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Gay, V.P. (2001). Review of Vertigo, Filming Death in Action. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Stud., 3(3):311-320.

(2001). Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 3(3):311-320

Review of Vertigo, Filming Death in Action

Volney P. Gay, Ph.D.

“Cinema is filming death in action.”

—Jean Cocteau

“To a spectator—though in fact there must be none—an analytic treatment would seem completely obscure.”

—Sigmund Freud

Cocteau's claim, like many interesting ideas, is generally false. For movies are primarily entertainment, a way to kill time, not to reflect upon death. Millions choose movies to escape the flow of time and to revel in fantasies presented with as much verisimilitude as possible. This pleasure we begrudge no one. Yet, in another sense, Cocteau, himself a distinguished director, seems correct, at least about some movies. Reflecting upon the process of cinema, both producing and consuming movies, draws us into a consideration of time lost and time unrecoverable, and this echoes the finality of death. Thanks to the magic of movies, we can luxuriate in a young Katherine Hepburn or Jimmy Stewart. Within comic book movies, like Superman (1978), time is reversed merely because we wish it. Lois Lane, Superman's girlfriend, has died; finding this intolerable, Superman reverses the earth's spin, an action sufficient to undo the passage of time, and so his beloved Lois lives again. During the movie, this feels almost acceptable; afterwards we know better: reversing the earth's spin would destroy all living beings, and Lois would remain dead, just like our beloved Jimmy.

In Alfred Hitchcock's celebrated movie, Vertigo (released in 1958) we find Cocteau's formula fulfilled completely: The film is about the fear of death, about one man's spectacular failures to prevent death, and about the potency of art (within the film represented by painting) to challenge death.

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