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Hal Ashby and Being There (1979)

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The film Being There (1979) is a major work, equivalent (in the words of Hunter S. Thompson) to "an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield". Coming near the end of the film is a moment of striking nihilism, which, therefore, might be otherwise called Truth. The moment involves the character type of the Onlooker. The Onlooker is a story fundamental (not to say the Onlooker character appears in every story). The Onlooker sees events from the side of things, and the Onlooker's summating understanding will never enter history, but die with that character. With the death of that character, all the evidence required for understanding the story at hand is lost forever. In Being There, the Onlooker is the character of the Doctor, who says little, but, as a Doctor, and therefore a symbol of Logic and Reason, sees "all", and continuously calculates it. In the moment in question, the nihilist moment of Truth near the end of Being There, the Doctor, responding to one last witnessed action of the main character of the story (Peter Sellers), says to himself, "I understand." Now, this "I understand" is in the vibe of "Yes! Finally! All the pieces are put together! VICTORY!" But—then, like a character in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, the Doctor hears himself and reevaluates his position; and repeats his words , but now in a vacant manner : "I understand." What does this second "I understand" convey? The second "I understand" conveys that the doctor knows that no one else will ever understand (because only the Onlooker has "all" the pieces), so : Understanding is Useless. Understanding means nothing. (Get over it.) What a moment. You either understand this moment in Being There or you don't. But, good news : Time teaches a person about life. So if you don't understand Art now, let's say you're not supposed to understand now. But maybe one day. That's one amazing aspect of Art, a source of its Colossal and Endless power : you don't have to understand it too soon. You can keep returning to it, and you gain in power as you go. And this recollected moment physically hurt (for only a fleeting moment, thank god) because it made this author think of what sort of artist Hal Ashby was, and the world he represented : the same world the late Owen Roizman lived through, but in less wacky and tragic circumstances.

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But also our understanding changes with time. There's a lovely moment in "12 Monkeys" where Bruce Willis' character is in a movie theater seeing "Vertigo" and he says he remembers the movie but that somehow it had changed, but then he says that the movie can't change so he must have changed over time.

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David Mullen, cinematic genius : in response to your words : Absolutely; indeed. Art is a great sharpener of the mind, a mental gymnasium. As we grow, the Art we see grows; and likewise. It’s magical, the energy transfer between Artwork and (shall we say) Participant. Both evolve concurrently, all depending on the concentration and dedication of the Participant.


Great news : Art is always there, and Free. Using the power of Art, one intentionally changes oneself; without it one is changed.


“To lighten the mood,” as one says as a phonemic overture to content : you speak of Terry Gilliam. No coincidence, of course, that I spoke of him today, and that I met him twice in my lifetime. Heartwarming story I do not think he will mind the transmission of : Terry Gilliam is on the extreme shortlist of the nicest persons I ever met from the World of Art. The first time I saw him was years back. He gave a speech at Occidental College after a screening of Time Bandits. At the end of the evening, instead of disappearing off to who knows where, Terry Gilliam descended from the stage and mingled with the audience for all long as the audience could stand it. That is to say, Terry Gilliam remained speaking genially with people until the very last person had his or her say, or received his or her autograph (on whatever wacky photo they presented to him).


David Mullen! Your reference reminds me of the great exchange about VCRs in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. (Now isn’t that fine cinematography—is the first shot actually lit simply by the end of a cigarette?and the amazing color of Gilliam’s Munchausen!) Coincidences abound : Lynch gained a reputation way back in 1980 as "the nicest man in Hollywood", a Jimmy Stewart character who just happened to make weirdo Eraserhead. It was reported during the making of the gargantuan Dune (1984) that writer-director David Lynch would give his same complete time and attention to the least important member of the crew as to any other member of the crew. Lynch and Gilliam : nice guys. Why can't everyone be like them?


Vertigo. Does David Mullen speak Wisdom in his every sentence? The answer, obviously, is yes. Top tip to all young people : watch Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, at least 100 times each (put one or another on every night before sleep, for example), and you will absorb essential principles. However : There is no way to learn how to tell a first-rate story only from watching movies. Absolutely no way. If you’ve heard it here first, I’d listen to me, but I have no personal stake in the matter, thank god.

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"Vertigo" is particularly interesting because the first time you watch it, the story is about a man who finds out the woman he is dating -- because she reminds him of a dead woman he fell in love with -- is actually the dead woman and he was scammed --- but the second time you watch it, it is about a woman who knowingly deceives a man by pretending she is someone else, falls in love with him but fakes her death anyway, then meets him and again and cannot help becoming involved even knowing that eventually he will figure things out. 

So she become a more tragic figure even in her first scenes, but not a woman of mystery because we know all her actions are playacting to deceive him.

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David Mullen is prompting JSB to write on Vertigo. I theorize he is unaware I might very quickly produce innumerable thousands of words on the subject, reaching into infinity—until I’m cut off. I have every shot of Vertigo in my head, and have considered the subject for decades relentlessly.


Why this preamble to any comment on Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Because the subject is so tremendous. Social media allows fingertips to leap into the Vital idly, then leap out again : a dance of short duration. The Ceremonial is slow and steady, which just happens, good news, to “win the race”. More good news : I deleted an entire paragraph between the two presented here.


What will I come up with now? I have absolutely no idea. Thank you for the project, David Mullen. Best wishes.

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Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), to 11:18. Random.




First post-credits shot of Vertigo.


First post-credits shot of Munich (2005).


Congruence of yellow?


James Stewart feels guilt for a tragedy. His acrophobia is associated with this guilt. Subseqently, JS makes an analogue of the tragedy happen two more times! Hmm : Cannot escape who you are, like it or not : Oedipus. Repetition compulsion : other examples : Psycho (1960). The Exterminating Angel (1962). The Shining (1980).


(07:16) “I’m not gonna crack up”: Big-Time story principle. Prolepsis. In this early scene, the main character expresses confidently the opposite of his eventual outcome. (Examples : Oedipus. Shining : “That’s not gonna happen with me.”)


(07:56) Brassiere. Can’t help but recall that Hitchcock implied Howard Hughes more than once. For example, in North by Northwest, Cary Grant, Hughes’ one “close” friend for a time, says, of trains : “Beats flying.” Tee hee.


(08:02) “Kind of a hobby . . ." Proleptic-speak delivered casually. A new “hobby”, developed in the next sequence, will lead the main character to a disastrous end.


The Creator : One’s Work is one’s hobby. JS : “A do-it-yourself–type thing” : i.e., one’s own character is a lifelong DIY project. So why yield yourself to a rigged game for a lifetime? Let Art wrestle you out of the grip of Tyranny. Watching JS fall deeper in, the Spectator moves further away. Like a Dolly Zoom!


(09:23) “Midge, what did you mean, there’s no losing it?” Who needs negativity in their life?


(09:35) “. . . only another emotional shock could do it . . .” proleptic : and perversely funny : the cure is the cataclysm! The cataclysm is the cure!?


(09:55) JS : “progressively” : Detective JS is upright Reason and Logic, now with wobbly knees. First-rate stories instruct us that Reason and Logic ultimately don’t help much. But, while listening, who is listening?


(11:15) The scene’s final shot : begins in disorder, and slots into exquisite geometrical classical cinematographical order.)


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Vertigo : from 11:18 to 16:52


Gavin Elster scene : 11:33–16:52 = five minutes and twenty-two seconds (42 shots).


The cultured, rectitudinous decor of GE’s office : a manipulative lair of evil : architectural emblem of Delbert Grady.


(11:42) Casual exchange reveals devastating truth (motive for murder) : JS : “Very interesting business.” GE : “No, to be honest, I find it dull.”


(11:50) JS’s clearly-sounded finger-pinged “ding” echoes down to Ziegler’s glass pinged in another long dialogue scene in a wood-paneled room : EWS (1999).


GE’s use of “honest” : a manipulation of JS. Appearing honest is the best policy—for Evil.


(13:10) The extremely short pan. Examples : Bone-wielder exulting murder in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Anton turning to the phone, post-Woody blast, in No Country for Old Men.


(13:41–47)  Cut and camerawork suggest recording of theater piece : a recording of reality, such as a documentary. Contrast : documentary use of camera / dreamy story of possessed wife.


(14:04) “Psychiatrist” : joking prolepsis. How sure and certain, how stable Reason sounds! For now.


(14:32) “Always were.”—Reason sustains itself on air for a lifetime.


(14:28–38) Is that the sound of a stock ticker? (Also later in the scene.) Recalls a typewriter clacking under the dialogue : fabricating : fabricating of a fake story : GE : “You think I’m making it up?”


The deeper GE delves into his fake story, the more physically distant he becomes : and becomes obscured behind furniture, recalling Barbara Stanwyck’s entrance in Double Indemnity (1944) : she stands obscured by her upstairs railing.  


Note : scene’s final shot continues visual theme of ending scenes with strong verticals.

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Vertigo 16:52–18:30   Ernie’s restaurant


Midge wears yellow in her initial scene. At Ernie’s restaurant, not a single patron is wearing yellow. Except for hair color, yellow is a color pretty much intentionally missing from Ernie's. Visual contrast of worlds : Madeleine’s (damasked opulence) / Midge’s (soothing late Ozu).


(Phantom Thread : “What precisely is the nature of my game?”) Here, “Madeleine” thanks the restaurant staff with a cultured nod and word : but this is playacting : in both worlds!—the “real” and the fake. (Ziegler : “Yes, fake.”)



Note the one pink rose : evokes Carlotta’s bouquet.

Note the curiously wrought picture above the rose (btw).

Note : A trick of the cinematographic light captures the door frame as purple at left, and wood-brown at right.


Remarkable telephoto whirls throughout the destabilizing JS/Madeleine montage : possibly the most detailed ever committed to film, thanks to VistaVision? (These shapes recall the designs of the opening credits.)


The visual irony of fake “Madeleine” framed with rectilinear order.


The destabilizing JS/Madeleine montage has "real" Judy Barton unadorned at the heart. The secret is revealed to the Spectator's eyes right at the start. But the surreal film style coaxes the unwitting Spectator to see Two as One. Seeing is believing, seeing is not believing. . . . Reason is already lost, awhirl.

01 telephoto whirls.jpg


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That concentric circle artifact in the bokeh was actually quite commonplace at the time, you can find lots of movies with it. It comes from using Kodak Portrait Diffusion Disks for diffusing close-ups.

This is from "Hello, Dolly!":



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Vertigo 18:30–


Today let us speak of character. Madeleine. Regardless of the role-player, the character type remains coherent : the pampered wife. Vertigo introduces the Wife in lush fashion, wearing lush fashion, and she glides out of her first scene with magnificent serenity of poise. This is the mask. In less than two minutes of running time later, the mask is already slipping : (20:14) the bleak alleyway. The aloneness of the Wife. Who or what is the “person” straitjacketed in personality?


Vertigo, like any first-rate narrative, nudges the Spectator to wonder : “What does anything mean?”


Our apparel of sanity is frayed. 
Boundless possibility undone by— 
Personality? The house is a fist 
Of air. In this mad place, let art jolt you 
Selfless, into free potentiality.   
Disrobe light: contraction emancipates. 
Divestiture empowers concentration; 
The now open space, for recreation.  

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Vertigo : Five Shots


Staring at a gateway. Room 237. Bungalow 17. Archetype of transiting a threshold.—To learn something (and Truth Hurts).


Bleak visual metaphor for Abyss “behind” mask.  


Recall how credit sequence is presented as “peek into mind” : visions retreat “back” into eye.


Front side of mask : visual world of color and beauty. The world we see : what does it mean? Or : what does it amount to?—especially in the end.


This shot competes with title shot of Jennifer’s Body for the devotion of an entire book, “How to Watch a Movie”.

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Let's pause to contemplate (quickly) what we've just seen.


A character uses the privilege of entering into an establishment in a more convenient fashion than the ordinary person at large.


This is the simple storytelling foundation : the “base note” the audience is following in order to piece together a “human story” of “people like you and me”.


But nothing in life is only one thing: stories included.


Art is infinite in depth. First-rate stories eternally reward infinite concentration. Meaning generates according to the dedication of the Participant.

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The front of the mask is being assembled for JS.


A gravemarker as Greek theater mask : idea?


The grave as the start? The past is always ahead of us? Art razes this closed circle! 


(btw, March 5, 1982 : John Belushi : a significant date for many in the Hollywood calendar that day.)


Why not see the gravemarker as a surfboard? Avalanche surf, and survive at the top, for now. Whoo.

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Remember Ernie’s restaurant? There, a trick of the cinematographic light captures the door frame as purple at left, and wood-brown at right. The same color phenomenon appears here, with the pillars!


Coincidence? I don't think so.

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Rebirth of Light

Inside the bookshop, the aperture slowly closes, consonant with the owner’s dark story of a tragic Carlotta (36:15–34).


Later, light blossoms abruptly, inside and out (36:49) :


This artful technique is an early glimpse of Storaro-like One From the Heart theatricality in color film.

Also : this technique fuses film and audience together in the Dream Story : (a) JS loses track of Wife in mystic way; (b) now, audience spectates mystic illuminations.

Speaking of Dream Story, JS hesitating between two doors at (20:35)


recalls a similar hesitation here :


Edited by Jeff Bernstein
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(35:15–36:35) The longest continuous shot in Vertigo so far


While the bookshop owner tells the story of forgotten people from the past, we see the comings and goings of anonymous citydwellers. As Jack Nicholson might ask : “What’s the difference?”

Theory : Hitchcock chose this angle for this thematic reason (at least).

This active horizontal movement of people recalls (both visually and thematically) :


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Famous last words? Elster : “You’ve done well, Scotty. You’re good at your job.” (38:23) Perverse humor : A criminal praising the skills of his victim might do so with a qualm, yet GE has the confidence of Blind Justice herself.


A family drama! Carlotta Valdez was Madeleine’s great-grandmother. “Madeleine” is wrestling with inherited demons. She “naturally” drifts to her old family home, the McKittrick Hotel. (Apparently looking for something there : peace, a thought, return, who knows.) Carlotta to Madeleine is a century-long rags-to-riches story of a low-rent family rising over time to the social heights of the Fortune 500. Her rise has led her to the bleak vibe of an empty alley behind the mask. Empty : like the presentation of the immaculately-turned-out evil Elster in his discreet and decent private club.


(40:17) Fade out. JS : “Boy, I need this.” Reason, drinking. JS is deteriorating as the Spectator gets sharper.

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(40:20–41:06) Fade in. The narrative repeats like a dream, recapitulating past events : everyone is stuck in patterns :









COLOR : remember Madeleine's purple / brown color motif? Here is purple : (43:13)


Here is wood-brown : (59:52 / 1:00:46)


COLOR : remember Madeleine's red / green color motif?

Here the two principles fuse to complete this particular color motif (51:31) :


(44:00–53:05)  At JS’s house


Madeleine/Judy endeavors to seduce the audience as much as JS. Some significant degree of the Participant’s concentration is required to identify when Judy Barton’s true nature might be breaking through her playacted facade of “Madeleine”. Madeleine is austere, Judy is girlish. Sometimes the latter breaks into sight like something revealing itself beneath the waves.


Judy’s true nature might emerge :

(a) visually, as when she shakes her head “no” to coffee in a distracted manner at 46:45;

(b) verbally, as by her sleep-mumbling : 44:33—her true self revealed in sleep : a frightened child (early echo of Marnie);

(c) her improvised responses to JS : such as her line, “Two together are always going somewhere” (57.39); and her extensive elaboration of her fake dream, improvising (at times visually uncomfortably, as if fed up with the charade of “being someone”) while standing by the agitated Pacific waters (1:02:44–1:05:30). Part of the cruel irony of Judy's situation is that her acting improvisations, which are meant to trick JS, may be inspired to ever-greater imaginative heights due to her ingenuous feeling for him! What a Situation!


Participant concentration of this Madeleine/Judy phenomenon is required until 1:18:15 (by then, “Madeleine” has plunged from the tower).


Judy Barton finds herself stuck playing a part. Her character, not her own, is hers to play, like it or not. (Does that reflection remind you of JS as well?) We, however, the Spectators, can change the roles given to us by Tyranny, and breathe the Fresh Air of Freedom—if we are determined and heroic. Art endlessly reminds us of the power of Art. Do you want to end up like JS, or do you want to end up a "winner"? The choice is yours. Good luck.


(56:07) “Madeleine” as "real-life" fashion plate . . .


. . . recalling such details in Midge's apartment as the illustration at screen-left (10:51) :


Fashion is one of the most powerful weapons in a woman’s arsenal.


Interiors : Madeleine is associated with wide-open spaces and nature (the city, the trees, the ocean), while Midge is almost exclusively an interiors-only character (a “one-room” mind, so to speak).


Madeleine's "dream" : JS invites her to "Tell me" (1:09:42) / EWS : Dr Bill's wife dreams, and he invites her to "Tell me" (1:38:18).


(1:08:17) Midge berating herself aloud : “Marjorie Wood, you fool! Idiot!”


Such self-regarding speech is deemed “ordinary” by the audience (e.g., Travolta speaking to the mirror in Pulp), not “schizophrenia”. Why? Because Tyranny controls the Definitions. (If you let it.) Midge’s speech is a doubling : she is in two minds (at least). How many characters does a person have? And why is this multi-character phenomenon mistaken for a lifetime as “one personality”?

I don’t require an answer from the reader, thanks.

Edited by Jeff Bernstein
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