Monday, April 18, 2011

Vertigo, Mr. Sunshine, and My Growing Impatience with Impatience

I've already seen Hitchcock's Vertigo at least six times, but seven couldn't hurt. I just saw it again ... this time on the big screen at The Riverview in Minneapolis ... and, nation, it's time we had a talk.

First, there's this: I've heard it said that San Francisco has never been filmed as lovingly as in Vertigo. Indeed, from the opening nighttime rooftop chase scene, the film's sense of place is staggering. Everything from the obligatory Golden Gate Bridge to the sequoias, the Presidio and the San Juan Batista mission ... Hitchcock even made certain that nearly every interior scene included a (fake) beautiful view through the window. And it's somehow not distracting. Every detail in a Hitchcock film is beautiful, including the wardrobe. For my money, this level of gorgeous detail has since only been (almost) achieved by Mad Men.

With the exception of a few moments (like Jimmy Stewart yelling at Kim Novak's character that her hair color "can't matter to you!"), Vertigo holds up well. Haters have always accused it of being slow and boring. To most of the under-30 crowd, it's probably excruciating. For example, as Stewart's character, Scotty, begins to follow Madeleine, Hitchcock famously gives the viewer 10 minutes with no dialogue. Never has a score worked harder (thank you, Bernard Hermann) than during these sequences of Stewart driving, looking, driving, looking, following, looking, hiding, driving, looking. It's actually an amazing cinematic feat. And probably one Hitchcock couldn't have pulled off without his silent movie background.

But one random scene really struck me this time.

As Stewart sits inside Judy's apartment and waits for her to return, hopefully looking like the deceased Madeleine as the result of his extreme makeover control-freakishness, Hitchcock could have played it many ways. For example: Stewart hears Judy coming to the door. She opens it. Boom! She looks exactly like Madeleine. They kiss.

Instead, it goes like this: Stewart looks out the window at the street. Nothing. He paces. He looks again. He appears to have noticed something. He opens the door, looks down the hall. Nothing. We hear an elevator bell. He looks again. Judy rounds the corner. It's a moment, but not a big one. We (and Stewart) are let down by the fact that Judy's hair isn't styled like Madeleine's. She comes inside. Stewart insists that she make her hair right. She reluctantly goes into the bathroom. Stewart waits. NOW she emerges, cast in a ghostly green haze from the hotel sign outside (exterior intruding on interior), finally looking exactly like Madeleine.

That's patience. That's sense of place. That's suspense on a basic non-hacking-someone-in-the-shower level. And it's exactly what I'm seeing less and less of, especially in some new network comedies. Let's take two of the more highly touted new series: Matthew Perry's Mr. Sunshine, and Happy Endings, which just debuted after Modern Family last week. Both shows drive me nuts, and I knew it was for roughly the same reason. But it took Vertigo to make me realize why.

Neither of these shows has any real sense of place (even for a TV show). The environments are all interior. The camera angles are all standard (I think they're both one-camera shows). I feel an odd sense of claustrophobia while watching them. Everything just feels ... tight. Characters don't feel like they came from anywhere or are going anywhere. They just magically walk into frame for no reason, talk, usually insult one another, and then leave. We have no idea where they came from or why they're there. But more important, we have no idea who they are. There's no setup, no reason to care. In short, there's no patience. These shows are written, shot and edited as though "environment" and "character" are luxuries at best and annoyances at worst.

It's a big contrast to what's being done on HBO, where everything from 30-minute comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm) to episodic dramas (In Treatment) and even cinematic mini series (Mildred Pierce) are so well-crafted. So I'm left to wonder: Is HBO now the network for aging Gen Xers like me? Am I simply becoming the inevitable crank who "doesn't get it"? Does the nation really suffer from collective ADHD? Or are network shows chronically underestimating their audiences?

Probably all of the above, and so be it. Regardless of the truth, I'd just like to thank Mr. Hitchcock once again for reminding me why I love movies, and why patience is indeed a virtue. After all, you needed it to get through this entire post.

1 comment:

Kevin Sawyer said...

Modern Family is an outstanding example of comedic patience. At times, the show becomes self-aware in its willingness to delay payoffs. This inclination will almost certainly result in its early downfall, but it's fun to watch at the moment.

The fact that HBO us driving the creative train here is not surprising. You pay for content, and the channel provides you a slate of programming you can afford.

In order to get your moneys worth with HBO, you have to take the time to investigate new shows. You have a financial incentive to watch.

The only thing that can kill HBO is a failure to offer enough compelling programming to reward viewers for their patience.