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An excerpt from Madeleine E. by Gabriel Blackwell

Photo by Rob Dutcher  

[EXT. Redwoods (DAY)]

There comes a point in our lives when we are most often and most emphatically ourselves on those days when we like to think we are not ourselves.

(Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage)

Since Carlotta (like Judy) is a brunette, but Judy-as-Madeleine does not change her hair color when she goes into her trance as Carlotta, the woman whom Scottie follows at the start is Judy-as-Madeleine[-as-Carlotta] (brunette-as-blonde[-as-brunette]). Where Gavin hints that Madeleine is the reincarnation of a dead woman, Scottie first sees Judy, after the murder, as the resurrected form of what he (rightly) perceives as another dead woman, Madeleine. And one reason why Judy-as-Madeleine-as-Judy-as-Madeleine does not look quite right is because what Scottie really wants to see is Judy-as-Madeleine-as-Judy-as-Madeleine[-as-Carlotta].

(Wendy Doniger, The Woman Who Pretended to be Who She Was)

Scottie: What was there inside that told you to jump?

Madeleine: Please!

Scottie: What?

Madeleine: Please don't ask me please don't ask me.

The . . . word persona originally designated the mask worn by actors in Greek tragedies, but the word means “that through which [per] the sound [of the actor's voice, sona] is heard.”


Scottie: Where are you?

Madeleine: Here, with you.

Scottie: Where?

We are never ourselves merely to ourselves but always in relation to others, even if only imagined others. Like Bishop Berkeley's tree in the quad, we exist only when someone sees us. We become the person we see mirrored in the eyes of others, ideally someone we love or someone who loves us.


Deception often leads to being deceived; the trickster is duped because his own reflection blurs: "I had a mask that hid my face and I no longer know who I was when I looked at myself in the mirror."

(Sabine Melchior-Bonnett, The Mirror)

Each of us is already a lot of people. . . . And so when, failing to be the other person we hoped to change into, we fall back to our default position, we find a different form of ourselves awaiting us, a different one of our many selves.


We must reconstruct, not abandon, an ideal of authenticity in our lives. Whatever we come up with, authenticity can no longer be rooted in singularity, in what the Greeks called the idion, or private person.

(Hillel Schwartz, Culture of the Copy)

Kim Novak: "Sometimes I feel like I'm two different people. One is an ambitious young actress struggling to acquire an armor of sophistication.  But not far beneath the surface is a girl who believes herself unattractive and odd—a misfit who is often lonely and introspective."

Impostors . . . teach us, by positive precept and negative example, how to believe in ourselves as something other than impostors.


At the security checkpoint at SFO, I explained that I had lost my wallet on the way to the airport and that my flight was leaving in an hour and a half. A TSA agent pulled me aside, through a passage made out of temporary walls, the kind office cubicles are made out of, and put me in a very small room with a desk but no chair. He pulled out a cell phone, typed some numbers into it, and handed me the phone. I waited for a moment. I was asked by a recorded voice to type in my social security number. I did so. A moment later, there was a woman on the other end of the line, asking me what my father's mother's maiden name was. I told her. She asked me what hospital I was born in. I told her. She asked me when my wife was born. I told her. She gave me a list of courses and asked which one I had not taken my sophomore year of college. After thinking for a while, I came up with what I think was the right answer. She asked me which way one would turn out of the driveway of the apartment complex I lived in in order to go downtown. I thought: "It depends on whether one wants to take an unprotected left turn," but I eventually gave her the geographically correct answer. She gave me a list of names and asked me which was not a name of one of my first cousins. Again, I thought for a while and came up with the right answer. She asked me what color my eyes were, how tall I was, if I had any fillings. I answered everything. But if she had asked me how she could have known whether my answers were correct, I could not have answered. I was profoundly disturbed by the whole experience. Eventually, she asked me to turn the phone over to the TSA agent. I did. He handed my ticket back to me and escorted me back through the warren of temporary walls to the ranks of people hurriedly putting their shoes back on. He warned me that, if I exited the secured areas anywhere along my itinerary, I would have to go through the same process again, and the questions asked were never repeated. I could barely speak to say, "Thank you." There was no feeling behind it anyway. It was a formality—I really wanted to ask him who it was he had called, how this could be real life. I still wonder what his answer would have been.

A British Royal Commission in 1904 warned that "Evidence as to identity based upon personal impressions is, unless supported by other facts, an unsafe basis for the verdict of a jury."


The more real-life echoes a crime story had for Hitchcock, the bigger his pool of references, the greater his enthusiasm.

(Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock)

[D]ifference implies the negative, and allows itself to lead to contradiction, only to the extent that its subordination to the identical is maintained. The primacy of identity, however conceived, defines the world of representation. But modern thought is born of the failure of representation, of the loss of identities, and of the discovery of all the forces that act under the representation of the identical. The modern world is one of simulacra.

(Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition)

A man known all over the world who had delusions that strangers were staring at him—how in this case could reality be sorted out from fantasy? What was the frame of reference which would distinguish them one from the other?

(Philip K. Dick, Dr Bloodmoney)

[EXT. Cypress Point or Point Lobos (DAY)]

There is a moment in the scene the script designates as taking place at "Cypress Point or Point Lobos" (the precise location evidently at that point still unchosen; filming eventually took place at Cypress Point, possibly because of the relatively easy access provided by 17-Mile Drive) where both music and waves swell and it is possible to believe that there are lines of dialogue we cannot hear, a moment in which, for the first and last time, Madeleine and Scottie share a private moment together.

Cypress Point and Point Lobos are on opposite sides of Carmel Bay—Cypress Point to the north, on 17-Mile Drive, and Point Lobos to the south, a nature preserve.

As with so many of the location shoots, the one at Cypress Point took place only partly on location. The close-ups were done in a studio. For continuity's sake, the same tree that appears on the set—a prop—was carted out to Cypress Point for the location shots. And not only the tree is artificial: When Madeleine turns and runs down the rocky slope, she ceases to be Madeleine; that is, she ceases to be Kim Novak playing Judy Barton playing Madeleine (playing Carlotta)—once her back is turned, she has been replaced by a stunt double, a double now standing in for Kim Novak playing Judy playing Madeleine playing Carlotta. Perhaps most of all in scenes like this one, Hitchcock's famous bias against Method acting can be seen as charity, a gift to an actor who would have been driven insane trying to inhabit the many layers the script called for. Scottie, in this scene, is (stunt) doubled, too—it is not Scottie running after Madeleine at all.

It ought to be noted that the one time we see the real Madeleine ("real," though, really in quotes, even when it is not—in this case, what is meant is something like: "the actress Alfred Hitchcock chose to play Madeleine Elster," as opposed to "the actress Alfred Hitchcock chose to play Judy Barton playing Madeleine Elster"), what we see is, almost without a doubt, the double of the woman who, in the film, has been hired to play her, a double standing in for a double, in the process, playing herself; falling past the window, this stunt double called in to double for Kim Novak playing Madeleine is playing Madeleine Elster. We later see her in the letter-writing flashback sequence in the tower, slumped in Gavin Elster's arms. The actress hired to play Madeleine in Hitchcock's Vertigo is thus not the same as the actress hired to play Madeleine in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Scottie: You know the Chinese say that once you've saved a person's life, you're responsible for it forever, so I'm committed. I have to know.

Madeleine: It's as though I'm walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of that corridor, there's nothing but darkness and I know that when I walk into the darkness, I'll die.

I would rather have someone tell me about an exhibition than see it with my own eyes.

(Edouard Levé, Autoportrait)

When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I actually preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. "What's the matter with you?" my father would ask me. "You should be out there playing. You shouldn't be watching." I don't know what's the matter with me—why I'm so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor—but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.

(David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life)

Before the airport and the airplane, before even I had lost my wallet or before I had discovered I had lost my wallet, I had visited SFMOMA. I had been to the museum once before, but, at the time, the permanent collection—all of it, two entire floors of the museum—had been blocked off. Only the special exhibition, on the topmost floor, could be viewed. The special exhibition was a selection of works from the permanent collection. It almost sounded like a joke. My wife was with me; our tickets were half-price, because of the closure.

This time, alone, I skipped most of the permanent collection anyway. There was a Jay DeFeo retrospective on; I had no real desire to see it, but I walked into the first room and immediately found myself mesmerized by her massive painting, The Rose.

The Rose had its own shallow room within the room, intended to reproduce the effect of the recessed bay window in which DeFeo had composed the painting. To the left of the frame of this room was the painting's identifying placard, which explained that the painting, begun in 1958 and finished in 1966, had had to be moved in 1965, when the rent on DeFeo's Berkeley studio went up. It went to Pasadena, where it was then completed. In Bruce Conner's film of the move, The White Rose (the title of the painting at that time; it was also called Deathrose at one point), we see the studio before the move. It looks like an abandoned building. There are plants but no furniture. It is dark. There is a low stool, crusted with paint—in the black and white of the film, it is impossible to distinguish what must be paint from what look like bird droppings—sitting in front of the painting, dead center. I stood where the stool would have been, transfixed by the deformation and degradation of the thick paint as it reached the floor. After desultorily walking through a few other rooms, I returned to look at the painting again. I read the placard again, though I had read it less than an hour before, reminding myself that everything that is is a record of its process, that and nothing more. This description of The Rose in front of me had more to do with where it had been composed and when than with what The Rose itself was struggling to be. Is our dull insistence on geography and time an inadequacy of our language, or an inadequacy of our thinking? I looked again at the radiating folds of paint, like stone columns chipped away at by the wind and the rain, each a record of time sculpted in air, in spaces that were not meant to be left blank. The curators had sought causation in their record, but the best they had been able to do was to log the physical traces left behind by the work-in-progress. Our perfect individual histories: a set of GPS coordinates, mapped over time. What is left over, what occurs between those coordinates, is a product of the imagination. A fiction.

The museum guard's walkie-talkie crackled a fuzzy and cryptic message as he performed a series of stretches. What had DeFeo thought of as she sat on the stool, I wondered, this 2000-pound Rose blocking out the light; behind her, her plants dying so that this simulacrum of a plant could live? Eventually, she would come to believe that her heavy use of lead-based paints caused her cancer, and she would attempt to reproduce the physicality, the dimensionality of her earlier works through a kind of trompe l'oeil effect. The story she would tell herself about the process of creating The Rose was that it caused cancer. The facts were coordinates, had only to do with proximity and time.

I found myself ultimately unable to meet the "eye" of the composition. Every time I looked at the center of it, I was shunted off along one of its rays. Even when I stepped back into the outer room, next to the placard, I could not focus there. It took me some time to notice how perfect, how precise, the dimensions of each "petal" were. In part, it was this precision that gave the lie to the painting's title—this did not seem like a rose, it seemed like something artificial. Or, no, perhaps it was that it seemed as though artificially perceived, as when something natural, "imperfect" to the naked eye, is seen under a microscope of great power, revealing the fractals and fractals of fractals it is composed of, each geometrically perfect and corresponding to a finite set of numbers, seeming as though computer-generated. What if any of this had gone through DeFeo's mind? Why had she changed the title?

After Madeleine describes San Juan Bautista, Scottie, having seen the place in his head, says, "You've given me something to go on, don't you see?" "Something to go on" = someplace to go to. In this way, the trip is entirely engineered, is part of Elster's plan. But what if Scottie doesn't recognize the details that Madeleine describes? How could Elster have known that Scottie would know what San Juan Bautista looks like? How much of Scottie's past—in what minute detail—does Elster know?

Two scenes intervene between Cypress Point and San Juan Bautista: one in Midge's apartment, when Midge reveals her self-portrait-as-"Portrait of Carlotta" to Scottie, and, following it, a scene in Scottie's apartment, "early dawn" the following day, when Madeleine comes to visit him to tell him about her dream. One scene attempts to conceal what it in actuality reveals, the other conceals that which it is supposed to reveal; Midge's feelings for Scottie are clearest here, where her gesture is meant to be seen as ironic, and Madeleine's are most calculated in the scene following it, just when she is supposed to be at her most vulnerable ("supposed to" according to her script, that is, the one written by Elster).

Something else is revealed in these scenes. Where we have been led to believe that Scottie, free, "independent," has, to this point, been acting out of caprice, doing what he wants when he wants to do it, the true nature of his involvement in the situation now becomes clear—his actions are as scripted as Judy's, except that he, unlike her, retains the illusion that he is acting out his own will. When he suggests that the two of them visit San Juan Bautista at noon that day, he believes he is doing so because he has found the solution to her problem, because he wants to help her solve it. But he is actually doing so because Elster has fed Judy a description of San Juan Bautista, the place where he wants to dispose of his wife's strangled corpse.

How much of Vertigo takes place in Elster's head before it takes place on screen? How much of it remains in Elster's head? It isn't Scottie's fantasy we're watching, is it? It's Elster's.

I arrived in Portland late at night, at a gate at the end of the terminal. Because it had taken me so long to clear security in San Francisco, I was among the last passengers on the plane, and so I had had to stow my bag above a row of seats far behind me, in the only available space in the overhead bins. Because of this, I had to wait until all of the other passengers had deplaned to retrieve my bag when we landed in Portland. I walked down the jetway alone (the crew, except for those cleaning the plane, had already gone), into a seemingly empty terminal. The gate areas I passed were unmanned and unlit; I could see through the huge windows out onto the empty runways: a luggage tram, appearing as though its operator had vanished into thin air right in the middle of doing his job, was the only interruption in the field's perfect, warped grid of lights. The only other people I saw on my way to the security checkpoint were a couple I recognized from my flight, standing outside of the bathrooms, the husband looking at his cell phone as though in disbelief, the wife clearly ready to be wherever they were due to be.  My heart quickened as I passed through the checkpoint, but I didn't slow down to check my bag and my pockets to see that I had everything with me. I still hoped to catch the last MAX home. I hadn't yet canceled my credit card or my debit card, though I knew I ought to have already done so—I held out some stupid hope that it was nestled somewhere in my bag, in the folds of a shirt or in the pocket of the pair of pants in there, or else hiding in one of the bag's pockets that I had checked and rechecked already. I tried to remember if there was anything else in my wallet that would need to be canceled when I had dumped out the bag and worked my way through everything in it. I wondered if there were some process for canceling a driver's license—if someone who looked like me got his hands on it, couldn't they then pass as me? What could they do, in that case?



Gabriel Blackwell lives and writes in Portland, OR. Madeleine E. is a work-in-progress

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