I look up, I look down: Perfecting the Dolly Zoom

I was looking forward to watching Vertigo for the first time, but I was a little disappointed. Of course, the  Madeleine Elster-Judy Barton-Madeleine Elster shifts and Scottie’s controlling gaze over Madeleine/Judy was interesting, but I have dealt with these issues before. However, the movie itself has several problems. Doesn’t it make perfect sense for a 50 year old man to be the love interest of a 26 year old woman? No it does not, but it may lend some credibility to Scottie’s ability to control Judy.  The plot, I get. Scottie, I don’t. He notices a necklace and all of the sudden he knows that Gavin murdered his wife and that Judy was a double. I can see him having an idea, but it seems that everything falls together so perfectly. Maybe his detective skills are better than we know. However, considering it is a surrealist film everything kind of makes sense. Either way, I do like that this film had close ties to appropriation. There are several instances in the film where situations are being relived or revisited and just like replay, or appropriation, these events cannot be viewed the same way as they were viewed “originally.” All in all, it was a great film. I just don’t think it lived up to the hype. However, I am more interested in the technical aspects of this film.

After watching this movie I became fascinated with Hitchcock’s use of the dolly zoom. This was not my first time to view a dolly zoom. They are everywhere today. However, Vertigo is one of the first major examples of this camera technique and, because I had a slight headache while watching the film, Hitchcock’s dolly zooms elicited a strong emotional response from myself. A quick note on how the dolly zoom works: a camera is moved toward or away from a fixed object while the zoom lens is changed in order the keep the field of view around the object the same. This creates the perception that the background is changing in scale. Besides being an interesting effect, the dolly zoom, most importantly, plays an integral role (particularly in Vertigo) in enveloping the audience with the emotions of the character. Throughout the first long, uneventful half of the movie the audience has little insight as to Scottie’s mental state, besides the first dolly zoom where he is hanging from the roof.  All we know is that he has vertigo brought on by his acrophobia, which is a sensation many of us have likely never experienced. The movie takes a turn for the better after Madeleine dies, because the audience is allowed into the mind of Scottie. First, during the scene where Madeleine dies we get our first glimpse of the famous stairwell dolly zoom. Not only does this take the audience back to the opening scene, it unsettles the audience, making them feel as if they are in Scottie’s position. Essentially, it evokes a stronger fear response from the audience (not today’s audience, but imagine an audience that has never seen this type of technique. It would be slightly frightening). From here Hitchcock uses a dream sequence (above ^ image, click image for gif, please. Unless you want me to post the gif straight on the blog, which may produce headaches) that brings the audience even further into Scottie’s troubled mind. But, more importantly there is a return to the stairwell dolly zoom during “Madeleine’s” second death. The dolly zoom does not seem more important than many of the other techniques of the film. However, the dolly zoom’s primary function is to manipulate the secondary images while the primary image remains to scale. This is precisely what is going on with Scottie. Scottie is our fixed object and the background images that make up his life are constantly being manipulated and warped. Because everything in Scottie’s life becomes warped, he struggles to bring the “images” back to scale, or reality (recreating Madeleine and redoing her death), but this only warps his life, his “reality.” Scottie succumbs to his own dolly zoom and begins to believe the warped images are “reality,” which forces him to neglect the foreground object, or actual “reality.” The dolly zoom shows how Scottie’s acrophobia warps his perception of heights, but it also shows that this perceptional distortion also exist within all aspects of Scottie’s “reality.”

In the end, everything is about perception and it is up to us to distinguish between what images make up the foreground and background of our lives. As well as, which of these images are a manipulated “reality” and which are “real.” In a time of simulated everything, it is becoming harder for us to distinguish the “real” from the simulated. In a sense, the world as we know it will always be represented as a dolly zoom, which forces us to question our entire existence or at least the “reality” of our existence. (last image is also a gif, please click)

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  1. February 24th, 2011
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