BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)

“…the forger… [produces] what the archaeologist or historian is already looking for, artifacts or documents quite familiar and a little strange. The familiarity makes the work meaningful, and the strangeness makes it valuable.”–Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy, quoted in Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.

“It’s clear that Vertigo isn’t really about what it appears to be about. But, what it really is about isn’t entirely clear.”–G. Smalley

Madeleine E.

This is a book about a writer named Gabriel Blackwell who is writing a book about Vertigo. Just as he begins, he learns that his contract as an associate professor of creative writing will not be not renewed. He finds himself distracted and anxious, suddenly dependent on his wife’s income to survive. After he has already started working on the book, the 2012 Sight and Sound poll unexpectedly naming Vertigo the critics’ favorite film of all time comes out. His agent insists that he needs to take advantage of the fact that he has a head start on the flood of books about to come out on the film, which makes him even more nervous about the project.

But the writer still does not have a handle on what he wants to do with the material. While doing his research he has collected a tremendous amount of quotes about the movie, direct quotes from Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak, interpretations from critics, and indirectly related thoughts from writers discussing themes that also appear in Vertigo. He intersperses these quotations with his own reflections about the film, but the result still does not seem right. In a stroke of inspiration, he invents (or does he?) a story about a double; about seeing another Gabriel Blackwell’s name pop up on the Internet, a man who is also a writer but who has written books our Gabriel Blackwell did not write. He travels to San Francisco and is shaken when he sees a man there who looks exactly like him. He talks about the stress his marriage is under, and admits to following his wife and spying on her from a distance when she leaves for work. Sometimes, the autobiographical parts of the book appear to contradict each other. At times he has a wife, at times a girlfriend, and we are not entirely sure if these sets of memories come from two different times in his life, or if they are written by two different Gabriel Blackwells, each of whom is working on a book about Vertigo. He includes several synopses of a book called Madeleine E. (sometimes titled Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo), sketches of novels that were never written, mysterious stories about detectives and screenwriters and mistaken identities and deception, tales that read like magical realist parables. In the end, Blackwell abandons writing and becomes a paralegal.

Or so he tells us. The whole thing could be made up. Or true.

Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is a bravely experimental work; a piece of creative film criticism written by a non-critic, offered from the perspective of a working writer rather than a reviewer. It’s like looking into a novelist’s notebook, filled with quotations, notes, musings and incomplete sketches, only Blackwell has taken the time to polish each piece, while leaving the whole skillfully fragmented. The meditations wanders around, but follow the plotline of the movie; scene headings (i.e. [INT. Scottie’s Apartment (NIGHT)]) replace chapter headings. For much of the book, Blackwell serves as something like the host of a colloquium, collecting quotes from critics and other thinkers (everyone from philosopher George Santayana to Hitchcock expert Robin Wood, from Kim Novak to Philip K. Dick[1] ) and arranging them into a spiral of ruminatons on Vertigo and its various themes: falling, doubling, identity, memory, obsession, love, guilt, dreams, anxiety, creation, impersonation…  It’s hard to believe that a work of which almost half consists of quotations from other sources could come across as so original—but curation, too, is a form of creativity. No one complains the florist lacks skill because the flowers she arranges in a bouquet already existed before she chose them.

But where Madeleine E. breaks the mold is in its inclusion of Vertigo-inspired fiction, integrated right along with the film criticism. Other than the fake book synopses, it’s not clear what parts might be Blackwell’s nonfictional confessions (he describes traumas both romantic and professional), and what is pure fiction (I would assume all, but who can say?) The one slight complaint with the book as a whole is that these narrative diversions, which appear to be converging into a climax, don’t actually resolve their mystery in a classically satisfying way—but then, we are directly comparing Blackwell’s stories to one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished tales, and perhaps the writer does better to strike out on his own path than to try to copy the Master.

“There’s a great confusion between the words mystery and suspense, and the two things are absolutely miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process… Mystery has no particular appeal to me.”–Alfred Hitchcock

“How can one claim that Vertigo isn’t a mystery when there are so many things we will never understand in it?”–Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.

“I leave holes in my films deliberately.”–Alfred Hitchcock, quoted in Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.

Vertigo is a film in need of re-mystification. Too many people fail to see beneath its surface, seeing it as a mere whodunit that gets solved two-thirds of the way through. But the more you think about both the plot and the themes, the hazier Vertigo gets, the more layers it reveals. Hitchcock uses plot holes like a master artist uses negative space; both to draw the eye to what he wants you to see, and to suggest new possibilities for seeing it differently. What if Scottie actually dies in the opening sequence, and the whole movie is his deathdream as he falls off the rooftop? What if the letter Judy writes to Scottie is a fantasy sequence that never happens? What if Joe Esterhas’ Basic Instinct is just a commentary on Vertigo? Blackwell’s greatest service in Madeliene E. is to enlarge Vertigo‘s scope, to increase the number of questions we have about it, rather than to follow the usual critical path and try to shrink it to a single theory that can be easily contained and filed away.

We leave Madeleine E. with an increased appreciation of Hitchcock’s skill as a storyteller: his ability to create a narrative seemingly simple and complete, but with haunted connotations that draw us back again and again. Blackwell stands before Vertigo in obvious awe. The work inspires him, yet he comes across as appropriately humble; even, perhaps, a bit afraid to tackle the subject. Ultimately, he accepts the challenge of gazing into the story’s abyss, addressing the uncomfortable questions it raises about the fragility and duplicity of our own personas. Anyone who is seriously interested in Vertigo as a work of art will want to track down this curious, invigorating book. Formally experimental, Madeleine E. is also tremendously rich, capturing the vertiginous flavor of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It answers the question “is criticism an art form?” with a resounding “yes!,” challenging critics to take more rooftop leaps and reach for true artistry, heights be damned.

Disclaimer: a copy of the book was provided by the publisher for purposes of review.

  1. Several names familiar to 366 readers show up. Blackwell talks about A Scanner Darkly and its scramble suit. He mentions Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” which of course was made into a Certified Weird movie. He quotes extensively from José Saramago’s novel “The Double,” which was the basis for ‘s Enemy. He references Meshes of the Afternoon. The influences resonate here—more evidence that Vertigo is a work of weird cinema. []

5 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)”

    1. It depends on how familiar you are with the film. I know it pretty well so I did not revisit it (though I did re-read my own review as a refresher)! If I were less familiar I would want to see it again before reading to freshen up on the details. After reading, you could decide for yourself if you felt the need or not.

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