BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Douglas Gordon

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

Hitchcock explored neurosis with a style as seductive as it is analytical. His best movies, which he famously and inaccurately described as 'slices of cake', are infinitely elegant and unstable intersections of conflicting truths and cool cruelties, which dangle ambiguous conclusions in front of audiences hungry for resolution. Vertigo (1958), a masterwork about delusion, follows the story of a man who, like the audience, is lulled into believing lies which reveal, in their spiralling artifice, all kinds of truths.

Hitchcock's pleasure in surface and suspense was predicated on a deep knowledge and manipulation of the psychological potential of film: exploding the moment when the celluloid begins to embody the story it's telling. His best films manage to wordlessly articulate the most complex reactions to a given situation without any recourse to explanation - he edited silences and feelings into concrete, self-explanatory things - the colour that saturates a room, the way a strand of hair might lift in the wind, the cut of a dress, a piece of music. This quality is nowhere more apparent than in Vertigo, one of the bleakest and most enigmatic movies about the unconscious ever made. In this sense, Douglas Gordon's choice of it as the subject, object and springboard of his directorial debut Feature Film (1999) is at once apt and breathtakingly audacious - Vertigo is as much about the giddy and dangerous heights film can scale, resolutely roped to its audience, as it is a thrilling tale about the ghosts of frustrated desire.

The entrance to the show was intentionally situated at the top of a building without a lift, so the viewers - unsuspecting accomplices in Gordon's exploration of interconnectedness - arrived breathless and slightly vertiginous after having experienced one of the central motifs of Vertigo: ascending a staircase without knowing what might happen at the summit. Entering the black, cavernous space, a sense of gloom and slight disorientation was immediate.

Feature Film shows James Conlon conducting Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to Vertigo, while Vertigo itself - projected onto the far wall - drifted in and out of audiblity: when the music swelled, the voices of the actors were muted. Gordon's camera examines Conlon's expressive hands and face with the lingering scrutiny of a lover. His giant, measured beauty seemed to float in the space, adding to the dislocation and manipulation of scale the show was doing its best to create.

Feature Film's focus never flickers from its scrutiny of the hypnotic choreography of Conlon's conducting. Although he looks like a Hollywood ideal of how a conductor might appear - brooding, lean, hot-eyed, black-polo-necked - the intensity of his involvement with the music quickly destabilises such a cliché. Gordon's meticulous examination of his subject looks like someone struggling to grasp the emotional complexities of something that doesn't actually exist as a something concrete: the effect that music can have over an image or an audience. It's a struggle which echoes the sense of unease in Vertigo, where the idea of the possibility of any kind of control - over fate or people's belief systems or the reception of an image - becomes increasingly elusive.

But if Feature Film is a study in concentration, it's difficult - despite the singularity of its central image - to pinpoint exactly what it's concentrating on. Which perhaps is because, like the most interesting painters, Gordon has distilled a lot of ideas into a single image - the conductor, who becomes, as the film progresses not only a conductor of music, but a conductor of ideas, of energies.

Feature Film - and it seems important, if a little obvious to stress the self-reflective nature of the title - explores ideas in a way no mainstream feature film has yet done: dissolving a narrative's atmosphere into its most abstract components, withholding any conclusion, allowing an invisible player to hold centre stage and then never allowing the audience to see the focus of his attention - the orchestra. If Vertigo splits fictions apart, then Feature Film fractures expectations about how film functions. If Vertigo is about people going crazy, then Feature Film demands a kind of generous dis-equilibrium from its audience. Which - considering how much we think we know about film, and how little we see this knowledge put into practice - doesn't really seem to be asking too much.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.