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Tag: authorial judgment of characters

Movie: Vertigo

Vertigo, written by Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor, and possibly Maxwell Anderson, based on a French novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak

Released by Paramount in 1958

128 minutes

I love the theme of fakeness, irreality, that pervades this movie.

  1. Scottie falls in love with a woman who’s haunted by a ghost, and perhaps he’s as in love with her hauntedness as with her.
  2. She dies. Now we have two ghosts, two irreal presences.
  3. Behind Scottie’s back, we learn that the woman he knew as Madeleine was an impersonator, and was faking the haunting as well, and faked her death.
  4. When Scottie meets his “real” lover, the prosaic Judy, he tries to make her over into the twice-fake woman he loved before. He doesn’t know she’s genuinely haunted this time, haunted by her role in a murder and by their past love affair.

The scene of Judy’s transformation into “Madeleine” is lit by a ghostly underwatery light emanating from the neon sign of the cheap hotel where Judy lives: reality transfigured into dream. When they kiss, Scottie finds himself back in the mission stable with its fake horse and carriage.

And Scottie is deeply in love with this illusion. Even when Judy admits everything, he rejects the “real” love she offers him: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” Judy “really” loves him, but he never “really” loved her—or perhaps he’s only able to love her at the very end, when, having no illusions left, they kiss once more. If so, it’s too late.


Today I saw this on Twitter:

The thing is, I think it can be both. Vertigo does seem to be confessional on Hitchcock’s part—he bullied, controlled, and costumed his lead actresses the way Scottie bullies, controls, and costumes Judy—and it also punishes Scottie for his masculine brutality.

Of course, Judy is punished too, and much more harshly; she dies for her (perhaps not even willing?) complicity in Gavin Elster’s plot. But note that starting with the scene where she writes a letter, she’s the star of the film, because she and the audience both know something Scottie doesn’t. We see Scottie’s monomaniacal cruelty through her eyes. Both, both, both.

I don’t mean to imply that Hitchcock attained any true self-awareness or felt remorse; a few years later he made Tippi Hedren submit to having live birds thrown at her, and (I just learned) sexually assaulted her to boot.

But he produced a magnificent critique of himself even without true self-awareness. I feel like this is the case with other artists too. Manhattan ends with the baby-voiced teenager calling the Woody Allen character on his bullshit and attempting to spread her wings. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men dwells obsessively on the ways misogyny makes men “hideous.” Maybe there’s no earnest attempt here at criticism of male entitlement—maybe what looks like criticism is merely self-loathing. But we can interpret them however we want. We can use them however we want. They can instruct us, despite their creators’ limitations.

Hitchcock, at least, is dead. His entitlement and cruelty are safely tucked away in characters like Gavin and Scottie.

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Short story: “Algorithmic Problem-Solving in Father-Daughter Relationships”

“Algorithmic Problem-Solving in Father-Daughter Relationships,” by Xuan Juliana Wang

Appeared in Ploughshares, Volume 41, Number 2, Summer 2015, guest-edited by Lauren Groff (on Project MUSE); anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016

Several thousand words; 14.5 pages in BANR

I really like the style and premise; you can’t help but enjoy this guy’s approach, his blinkered determination. I was disappointed however that the daughter didn’t reappear in the present day. I wanted the closure of knowing whether she forgave him. At the end, the little flashback to her childhood does provide a solution to his problem—the imaginative empathy he habitually lacks. But does he realize that? And is it too late?

Short story: “Morris and the Machine”

“Morris and the Machine,” by Tim Pratt

Originally in Triangulations: The End of Time, September 2007; appeared in Drabblecast 150, February 12th, 2010, and a Drabblecast Director’s Cut episode, July 7th, 2018

A few thousand words

Interesting how Morris’s tragedy is, classically, all his own fault. He screws up his life by dwelling excessively on the past, just more literally than most. Not that I don’t sympathize.

The sleeping with a seventeen-year-old is pretty creepy.

I thought I detected a hint that Penny had been physically abusive. He says he doesn’t want to turn his back on her, and he puts the table between them. Presumably unintentional, since the author doesn’t mention it in his commentary and it distracts from the theme of the story.

Short story: “Mirror Ball”

“Mirror Ball” or “Mirrorball,” by Mary Gaitskill

Appeared in Index (a magazine I can’t seem to track down online); collected in Don’t Cry: Stories (2009, Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.); featured on the Knopf Doubleday site on April 24th, 2009

7,474 words

Fascinating. There’s so much abstraction, and yet the story comes through as vivid and urgent. Lots of imagery to keep it grounded.

Gaitskill seems to have a remarkable view of sex, and a remarkably dark view of casual sex and sex work. Perhaps she believes sex should be confined to stable relationships because it’s so dangerous emotionally (or rather, according to the worldbuilding of this story, spiritually). Pardon me for speculating about the author, but it’s hard to resist when the theme runs so unmistakably through other stories of hers, like “The Agonized Face.” It’s an attitude that overlaps with the puritanical, though the rawness, frankness, and intensity of her work is far from it.

How strange that this young woman (“girl”) is saved by an encounter with a homeless-looking man and by her rather inappropriate, desperate phone call. How wonderful that this young man (“boy,” thank goodness for gender parity—perhaps they are so called because of their innocent foolishness, their ignorance of the nature of souls) answers his phone when he has good reason not to.

Short story: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor

First published in The Avon Book of Modern Writing (Avon Books, 1953); anthologized in The House of Fiction (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960); collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955); anthologized all over the place; online hereread by the author here

6,463 words

I like this story without really knowing what it means. I love the grandmother. She’s so annoying, so unwittingly ridiculous, it’s actually cute.

Wikipedia offers several interpretations of the story. J. Stillwell Powers, on the Ploughshares blog, subscribes to the “moment of grace” one, which I like:

“The grandmother experiences her own dismantling as her family is executed. Her attempts to reason with the Misfit prove futile, and she is forced to confront the failure of her worldview as a means for salvation. Stripped of the perspectives she has clung to, she turns inward for redemption, and, in this moment, sees clearly for the first time. Here lies her moment of grace. Beneath the muzzle of the Misfit’s gun, she suddenly perceives the Misfit’s humanity, recognizing it as her own.”

This seems like the interpretation O’Connor most likely intended. Not to imply that the author’s intention is the last word.

Now Bessie Smith’s great rendition of the song of the same title is stuck in my head.

Short story: “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde

Appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 18; online here; edited to add: a 2018 World Fantasy Award finalist

2,030 words

I heard this on the podcast—very well read by Amal El-Mohtar—but had to read it again on the page to get what it was about. I didn’t catch the word that rhymes with eek, for example. As Wilde and Julia Rios say on the podcast, it’s an angry piece.

Apparently this was first titled “Grotesquerie.” An apter title, in my opinion, though not as vivid as the one they went with.

From Jodie Baker of SFF Reviews (here):

“‘Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand’ feels reminiscent of Alyssa Wong’s style. It’s darkly bitter, and visits quite perfect, and quite disturbing, magical punishment on those who do wrong. Let’s just say ‘you’ do not come out of this encounter well. It’s not quite a revenge story; the punishment is too impersonal to call it revenge. It’s more about punishing society for their stares, words, and medical experiments. Punishing slowly; one person at a time. The reader is left with the feeling that the narrator will always remain, and that they have eternity to teach visitor after visitor a lesson.”

Short story: “Woman of the Week”

“Woman of the Week,” by Claire Polders

Appeared in matchbook in February 2016

449 words

A neat piece. Sort of celebrating the individuality of somebody who appears superficially uninteresting.

Short story: “Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets”

“Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets,” by Jacob M. Appel

Appeared in The Gettysburg Review, issue 23:2, summer 2010; published in a collection of the same title by Black Lawrence Press

15 pages in the magazine, maybe 2,500 words

For a story about a topic as contentious as abortion, this is a charmingly light and gentle piece. You can feel the author being amused by his characters, maybe, but not censuring them or talking down to them.

I tend to read the ending as being about Ziggy’s moral failure. He has allowed his choices to be dictated more by emotion than by rationality, and surely he will have cause to regret it soon. Then again, neutrality was never really a viable moral stance for him to take, and how much harm can he do by making himself happy?

Short story: “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving”

“The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in The Black House in 1981; also in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith and Selected Novels and Short Stories

? words

This story bears some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects,” which portrays a similar obsession (artistic? primal? both?). One protagonist ultimately abandons civilization, the other clings to it.

The title is so grandiose that I wonder if the author is having some fun at her character’s expense. After all, Highsmith is a practitioner of a craft as ancient as basket-weaving, and is far more dedicated to it.

Then there’s the symbolism of an empty, torn-up baby basket finding its way to someone who is childless by choice. Contrary to the usual trope, Diane doesn’t seem to be threatened by the symbolic loss of a child, or the lost opportunity to have one, only by her own latent creative potential. Maybe that’s why the symbolism doesn’t weigh the story down: the thing being symbolized is somewhat unexpected, and mysterious.

Short story: “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”

“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology,” by Theodora Goss

Appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in July 2014; there’s also a YouTube recording of the author reading it aloud at Readercon (the audio isn’t very good)

7045 words, according to Lightspeed

A fantastic riff on a theme by Borges (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

I love failed Pygmalion stories, and this one doubles as a failed imperialism story, which only makes it more delicious.