The Philosophical Hitchcock: Vertigo and the Anxieties of Unknowingness, by Robert B. Pippin

Nathan Abrams examines an impressively close scrutiny of the 1950s film

November 30, 2017
Vertigo poster

The discipline of film studies is a curious beast. Many of us who currently teach and research the subject were neither taught nor studied film prior to teaching and researching it. It is our junior colleagues who have come through the ranks with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the field. Many of us turned to it later in our academic careers, having previously mastered subjects such as literature, languages, linguistics and, in my case, history. This lack of experience in the field, however, has not stopped many of us believing that we can make a significant contribution, something that we might be reluctant to claim if we had turned to disciplines such as archaeology or psychology.

The reason why we feel that we can bring something new is the continued appearance of scholarship that is purely textual and that does not take into account factors such as history, politics, society, industrial context, production, reception and archives. This is true of the author of The Philosophical Hitchcock, Robert B. Pippin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, who was inspired to write this book after teaching a course on Alfred Hitchcock’s American films. In his case, though, he does have previous form, having already authored books on film noir.

Film and philosophy is a recognised strain of contemporary film studies. My experience of it has been edited volumes in which authors apply a philosopher or thinker – Gilles Deleuze is particularly popular, although many others are used – to a film-maker or films (I’ve done this myself with Michel Foucault and Total Recall). Pippin differs in that he proposes an interpretation that shows how the film can be said to bear on a philosophical problem. That problem, in Pippin’s words, is concerned with “commonsense views about what it is to understand another person or be understood by him or her, and about how we present ourselves to others in our public personae”.

In service of this aim, he offers an impressively close scrutiny of the film, which also considers its formal and technical properties (a continuing weakness of some film scholarship is its refusal to see films as anything more than text ), and demonstrates just how far he has engaged in the voluminous secondary literature surrounding both Hitchcock and Vertigo . And I am sure that for those who are interested in the film it will offer much insight.

But, in truth, I found it a dense and difficult read and, while it offers a bridge between film and philosophy for students and scholars, I wondered how far beyond Hitchcock experts it would appeal. The title is misleading in its implication that it is a study of Hitchcock’s philosophy or ways in which he was philosophical. (It really is, as the subtitle states, a detailed examination of Vertigo and the anxieties of unknowingness.) Yet my real criticism is about how we continue to produce studies that do not go beyond films themselves in terms of primary material. Surely some recourse to archives and other sources could improve this, and other texts, immeasurably?

Nathan Abrams is professor of film studies at Bangor University. His new book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2018.

The Philosophical Hitchcock: Vertigo and the Anxieties of Unknowingness
By Robert B. Pippin
University of Chicago Press, 176pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780226503646
Published 20 November 2017

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