The real and self-consciousness

I looked again at Hitchcock’s Vertigo last night, for the first time in many years. The film has a mad hallucinatory quality throughout, appropriate enough for a story about love and obsession. Afterwards I was thinking about its structure … the way it switches from the decidedly languorous pace of its first 90 minutes to the packed revelations of the last half hour, which in that intensity feel even more hallucinatory. It occurred to me that the film’s voice of reason, the doting Midge, disappears after speaking to the psychiatrist about James Stewart’s chances of recovery from his second breakdown, and in that last half hour without her you’re locked into the intensity of Stewart’s disturbed obsession. It struck me too that the story’s twist, in which Kim Novak has in fact colluded in the murder of the villain’s wife, could have been a fantasy in the broken Stewart’s mind, through which he tries to make sense of his devastating experience and loss.

You don’t have to read the film this way. There’s nothing to suggest it’s the “right” way to look at it. But it’s an interesting, perhaps enriching possibility and it made me think again about the consolation of stories, and the sense of “what really happened” that sometimes disturbs your reactions to a piece of fiction, and that I touched on when talking about Eden Lake a couple of months ago.

The questions were raised too in a recent discussion of Ian McEwan’s writing in the London Review of Books, which praised the end of McEwan’s Atonement for its self-referential sophistication, the way it teases the reader with expectations of resolution while veering off to worry about the writer’s need to make things good. I can see and praise the skill of much of the writing in Atonement, but thought the ending revealed a conceptual muddle and a betrayal of an underlying compact with the reader, a compact that in one way or another defines the form of a story (I probably need to explain that idea about form a little more, but not now).

The observation that we can be caught up in stories, that they can change our sense of reality, sometimes with serious consequences, may be worth noting in a context like this blog, but it’s not enough in itself to make for a satisfying work of art. Vertigo makes fruitful use of this idea, but it is not what the film is about (it harnesses your possible awareness of its own artifice to deepen your sense of the pressure of the unreal on the protagonists). My problem with Atonement is that while playing with the play of stories on our imaginations, it ends up only being about the act of writing. I can’t help feeling that when a writer ends up writing about writing s/he has nothing much to say.

That’s the problem with so-called post modernism (or at least, one of its many problems). Being self-conscious isn’t much of an end in itself. It can complicate the relationship between artist and audience, but I want to know that it’s complicating it for a reason. Ian McEwan may be worried about the kind of pleasure he offers his audience, but that worry needs working out in a way that continues to offer some kind of pleasure or formal gratification. The structural problem with Atonement is not so much that its aesthetic worries don’t make sense. It’s that you don’t care about the writer Briony in the way you cared about the main protagonists.

Hitchcock mastered that balance of artifice and formal gratification more than fifty years ago. McEwan, (an often great writer I hasten to add) who made his name with a sense of the everyday macabre that Hitchcock would have appreciated, could do with going back to his roots.


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