Before You Vote, Watch ‘Vertigo’
Image: Paramount Pictures

As I write this, we’re less than 20 days from Election Day 2016. A great deal is at stake. It matters, doesn’t it, what we do with our minds and our hearts during this time?

So why bother with movies? What film could possibly make a difference?

Last week, I invited readers to watch a documentary that does, I believe, matter. This week, my recommendation is a murder mystery—one that a 2012 survey of film critics declared to be “the greatest film of all time.”

Vertigo? That creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie? The one that makes us so uncomfortable we want to throw things at the screen?

Hear me out.

Vertigo seems familiar at first: A suave and sexy detective on the verge of retirement is persuaded to investigate “one last case.” Detective Ferguson begins following a mysterious and meandering woman to answer her husband’s questions. Madeline becomes his most confounding mystery. The more he shadows her around San Francisco, the more obsessed he becomes. And as her mysteries prove unsolvable, he grows desperate to possess and control her.

Then, he loses her. Devastated, his ego shaken, his appetites unsatisfied, Ferguson falls into a funk. He wants back what never belonged to him in the first place.

He meets Judy, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Madeleine. Despite her protests, he molds her into the image of his lost ideal. We’re dismayed by how he charms her, traps her, exploits her. How could this archetypal American hero—one played by Jimmy Stewart, no less!—morph into such a misogynist?

The way that Vertigo shifts our sympathies from the detective to his victim convinces me that it’s as timely as ever. Oceans of ink have been spilled in the last few weeks on subjects like sexism, misogyny, and sexual assault. Last week, when recordings revealed a presidential candidate’s boasting of sexual assault, author Kelly Oxford invited women to testify about assaults they have suffered. Many thousands responded. Meanwhile, more women accused the candidate. His response? He mocked one accuser’s physical appearance and said, “Believe me, she would not be my first choice.

For all of our alleged progress toward gender equality, it is still alarmingly ordinary for women and girls to live in fear of unwanted advances and to struggle with the expectations of a materialistic, sex-obsessed culture. And when crowds cheer for unapologetic misogynists, abusers are empowered and the world becomes more dangerous for women.

Vertigo is about more than a man’s sexual obsession. It’s also about the dangers of sentimentality.

If the gospel calls us to listen, serve, and suffer alongside those who cry out for justice, then yes, we would be wise to meditate on movies like Vertigo: horror films that make us squirm and protest at the arrogance of selfish men.

This week, I showed Vertigo to 20 freshman writing students (18 of them women) at Seattle Pacific University. It was new to them. And in our post-viewing discussion, their discomfort was palpable. As one summed up how the movie made her feel, she made gestures as if trying to wave off some oppressive cloud. Others described Detective Ferguson as a “creep” and a “monster.” Then we read an extraordinary essay by Lauren Wilford, a recent Seattle Pacific University graduate, about how Vertigo reflects lessons she learned the hard way.

November
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Christianity Today
Before You Vote, Watch ‘Vertigo’