"Can't You See?": Women and Aura in Hitchcock's Vertigo
US (1955): Thriller
by Andrew W. A. LaVallee
Throughout the second half of the semester I have grappled with aura, trying to make sense of this elusive creature. It is something that I understand non-intellectually, and in a non-intellectual way I have both embraced it and vented at it. Walter Benjamin, John Berger, and others weave their definitions in circles, discussing it into a definition without even saying "aura." When Benjamin initially uses the term, it is in this context: "One might subsume the eliminated element in the term 'aura' and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art."1 However, in preceding paragraphs he actually does define aura without naming it as such:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence ... The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.2
While this is essential to our understanding of aura, it raises problems as well. Aura, as Benjamin discusses it, is inclusive of presence, uniqueness, history, and authenticity. As students of literature and theory, we are expected to somehow intuitively grasp this vague term with the associations he gives us, and to follow Benjamin's thinking when he discusses it. This becomes a problem not because we form our own mutant definitions of aura (which I consider a productive thing), but because we take this assumption with us into our own writings, mistakenly thinking that others will hold the same conception of aura and understand what we are saying. So, though a definition of aura has already been established, we need to explore it and modify what has become outdated. Benjamin wrote his theories of art and mechanical reproduction during the rise of Hitler, and was a witness to the cultish perversion of aura as Hitler extolled the superiority and aura of the Aryan race; Benjamin saw the way it could be used to brainwash people. So we must take into consideration that aura will be dealt with harshly from Benjamin's standpoint. Two things that I see as key objectives are: genuinely understanding what aura means, when its very nature is ambiguity, and solidifying our connotations of aura and all its interrelated ideas.
How does any of this relate to the movie Vertigo? Under the intent of studying the history and aura of this film, we have molded it into text, historical document, critical case study, and who knows what else. Nick called me on a particular sentence where I stated Vertigo as having aura, without anything to back up my assertion. When I watched the film again, I looked at the tape case and wondered, Why does this film have aura? Have I assumed it there? Where is it? On the tape case there were various quotes lauding Vertigo as disturbing, unique, uniquely disturbing, disturbingly unique (I may be stretching a bit), Hitchcock's best film, a masterpiece, etc. The names Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, and Kim Novak appear in bold on the case, and climactic scenes from the movie compose the background. Hitchcock is a great filmmaker; we infer this both from his cult status and by watching Vertigo. Stewart and Novak are utilized and contribute in a way that creates an remarkably unusual story of obsession. I think that no other person could ever create a film like this, and no one has yet. It is a work of art that is original and has presence; therefore, it has aura. Alfred Hitchcock has created his own aura for himself through his reputation for distinctive movies, and he imbues Vertigo with this aura, adding to what it possesses already.
My sense of Vertigo is that it has this aura which radiates from the cumulative experience of the film, but the aura is also filigreed within the narrative, and especially around the female characters of Carlotta/Madeleine/ Judy and Midge. This "internal" aura is part of the "cumulative" one, but in a detailed study of aura and Vertigo, it is these types of internal topics that emerge. Such as, how does aura function as a negative force in the film? I believe that Novak's character/s possess so much aura that they are destroyed by it. Scottie becomes obsessed with an image, an aura that he will stop at nothing to re-create in Judy. He tenaciously makes his image reality through clothing and making Judy over like Madeleine; curiously he cares neither about Judy's personality nor her speech. (Incidentally, Madeleine, for all her prior appearances, is not heard until her recovery from San Francisco Bay.) Before Scottie hisses "I need you to be Madeleine for a little while," in the bell tower, Judy resists a playfully amorous advance from him, explaining, "Too late, I've got my face on." The face that Scottie insists upon is Madeleine's.
This bewildering spinning together of reality and art is supported by Stephen Greenblatt's posit that "the aesthetic is not an alternative realm but a way of intensifying the single realm we all inhabit."3 Art is physically present in our reality, and it is a natural step for aura to be there as well. We see this realized in the character of Scottie; he unknowingly falls in love with a human imitation of art, but when faced with its loss, consciously molds another person into its likeness. My use of the pronoun "its" instead of "her" is significant: Scottie's dehumanization of Madeleine/Carlotta/Judy into an artistic construct is a historical parallel to the continuing standardization and objectification of women in Hollywood films, and indeed, in society as a whole. Women become both the all-powerful possessors of aura and the utterly powerless slaves to aura.
Hitchcock shows us that the Beautiful Woman has power beyond that of mere mortals; she is capable of altering man's mind, so that he becomes obsessed with her. Or her appearance, actually - but at that time, what was the difference? By virtue of her beauty she possesses aura, and in Judy's case, by virtue of her convincing artifice, she succeeds in becoming the art that is Madeleine, a reproduction made flesh.
According to Berger, women are both viewed by men and viewing themselves, constantly aware of their display: "From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."4 In his fascinating and maybe unintentional style, Hitchcock actualizes this theory by Madeleine's visits to the museum, where she sits and looks at the portrait of Carlotta/herself. To me, this is so significant that I wish I could jump up and down in a paper: she is two entities, literally perceiving herself! Several scenes open with Scottie situated in a place, such as a chair in Judy's apartment, or Ernie's, while Novak's character/s enter, exit, and move around. He is a spectator to this work of art, outside its frame, watching the performance.
The opening credits begin with a woman's face, whose features are zoomed in on as the cast is named. "James Stewart" appears superimposed over her lips, followed (always followed - watch any movie's credits) by "Kim Novak" with the eyes. From the very beginning, the woman is seen; the eyes could signify her sight as well, but this is part of her divided psyche, viewed by others and self-viewing. It is the man who gets lips, speech, action.
Midge is rejected because she lacks the kind of aura that Scottie will accept. She scoffs when Scottie indirectly inquires about her romantic life. "Please," she deadpans, and when he presses, she merely comments that it is "normal." Midge is not permitted to be a sexual being in the way that Novak's character/s can; she is maternal (ironically, we associate maternity with a sort of prim asexuality, even though sex is a prerequisite for motherhood): "You're not lost. Mother's here," she murmurs to the unresponsive Scottie at the hospital. She is practical, using her artistic abilities to design underwear. When she does venture further, painting something aesthetic instead of utilitarian, she is soundly rejected by Scottie. She has created an image of herself. She has dared to re-create herself as art! As Scottie shakes his head and condemns her, she grows flustered, stammering, "Johnny, I just thought..." Exactly. By thinking, she has overstepped her boundary. The Beautiful Woman (who possesses aura) is art, and art doesn't speak or think, does it?
I think that Hitchcock portrays Midge as a victorious character, however, and I think Benjamin would agree. By abandoning the positive Beautiful Woman aura that she cannot attain, Midge's freedom is so great that she transcends the film, leaving it forever after her final scene in the hospital. Midge's apartment has a panoramic view of San Francisco, and the camera immediately cuts to another sweeping scene of the city after her last appearance. This association with vast horizons is a direct representation of her liberation.
OK, back to aura on its own terms. As Benjamin and Berger, I feel as though I have explained it indirectly, even though I am unclear as to what my own definition is. Searching for some way to pin down aura reminds me of my clarinet professor. The techniques he teaches have no name, and because they are internal, cannot be shown either. He cannot say, "The way to create a focused sound is to angle the mouth x way, while exhaling at x speed with the lips at x pressure." What he can do is tell me to visualize my air stream as tangible, pushing back on me, and my instrument as suspended in air so I do not use excessive pressure. He resists giving these things a name, because music is beyond the scope of verbal expression.
This is what I get out of aura, taking a lot of Benjamin's comments to mind as well as some of my own ideas: aura is a presence in a work of art that somehow endows the art with more than is ostensibly present; it gains message, meaning, significance. There is more to Renee Green's Sa Main Charmante than painting, ink, wood, and stage lights; these constructs possess aura because of their composition into this work. With aura there is the possibility for a ritualistic or religious experience that changes your sense of what the work of art is. Benjamin argues extensively that aura is lost through the reproduction of art, because the authenticity of a work, meaning its uniqueness, is what gives it aura. These terms become hazy because Benjamin, at times, almost interchanges all three, making it unclear where the lines are drawn. And what does it mean for a work to be unique? What is authentic? I understand that two identical Mona Lisa's would detract from the greatness of the work: we like to think that something like this can be nothing but unique, that the world could only produce one. What Benjamin does not draw a distinction between, however, is the mechanical reproduction of the work in textbooks, photographs, and prints, which I believe serves to enhance the mystique of the work and its aura. That I use "serves" without even thinking about the semantics of it is a note that these reproductions are serving the original by extending its scope and aura. Who would know about it if we had not been exposed to the image myriad times? Each t-shirt, billboard, commercial, image of the painting reminds us of the original and reminds us that we are viewing a reproduction of the original. This changes everything that the image means, because it is being received in so many different ways. "When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings."5 In a sense, we are told that the Mona Lisa has aura because we are subjected to it so often. Berger, using a viewer's reaction to da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, gives an excellent example of this method of seeing and aura in the presence of the original:
Before the Virgin of the Rocks the visitor to the National Gallery would be encouraged by nearly everything he might have heard and read about the painting to feel something like this: 'I am in front of it. I can see it. This painting by Leonardo is unlike any other in the world. The National Gallery has the real one. If I look at this painting hard enough, I should somehow be able to feel its authenticity. The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci: it is authentic and therefore it is beautiful.6 This is applicable to many other forms of media as well. A musical work's or book's circulation creates a dialogue which makes it desired, studied. This attention is crucial to the value that we place on it; because when we appreciate and honor the work, we elevate it to another realm and allow aura to be part of our experience. Finally, important to my argument is not only that the viewer identifies what is art, but she projects aura onto the work as well. Aura becomes a highly individual experience, and every person will perceive something different from a work of art in light of this.
Film poses a unique dilemma in that its very nature is imbedded in reproduction; the notion of an original is irrelevant, which surely destroys authenticity and its accompanying aura. Benjamin states that "its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage."7 He goes on to quote Abel Gance, who, in 1927, impassionedly predicts the "resurrection" of the great artists of history through film.8 The Mozarts and Shakespeares of our day will be making films, he affirms. Ironically, though this grand-scale reproduction marks the death or even non-existence of the original, Benjamin sees the "liquidation" of aura as a positive social change. Again, to Benjamin, aura has become a monster because of its ritualistic aspects that people substitute for rational thinking.
When we see Vertigo in 1995, it is obvious that we cannot watch it through the eyes and perspective of the people who viewed its first screening in 1957. The mannerisms and gee-whizzes common to that society are alien to us, and San Francisco is no longer the lily white metropolis that it appears to be in the movie (though I question whether it was then, either). To us, the politics of sexism are inseparable from the discussion of this movie. Why does Judy allow this effacement of her being? How can she accept being treated as an unfortunately defective toy that must be molded into something better, namely Madeleine? Even as Judy, she possesses aura, a force that Scottie recognizes as more than Judy - "There's something in you," he says to her; she is more than herself and cannot be confined to that single persona. "Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or (surprise!) aura"9 (parenthetical own). Additionally, there is a symbiotic relationship between Judy and aura/art/artifice; we see that the no-nonsense Judy Barton demeanor that she exhibited in her first dialogue is gradually worn down as Madeleine's aura feeds off her. She loses her individuality by being "reproduced" in this way, and it is this context in which I find Benjamin's views congruent with my own; Judy is no longer a reminder of Madeleine. She is no longer a t-shirt or photograph or billboard of Madeleine; she is Madeleine, and with that there is precious little room for Judy. "If you'll just like me... if I let you change me, will that do it? Will you love me," she begs. Is this the same woman to whom Scottie was a mumbling lovesick trespasser when he first encountered her? Judy does not realize that Scottie will never love her until she is Madeleine.
Conversely, Judy is getting something out of this as well. No ordinary person would be subject to such drastic metamorphosis, and the fact that she is moves her apart from the average person; by putting her on a pedestal, her aura is guaranteed. Film is a medium of barriers. We are removed from the figures on the screen both by physical distance and the caste system of our society that identifies them as "celebrities," creatures that we cannot hope to relate to. This corresponds with the barrier that Judy erects as her price in allowing herself to be recreated.
The "critical act" of historicism, as McGann calls it, approaches textual (he refers to poetry throughout his study, but I find it applicable to our discussions of prose, film, and the netherworld of Vertigo) works not as historically immobile constructs, but as an archive, I believe, of the human experience. The concepts of obsession, artifice, and confusion are applicable at any point in history, and this "continuing human process" is what defines the historical perspective. I have undergone a process through this study, modifying and expanding my ideas on aura. Through a better understanding of Benjamin enhanced greatly by Berger's insight, I was able to extract a statement that both compliments and challenges them. Does this make me a part of the history of Vertigo? Am I a critic of aura now? I am now history -- there's a great paradox! Hmm.
"I made it," says Scottie.
(click at the number to go back)
1 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations, (1973) 221.
2 Benjamin 221.
3 Stephen Greenblatt, "Towards a Poetics of Culture," The New Historicism (1989) 6-7.
4 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1977) 46.
5 Berger 19.
6 Berger 21.
7 Benjamin 221.
8 Benjamin 221-2.
9 Berger 46.