‘We wander between the towering and the bottomless. We are lost between the abyss within us and the boundless horizons outside us. Any film wraps us in uncertainty.’ (Robert Smithson, ‘A Cinematic Atopia’, 1971.)
Vertigo (by way of the Latin vertere, ‘to turn’) is a condition that mixes the experience of lightness and spinning with the sensation of falling. Vertigo, described as a sensation or hallucination of motion, might be regarded as analogous to the experience of watching film with its mechanics of rotation and its sublimation of the real ground. Film’s rotation of images is mirrored in the cinematic experience, wherein life turns before our eyes or we are turned in space. It is perhaps not surprising that film directors often used turbulent motion or spinning as a metaphor for film itself (Dziga Vertov even coined his name from the term ‘spinning top’). Francois Truffaut’s ‘rotor’ ride scene in The 400 Blows (1959), Alfred Hitchcock’s spinning or spiral motif in Vertigo (1958) and Stanley Donen’s tumbling hotel room used for Fred Astaire’s 360° dance in Royal Wedding (1951) are literal transcriptions of movement bound up with the cinematic process itself.
Vertigo is also a metaphor and a real affect of the modern city. Any anxieties and fascinations produced by sky-high architecture require rehearsals in the cultural imagination. In turn, cinema offers temporary relief from the dread of ground, earth and collapse in all its psycho-social intensity. Many forms of cultural symbolism in film and architecture are sustained by making magic out of height, fear and movement, packaging heady visions for the urban dweller and providing some fragile sense of integration within the cityscape. If cinema, architecture, engineering or even asphalt have produced a real-imaginary sense of the ground falling away, then how has this been reprocessed through feelings or sensibilities governed by the pathologies and pleasures of vertigo? Moreover, how have artists such as Robert Smithson shifted ideas of vertigo by undoing or dissolving form and image in the entropic, dizzying vortex of Spiral Jetty (1972)?
Catherine James currently lectures at University of the Arts, London. She completed her PhD at the London Consortium in 2004, with a thesis that explored cultural fantasies related to gravity’s imperative in modern architecture, art, design, film and performance. As a Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Art at Christie’s Education from 2008, her research focused on how the force of gravity can be viewed as a formative element in art and performance since the 1960s. Her article, ‘Vertigo: Redeeming the Fall’ appeared in Performance Research Journal in October 2013. Her book Gravity & Fantasy: Invisible Forces in Contemporary Art is due to be published by Peter Lang in 2016.
Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen,1951)