Mark Cousins – Vertigo

Lecture date: 2003-11-26

Partly in response to Slavoj Zizek’s recent critique of his interpretation of Vertigo (see Zizeks lecture Organs Without Bodies 06/11/2003), Mark Cousins presents a lecture on the structure of Hitchcock’s film and its relation to the image.

Lecture transcription:

MARK COUSINS: (…) ceaseless kind of semi critique by Slavoj of my interpretation, which I thought, well, if he’s going to do his, I might as well. I haven’t brought any clips so I do hope that everyone in the room either knows Vertigo very well or indeed has just seen it. Probably it’s fair to kind of warn people that some of the reading is quite close, so if you don’t know the movie, don’t blame me.

So successfully does the structure of Hitchcock’s Vertigo flaunts Hollywood’s conventions about narratives and film itself, that this fact frequently scapes comment. The film falls into two distinct parts, and it would be possible to imagine the first part, Combinating the death of Madeleine, and the collapse of Scottie into mute depression, it could be show by itself as a film. Imagine it: we would have a compressed but complete melodrama, it opens with the discovery of Scottie’s vertigo and closes with his inability to rescue Madeleine because of that symptom. Her insanity which drives her at the tower of the mission, places her beyond the love of Scottie and the solicitude of her husband. This would be the outline of the narrative of the film, if it ended here, and its narrative would have a consistent point of view. The whole film would be represented from the subjective point of Scottie alone. Now, if this was the case, the interpretation of central issues would be able to be made within a certain predictable consistency. I think it’s worth putting this to the test. In the first part of this lecture, I’m going to restrict myself to the first part of the film as if the second part didn’t exist, and then, in the second part of this lecture, I’ll deal with the second part of the film, and it’s radical reworking of how we understand the first one. This device suggests itself as a way of demonstrating how much work the second half of the film accomplishes against our appropriation of the first half. Now, this is obviously not restricted to the question of what we would call surprises at the narrative level. Of course, it’s only in the second half that we know the so-called truth of the first half, but that does not contradict the thesis that first half of the film can and indeed does, in terms of the spectator’s first experience of it, stand as a complete and independent film. There is no structural need to resolve the film further. By the moment of Scottie’s retreat into worldless melancholia, a certain film is finished. This film, the film that finishes before being opened up again, revolves around a number of manifest issues. There is the question of Scottie’s vertigo, and its relation to both Madeleine and Midge. There is lastly the question of Madeleine’s suffering and its relation to Carlotta Valdes. Lastly, the question of how this two threads draw Scottie and Madeleine together and how they hold him back and push her forward towards the suicide that his symptom cannot allow him to prevent.

In discussing this, I’m going to try respect the condition of bringing nothing from the second half of the film—the film that continues after its end. And indeed, the interpretations are perfectly conventional and even obvious forms of psychoanalytic understanding. The interpretations which are sort of offered could be characterized, like so much film theory, as being kind of oedipal in nature, that is, they’re centred around the types of identifications which are the outcome of what Freud calls the Oedipus complex. I would make them, not because I think they are ultimately right, or indeed wrong, but to show how such a compressed melodrama will actually provoke such interpretations. They not only will have to be revised in the light of the second half, but they’re inherently limited in their approaches upon the material. Indeed, the second half of the film itself suggest reasons why such a psychoanalytic interpretation is limited, both in theoretical terms and perhaps also within empirical practice. The issue for me turns around the interpretation of the image. Simply put: psychoanalysis classes images either as objects of desire or as a field of identification, and that restriction is really the one from which I would like to break from and oppose in the course of this lecture. It restricts by the approach of the image by one that is succeeded by the second half of the film.

Now, the title of the film, Vertigo, is not in itself the term that Scottie first uses to describe his condition to Midge, his old college chum. The doctors have diagnosed acrophobia: the fear of being in an elevated positi


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