Jimmy Stewart's Metacinema in "Vertigo" and "Rear Window"

Unlike my other essay on Vertigo, this one was written for an academic audience. I wrote this for my college Aesthetics class, where Professor Teuber kicked off my lifelong overuse of the term "metacinema". I make an interesting philosophical hypothesis, that the James Stewart characters in Rear Window and Vertigo are connected, representing two distinct but progressive stages of moral development and disillusionment. I think I got a B.
Vertigo is film all about doubling back and referent confusion, and it typifies the metacinematic. Since Alfred Hitchcock was an entity inherently about film, much of what he touched also tends to be an analysis of or exposition on what films are and what they can accomplish.
Just as we sometimes refer to a character in a movie by the actor who played the role, actors may be very easily typecast in viewers’ minds because of a particularly memorable performance. Scotty Ferguson is as much a victim of fantasy as those viewers who cannot accept actors like Sylvester Stallone and William Shatner in movies other than those for which they are best known. Cary Grant is well-known enough to make his characters transparent. At times during North by Northwest we do not see Thornhill because we feel we know Cary Grant more intimately. After all, we were introduced to Thornhill only an hour ago, while Grant has been a part of our life for fifteen years.
Scotty does not know Judy at all, so she is unable to make her character of Madeleine transparent to him. Scotty is only able to see her assumed personality, a performance that is so complete that it ironically, if indirectly, proves fatal. Hitchcock is intimating the danger inherent in the actor’s craft. Because of Judy’s performance, Scotty can never see her as anyone but Madeleine, an unfortunate consequence of memorable performances experienced by many actors.
An especially fascinating aspect of this particular viewer-performer relation is that Judy’s faithfulness to the reality of the (soon-to-be-late) Mrs. Elster is never tested. If we are to assume that Stewart’s first sight of Madeleine in the bar was in fact Judy playing the part, then Stewart’s character can be said to have no frame of reference against which to judge Judy’s accuracy in her role. This is significant because it means that Scotty (as far as we know) never falls in love with Madeleine, only with Judy’s conception of Madeleine.
In this respect, Vertigo has much to say about Goffman’s dramaturgy, in that Scotty is confronted with different performances by the same performer. That he prefers one to the other shows the somewhat superficial nature of his love. He allows his anger and humiliation to prevent him from seeing that behind both Madeleine and Judy lies the same ego. This superficiality might be a character trait carried over from L.B. Jeffries, Stewart's character in Rear Window, where Stewart can be seen ignoring the unique selfhood of Lisa until she distinguishes herself from his narrow conception of her “type”.
A puppetmaster can often be seen by his audience but is never acknowledged by his performers; the person pulling the strings is applauded, but not the puppets. A director must cultivate an incredibly intimate association with his actors while remaining hidden from the viewer. Both puppetmasters and directors are kinetic artists whose vision is filtered through the medium of their performers. A director might even have a slight edge because he is able to control (to a point) his audience’s field of perception.
When a director is represented symbolically in a film, the translation of fact to metaphor results in the director character functioning more as a puppetmaster, pulling strings, hidden from the performers on which his scheme depends. At least, Gavin Elster seems this way in Vertigo. He seems very much a caricature of an actor’s perception of a director. The scene where Elster enlists Ferguson’s help on what turns out to be false pretenses could be interpreted as the director falsely declaring his vision as reality to the viewer, or as a casting session where the actor is pitched his role.
If the symbolism were to remain true-to-form, the director’s presence should remain palpable for the duration of the film, but Elster-as-director disappears after Ferguson’s trial at the midpoint of the film. Hitchcock’s decision to remove this symbolic director and his (apparent) influence could represent a desire to show the lasting effects of a director’s presence. Maybe Ferguson’s ensuing breakdown is a result of "director deprivation". Ferguson-as-actor would miss the guidance and focus given to his semi-retired life. Ferguson-as-viewer would note the absence of entertainment and the collapse of his detective faculties that were of such great importance. Both would crave the illicit and complete love of Madeleine to which Elster had led Ferguson. Elster-as-director’s ultimate responsibility for Ferguson’s loss of Madeleine provides this interpretation with a biting irony that is at home within Hitchcockian cinema.
In Rear Window, James Stewart has been rendered passive and immobile. His role in the film is to watch and therefore must occupy the metacinematic "viewer" role. Vertigo finds Stewart mobile but limited in function by acrophobia. Vertigo's John Ferguson used to work as a detective, which is a more active version of Rear Window's Jeffries’ impromptu hobby of voyeurism. Jeffries’ facility in the process of visual fact-finding has been attributed to his experience in photography, of evaluating images without context; his weakness in detective work lay in his ignorance of context’s importance and of female idiosyncrasies. Stewart’s presence in Vertigo could suggest a progression of the same character to a more functional logician and actor.
If this connection to Jeffries exists, then John Ferguson must be seen to represent the viewer who has been duped into believing a false reality constructed by Elster-as-director. Ferguson’s viewer role is somewhat compromised by Madeleine-Judy’s interaction with him, but their love could symbolize the illusion of intimacy often felt by the viewer for the character. Hitchcock is presenting an exceptional interaction between fantasy and reality in the relationship of Scotty and Madeleine-Judy. Maybe Hitchcock is trying to communicate the hazard of blurring the borders between fantasy and reality. Or maybe he is commenting on the impossible relationship between viewer and character that is intrinsic to film, impossible because the viewer is not satisfied if the character is not realistic, and frustrated if it is.
Ferguson-as-viewer tries to recreate Elster-as-director’s vision of reality in Judy and succeeds, but at a fatal cost to his performer. For the viewer is not experienced in the ways of worldmaking that constitute the substance of the director’s vocation. Ferguson-as-viewer is not aware of the power that fantasy wields, and while his vision of Judy-as-Madeleine is ultimately realized, his unfamiliarity with the business of "reality falsification" causes him to overreact when Judy’s separation from Madeleine re-presents itself.
Ferguson was given the impression by Elster that he would be in role of viewer and could thus enjoy a certain distance from the drama. And as a viewer he could, for instance, fall in love with the leading lady, thus placing himself modestly within the frame. Or he could remain hidden behind that phallic museum column and choose to leave the frame undisturbed. Stewart was expecting a trans-role freedom (between viewer and actor) that he could not enjoy in Rear Window due to his character's impotence and immobility. This unfulfilled expectation leaves the audience with a sense of bitter torsion which, by the end of the film, is deeply embedded in Ferguson’s character.
The fact that Ferguson plays an essential role in Elster’s scheme lends credibility to an interpretation of Ferguson as the actor. A film director’s vision is usually not causally dependent on the viewer for the success of the film; a film can technically still exist without a viewer. But Elster-as-director cannot succeed in his plan without Ferguson-as-actor. Elster’s is a vision that must be witnessed to be completed, and so he casts Ferguson, a professional "looker", to fill the final gap in his machination.
So Elster-as-director deludes Ferguson in two ways: Elster provides Ferguson with a false context in which to understand the events that follow, and he misrepresents Ferguson’s true role within this context. (Setting morality aside, Elster’s goal would have been very difficult to obtain any other way.)
When Ferguson deduces the story’s true context, his reaction is not to Mrs. Elster’s death or to Judy’s accessory to murder but to the realization that he has been an actor, not a viewer. He understands that as an actor, his strings have been in Elster-as-director’s hands, and so he couldn't have saved Madeleine even if she was who he thought she was. The freedom that Scotty felt throughout the Elster episode was an illusion, and as a result Ferguson-as-actor did not (according to the strict Sartrean definition) exist.
The retrospective re-application of his role conception causes a severe disillusionment regarding his past feelings of love and guilt, which he expresses as anger towards Judy. Admittedly, Judy did have the power to resolve Scotty’s inner conflicts but this would mean robbing him (and her) of another chance at love. Judy’s love for Scotty allows her to make a choice, but in profound tragedies like Vertigo, the most prominent characters are fundamentally damned, regardless of what choices they make.
Ferguson’s conflict addresses issues basic to human nature. We act and feel in response to our situation, but we are careful to remember our role in relation to the other players involved in the situation. If our idea of our role changes in a particular situation, our thoughts and actions will also change. John Ferguson was forced to endure one of the most stressful experiences in life, the death of a loved one, and his initial reaction was based on the understanding of his, Elster's, and Madeleine-Judy's roles, as defined by Elster-as-director. Later, with his realization of the truth, not only must his conception of the (past) situation change, but also his conception of everyone’s (past) role. But it is too late for Ferguson to change his actions, so he lashes out at a woman he no longer knows and must watch her die all over again.

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