Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO for the umpteenth time, I thought about several themes contained within it. There’s the theme of obsession obviously, along with a certain theme of helplessness. But on this particular watch, summed up with this particular frame, another theme came through:
A theme of insignificance.
In this scene that happens about halfway through the film, Madeleine who is seemingly possessed by the ghost of Carlotta looks at the rings of a downed redwood. It’s a tree that stood for centuries, so long that it predates The Magna Carta. It stands before her – and likewise before us – as an undeniable signpost of the passage of time on this planet.
As Carlotta reaches her finger out and finds the ring that marks a particular year, she says “Here I was born”…she sets another finger down a scant few inches away “…and here I died.”
Many a moment in her life, Carlotta might have believed that she had the world at her feet – so too would Madeleine. The truth however is, as I mentioned earlier, that she was insignificant. Carlotta might have had wealth, and both she and Madeleine might have had beauty, but they were both just blips on the long line of history that has already played out on this planet. They might not feel it as they make their way through their lives, but when confronted with a massive reminder like the fallen tree, it is undeniable.
Moments like this, it feels like the natural world is mocking us. We might feel like our entire lives are in a state of upheaval…that our problems are as all-consign as they seem to us…but the truth is that many of our lives just don’t matter. They’re flies on an elephant’s back, a few rings on a fallen tree.
In a way, this theme of insignificance is mirrored earlier in the shot you see below where Madeleine stands in the shadow of The Golden Gate Bridge. She’s contemplating throwing herself into San Francisco Bay in an act of suicide; believing that her problems are too much to bear. However, as she does this, she stands before a massive monument of engineering. Like the tree, that bridge will be around long after Madeleine dies…the cars that pass to and fro doing even more to demonstrate how much “life goes on”.
VERTIGO is surprisingly dark for a great number of reasons. There’s James Stewart’s almost fetishistic obsession with a dead woman, and likewise the truly twisted plot that sparked such obsession. However, it might get its darkest tones from this stripe of insignificance. Like the tree and the bridge, VERTIGO stands and laughs at us and our petty problems. It mocks how much we believe the world revolves around us, and knows full well just how few rings on that fallen tree will mark our time on this planet.
Like the bridge and the tree, VERTIGO will be here long after most of us are gone.
Here’s three more from VERTIGO for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far