Caveh Takes the Vertigo Tour (Take One)
Caveh Zahedi takes a philosophical look back at his experiences on the Vertigo tour in the first of twin pieces.
What is it about the film Vertigo that compels people to pay $585 to take a ten-hour tour of the remaining landmarks and locations from that film (or, if they’re on a budget, $285 for a five-hour tour)? According to tour guide Jesse Warr, Vertigo fans from overseas will contact him to schedule a Vertigo tour and make their travel plans based on his availability: “Some people are very into this movie. It’s almost a spiritual journey. It’s not just sightseeing.”
There are many arguably great films that were shot in San Francisco: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Graduate (1967), Harold and Maude (1971), The Conversation (1974), Petulia (1968), Zodiac (2008), Chan is Missing (1982), The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Out of the Past (1947), Dirty Harry (1971), Bullitt (1968), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Dark Passage (1947), and Greed (1924), to name just a few. But Vertigo is the only one for which an actual tour exists. This said, Warr does not make a living giving his Vertigo tour. He makes most of his money from giving wine country tours, which is far more lucrative and far more in demand.
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Why would some people rather spend their time in San Francisco visiting the shooting locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo than visit the nearby Napa Valley wineries. A tour of Francis Ford Coppola’s winery ($45, tastings included), after all, includes not only a demonstration of how wine is made but also a visit to a museum containing memorabilia from Coppola’s films as well as all five of his Oscars.
What is it about the film Vertigo that makes it a place of pilgrimage?
Vertigo is about a lot of things, and one of those things is nostalgia. Jimmy Stewart’s character is obsessed with the character played by Kim Novak, who as it turns out isn’t who she pretends to be. When she dies halfway through the movie, or so he thinks, he becomes depressed to the point of near catatonia. The second half of the film chronicles his attempts to turn the “real” Madeleine into the “fake” Madeleine, not realizing that the two women are one and the same, and that the “fake” Madeleine was merely a fictional character who never in fact existed. In other words, the film is about what psychotherapists call “projection,” the tendency people have to see what they want to see rather than what is right in front of them.
Because Vertigo is about projection, it is also a film about filmmaking. The lead character is a stand-in for the viewer, and the actual viewer of the film is duped by Madeleine just as Jimmy Stewart’s character is. The Kim Novak character plays a woman who is acting a part, just as Kim Novak herself is acting the part of a woman acting a part.
The philosopher Immanual Kant defines the sublime as that which the mind can’t contain. The ideas of eternity and infinity are thus, for Kant, inherently sublime ideas. Similarly, the metaphorical hall of mirrors that Alfred Hitchcock creates in Vertigo is another instance of the sublime, and explains the near-religious awe the film inspires in some viewers. According to Warr, many of the visitors on the Vertigo tour like to be left alone at the location sites in order to commune with the place in silence, a silence reminiscent of the silence that accompanies meditation and prayer.
Jesse Warr is a historian. He has a Masters Degree in History from U.C. Berkeley, and he is fascinated by the history of San Francisco. When I ask him what it is about history that appeals to him, he tells me, “Understanding history makes you better able to understand the present.” Obviously, this is true. But the people who take the Vertigo tour are not taking it in order to better understand the present. Of if they are, they are taking it in order to understand the one aspect of the present that it shares with the past – namely, the characteristic of evanescence.
We are all dying. That much is clear. But most of us don’t dwell on this fact. We act as if we are going to live forever. It is only at rare moments – the death of a loved one or a religious experience - that we tune into this aspect of our lives. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a film that triggers such a religious experience. It reminds us of our own mortality and of mortality in general in a way that we can let in. It provides the proper balance of distance (by means of being a story about someone else) and closeness (by making us identify with that someone else). It thereby generates that “je ne sais quoi” that only great art can achieve and that is the same thing as a religious experience.
But what about the Vertigo tour? Does the Vertigo tour generate a religious experience? Does being in the same places where these characters that one has identified with once stood trigger a religious experience?
Taking the Vertigo tour is like visiting the Stations of the Cross in the Holy Land. How one experiences it is entirely a function of the faith and fervor of the tourist -- and also perhaps of how much sleep he or she got the night before, and whether he or she just had a fight with his or her lover.
A film, however, is a work of art that triggers certain emotions in the average person. Not every person, to be sure, receives these emotions as they are intended to be received, but the consistency in a masterpiece such as Vertigo is remarkable. A tour is an entirely different affair.
What is at the heart of this rage to follow in the footsteps of the past? What does it give us to do this, and why would anyone pay so much money to have this experience? Is it because it reminds us of the passing of time and, thereby, of our own mortality? It may seem odd to think that anyone would pay to be reminded of their own death, yet that is why many of us go to the movies. It is to be reminded of what we normally try to forget and to experience what we cannot always experience for ourselves. It is why Harold likes to go to funerals in Harold and Maude, and it is also why he is drawn to Maude.
So what was it like to take the Vertigo tour? It was like visiting the relics of saints that one finds in Italian churches – a piece of cloth from the robe of Saint Peter, a piece of wood reputed to be from Christ’s cross, or a piece of foreskin reputed to have belonged to Jesus himself. Trying to stand exactly where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak stood, and trying to place the camera exactly where Hitchcock decided to place it in 1957, makes one aware not only of the passing of time but also of the changes that time has wrought.
So much has changed over the years. The paint on the door of Jimmy Stewart’s apartment is no longer red but white. The cars in the parking lot of the apartment building in which Kim Novak once stood are of a different era entirely. The cemetery of the Mission in which Jimmy Stewart thought he was spying on Kim Novak (but in which she was perfectly aware of his presence) has been re-designed so many times that it is almost impossible to reconstruct the exact places where these characters stood.
But these characters were always already fictions. Is it because we ourselves are always already fictions that we are drawn to relive this fictitious past? Is it because the places we inhabit will themselves become unrecognizable in time? Is it because we are all dying, and seeing these places “in the flesh” gives one the feeling of vertigo that Kant called “the sublime” and that Wallace Stevens described thus: “One likes to practice the thing (death). They practice, enough, for heaven.”
Read Take Two of Caveh Takes the Vertigo Tour here >>