- Everybody pretty much agrees that North by Northwest is a perfectly constructed film. It fits together better than any other Hitchcock movie. And, yet, you say Vertigo is considered to be “greater” by almost every critic. How can Vertigo, which is really messy, be better than North by Northwest, which is perfect?
But depth is found in holes. A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect on a viewer. Right at the beginning of Vertigo, we abruptly cut from Jimmy Stewart, dangling from a building in terror, with no rescue in sight to several months later, as he talks with a friend about leaving the police force. We can figure out what happened in between, but because we never see the rescue, we’re left with the unresolved disturbance of his emotional reaction.
Similarly, I mentioned earlier that Madeleine’s disappearance from the hotel room is never explained. Again, we can hazard guesses, but the refusal to tidy up this loose end gnaws at us on a subconscious level.
These aren’t really plot holes; they’re just holes, gaps in the story, and that’s what makes Vertigo a greater film than North by Northwest. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little—and have a few holes for us to get stuck in.
Rulebook Casefile: The Value of the Untidy Gaps in Blue Velvet
So how do you chop four hours down to two? Well, there are a lot of candidates for cutting here: odd cappers on scenes that feel creepy and unmotivated (“You know the chicken walk?”), long silences while Jeffrey watches things, the strange visit to Dean Stockwell’s house, generic montages of small town life, etc… The natural impulse would be to cut out everything but plot essentials until you have a lean, mean two-hour movie that “really moves”, as the critics say.
But Lynch could tell the difference between the baby and the bathwater. He left the idiosyncrasies in and chopped huge chunks of the plot out. The result is that we never make much sense of what’s really going on, but that’s fine. Lynch knows that untidiness can increase the meaning and power of a movie.
He could have said “Wait, if we don’t see them finding the second ear in the sink, then won’t it be confusing that Don is missing two ears when they find his body at the end?” And the answer is of course, “yes,” but it’s the right sort of gap: one we can fill in on our own if we care to (presumably the same people cut the second one off too, right?) but we don’t need to. It’s just another unexplained detail that make the world seem bigger than the movie, which is something the audience likes.
Of course, even with the plot sliced way down, there was still more to cut, so Lynch’s decision to cut out many of Jeffrey’s early scenes was even more daring. We originally met Jeffrey at college, watching from afar as a girl is almost date-raped, and only stopping it when someone else approaches the scene. This clearly sets up his longstanding problem. Then there were a lot more scenes when he first arrives in town that showed his frustration with his mom and aunt, including one where his mom tells him that they won’t be able to afford college for him anymore, causing him to worry that there will be no outlet for his darker impulses at home.
sometimes you have to write deleted scenes. Without those scenes on the page, the character would have seemed much less compelling until almost halfway in, but Lynch discovered he could cut them from the final movie because his amazing star, Kyle McLaughlin, managed to convey all of that deviance and frustration beneath the placid surface of his creepy/charming face. Just the curious way he looks at that ear basically tells us everything we need to know.
The Problem: This should also be off-putting, denying the audience a chance to decide for ourselves what everything means in the end. And by tying off all of the loose plot threads, we have less to think about afterwards.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Somewhat, but it’s more problematic than the opening montage. Let’s start with the montage of what happens to all of the other characters. On the one hand, it’s delightful to see Gale and Evelle go back to prison by climbing back into the mudhole they climbed out of, but surely there was no need to show brother-in-law Glen getting his eventual comeuppance after telling a Polish joke to a Polish cop?
As for Hi’s summation of what happens to himself and Ed, the ending tries a little too hard to be satisfying by having it both ways:
- First we get the “real consequences” version, in which the couple, still childless, content themselves to send anonymous gifts to Nathan Arizona, Jr, every year, and live vicariously through his accomplishments.
- But then we get another vague ending tacked onto that one, implying that Hi and Ed somehow did get to raise kids and have a large family of their own someday.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, the other guys’ relationships remain vague.
YES. Very much so. We know very little at the end about what was really going on. If only someone would do a prequel!
YES. What was his plan? Bigamy? A phony marriage? Leave his wife? We never know.
YES. Very much so. The ending is very tantalizing and bizarre.
YES. everything is vague at the end.
YES. huge questions are left unanswered.
The Bourne Identity
NO. It’s fairly tidy, but that’s fine.
YES. Somewhat. The romance certainly isn’t tied up with a bow.
YES. we don’t find out the fate of the other couple trying to get free, for example.
YES. Very much so. If you go back and think about it, little of it makes sense, but the audience doesn’t care.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Will Mookie comes back to Tina, etc.
YES. It’s very untidy. We never find out if Billi finds a way to make it in NYC, etc.
YES. Very much so. The events are very messy.
YES. We never find out the source of the powers, etc.
Not really. We even see that Cosmo is okay. It’s a pretty tidy ending.
YES. Lots of them. Will he be able to explain any of this to the cops? What about all the other victims? (Of course, there are even more loose ends in Peele’s next movie.)
YES. Very much so. What caused this? We’ll never know.
How to Train Your Dragon
NO. Hmm… It’s pretty tidy.
In a Lonely Place
YES. we never find out how and why the murder happened.
YES. In the truly terrible deleted scenes, everything is explained in much more details, and as a result the story feels leaden and meaningless.
YES. She still hasn’t found love. She still hasn’t told anyone the truth about being from Sacramento.
NO. It’s fairly tidy, using lots of voiceover to explain lots of little things, like what happened to the brother-in-law, etc.
YES. everyone is there for the finale, but their stories don’t wrap up neatly.
YES. The tension with SNCC and with Coretta is mostly left unresolved. It would be great to see a sequel.
YES. We don’t understand the final shot, for instance.
YES. It’s not clear what will happen when he shows up at her door.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Lecter remains free, and we never fully understand the mechanics of his escape.
YES. Vader lives, the empire continues, and Jabba’s debt is still looming over Han.
YES. It’s fairly tidy, but one big question is never answered, though: Did Joe decide to leave Norma before or after he sent Betty away?