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Unplugging the Gaps: Hitchcock and Madeleine E.

By Benjamin Hale.

Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E. (Outpost 19, 2016)

“All that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen.”

— Alfred Hitchcock

It’s probably unfair of me, but I’ve never quite been able to take collage seriously as an art form. A spray of decontextualized snippets from other works seems not to mind casual attention, giving the reader, in the case of literary collage, permission to tune in and out at will, like channel-surfing during the commercial breaks of a TV show I don’t care enough about to want to see every second of; whereas a long, continuous piece of original writing, whether or not it gets my full concentration, is at least bold enough to assume it has it. Collage is a timid, polite form, a bit abashed about its own voice: it borrows because it doesn’t have the courage to steal.

Part of my irritation with collage works is that whenever one gets a lot of attention—most notably, in recent years, David Shields’ Reality Hunger—some critics praise it, in language teetering on the edge of political, for its radical newness, forgetting that the form is not really a new one, just a forgettable one, so that whenever a new one pops up, similar avant-garde experiments are buried deep enough in the dustbin that it only seems new. (They also take for granted that newness in itself has intrinsic value.)

To its credit, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is not just a literary collage. There is a playfulness about it that parodies the self-seriousness and pretentiousness of the genre. Its pages are peppered with highfalutin names like Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Baudrillard, and Deleuze, but its tongue is in its cheek. It’s both engaging with the foggy critical discourse that has swirled up around Alfred Hitchcock ever since French intellectuals started taking him much more seriously than the filmmaker ever took himself, and poking fun at it. Madeleine E. is a very fun book, a genuinely mind-bending and dryly hilarious hall of mirrors that combines metafiction with criticism, film theory, and philosophy. Making a work of art about another work of art—in this case, Hitchcock’s Vertigo—is criticism permitted to play.

Interestingly, Madeleine E. does not only pull its quotations from major works like Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, but also from plenty of contemporary writers, leaning especially heavily on Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Dyer (perhaps doing itself a disservice, as each time these names came up it mostly just reminded me how much I loved River of Shadows and Out of Sheer Rage); incongruously including Gillian Flynn; and borrowing a lot from Philip K. Dick, whose cult status has always somewhat baffled me. Madeleine E. circles around the distinction between “high” and “low” art, and criticism’s latent power to sluggishly move something from the latter category into the former. That’s exactly what happened to Hitchcock, and I guess it might have happened to Philip K. Dick, though I wasn’t paying attention.

The other day, after a conversation with a student about what she called the difference between “‘capital-L’ Literature” (say, Hamlet) and “‘lower-case’ literature,” by which she meant contemporary literature that hasn’t yet withstood the test of time, or received institutional approval (if it ever will), I thought of a metaphor on my drive home. Say every writer (or really every artist) stands somewhere on the slope of a snowy mountain. The snow on the mountain is culture, and the mountain itself is time. The artist scoops up some of the snow at her feet, packs it into a snowball (a painting, a film, a text), and tosses it down the mountain. The vast majority of these snowballs break apart and disintegrate almost immediately—but some of them, for whatever reasons, gain traction, pick up more snow, and become bigger and bigger snowballs as they roll down the mountain. A text rolls down the slope: every new reader it finds, everything that gets written about that text, every time it is quoted in another work, every time it is referenced or alluded to, is more snow that sticks to it, and the longer it rolls, the bigger it gets, mass begetting more mass—until, of course, it begins to be forgotten, and the snowball slowly shrinks. (The deserts are littered with crumbled Ozymandiases: Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos—like many readers of his generation, Updike was a hallowed name for my father, but I can already see his ghost growing faint. Eventually, everything we cherish or loathe will disappear.)

The bigger a text is, the more revered it is; reverence suggests mystery, and mystery attracts interpreters—it becomes, effectively, a religious text. Interpretation of narrative actually has its origins in religion, and In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes:

Once the question that haunts post-mythic consciousness—that of the seemliness of religious symbols—had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. . . . Interpretation is a radical strategy fro conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it.

Those who worship (interpret) art religiously choose to believe the most worshipped texts are so because they’re the greatest works of art; that is, the most pregnant with mystery. “Whatever is preserved grows enigmatic; time, and the pressures of interpretation, which are the agents of preservation, will see to that,” Frank Kermode writes in The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, a book which I happened to have been reading at the same time I was reading Madeleine E.

I believe the religious readers of art delude themselves as to the crucial importance in the process of its consecration of pure and terrifying chance. How many Melvilles have there been who didn’t just happen get beatified by another century’s critics many years after they died in obscurity? How many Emily Dickinsons have died without a stubborn surviving sister willing to fight a long, frustrating struggle to publish their work? Those who believe what is truly great will inevitably resurface take it as an article of faith; there is no evidence for it. And the nonbelievers, just as in religious faith, aren’t playing on an even field in this argument, as there are naturally no negative examples to point to—what disappears, disappears.

Sometimes, the most revered texts, those that accumulate more and more text around them as they roll down through time, are not necessarily the most beautiful and perfectly formed, but simply the stickiest: the ones with gaps in them that can be plugged up with more text. The reason Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest (among a handful of others) are Shakespeare’s most frequently explored works is precisely because they are the most complex, not necessarily because they are the best; they are labyrinths abounding with trapdoors, trick mirrors, and hidden passageways, inviting exploration. The Bible itself, with its many mysterious gaps and vestigial oddities, might be the “stickiest” text of them all, and likewise the works of secular literature that are the most perforated with holes come to be regarded as the most holy. Those who interpret secular art religiously, the way theologians interpret scripture, are liable to look most closely into a text’s omissions, flaws, glitches, and accidents, finding in them clues pointing the way toward the illumination of the profound mysteries surely lurking under the surfaces of those texts that have rolled and waxed on long enough to gain institutional approval and become sacred. These critics peer through the chinks in the armor, looking for the body beneath the suit.

Rodney Ascher’s riveting 2012 documentary, Room 237, interviews a series of religious readers of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as they reveal over many, many clips of the film the clues they have found indicating what it is really about—you know, under the surface. The Shining is really about the genocide of Native Americans. The film is really about the holocaust (Jack Nicholson is typing on an Adler, a German brand of typewriter!). The film is really all about Kubrick’s guilt at having cooperated with the US government to fake the moon landing.

One of these religious readers points out the following clue. About midway through the film, Shelly Duvall timidly enters the enormous, opulent room that Jack Nicholson is using as a writing studio to check on how his descent into madness is coming along. There’s a shot of Shelly Duvall from below, her head against the plain red background of a curtain. Cut to a shot from her perspective, looking down at Jack Nicholson looking up at her, seated at his desk behind his German typewriter; in the background, we see a fireplace, and some furniture—a couple of chairs flush against the wall. Cut back to Shelly Duvall. Cut back to Jack Nicholson—but look! Freeze it right … there. Look in the background. Notice how one of those chairs is now missing!

Now, film sets, especially on major productions, are complicated, chaotic places, with a lot of people bustling around, moving equipment, setting things up, adjusting things between takes. I am almost certain that somebody had to move something between takes that required the removal of that chair, and forgot to put it back. It’s a simple continuity error, and if you devote such microscopically focused attention to almost any film, you’ll notice dozens of them. But to a religious reader, Stanley Kubrick was not an ordinary human but an infallible being, categorically incapable of making even a very slight mistake. That missing chair has to mean something!

Is it possible, as that interpreter argues, that Kubrick deliberately planted continuity errors throughout The Shining in order to subconsciously disorient his viewers, to make us feel like we are going insane without quite knowing why? Sure—I wouldn’t put it past him. If there was ever an auteur who might pull something like that, it would be Kubrick. But if it quacks like a duck… As Robert M. Adams wrote about the blizzard of minute aporia in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “the meaningless is deeply interwoven with the meaningful,” such that “the book loses as much as it gains by being read closely.”

Kim Novak plays both Judy Barton and Madeleine Elster in Vertigo.

I bet that Hitchcock, a far more devil-may-care filmmaker than Kubrick, would have found such theological interpretation of his films a little hilarious. I think I can detect a faint undercurrent of amusement on his side of the conversation throughout Hitchcock/, the 1966 film theory sleeper-classic based on conversations between the two directors, naturally one of the most important source codes for Madeleine E.. Unlike Kubrick, Hitchcock was not a stickler for details. In Madeleine E., Blackwell quotes Hitchcock, who is talking to Truffaut about what he’d said to the actress Kim Novak (who plays both Judy Barton and Madeleine Elster) on the set of Vertigo: “I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed.” A few pages later, Blackwell quotes Truffaut misinterpreting Hitchcock in his adoration of him, glossing his insouciance with (concealed, now revealed) truth:

While Hitchcock maintains that he is not concerned with plausibility, the truth is that he is rarely implausible. What he does, in effect, is to hinge the plot around a striking coincidence, which provides him with the master situation. His treatment from then on consists in feeding a maximum of tension and plausibility into the drama, pulling the strings ever tighter as he builds up toward a paroxysm. Then he suddenly lets go, allowing the story to unwind swiftly.

Hitchcock readily admitted that he cared much less about crafting an airtight plot than about the “visual impact on the screen.” He drove his plots toward his images, not the other way around, trusting that his viewers would be too lost in the dream to get hung up on logistics. Forget that Elster’s elaborate plan to set Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) up as a witness to his wife’s staged “suicide” all depends upon Scottie recognizing the old Spanish mission from the dream described to him by Kim-Novak-as-Judy-Barton-as-Madeleine-Elster-as-possessed-by-the-spirit-of-Carlotta-Valdes, as well on his suggesting that they go there, in order to jog her—memory?—or something?—or what? Never mind that! What matters is the image of Jimmy Stewart struggling up the spiral staircase in the bell tower, looking down, seeing the steps recede beneath him, employing for the first time in cinematic history the dolly zoom, in which the camera dollies away from the subject in the foreground while simultaneously zooming in—a famously trippy effect that would go on to become a horror movie staple, and would later come to be nicknamed the “Hitchcock zoom” and the “Vertigo effect.” If Hitchcock was content to let the quibblers quibble, confident that that would be the image to buy the film’s way into mythic memory, then he was right. In art, as in religion, spectacle leads, theology follows. Aesthetics sanctify the text, and only then do the interpreters come along to stick their fingers in its holy holes, and ponder them, and explain, explain, explain.

Vertigo is one of those especially sticky texts, the kind that magnetically compounds tremendous critical mass because it is such fertile soil for interpretation by dint of its imperfection. It has generated far more scholarship than, say, North by Northwest, which is in many aspects a much better film, I’m sure because Vertigo, with its plot riddled with holes and pivoting on several ridiculous coincidences, allows for more creative exegesis than a (more) straightforward, solid construction like North by Northwest. Precisely because it is so pockmarked with flaws, Vertigo is a text that gives the critic something to do.

In Madeleine E., Gabriel Blackwell—the character writing the book, not its author—opens up one of these gaping plot holes in Vertigo, something I remember thinking myself the first time I saw the film:

Earlier in my notes, I had wondered about how Elster could have gotten down and out of the tower unseen. I had wondered how Scottie, stricken by acrophobia such that he could not accompany Madeleine up the tower or move from the step when he saw her go past, could have gotten down. Nowhere did I wonder how Judy could have gotten down, but hers is the most unlikely escape of the three. Judy has been made up and dressed to look like the dead woman just discovered; she cannot be other than dead, must now act out that part, remain confined to the tower, unable to call out or move as though in a grave. If Elster is spotted, he might go unnoticed or unrecognized (no one knows how he is dressed, only Scottie knows what he looks like), invent some excuse or give a believable reason for his presence (“My answering service rang to tell me the police were looking for me”) but if Judy is spotted, all is lost. There can be no such coincidence or explanation for Judy, no blind spot in the crowd below—she looks like the dead woman and is costumed as her, and both of those facts are immediately apparent and infinitely suspicious.

The bell-tower staircase.

I hadn’t seen Vertigo in at least ten years or so when I read Madeleine E., but I rewatched it the other night in preparation to write this piece, and noticed that this logic gap is rather lamely papered over at the end of the film, when Jimmy Stewart (Scottie) takes Kim Novak (Judy now dressed and made up again as Madeleine) back to the bell tower at the mission, and after revealing that he knows Judy was “Madeleine,” says, “You both hid behind there, mn?… till everything was clear… then sneaked down and drove back to the city.” So that explains it. Of course, in order for their getaway to have worked, Elster would have somehow known that Scottie would flee the scene before they could come back down from of the tower (and before anyone would bother to come looking up there). A few lines of dialogue above this in the last scene in the script, there’s this exchange:


And she was the one who died. Not you. The real wife. You were the copy, you were the counterfeit. Was she dead or alive when you got there?


Dead. He’d broken her neck.


Took no chances, did he? And when you got there, he pushed her off the tower, was that it? But you were the one who screamed. Why did you scream?


“Took no chances, did he?” Took no chances! This must be the most absurd line in the film.

Perhaps, though, the closer one reads any text, the more one approaches psychosis, paranoia. Like that woman who injects meaning into the continuity errors in The Shining. (“A paranoiac delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system,” Freud writes in Totem and Taboo.) But it’s a bit of a dry psychosis, a bean-counter’s paranoia, discontent to let art’s sounds and images—and the feelings they evoke—alone. To go about excavating the many logical problems with the plot of Vertigo not only leads to interpretive dead ends that Hitchcock correctly figured most viewers would be uninterested in arriving at, it also just feels like a banal and philistine way of looking at a work of art. It makes me feel like one of those “people” in that famous first line of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Critics who interrogate around the corners of the opaque mysteries in a work of art are not coming to a deeper understanding of it. They are trying to subdue it, as Sontag writes: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art comfortable, manageable.”

Watching Vertigo for the first time in many years the other night, I was surprised by the disquieting shiver I got when Judy emerges from the bathroom with her (again) newly blonde hair done in the same way as it was in the first half of the film, walking toward Scottie (the camera) in the hazy, sickeningly green light of the neon EMPIRE HOTEL sign buzzing just outside the window of the cheap apartment of this salesgirl from Kansas transplanted to San Francisco, and somehow enlisted by Gavin Elster into this complicated conspiracy. All that matters is what’s on the screen. What matters is on the screen, and the feeling it evokes at that moment—and that remains impervious to prying interpretation.

A work of interpretation is not at all what Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is. It is a novel—or rather, a mash-up of novel, essay, and collage of ideas. I don’t think there’s a word for this thing yet; perhaps one day when there are enough of them someone will invent one. Whatever we’ll call it, it handles ideas with a properly respectful mysticism, anxiety, and confusion.

Wallace Stegner wrote something on the subject of ideas in fiction, a metaphor so elegant that I’ve had it in my memory for the long time since I first read it: fiction should be a house “haunted by ideas, not inhabited by them; they should flit past the windows after dark, not fill the rooms.” Ideas by themselves, Stegner argues, are not dramatic, and they are a poor substitute for narrative when an author awkwardly shoves them, articulately expressed, into the mouths of his characters. The result is hokey and didactic. If you have fully formed ideas ready to reveal, then narrative art is not the best vehicle for them—just write an essay. But what art is good for is playing with ideas that are not fully formed, and maybe never will be. Art is an excellent medium for experimenting with things halfway between ideas and feelings, and Madeleine E. does this without banishing the intellect to the back of the house, as in a fable or allegory, or engaging in that philistine tiger-taming Sontag complained about, vainly attempting to mollify the foreboding at the heart of its subject matter (Vertigo), which as a genuine work of art resists all intellectual corralling.

The novel that glues the essay together in Madeleine E. is about a writer named Gabriel Blackwell starting and restarting and ultimately failing to write a book about Vertigo. The author of the book is aware of how this project mirrors Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a book about failing to write a book about D. H. Lawrence, which is why he quotes it frequently, but if the character in the interstitial novel is aware of this, I don’t think he ever says so. That character is aware of the theme of doppelgangers. He tries, and fails, to track down his own in San Francisco, and later stalks his wife’s double. Ideas float just barely visible through the discombobulating fog of narrative, essay, and quotation without ever being so disappointingly banal as to reveal themselves. It allows us to dully fear the shadows of objects without ever flicking on the light. Blackwell’s book engages in this tantalization while somehow simultaneously addressing it head-on intellectually, as when he quotes Pascal Bonitzer’s “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth”:

Specular space is on-screen space; it is everything we see on this screen. Off-screen space, blind space, is everything that moves (or wriggles) outside or under the surface of things … What is frightening is that it is not there! The point of horror resides in the blind space.

Madeleine E. is a work of art about interpretation that, to the frustration of its narrator, never quite manages to interpret, as it is not itself a religious revelation, but the horror in the blind space.


Benjamin Hale is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011) and the collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2016).  He has received the Bard Fiction Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Award, and nominations for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. His writing (both fiction and nonfiction) has appeared, among other places, in ConjunctionsHarper’s Magazine, the Paris Review, the New York Times, the Washington PostDissent and the LA Review of Books Quarterly, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013.  He is a senior editor of Conjunctions, teaches at Bard College, and lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 25th, 2017.