Vertigo and Lover's Rock

Cinema Notes

Last night was the first time I had watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and really attended to it. Odd of me, I know—I eagerly read the classic Truffaut book, and besides Vertigo, had seen just about every Hitchcock film outside of the earliest ones at least twice. It was one of those films I had stumbled upon on TV around 30 minutes into, then cursorily watched without fully understanding or paying total attention to.

Well, now I’ve really viewed it, and is it ever a stunner! From the credits on, it seems ten or twenty years ahead of its time (1958), and yet delivering what we now know was an unrepeatable kind of quality, i.e., major-studio-era/Hitchcock-in-his-prime quality. It also has the city of San Francisco and the person of Kim Novak at their most beautiful, a very impressive Jimmy Stewart performance, and most stunning of all, the score! A major work, by Bernard Hermman:

Titus and the great Terry Teachout have a fine podcast on the film available at American Cinema Foundation (see below), and my main comment—besides, see Vertigo!—is to go attend to it. Their reading is illuminating at every point.

The film toys with enough jarring ideas about eros that I don’t think their reading of the plot’s message, as revealing the tragic emptiness of a certain kind of hyper-Romantic spell one can put oneself under (and usually a male “one”), is entirely adequate to deal with them, but it’s a solid initial conclusion, and an advanced perspective from which one might go further. I’m sure all kinds of too-wild theories have been floated about the film, but well…it seems to invite such. Likely both Techera and Teachout have ideas about the film that go beyond the kind of analysis that the 45-minute podcast format would have allowed them to properly develop, so they stuck to their insights that were more readily deliverable, and by no means am I claiming to see further than they.

I guess Veritgo makes me feel that I need something less obviously sensible—or even less mentally stable!—than what they provide to really grapple with it. That could be another aspect of its spell.

My wife and I accidentally stumbled into a pretty good viewing strategy for this odd film…it was late enough into the evening, that when we got to the half-way point—the bell-tower scene separates the two halves of the film—we decided to leave the remainder for the following night. So for us, the radically different feelings the film’s two halves produce—the first mysterious-romantic, the second sour and twisted, was even more heightened.

I got to Vertigo because Amazon Prime was featuring it, and while like any sensible citizen I push for an anti-trust breaking-up of Amazon, and say it is civic duty to not promote its services more than one can help, I did want to alert other A.P. users that an excellent film-series they and the BBC presented late last fall, The Small Axe, by British director Steve McQueen (of 12 Years a Slave fame) is still available for no extra fee, and to especially highlight its outstanding “episode” (all five are stand-alone films) Lover’s Rock.

Along with my fellow Jamaican-music fan Whit Stillman, I feel that music-wise, something unfolded in that small island in the 1950s-70s, that while not approaching the importance and impact of what unfolded in the small city of New Orleans in the 1890s-1920s (see Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth to truly register the world-historical importance of that), deserves much greater attention. Reggae in the typical Bob Marley manner is only one aspect of it—ska, rocksteady, dub, as well as the unique DJ methods pioneered there, all have had a disproportionate effect on popular music across the globe.

But initially, a lot of that impact ran through Britain before it hit elsewhere, and certain stylistic developments of Reggae began to come about in Britain itself, from the Jamaican immigrants, and one of the more accessible styles came to be called “Lover’s Rock.” (There’s a newer documentary specific to that style out there that’s pretty good, but this series gives you a broader context.)

Basically, what McQueen’s film does is to present one of the parties of the late 70s among the West Indian immigrants known as “blues parties.” The party itself, depicted in you-are-there style, is the main feature, proceeding from the set-up, the first guests, and through its various stages, which feature different musical emphases, as well as all the various little dramas that can unfold at any party. Stories of a few main characters are woven into it, as the trailer above indicates, but they are not the main event.

Outside of the extended Royal Garden scene in Jacque Tati’s Playtime (I heartily join other critics in judging that one of the greatest films ever), I really can’t think of a more interesting depiction on film of a single party, and this one is both more realistic and more attuned to the music than Tati’s comedic set-piece. It reveals some of the potentially vicious aspects of the blues party, the conflicting motives and commitments of various characters, and the difficulties of the broader cultural situation. It shows how the music could have its sentimental, “silly,” and even low sides, but also, it unapologetically celebrates it, and shows what heights and even healings it could lead its participants to at its very best. The glory and the messiness are there cheek-to-cheek. All-in-all, an absolute must for the fan of Jamaican music, and a major cinematic achievement in its own right.

Lover’s Rock is the by-far standout, but all five of the Small Axe films are worth seeing, and together constitute a major meditation on the Afro-Caribbean-British experience, which in a whole number of ways, is quite distinct from the Afro-American experience, even if there are a few overlapping phenomena and similar patterns.

And as an American conservative who accepts that the main policy-emphasis and coalitional element of our post-2020 conservatism must be that of populist-conservatism, and who thus understands the inevitability of some of our leaders looking to the example of the British populist conservatives, and, of our slandering enemies seeking to equate our stands with those of the most unsavory elements on the British right, I am aware that a number of minefields await us here. In an upcoming post centered on the singer Morrissey, I hope to discuss, in this spirit, how American conservatives should think about the rising third party called For Britain.

I’d bet Steve McQueen would prefer that I not think about that aspect of British life at all, but I must nonetheless thank him for the way his films have given me a bit more background. For example, after seeing his films, I’m less inclined to nod along with those who say crude, and in not-a-few cases, racism-tinged things like “Enoch Powell was right,” about post-50s immigration to Britain, even though I certainly stand with those who say that in retrospect, we must admit that the too-lenient immigration policy of the last sixty or so years has been on-balance pretty bad for both America and Europe, and that support for it has now morphed into a toxic sort of politics. For example, I agree with those European intellectuals who signed The Paris Statement (2017), such as Philippe Bénéton, Rémi Brague, Chantal Delsol, Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, and the missed Roger Scruton, which said that

Recognizing the particular character of the European nations, and their Christian mark, we need not be perplexed before the spurious claims of the multiculturalists. Immigration without assimilation is colonization, and this must be rejected. 

Of course, it is easy to stand side by side with political philosophers of that caliber, but the politics-on-the-ground business of deciding whether to remain distanced from certain British personalities or movements accused by the BBC and Oxbridge types—whom we no longer can have any trust in when it comes to such matters—of flirting with racist or otherwise hateful appeals, is tricky for American conservatives, who just aren’t familiar with the British political-cultural landscape.

My quick and dirty guide, which I make no effort here to explain my reasonings for, and which is subject to revision, is that American conservatives need to 1) defend the For Britain party from its slanderers and de-platformers, and to positively celebrate its heroic leader Anne-Marie Waters, even if we need not support some of its policy positions, such as its anti-halal stand, 2) defend, but with a degree of hesitancy and wariness, the lightning-rod figure of Tommy Robinson, and 3) refuse to spend time or reputational capital in defending the publicity-hound figure of Katie Hopkins, who is a Coulter-like and Milo-like commentator (but alas, with far greater verbal facility), and who seems capable of any kind of provocation, including those which flirt with various kinds of categorical hate. In any figure or movement, repeated or studied ambiguity about race-hatred or religion-hatred must be denounced and parted ways with, even in this new era where we have every reason to disbelieve, and to investigate for ourselves, any establishment categorizations of “far-right” figures.

In any case, my point here is that the Small Axe films, perhaps viewed in tandem with reading some of Zadie Smith’s essays or novels, can help prepare the conservative to be more sensitive when speaking about the kinds of racial and anti-immigrant injustices that have been an important part of Britain’s recent history. And, regardless of what political lessons one might take from them, the films are excellent cinema, and deserve to be held up as such by every kind of cultural conservative.