Vertigo: The Ink-Blot Problem

by Matthew Raley Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?

These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.

These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film -- or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.

It is a rare work that has both greatness and a "message." Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.

In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that "Christian" books, music, and films will have a "good message," and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.

There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage "secular" films.

For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors.[1] Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.[2]

Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.

Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.

One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration.[3] Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology,[4] and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations.[5] More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters,[6] and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.[7]

Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.

There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.

But we have to do good work first.

[1]John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[2]Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.

[3]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4]Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.

[5]Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.

[6]Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.

[7]Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.