Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

The Artist gives me Vertigo

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So Kim Novak wants to report a rape. All because Michel Hazanavicius used Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo theme in the marvellous The Artist. Kim, where to start with the whole explaining about things that are not like rape? Here, someone says it better than me. Quite apart from her staggeringly tin ear, it’s hard to tell if she even gets the Artistic irony of shouting “I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SPEAK NOW” in block capitals on her advert. And I don’t remember her making this sort of fuss about the brilliantly metafictional use of Vertigo in Twelve Monkeys

Novak also seems to think she is speaking on behalf of Hitchcock, and it can’t exactly be said that the director had the most enlightened views about non-consensual sex. The Marnie issue springs to mind. And given that Vertigo is as close as mainstream Hollywood has come to depicting necrophilia… Not actual necrophilia, but necrophilia of the… oh never mind.

Putting lurid metaphors to one side, it was not as if Hitchcock was beyond treating Bernard Hermann, like his leading ladies, with a certain disrespect. Having collaborated for over a decade, with Hitch always allowing Hermann control over the soundtrack, their relationship ended when the director demanded a jazz and pop score for Torn Curtain and the composer refused. Admittedly Hermann jumped as much as he was pushed: “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you, and I will afterwards” (While John Addison’s score may have been what Hitch wanted in context, it’s no match for Hermann’s original.)

As for Hermann’s Vertigo score itself, well it is not exactly the pinnacle of unreferenced originality, strongly influenced as it is by Liebestod  from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: Exhibit A. Exhibit B. Hermann was open about this, Liebestod being all about the Vertiginous themes of love in death and resurrection and all that.

A couple of the less hysterical critics of The Artist (and after all, every resounding success deserves a backlash), have adopted the line of ‘don’t bother with this new film, just go and see the originals that it draws from’. This seems to suggest a failure to understand how a lot of 20th and 21st century culture works – although some viewers have made a more fundamental error than that. Which is not to say that you have to agree that Hazanavicius always pulls it off. For me the use of the Vertigo theme did jar a little simply because, unlike the thorough reference in Twelve Monkeys where it is used to make a clever narrative point, here it seemed to want to suggest a link that doesn’t really exist. Perhaps Jean Dujardin’s washed up movie star is glimpsing his ‘dead’ self in the shop window reflection, perhaps it’s a reference to his actions that follow. Perhaps.

The film’s composer Ludovic Bource has said that this is a case of a temp track (temporary music used during editing) being kept on in the final cut – although that doesn’t particularly tell us why this of all temp tracks was chosen to remain. [Quick update on this 29.02.12 – the Bource track that would have gone in this spot is very Vertigoish – a nice little homage: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJOy47kODr8]

Leaving temp tracks in is nothing new, although it is more common for classical tracks to be left than bits of scores from other films. Most notoriously Stanley Kubrick once threw over an entire score by Alex North in favour of the classical music that lights up 2001. The composer didn’t know anything about it until the première and was pretty miffed, but oddly enough wasn’t moved to take out an advert in Variety complaining about it. (And although North wrote a title cue where Also Sprach Zarathustra now stands, it is hard to see how Kubrick could have ever not used the Richard Strauss to herald a film which is essentially Nietzsche in space.)

The use of music from one film in another was in fact not uncommon in the early days of cinema, especially in the cheaper B-movies where soundtrack was treated like so much stock footage to be back-projected as and when convenient. More recent examples where the use is not knowing or referential – just think how many times Psycho and Jaws have turned up – are less common. Still, it does happen. In trailers, reuse is endemic – and sometimes annoying.

Getting back to The Artist, you could even posit that such a clear reference as the use of Vertigo is in fact a deliberate attempt to lift the viewer from the narrative and remind them of the artifice of what they are watching. Of course, the viewer of The Artist needs no such specific reminder: pretty much every minute of the film does that, bombarding us with reference and homage. And that’s its appeal – that’s its point.

In his statement in response to Novak, Hazanavicius tells us that ‘It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder.’  He has even has provided us with a list of six silent films that inspired The Artist. More interesting is the list of directors and films that he leaves out in his acknowledgement. I suppose a full roll call would have taken up too much space – but it’s certainly a fun game to fill them all in. The more obvious ones are:

– Citizen Kane (the breakfast table marriage disintegration but no shout out to Orson)

– Singing in the Rain (given that about two thirds of the plot and half a dozen scenes are pretty much a direct lift from this, it seems odd not to mention anyone involved in this.)

– The Thin Man (no mention for W. S. Van Dyke, but it’s mainly about the dog)

– Sunset Boulevard and a spot of Lost Weekend (Wilder gets his name check)

– 1920’s The Mark of Zorro (to the point that a clip from this is shown with Dujardin Forest Gumped into proceedings)

– A Star is Born and/or What Price Hollywood?

I’m sure there are more in there – and it is this constant nodding to his filmic ancestry that is the joy of The Artist. As a film in its own right… well at points it drags a little, misses a couple of opportunities and starts to repeat itself. Despite all that, you really do have to be a sad old sourpuss not to find yourself full of cineastic joy after its closing moments.

But I don’t think Kim would agree. Her manager came to her defence saying: “There are all kinds of rape including the rape of one’s soul. All rapes are violent acts and all victims should be supported.”  Except this wasn’t even metaphorical rape, it was just film making.

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One thought on “The Artist gives me Vertigo

  1. Pingback: All the good tunes « Olly Francis

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