Essay by pn0427College, UndergraduateA-, November 2007

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Dr. Wee Su-Lin, Valerie


Zhuang Yisa / U031956W

Buñuel once proclaimed that cinema is "the best instrument through which to express the world of dreams." He was referring to the aptness of the medium for entering into and subsequently turning inside-out our human subconscious; an unsurprising proclamation, coming from one of the pioneers and masters of cinematic surrealism. In this essay I shall attempt to discourse upon surrealism as a palpable mood pervading the "trailing sequence" in Vertigo, how it is established and sustained. In the latter concern I shall be dealing with two aspects of the narration: mis-en-scenes and sound.

The sequence under discussion begins with the restaurant scene. What makes the latter so pivotal to the entire construct of the "trail", besides serving to introduce the character of Madeline, is that it is the point of establishment of a mood of the surreal.

Contrast the intense crimson of the restaurant's interior, dominating the frame, to the somewhat washed-out monochrome of brown and yellow of the office upholstery in the preceding scene, one immediately becomes acutely aware of intention; that, perhaps one is about to gain an insight into the plot development. The camera then pans across the restaurant, slowly drawing our focus to the table of Gavin Elster and his wife. What is unsettling about the latter frame is that amidst the sea of faces in the mis-en-scenes, which one can so observe unencumbered by shadows (the scene is rather brightly lit) or objects, is the face hidden from us by its back-view and yet demands our attention by virtue of it being centralised within the frame. Of course, how can anyone forget the incidentally gorgeous black and green evening gown, courtesy of Edith Head, worn by Madeline which also helped to draw our attention to her in the overwhelming crimson of the mis-en-scenes. Thus, one can almost say that a certain diabolic bathos has been deployed; one has been "duped" into conserving one's attention to trusting the camera in its narrative revelation, only to end up at a kind of filmic cul-de-sac with the inaccessible, yet arresting presentment of Madeline.

Adding to this sense of mystery, thus of implicit surreality, is the brilliant employment of sound. When the scene first appears it is accompanied by the soundtrack of diners and of their quotidian activities. Then in joins the music of Bernard Herrmann. What makes this accompaniment so haunting, besides the artistry of the composer, is the fact that one accepts the music as a natural aspect of filmic digesis; in other words, one has no qualms whatsoever in reading the music as a kind of light entertainment being played in the restaurant. But the "safety-net" of this reading is soon disrupted when the music gradually grows in volume, till a stage when it begins to threaten and overwhelm that of the diners. As a result, there is a suggestion of the sureties of the digetic transmogrifying into the uncertainties of the non-digetic, and by extension an unnerving transition from the real into the surreal between which the line of distinction is no longer that marked.

Another factor that contributes to this sense of surreality is the motif of the portal in the mis-en-scenes, by virtue of its implicit labyrinthic tendencies to disorientate, of which the latter objective to the aims of the surrealist movement is akin. One recalls that the restaurant scene ends with Gavin Elster exiting the restaurant with his wife, and they do so by turning into a rather shadowed isle before which a mirror is placed on the adjacent wall. One sees the couple walking towards the mirror and then turning into the isle; one also observes the mirror double enacting the exact same motions. Here again another point of establishment of surreality by virtue of the suggestion of the blurred demarcation between the real and the mirrored world, the mood of which does not simply end with the exit of the couple but rather continues through and pervades the following "trail" sequence.

I have spoken of the portal motif, and it must be understood that such a motif per se is not enough to foreground the surrealistic elements of the film; one must also consider its method of presentation. The surrealism established by the end of the restaurant scene is sustained through the "trail" sequence, during which Scottie is being led through a series of twists and turns, and literally through multifold doorways and corridors, in his pursuit of the mysterious Madeline. I shall refer to two occurrences in the sequence for illustration.

Let us recall the first destination: the florist's. However, prior to that revelation, the audience is presented only with the facts that Scottie has followed Madeline into the dark back alley of a suspicious looking building, "suspicious" by virtue of the fact that one has no knowledge of what it is and that the colour and lighting of the mis-en-scenes then is a sharp contrast with the brightly lit frames of Scottie driving down the sunny streets of Los Angeles preceding it. Further more, as Scottie continues to follow Madeline into the building, the audience is presented with an even more darkly lit scene of the "store-room" (I am calling it the "store room" only because it seems logical, though in fact, once again, the mis-en-sens here is not very revealing.) in which there are moments when the frame of Scottie becomes completely engulfed by shadows, and suspicion gradually distorts into dread. One must also not forget that the eerie music of Herrmann continues to be played throughout the sequence, thereby heightening the suspense in the atmosphere. It can be said that one is being cued into anticipating the bizarre or the "worst", whatever that might be. However, as Scottie proceeds to open the door in the "store-room" it is revealed that Madeline is at the florist's. This revelation works on various levels to elicit the surrealistic.

Firstly, as afore-mentioned this revelation has been the culmination of a series of dread-inducing scenes, and in this light it is not unfounded to suggest that the former is rather anti-climatic, and verging almost on the edge of implausibility; who in the right mind would take such an operose route to purchase flowers? However, from another perspective, it does seem perfectly natural for the plot to take on such a twist. One only has to observe how the mis-en-scenes of the florist's, with its over-saturation of hues and light, not to mention the abundance of flowers that threatens to spill over the frame, contrasts with the dark dinginess and almost monochromatic sparseness of the "store room" to appreciate how intended the disparities of the mis-en-scenes have been designed. Thus, the "implausibility" of the plot, together with the blatant incongruities in the mis-en-scenes of successive frames, help to push filmic realism in Vertigo towards the a state of the surreal.

The other occurrence in the "trail" sequence takes place at the final destination: the McKittrick Hotel. I have mentioned the effective use of music in the preceding scenes, but what is interesting at this point is that the sense of dread and suspense seeps into the frame precisely because its usage has been refrained. I am referring to the scene in which Scottie is conversing with the house-keeper. The music ends almost simultaneously with the latter asking Scottie, quite abruptly for that matter, how she may be of help to him. Prior to that point the score has been consistently sustaining the mood of the film, but this role is now relegated to another device in sound. In this near silence (we now hear only the quiet sounds of the traffic drifting into the frame) the audience are instead being kept in suspense by the conversation.

In the preceding frames one has already witnessed the figure of Madeline pushing open the curtains in her room at the hotel, and thus one is certain to find her residing there; it must then merely be a matter of time before Scottie manages to somehow confront her there and then. However, this certainty is debunked when one learns from the housekeeper, in the conversation, that Madeline has not been there that very same day, and that (though unknown to the housekeeper herself) Madeline registers herself as Carlotta Valdes. Once again the audience come face to face with an implausibility, one whose capacity for disorientation is further manifested by the shot of Scottie rushing up the stairway and then along the rows of shut doors, shrouded in their accompanying shadows in the mis-en-scenes (the portal motif), to finally confront the empty room itself. The car is missing as well; it is eventually found parked, back at the Elster's apartment building.

Was it ever displaced from there at all? Is Madeline truly possessed by Carlotta Valdes? Has the entire "trail", and the scenes which Scottie has encountered been simply figments of his vertigo-inclined imagination? I believe these will be the questions the audience have in mind after they have accompanied Scottie in his trail; questions which persist in the mind, and disturb the body in the quietude of its own realities. For one has already encountered them in dreams, perhaps.

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