One of These Things Is Not Like the Other (Or Is It?)
For all you mystery lovers out there, here’s a riddle for you.
What do Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Lady Gaga have in common?
Seemingly, nothing – one is a pop culture icon whose eccentric public persona is used to market themselves across the ultracompetitive landscape of popular entertainment, and the other is Lady Gaga.
Like Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo (1958), and Gaga’s, ARTPOP (2013), the answer to that riddle is flawed. It refers to Hitchcock in the present tense, even though the greatest filmmaker of all time is (tragically) dead and gone. It is Gaga who is still working today, as arguably the most exciting pop star of the decade.
But what makes Gaga a cut above the rest of her contemporaries in the Age of Auto-Tune, and more successful than technically talented YouTubers who hit the right notes but never make a living off of it, is the same artistic model that the Master of Suspense utilized for himself.
Genius works, whether it’s film or music.
And what makes the topic of Gaga a relevant discussion to this film blog is her ongoing “GaGanaissance.” After stealing the show Sunday night at this year’s Academy Awards with her fiftieth anniversary tribute to Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), earning a role in the upcoming American Horror Story: Hotel, and gaining some positive press for the first time in a long time, Gaga proved how indebted she is to the cinematic arts.
Indeed, she is a very cinematic artist. If cinema differentiates itself from the other arts through its union of image and sound, then Gaga has differentiated herself from other artists in the same way. Her nine-minute music video for the Beyoncé-featured song, “Telephone,” is replete with references to Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) and Quentin Tarantino, and it functions as a sequel to the seven-minute short film for “Paparazzi.”
As for Hitchcock, Gaga samples Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing score from Vertigo in the prologue to her music video for “Born This Way,” and namedrops Psycho (1960), Vertigo, and Rear Window (1954) in the lyrics to “Bad Romance,” which she herself wrote. By paying homage to these suspense thrillers in a love song, Gaga explores Hitchcock’s fascination with the relationship between sexuality and violence.
Hitchcock himself (indirectly) reentered current events with the February 13 release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey. It stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele. Johnson is the daughter of actress Melanie Griffith, and Griffith is the daughter of Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedrin (which must’ve been a real rush for director and Hitchcock aficionado Brian De Palma when he cast Griffith in her breakout role in Body Double (1984)).
(Also, can we just talk about how hypocritical Melanie Griffith is for slut-shaming her daughter on live television at a red carpet event, when her first big role was as a porn star named Holly Body? And how funny it is that nepotism earned Jamie Lee Curtis a part in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) because her mom, Janet Leigh, was in the film that inspired it, Psycho? And nepotism earned Melanie Griffith a part in Body Double, and it earned Dakota Johnson a part in Fifty Shades of Grey, and it all goes back to Alfred Hitchcock?).
The similarities between Gaga and Hitchcock run deep. In 2012, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll named Vertigo as the best film ever made, unseating Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which is the safe choice for many such lists. However, Vertigo was not so warmly received in its day.
This is due mainly to the fact that the film was ahead of its time. Vertigo was released near the end of the Golden Age of classical Hollywood, when the Production Code Administration imposed strict regulations upon the studio system. One such restriction was the “compensating moral values” formula, requiring that the bad guy gets punished in the end, but Vertigo boldly omitted its original ending (spoiler alert, obviously), wherein the murderer, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), is pursued by the police for his crimes.
Thank God Hitch chose the ending that he did, because it is so much more powerful. I don’t think a film ever brought a tear to my eye before this one, and it is systematically orchestrated to make you obsess over a fictional movie as much as the protagonist obsesses over a dead woman, thus generating for the viewer a sense of empathy in the same way that Hitchcock’s pioneering camerawork reconstructs the protagonist’s sense of vertigo. Regardless, 1958 audiences were not ready for something quite so dark, not under the PCA, and so the film suffered as a result.
Because the underrated and misunderstood ARTPOP has yet to undergo its own critical reevaluation (it wasn’t until 1982 that Vertigo even placed in Sight & Sound, and ARTPOP hasn’t been out two years), the album’s mixed reviews still stand. Although ARTPOP isn’t my favorite Gaga album (for personal reasons – it was dropped at a time when I was profoundly depressed, so bad memories are attached to it), I will argue wholeheartedly that it is her greatest (so far), that it is her Vertigo.
Admittedly, ARTPOP isn’t perfect. The lead single, “Applause,” is (intentionally) Gaga’s worst track to date, a middle finger to the record label and critics alike, and the 2013 iTunes Festival live versions of some of the songs are better than the actual studio releases themselves, not to mention the behind-the-scenes drama disrupting the album’s release process (such as the “Do What U Want” music video that never was). Still, ARTPOP is Gaga’s most cohesive record – every song sounds like it belongs to the same album, coming all together to form a narrative track list – and it is her most personal, confessional, intelligent, and overall artistic endeavor.
No one else could have made ARTPOP, or, at least, no one else could have made it well, and that is the mark of a true auteur. Hitchcock, too, was an auteur, and this is coming from me, someone who has a big problem with auteur theory, since it privileges the director (or the singer) over everybody else involved in any given production. For instance, the Thelma & Louise mention from earlier lists it as Ridley Scott’s film, as is proper to do, but Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning screenplay made the film what it is more than Scott’s directing.
Like ARTPOP, Vertigo is not without its flaws. The character of Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) is fairly useless, the scene at the McKittrick Hotel in San Francisco is thoroughly pointless, the gender politics are questionable, the ending (though unforgettable) is awkwardly rushed, and the whole plot is absurdly far-fetched. Nevertheless, it is Hitchcock’s most Hitchcockian film, a director whose obsession with finding the perfect blonde mirrored that of his “hero,” Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart).
Speaking of Hitchcock’s blondes, and Tippi Hedrin, and Melanie Griffith, and Body Double… Brian De Palma is living proof that Hitchcock is what made Vertigo great. With the mediocrity of both Body Double and Obsession (1976), he found himself unable to match the Master’s handling of the same basic storyline (acrophobia in Vertigo, claustrophobia in Body Double; transforming a lookalike into your dead lover in Vertigo, transforming a lookalike into your dead lover in Obsession). As with Gaga and ARTPOP, nobody else could have done Vertigo as brilliantly as Hitchcock.
If sex spelled out Hitchcock’s downfall, then addiction is Gaga’s. She designed the album’s sound in an attempt to create an adrenaline high with each song, something she has always done well with her arrangements. It builds up to the climactic “Gypsy,” a song I want to have played at my wedding, but it also takes a break with “Dope,” a raw, stripped, minimalistic ballad which reveals the human being behind the larger-than-life alter ego.
For me, it was refreshing during the ARTPOP era to see Stefani Germanotta try to fight her way out of Lady Gaga, and Lady Gaga try to fight her way in. If acting is the conflict between the character’s motivation and the actor’s personality (the affable everyman Jimmy Stewart and the obsessive necrophile Scottie Ferguson, an unsurprisingly dark postwar performance for Stewart after killing people as a fighter pilot overseas), then Lady Gaga’s performance art is the conflict between her “art” and her “pop,” what she wants from her music and what others want from it. The September 2013 iTunes Festival versions of the songs were superior to what we heard when the album was put out in November 2013 because Gaga’s perfectionism had not yet interfered with them.
It is a tragedy on par with Vertigo. Not realizing that what she had right in front of her was already perfect, Gaga turned ARTPOP into something it was never meant to be, and she ended up destroying it – and herself – because of it. Being Gaga, who reinvents herself several times a day, she is able to make her comeback, even from that.
That is why ARTPOP succeeds, because it fails. Gaga set out to capture the creative process, and she does so, in all its triumph and all its defeat and all its revisions and all its man-behind-the-curtain vulnerability. To produce a work that emulates something as nebulous as “the artistic process” is an ambitious effort, and to risk sacrificing everything you have for that project, is noble.
Vertigo also finds strength in its shortcomings. Hitchcock was an authoritarian perfectionist in his own right (after all, the shower scene in Psycho took seven days to film with seventy-eight shot setups, for less than five minutes of screen time). But, hey, Gus Van Sant could replicate the tension (if not the quality) of the shower scene in his 1998 shot-for-shot Psycho remake, whereas Brian De Palma failed, twice, at filming something as memorable as Vertigo, a loosely plotted mystery thriller that only Hitchcock could make work.
Those are the makings of a true genius.
Back to Gaga (sorry that this post is turning into the tennis match from Strangers on a Train (1951), or the back-and-forth verse trade with the featured rappers on “Jewels N’ Drugs” … and sorry for thinking that joke was funny). Gaga is a Hitchcock blonde in the way that Kim Novak’s character is in Vertigo, a natural brunette who bleaches her hair to meet the Hollywood ideals for beauty. (Sometimes, Gaga’s hair is yellow, an aesthetic perversion of the Hollywood blonde, but more on that later).
The Fame, Gaga’s debut album, is the first in a Warholian, three-act pop performance artistic piece. Act Two is The Fame Monster (2009), a rerelease of The Fame, and Act Three is ARTPOP, Andy Warhol’s pop art for the hashtag generation. The musical trilogy first introduces us to the crazy sex symbol who won’t stop until she takes over the world, the monster she becomes along the way (a Jekyll-and-Hyde Frankenstein tale not at all unlike Vertigo), and the ruby-slippers-heels-click return to the “art” behind the pop, the music that started it all; it’s fitting that the follow-up to ARTPOP is her jazz collaboration with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek (2015).
There’s no place like home, and her roots are in jazz. Her classical training was on full display in the Oscars performance.
The Fame yielded “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” the bestselling singles which made Gaga a household name, and The Fame Monster is responsible for “Bad Romance,” her most-viewed music video on YouTube. The Fame works because it is full of inescapable lyrical hooks, thought-provoking intentions which compel you to dig deeper than its seemingly superficial themes, and energized electropop dance beats. Combined with Gaga’s avant-garde fashion statements, it does more than get a song stuck in your head – it gets the singer stuck in your head.
By the same token, the provocative Psycho is Hitchcock’s most successful film, using unprecedented amounts of nudity and gore under the PCA to get moviegoers’ attention. Because it is his most famous film, it is often misremembered as his masterwork. It is very nearly a perfect film – Gus Van Sant proved this when he found himself unable to remake it any other way than the way Hitchcock did it, but the fact that Van Sant came so close to duplicating it also proves that Psycho might be filmmaking at its finest, but it’s not Hitchcock at his finest – that honor belongs to Vertigo (and Van Sant may have succeeded, too, were it not for the laughably miscast Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates).
Again with Brian De Palma, his Psycho-inspired Dressed to Kill (1980) wins where his Vertigo-inspired Obsession and Body Double lose. The elevator sequence in Dressed to Kill is not more brutal than, or as brutal as the shower scene in Psycho – it’s brutal on its own. It goes to show that if a gifted filmmaker (De Palma) works from the same raw materials as a genius filmmaker (Hitch) – killing the leading lady off in the first half of the film… a cross-dressing killer… hell, even another shower scene – then that gifted filmmaker can create his own work of genius.
Therefore, it is the raw material of Psycho and Dressed to Kill that is genius, not Hitchcock or De Palma themselves. That raw material can be managed incompetently, as per Gus Van Sant, but Dressed to Kill is as effective a viewing experience as Psycho, if for different reasons, and a psychopathic killer slashing a defenseless woman to death, be it in a shower or be it in an elevator, is a harrowing experience whether Hitchcock is directing it or not.
When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, when the spirit of the film transcends its content, that is the work of a genius. Hitchcock achieves this in Vertigo in a way that De Palma cannot in Obsession or Body Double, and so Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, for reasons which will be elaborated upon later. (De Palma’s masterpiece is either Carrie (1976) or Blow Out (1981); I don’t know which one, but it certainly isn’t Scarface (1983)).
For that same reason, The Fame may be Gaga’s most popular and accessible project, but it’s not her magnum opus (who knows what else her career has yet to bring, though?). Critics frequently accuse her of being a Madonna plagiarist, even though the same oversimplified accusations could be made about Gaga and David Bowie, or Gaga and Larry King, for God’s sake. First of all, Madonna has influenced everyone to come after her with her “controversy sells” business motto, from Britney Spears to Marilyn Manson, and Gaga is no exception, openly admitting in many an interview that not only does Madonna inspire her, but so do artists like Grace Jones.
As a Warholian pop artist (or artpopist), she is a pop cultural vessel whose role models are as much a part of her work as she herself is. That is precisely what makes her a genius, but more on that soon enough.
Second of all, if Lady Gaga is a plagiarist, then so are other postmodern artists like Brian De Palma or Quentin Tarantino (funny that Tarantino is such a borrower, he borrows from De Palma). These artists acknowledge that pop culture is as much a part of our media-saturated lives as the basic human needs, and so they include pop culture artifacts when they make commercialized art in the modern world. Besides, Madonna stole the whole “blonde bombshell” thing from Marilyn Monroe, and she definitely didn’t originate it – Nazi Germany showed that the entire Western Hemisphere has a bit of a problem with fetishizing Aryans.
The Fame made Lady Gaga a star, but ARTPOP made her a genius. Psycho is one of the blockbusters that made Alfred Hitchcock the Master of Suspense, but Vertigo is what elevated him from popular showman to serious artist, first in the eyes of the French New Wave at Cahiers du cinéma, then all across the world. Gaga owes her brilliance to Hitchcock.
But what, exactly, is that brilliance?
Know the Rules
For once, I agree with something Glenn Beck says – Lady Gaga is a genius because she knows the rules of the game.
By studying up on Madonna and David Bowie and Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson before she made her transition from piano prodigy to Gothic pop cyborg, she learned what works. There’s a reason Brian De Palma and Gus Van Sant imitate or outright copy Alfred Hitchcock, because Hitchcock’s way works. Gaga dropped out of NYU in 2005 and got involved as a go-go dancer with heavy-metal DJ Lady Starlight in the Lower East Manhattan underground nightclub scene trying to land herself gigs, an area which is still artistically recovering from the countercultural 1960s movement that was Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the remixologist DJs taught her how to put her own spin on what’s already been done before because people responded well to it.
Yes, Gaga is blonde and sexy, which is a must for any pop superstar, but she’ll also have a performance artist vomit on her live on stage. She’ll ditch her femininity altogether and appear at awards shows dressed as a man. She’ll wear a yellow wig and eat a pig’s heart in a concert interlude.
While establishing herself as a pop star, a musician who operates in the endlessly popular realm of pop music, she also maintains that she has a brain underneath the blonde – a crazed brain, but a brain regardless.
Alfred Hitchcock also broke the rules selectively. Since he was born four years after the officially recognized birth of cinema, he made a lot of the rules that are still followed today, but he was forced to direct silent comedies like Champagne in 1928 before anybody ever took notice of him. That silent era experience paid off enormously with Psycho – not a single line of dialogue is uttered throughout the shower scene, relying solely on the power of the image, and it is the single greatest montage ever to come out of Hollywood, second in world cinema only to Sergei Eistenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).
But he did break some of the pre-established rules, and a broken rule is what made Vertigo one of the most hauntingly romantic love stories ever committed to film, instead of just another psychological thriller. By including the “letter-writing scene” two-thirds of the way into the picture, when Judy Barton confesses to Scottie her involvement in Madeleine Elster’s death and plans to go on the lam, Hitchcock shifts the focus from Scottie and gives away the big reveal well before the climax, a pacing maneuver which can be counterintuitive in a suspense film. Nonetheless, it explains Judy’s motive for allowing Scottie to gradually make her look more like Madeleine – as well as come closer and closer to figuring out her role in the scheme – and that motive is love, because she loves Scottie so much that she is willing to change and endanger herself just to keep him in her life.
It is not a particularly healthy relationship, but who wants to watch a movie about those?
That is probably why critics feel like Vertigo is slow and overlong, especially when compared to the action-packed carousel climax in the homoerotic Strangers on a Train (speaking of homoeroticism… hello, Gaga and Beyoncé). You aren’t spending the rest of the movie trying to solve the mystery, because there’s no mystery left to solve, but that’s not the point of Vertigo. Vertigo was actually hurt in some parts by Hitchcock’s economic style, tight plotting, and Master-of-Suspense techniques, such as its hasty denouement – but, then again, the quick fade to black at the end makes for a beautifully ambiguous conclusion.
Like Hitchcock with modern filmmakers, Gaga herself has written many of the rules that contemporary pop stars abide by (let’s not name names, since these are otherwise capable songstresses, but, come on, it’s pretty obvious). Her biggest contribution is taking the visuals as seriously as the sound, but some take it too far and privilege visuals over sound. Even her 2011 Grammys performance of “Born This Way” (when she hatches out of an egg), one of her most infamous shows, is artistically justifiable in that the egg is relevant to her larger philosophy of symbolically rebirthing yourself over and over again until you are the best you that you can be.
Miley Cyrus, for example, is a talented singer, but her foray into Gaga-inspired pop performance art falls flat because it is outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, and merely serves to beat the world over the head with the fact that she’s not Disney’s Hannah Montana anymore, rather than to enhance the meaning or impact of her music. Lady Gaga might have worn a dress made out of raw meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, but it was to use her status as a public figure to protest the American military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” gay discrimination policy and get a conversation started, and this was all coming from a woman who got famous off a chorus that says “D-d-d dance, dance, dance, just, j-j-just dance!” (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed later that year).
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In one of the great moments of the ARTPOP era, she posted a promotional video by fashion photographers Inez & Vinoodh, “An ARTPOP Film Starring Lady Gaga.” Again, it violates the conventions of pop princess etiquette when Lady Gaga appears wearing grotesque false teeth, or covered in filth, or cradling a disembodied mannequin arm, or weeping angrily on camera.
It’s a side of Gaga utterly out of sorts with the smiling face she presented to Good Morning America the day she debuted the “Applause” music video on Times Square, post-hip surgery and post-world tour cancellation. It reveals an artist who is pissed off over the backstabbers and the bureaucrats in the recording industry, and who doesn’t care anymore whether or not she satisfies them. It was – and still is – refreshingly honest, and it’s a major improvement over her 2013 VMAs “Applause” performance, promoting a song she doesn’t even like because her executives rushed her to put it out after her hip hiatus, pretending to enjoy it all the while.
Now, with ARTPOP and all its backlash behind her, Gaga is in the limelight once more. She got a hug from the inimitable Julie Andrews and she made a roomful of award-winning actors and directors give her a standing ovation. As with Hitchcock before her, she broke her own rules – she offered up the least “Gaga” performance possible, no backup dancers, no stage blood, no pyrotechnics, no costume changes, but it’s also the most “Gaga” performance possible because, with her, anything is possible.
She put on a traditional, conservative gown, she picked up a mic, and she sang, and it made the world stop. She makes you believe that you can do the same. She performed the ultimate reinvention – the Lady abandoned Gaga – and she sang somebody else’s classics, but people weren’t talking about the songs the next morning.
They were talking about her.
Geniuses don’t conform to the rules, but they do respect the rules, because genius is the ability to make the rules, and you can’t do that unless you’re passionate about them. The criminals in Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s films and the “Bad Kids” Lady Gaga writes about make life all the more exciting for the rest of us. Cinematic geniuses are different from musical geniuses, but they both seem to have the same, vertiginous effect on us, now, don’t they?
Genius isn’t a dress – it’ll never go out of style.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.