One of the benefits of living in New York City is that on any night of the week you can find a decent film to see on something other than the tiny screen of your laptop and in something other than a sprawling, suburban multiplex. Thanks, in part, to longstanding institutions, such as Anthology Film Archives and Film Forum, or upstarts, such as Metrograph and the newly remodeled Quad Cinema, cinematic culture survives, even thrives, here in a way that is increasingly impossible to find anywhere else. And it is a good thing, too, because the apartments are small and overpriced, the subways are irregular and overcrowded, and the pizza, dare I say it, is overrated. Something has to make up for the daily struggle.
Unexpectedly stranded in Manhattan a few years ago, I took refuge inside Film Forum, where I saw a recently restored print of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that, at the very least, would take me back to San Francisco for a couple of hours. Little did I know that its fantastically melodramatic artificiality would prove to be prophetic in a weird, what-a-coincidence-that-I-saw-that-movie-then sort of way. Sometimes films find us more than we find them.
Vertigo, if you have not seen it (is that even possible?), is a psychological thriller. It is also a mystery, a romance, and, depending on your sense of humor, I suppose, an intentionally or unintentionally funny comedy situated somewhere between the realms of drama and melodrama. In addition to all these things, it can also be viewed as a rather profound, maybe even tragic, meditation on the inescapably complex dynamics of our interpersonal lives—a surgical examination of the “layers of performance,” as film scholar David Thomson has put it, which define our day-to-day existence with others in the world. It is a film, most of all, about role-playing, about the desire to put a good face on things, which can be motivated as much by a pernicious urge to deceive as by an optimistic yearning to be deceived.
Looking back on it now, I think I reveled in the gaudy greens and ridiculous reds of the restored Vertigo because so much of my life at the time was crumbling around me as if it were a cheap, b-movie backdrop. Like Scottie (James Stewart), dreaming his way towards unraveling the mystery of his dearly departed Madeleine (Kim Novak) halfway through the film, I must have been on the verge of realizing that I, too, had been had—or worse, that I had wanted to be had.
The gaudy greens and ridiculous reds of the restored Vertigo.
Hitchcock, the master of suspense, knew that our capacities for deception and self-deception are boundless. His thrillers could not work without it. But could it be that not just the movies but also our entire social life is premised on (self-)deception as well? In his rich and thought-provoking new book, The Philosophical Hitchcock: Vertigo and the Anxieties of Unknowingness, the philosopher Robert B. Pippin asks precisely this question. In trying to answer it, he suggests that “Vertigo might disturb settled, commonsense views about what it is to understand another person or be understood by him or her, or about how we present ourselves to others in our public personae.” In other words, Vertigo, like a good philosopher, poses some head-scratching questions that have no easy answers. “How do we make ourselves intelligible to each other,” Pippin writes,
especially when desire and self-interest make that very hard to do? How do we figure each other out, and why, in the most important situations of love, danger, and trust, do we often seem to be so bad at it? What is romantic love; that is, does it exist, or is it a dangerous fantasy?
If our social life consists of so many layers of performance, if we cannot avoid being actors not only in our own dramas but also in those of the people we work with, live with, or sleep with, then what hope can we ever have of reaching common understanding with each other? How can we ever know that anything is—or is not—what it seems?
In Pippin’s opinion, Vertigo depicts “the common struggle for mutual interpretability” that defines social life and, more broadly, human existence. It is a struggle because so much of our behavior with and around others seems predicated upon the very thing that makes Hitchcock’s cinema possible, namely our eagerness to believe and to be believed, even if it means believing the unbelievable, or pretending to at least. Pippin describes this tendency toward (self)deception as a condition of “uknowingness.” It incorporates everything from plain old ignorance to, as he puts it, “fantasy thinking,” the indispensible ingredient of movie magic. Without “fantasy thinking,” without the ability to believe the unbelievable, we could never possibly care about Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. But it is also “fantasy thinking” that distorts our interactions with other people in the world. It is “fantasy thinking” that sets us up for the inevitable fall—and there is a lot of falling in Vertigo.
A spectral Judy (Kim Novak) reemerges in the uncanny guise of Madeleine, the woman Scottie (James Stewart), thick in the throes of love, watched plunge from a bell-tower to her death.
Our tendency towards “unknowingness” is what makes the desire for mutual interpretability—the desire for the kind of recognition that makes things like love or democracy possible—such a, well, struggle. We want to see and be seen for who we are, but only in the most flattering light. We play the roles expected of us. This makes understanding ourselves complicated; it makes understanding others, who are doing the same thing, seem almost impossible. Maybe it was no accident that the patron saint of the City by the Bay, Saint Francis, sought not to so much “to be understood as to understand.”
Seen from the perspective of mutual interpretability, a film like Vertigo does not help us escape reality; it forces us to confront it. So much for going to the movies to avoid the struggles of the real world for a couple hours, I guess, but at least there is popcorn. You cannot say the same about your philosophy classes. Indeed, The Philosophical Hitchcock makes a wide range of philosophical thinking accessible to a wide audience. Readers of it can pick up a thing or two about Hegel and Heidegger, Sartre and Stanley Cavell, all without having to learn a whole new language or master a bunch of jargon in the process.
In recent years, Pippin has been making a convincing case regarding the relevance of Hollywood cinema to philosophical thought. He has published books on westerns and film noir (Hollywood Westerns and American Myth  and Fatalism in American Film Noir ) as well as highly regarded articles on directors ranging from Pedro Almodóvar to Terrence Malick. The Philosophical Hitchcock represents both a summation and an extension of this work. Philosophers and film fans alike will read it with pleasure. Whether or not it helps them cope with the struggle of mutual interpretability, an existential condition riddled with (self-)deception from which there may be no escape, remains an open question, of course.
V.F. Perkins warned students of cinema that a “position of intellectual detachment may hinder understanding.” When we go to the movies we want to be deceived. The cinematic experience is an immersive one and any attempt to demystify it runs the risk of misunderstanding, or at the very least misrepresenting film’s uniqueness as an art form.
Although it was a box office flop when it was originally released in 1958, Vertigo has become one of the most analyzed films in cinematic history. Pippin is not the first, nor will he be the last philosopher to weigh in on its significance (putting his reading of the film up against Slavoj Žižek’s, for example, would make for an interesting debate.) But one of the many virtues of The Philosophical Hitchcock is the way it provides an original interpretation of Vertigo while also offering a detailed survey of all things Hitchcockian. In other words, The Philosophical Hitchcock can be read profitably as a primer on the vast secondary literature that has accrued around both the film and its director. Pippin’s footnotes map out pathways into all kinds of interesting intellectual terrain if you are inclined to explore them.
Two recurring figures in those notes are Cavell and the film critic and scholar V.F. Perkins, who passed away in 2016. (The Philosophical Hitchcock is dedicated to Perkins’s memory.) Although they worked in rather different environments, back in the 1970s Cavell and Perkins pioneered the humanistic interpretation of film, the practice, as Cavell put it then, of “reading” films as cohesive works of art demanding the kind of careful attention and interpretation that we apply to scenes from Shakespeare, say, or the paintings of Picasso. It is an approach that takes film seriously and tries, as best it can, to interpret cinema on its own terms rather than those of supposedly more highbrow discourses. It attempts to view “film as film”—to borrow the title of Perkins’s oft-cited masterwork—as opposed to seeing it as so much drama, poetry, or even philosophy pursued by other means. “We are mistaken if we persuade ourselves that one film is more subtle or profound than another,” Perkins wrote, “on the grounds that its typical reference points include data drawn from the philosophy of Hegel or the poetry of Goethe rather than from conventions of dress or fashion in motor transport.” This might seem like a rebuke to a Hegel-citing commentator such as Pippin, but reading The Philosophical Hitchcock, you realize that he, too, notices the clothes that Scottie and Madeleine wear, as well as the cars they drive (a “utilitarian 1956 DeSoto” and a 1957 Jaguar, respectively, if you want to know). Maybe German Idealism and mid-century automotive design have more in common than we typically think.
In Film as Film V.F. Perkins warned students of cinema that a “position of intellectual detachment may hinder understanding.” When we go to the movies we want to be deceived. The cinematic experience is an immersive one and any attempt to demystify it runs the risk of misunderstanding, or at the very least misrepresenting film’s uniqueness as an art form. “Intellectual detachment” also risks ruining the fun. It pulls us out of the “comforting, self-forgetting darkness of the movie-house” and thrusts us into the harsh daylight of reality, like a stern nun snapping an indolent student out of a daydream.
Surprisingly, Pippin says almost nothing about the nun who shows up at the end of Vertigo, precisely when “the grip of fantasy,” as he puts it, is coming loose. It is one of the rare omissions in an otherwise exhaustive reading of the film, one that surely must mean something. Maybe Pippin wants to leave us in a state of “unknowingness” that replicates the abrupt, inconclusive ending of Hitchcock’s film. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to play the role of the nun. But on that count at least, who can blame him?
Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Heidegger in America (2011).