. There is a relationship among these image units, which we will elaborate by using a certain logical categorization proposed by American logician C. S. Peirce (known as the cenopythagorean categories). We will divide cinematic images into three categories: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

A Case-Study of Vertigo - Hitchcock & Mental-Image

The perception-image belongs to the category of Firstness. It is the “thing”, a chance idea, a sudden impression. Without an action-image or an affection-image following it, it remains vague “something”; we do not know what it means, what it implies, or what would be its result [you see a man walking. Without any further image, it will just remain the image of a man walking and absolutely nothing else]. Perception-image is the ground of cinematic images, and closest to the photographic image. Hence, it is monadic. The action-image and the affection-image belong to the category of Secondness. The action-image is the perception-image and a correlate to it. It is an action that signifies the immediate meaning of the perception [you see a man walking. You go and ask for a matchbox]. The action is also unequivocal. The affection-image shows the perception-image and the internal thought-reaction in an object that is/are the subject/s of the perception-image. Both affection-image and action-image are essentially dyadic; they both carry the perception-image (Firstness) in them (First shot shows a bus running madly through a crowded street. Second shot: people scurrying away to save their lives. Notice the fact that the action-image is impossible if we erase the first shot. Same thing with affection-images. Both the images are unequivocal (cliché); if people stand in front of the bus nonchalantly, or a man laughs at his mother’s death, we will say that the image represents certain interpretation external to the image, it will become a mental-image, or a thought-image, belonging to the category of Thirdness.). Thirdness is the mental-image, time-image and the thought-image. They appear in signification, law or relation. They give birth to not actions but ‘acts’ that refer to intellectual feelings of relations, such as feelings which accompany the use of the logical conjunctions ‘because’, ‘although’, ‘so that’, ‘therefore’, ‘now’ etc. A mental-image carries both the perception-image and the action-image within it. Schematically, we can say, 1 contains 1, 2 contains 1 & 2, and 3 contains 1, 2 & 3. We should note that thought as an ingredient is already present inside the images of the First and Second categories, but they do not represent the thought, or become the thought. Let us get back to Vertigo. In the famous opening sequence, Scottie, hanging from the rooftop, looks down with a fearful face. This is an affection-image: it shows the feeling of the subject, but itself does not represent the feeling. It is followed by the famous zoom in/track out shot: it is a mental-image. It explains the meaning of the perception-image, and the affection-image: acrophobia, a duality of attraction/repulsion. Thus the image becomes its own subject, its own law (it remains outside Scottie and what he saw; it only functions as a cinematic ‘because’). A film might contain all the three types of images, but generally one of them gains the upper hand, through the device of montage. Thus, we can call Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc a film made of extreme affection-images, traditional action thrillers and comedies extensively made of action-images. We can say that Godard’s Prenom: Carmen is made entirely out of different types of Third images. The old era of cinema believed in the primacy of the Firstness and Secondness. The new era established the primacy of Thirdness. It is like the point where historians stopped chronicling events, and began interpreting them.

A Case-Study of Vertigo - Hitchcock & Mental-ImageWith the Hitchcockian mental-image, for the first time in cinema, interpretation gained ascendancy. That is, he made relation itself the object of an image, which was not merely added to the perception-, action- and affection-image, but framed and transformed them. Vertigo, thus, refuses to become a stale ‘whodonnit’, but becomes a cinema of relation. His characters don’t become symbols, but remain ordinary, while their inter-relations become the object of the film. This was an act of mutation. It happened through the agencies of movement-images: at the beginning, cinematic images tended to be closer to photographic images, which, in turn, became the movement-images, which were affection-images, perception-images, action-images, which reached there crisis in Hitchcock’s mental-image, and finally became the time-image, a “purer” agency of thought that has overridden the necessity of motor-sensor successions of action images, or the restriction of a chronological time. Our new cinema works in a cinematic time, which does not need to apologize for the collapse of physical time [ in a famous sequence of Vertigo, Scottie hugs Judy, camera moves around them in 360 degrees, and shows them transported to another place in past, and then back to the same place without requiring a cut. Physical time collapses to give rise to mental time. Soon even the references to past or present would become inessential]. In other words, such mutation in image created the possibility of cinematic thought without resorting to the clichés of ‘determined’ sequencialities, such as situation-action-situation, action-situation-action, perception-affection-action etc. Old cinema demanded an inevitable reaction to an action, such as, action to a situation (your sister is being kidnapped. You must fight), affection to a perception (you see your mother die. Next shot “must” be a close-up of your crying or distraught face) etc. such inevitabilities are still there, but as viewers, we know they are clichés, we do not require them any more. The soul of cinema has abandoned such things long ago. The significance of Hitchcock lies in the fact that he gave us the key image that would facilitate the exposure such clichés. Yet, Hitchcock is not the part of this new era, as he never wanted to expose such things, he wanted to maintain them. His proper position is in the middle, in the juncture. He perfects the old era, and prepares the ground for the new.

A Case-Study of Vertigo - Hitchcock & Mental-Image

The true significance of Hitchcock’s mental-image lies in its discursive nature. Perception-, action-, or the affection-image, none allows a film-maker to stand outside the narrative (in a diegetic sense) for a while, and comment on it. On the other hand, mental-image enables a film to become a discourse. This is familiar to any film theory student: the shift from ‘old’ to ‘new’ cinema marked a shift from histoire to discourse. Of course, Hitchcock was not the only one who used such an image among the old era directors, but in Hitchcock, we see the clear indications of what was to follow. Let us end this discussion with the words of Giles Deleuze, which will only vindicate my statement: “The New Wave could be called with good reason Hitchcocko-Marxian. Like Hitchcock, it wanted to reach mental images and figures of thought. But, whilst Hitchcock saw there a kind of complement which ought to have extended and realized the traditional “perception-action-affection” system, it discovered there on the contrary a requirement which was enough to smash the whole system, to cut perception off its motor extension, action, from the thread which joined it to a situation, affection from adherence or belonging to characters. The new image would therefore not be the bringing to completion of the cinema, but a mutation of it. It was necessary, on the contrary, to want what Hitchcock constantly refused. The mental-image had not to be content with weaving a set of relations, but had to form a new substance. It had to become true thought and thinking, even if it had to become ‘difficult’ in order to do this.”

This substance was discourse.

Author’s Note: The categorization of images and the contextualization of the history of cinema I have shown in this essay comes directly from French philosopher Giles Deleuze’s two books about cinema: “Cinema 1” and Cinema 2”[ Giles Deleuze, translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Continuum Publications (2005)]. In that respect, one can call this project a “Deleuzean” one. In a way, this essay is simultaneously an act of homage to both Hitchcock, and Deleuze. For a further elaboration on Cenopythagorean categories, check “Commens Dictionary of Peirce’s Terms” under “Categories, Cenopythagorean Categories”; Freud’s analysis of Gradiva can be seen in Delusion and Dream; Sigmund Freud, translated by Helen M Downey; Kessinger Publishing (2005); you can read a detailed and enormously interesting analysis of this essay in Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Baidurya Chakrabarti is a student of English, and an avid cinephile. He is a French New Wave fanatic; he swears by Woody Allen, and has an ongoing, tempestuous relationship with Bela Tarr.
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