A MULTITUDE of movies have been made in San Francisco (The Conversation, Towering Inferno, Greed, The Princess Diaries, the list goes on) and a certain degree of local eccentricity is evidenced in each of these films. The atmosphere of the city often manifests itself in characters or cleverly improvisational homes and locales. To an extent the San Francisco personified in motion pictures resembles the Greenwich Village of the '50s to the '60s, only owning to a much stronger sense of history, as if the city has always been a haven of rampant individuality. Yet, regardless of the cosmopolitan appearance, San Francisco has somehow sanctified classical "city" representation. The danger and the seemingly random acts of violence typical of New York's cinematic persona are foreign to San Francisco. Even the dry, downward spiral of Los Angeles, as depicted by so many films noir (modern noirs included) is incongruent to what has come to define San Francisco on the screen, early Philip Marlow not withstanding.

So then, how are the films of San Francisco beholden to the odd sense of self-entitlement that both beautify and darken them? What is it about these locations that inspire the successive yet infamous repetition of such specific actions? We easily associate engagements and Valentine's Day with the Empire State Building, yet how many of us associate Old Fort Point with leaping into the Bay?





Due to an inter-reference I find absolutely bewitching, I believe the 1997 film The Game is a masculine reversal of the 1958 film Vertigo. The interconnectedness of these films may not be so obvious but the plot similarities are surprisingly distinguishable. The most evident similarity is the use of the city of San Francisco, positioned like a canvas to display other more unifying factors (in particular the play of gender and self-awareness that most actively demonstrate the richness of the films and all their respective themes).

Hitchcock had wanted to film in San Francisco long before Vertigo was on the horizon. Romanticizing it, "the Paris of America," Hitchcock reset D'entre les Morts there, choosing San Francisco as the U.S. redressing of urbane France. This veneration for the city must have had a part in constructing Vertigo's San Francisco as a character, complete with a life cycle and a past. Elders, or city historians, within the film's narrative expound upon the city's character(s) and seem to embody the same social artifacts they recount. History, in the case of Vertigo (as in the case of The Game) is a threat, and every trademark of history: its drama, its uniqueness, the traditions inherent to it and, most notably, its repetition, stand as an imminent force and motivation for the villainy of both films. The object/subject of history's threat is the protagonist. However, within these films resides a character who, to some extent, has a privileged perspective of the events of the narrative. It is the person withholding this sovereign point of view who exemplifies the controlling force in the film and, eventually, the primary victim/hero. In The Game, this character is the protagonist, Nicholas Van Orton, whereas in Vertigo, this character is Judy. Ultimately, as the two films deal extensively with concurrent themes but include controlling perspectives of differing genders.

Using the same (or adjacent) historic locations in association with shared themes, Vertigo and The Game make visual a relationship which becomes its own inter-textual dialogue. This dialogue unites the two films in a complex web of reference(s) that may or may not be the overt intention of the filmmakers. To qualify this, it is obvious one film came before the other, ergo it is the second, more recent film, which really develops this dialogue. Vertigo has long been popular with film students and teachers alike, and so is a big part of a rich cinematic history religiously and prolifically taught in film classes the world over. This constant re-reading of the film itself results in a newer identity of the film in each instance of its re-reading. Additionally, we really can't discuss the way Vertigo refers to The Game, but it would be naïve to suggest Vertigo does not take part in the dialogue. It is as if Vertigo broaches the conversation to which The Game responds.

The identity of these films, (their personalities; the persona of the film that changes as it is re-read ), all have great bearing on our capacity for interpreting the films' relationship to each other. For example, as film classes and books have so casually and constantly referred to the representation of Vertigo's Coit Tower as a representation of the phallus (and therefore manhood), the academic analysis of such canonical films tend to stick to the films like some "truth of interpretation," and each film's use of the Coit Tower is subject to a similar brand of scrutiny. As Vertigo describes its primary characters as "wanderers" who use Coit Tower as a guide, the implication that their wandering is a social comment on the nature of gender roles is easy to come to. Thus, when Nicholas and his brother Conrad fight on the steps descending the hill from Coit Tower, their argument broaches the issue of the deceased father. Conrad yells, "Nobody asked you to play Dad," thereby suggesting that with the father's death came Nicholas' arrival into manhood. The representation of the phallus is an archetypal one and lends itself easily to other environments. However, the influence of Vertigo in the dialogue of gender and San Francisco finds itself in this scene. Though the phallus of Coit in Vertigo is quite distant and more of a reminder of a model imposed than a literal presence, in The Game the tower is not literally represented, thereby implying a departure from the model or even a loss.

In The Game, Nicholas Van Orton is haunted by his father’s suicide. Van Orton works in his father’s building, occupies the same position his father did and lives in his childhood home. This is the same home that Van Orton’s father threw himself from at the age of forty-eight. The Game begins with 16mm footage of Nicholas’ childhood birthday party, and cuts to the morning of his forty-eighth birthday. Correspondingly, in Vertigo, Madeline is a woman haunted by the ghost of her supposed great-grandmother, Carlotta. Carlotta had a child with a wealthy man, who took her child from her, driving her to a madness which ultimately led to her fall from a tower at the age of twenty-six. On the eve of Madeline’s possession she is nearly twenty-six. Watched over by these histories, Madeline and Nicholas must look up to see the arbiters of the history they fear.

An interesting addition to this comparison is the identity granted to the deceased relatives. The Game’s protagonist Nicholas has a father whose name is never uttered, but Vertigo’s female counterargument Madeline has great-grandmother Carlotta, whose history and public identity both develop her as a character and validate her as a figure in the larger fabric of San Francisco history. In addition to this, the threat of cyclicality for Nicholas is projected (literally in a 16mm memory) whereas Judy has no direct relationship to her great-grandmother but her future is literally tied to the fate of Carlotta's in Old San Francisco. Curiously, Judy, the orphan-esque character we see actually replicating Carlotta’s story, is never given an age. This gives one a sense that fate is not so attached to such petty details as exactitude. In the Introduction to Auiler’s book on Vertigo, he writes: “If Hitchcock…is the cinema’s Shakespeare, then Vertigo is his Macbeth. Not in theme, plot or structure, perhaps but in its status as a flawed gem – whose imperfections somehow make the work all the more effective."

Interpreting a film is a messy experience, not unlike interpreting the narratives present in real life. We are called upon to untangle the film, not to simply watch it. With the intensive background one must have in order to untangle, it is only reasonable and appropriate to describe film in polysemous terms (and it seems only more realistic to represent a diegesis in its imperfections). After all, the very term “representation” suggests the existence of a model.

The threat of change is represented as a thieving force, taking the color and freedom out of the city, and just as easily rendering obsolete those upon whom we rely. Pop Liebel and Ilsa carry these connotations. As an ambassador of the city’s colorful past, Pop Liebel retains the stories of “the color and the power and the freedom” of Old San Francisco. And although Scottie and Midge rely upon his contemporary shamanism, his utility in their ever-changing cityscape dwindles. Ilsa, on a similar page, is the last servant of the Van Orton house. Her position as a maid is held over, as if a throwback to both Nicholas’ childhood (retained perhaps as a surrogate for his mother), and a relic of an age in which the upper class, in this traditional form, still endured. History presents the degradation of all idealism; the downward spirals displayed by Carlotta and Mr. Van Orton imply the only way out is down.

Between the texts, the anxiety of loss expressed in Vertigo is fittingly responded to in The Game. The color and power the men think they’ve lost in Vertigo is responded to in The Game, primarily with a grey design palette. This palette is revisited through film processing methods and photography that levels the color environment into varied hues of the same color, thereby creating a colored monotone image representative of black and white. In this case, the use of monotone strips colors of their value. The Technicolor grandeur of Podesta Baldocchi Flowers, (today, North Beach Leather) seems to prove Elster wrong, but the grays of the city contrast strongly with the color of Judy (and the ghostly whiteness of Madeline establishes her as a fixture in the larger cityscape). In The Game there is no direct reference to the grandeur that was, though much is implied by the vividly colored home movies of Nicholas’ birthday. The Game is shot and processed utilizing a myriad of color temperatures, primarily in the interest of washing out the brighter hues and rendering the settings in a pallor of grey. The moment of the most intense color is a violation, both of Nicholas’ home and of the viewer. The vandalism is neon in an otherwise beige and homogeneous representation of Nicholas’ dwelling. It seems, where San Francisco had once lost the color, in this neon violation it is found. Thus, the larger question answered is, "Are we losing the color (our power or our freedom) or are we removing it ourselves?"

You must admit in this context it is particularly poignant that Vertigo and The Game revolve around possession. For while I have no physical proof validating Fincher’s intention to refer to Vertigo, the aura of the city and the repetition of the locations lend to the idea that this reference is unintentional but nevertheless present. The notion that the films deal with possession and otherwise incorporate a variety of personality controls reflects upon a small universe of self-referential cues.

First, we have noted the possession of the director by the city (i.e. Hitchcock, the “Paris of the United States”). Second, we can mildly conflate this possession with the identification of the viewer with the film’s characters (in particular the possessed characters). Ergo, as the viewer identifies with the possessed character, his/her possession/engagement will deepen correspondingly to the possession of the character. Third, the possession of one film by the other, specifically the possession of The Game by Vertigo, is of questionable value. Meanwhile, through the play acting, the characters and the viewers come to believe the possessions, the possessors, the story, the history, and all that these things require to be real is that one believes, if only momentarily.

Films have personalities. This is frequently how we connect with them. Having a personality, a viewer can grant a consciousness to a film. We form relationships with a movie we like and that relationship is heavily influenced by the way we feel the specific film speaks to us. In the case of Vertigo and The Game, the levels of self-reflexivity sometimes give one the impression of being spoken to, as the plots and visuals can compel thoughts and responses to which the dialogue promptly replies. As I was thinking, “The Game is so like Vertigo, like a manly Vertigo,” I realized that the comparison is quite present in a pair of similar shots of the Golden Gate Bridge. This integrated relationship with these films supposes the view that they have a personality. These films are more developed than just a quirky set of traits; they are identities unto themselves. With this in mind, the personalities of these films influence the personalities of films to come.

The females in Vertigo and The Game are of particular utility to the films and their respective plots within them. In the first, each film comprises a similar plot: Man is hindered by a character flaw or a condition; Man is called to an obligation that initiates a ruse; Man follows and falls for a Blonde; Man is trapped in the ruse, falls out of the ruse, rejoins the conflicts presented by the ruse and (supposedly) ends the ruse himself. The ruse within the film stands as a plot within the plot. Much like a film within a film, the ruse is a subtle reminder of the conventions and inventions of the film in which the audience is involved. The Blondes are at the center of the film’s plot as well as the ruse’s plot. Though both Vertigo and The Game focus on a male character, the male protagonist’s progress in the story is navigated by the female lead (Madeline/Judy, Christine/Clair). Though each film involves a navigating female, she is not granted equal privilege in both movies.

While the female leads serve as direct foils of the male protagonists, the villains of both films are decisively similar to their protagonist counterparts. Van Orton's threat is not at the hands of a nameless institution that could otherwise be granted a title as gruesome and insurmountable as "fate" or "society." His villain has a name and is cut from his ilk. Van Orton is a product of big business and CRS is a big business. Similarly, Scottie’s nemesis, Gavin Elster, is a product of Scottie’s college days. Scottie and Van Orton both enter the mystery by way of a meeting with a face from the past and both enter the game out of obligation to this person. Their fraternity with these villains makes assimilation into the plot a smooth one, as the social fabric within the film/diegetic reality includes institutions promoting their meetings and their alliance. The gentlemen’s club, for example, is a setting in this tradition.

The exposition or re-authoring of the mystery is the key to demystifying and therefore conquering the mystery. The "electrical system" of The Game exists and functions with similar detail as in Vertigo, however Vertigo’s lack of blatant self-reflexivity does not permit the explicit dismantling of the system as in The Game. Nicholas’ role in his ruse includes finding and utilizing literal keys to the plot, thus evidencing the self-reflexivity of the ruse as well as the film. For Vertigo, the system still undergoes a dismantling, but exposing the mystery is a privilege granted only to the audience, by way of Judy’s flashback. Only the female has the capacity to render visible what was previously relegated to absence. This exposition of events in some ways demystifies the happenings at the Bell Tower. Yet, in a contrary sense, it’s Scottie’s realization of Elster’s plot, and his verbal translation of those events, that devalues the mystery of the events. It is only when the characters translate the images to words, and no explanatory flashbacks are permitted, that the mysteries are stripped of their value. What holds true for the mystery of the Female holds true for mystery of the ruse. In this, the Blondes’ mystery (or representation of it) exists in tandem with the intensity of engagement solicited by the film. In one sense, the mystery of the female is the mystery of the film; this not only reflects upon the performative aspects of this mystery but the organic ones as well.

The apparent, if excessive, control of the films by their makers is parodied within these films, notably in the variety of suicides consistent in both films. Falling acts as a visual representation of loss of control, a major theme in both films. Van Orton’s principal character trait is his obsession with control. Falling down represents a form of emancipation from the control that both shelters and binds him. Similarly, Carlotta, though never formally possessing any control over her conditions, supposedly experiences this same emancipation upon her fall. Additionally, the exercise of the game is simultaneously an exercise in the illusion of choice and control. Both men played in the game are under the impression his actions are his own and not otherwise integrated into or prompted by some larger chess game. The grander irony in this is that the actors (whom we are aware of as actors) are being directed, not only to fall, but specifically, how to fall. It is true, in the context of their acting the actions are literal but the values of these actions are not. Meanwhile, as the boundaries of the plot dissolve, the self-awareness grows more expansive.

For The Game, closure is exclusively the property of the male protagonist. The female propagator of the mystery/game still goes on to another game in which she says she'll play a little “walk on roll” but will, none the less, still function as one of many conductors in a larger electrical system in which illusion is created, utilized for the purposes of power: challenged, identified as illusion, and finally dismantled.

While the films were made nearly forty years apart, the most overt divergence between them is the style of audience engagement solicited. The level of engagement in Vertigo is altogether without exit strategy. This is consistent with the descriptions of "classical film" discussed by Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art: An Introduction. When the plot within Vertigo begins, there is no escape. When the characters become victims of their own schemes, the result is tragic and without recovery. Even the final scene bears reference to the first, suggesting the film is a perpetual cycle. Thus events, actions, objects and therefore subjects take on a completely different value because of the meaning of loss. Along with the value and potential of loss, the stakes become more severe. The Game communicates with more self-awareness and, in so doing, is not simply a game played on a protagonist. It is also a game played on the audience and thus exemplifies other games/films in its self-reference. The audience has an awareness of both the performative expectations of a prank being planned/played, and, more importantly, a consciousness of the game as a game. Therefore, the film’s identity to its audience includes its awareness of itself as a film.

Vertigo and (in its inter- and intra- reference) The Game are films of boundless interpretive excess. The films offer little limit to one’s capacity for interrogation. Their synchronicity and puzzle-like construction, paired with a strange sense of randomness, make the films feel as though a genuine reflection of life, a life in which we are given keys to understanding and expected to do little in return.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris said, ‘I like the idea of making films about ostensibly nothing, that's what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we're in a position of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we're just a bunch of apes running around.”

A film, or at least a good film, is a question. The human mind wants nothing more than to alleviate itself of the unanswerable. Yet, in the context of two films that give credence and reference to the fallibility of their construction, the certainty of their outcomes and the verity of their meanings, how are we ever to separate the body from its maker and the maker within the body? Poignantly, the answer is as insignificant and beguiling as the question.