lovelife, music, screen

My Favourite Illusion

in your face

Visual Illusions; How what you don’t see can still hurt you; Peter Bogdanovich and a death in Hollywood; Vertigo, Phoenix, and reanimated lovers

WE don’t always see what’s staring us in the face. We see something else instead. There are many possible explanations for this.

One obvious cause of misperception is due to the way the brain processes information. If the visual field is busy or complicated, the brain is prone to making a guess, or assumption, about what is happening, and one that isn’t always entirely accurate. Therefore what you think you see is often not true. 

Two Orange Balls, Same Size, But One Looks Larger Because of What's Next to It.
two oranges, which is the biggest?

So, these two orange circles are the same size. That they may not look it is because the brain estimates size by using nearby objects. This is known as The Ebbinghaus illusion.*

In 350BC, Aristotle noted how ‘our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled’. He observed that if you fix your eyes upon a waterfall for a few moments, and then shift your gaze to nearby stationary rocks, these rocks appear to move in the opposite direction to the flow of water. Tracking the water seems to fatigue neurons in the brain’s visual cortex; and when the gaze moves on, other neurons over-react, causing the rocks to apparently ‘move’ in the opposite direction. This anomaly is called the ‘motion after-effect’, or the waterfall illusion.

Two horizontal lines, exact same size, but one looks longer due to converging vertical lines
a nicely framed illusion

The 19th century was a growth period for the study and creation of illusions. The Ponzo illusion (above) shows how our sense of perspective can lead us to deliver faulty conclusions. Identically sized lines can appear to be different lengths when placed between parallel lines that are converging. The slanted verticals confuse the brain, and it overcompensates, making the top horizontal appear bigger.

The 1960s Optical Art, or Op Art movement, was inspired in part by illusions. The work of Victor Vasarely and his ‘nested squares illusion’ – suggesting that the brain identifies shapes using corners rather than lines – continues to be studied by illusion scientists. 

Op Art Image of Apparently Moving Shapes
hexagons in motion

The last few decades has brought a revival in this field of study. Research indicates how the brain takes a shot at predicting the future, to make up for the tiny time lag between an event and our conscious perception of it. The world we look upon may seem fresh but is actually slightly in the past, and sometimes slightly askew

So, seeing is not always believing. Optical illusions are like a rip in the matrix, revealing that reality is partly constructed, with our brain making it up as it goes. But this is not a conspiracy plot to hoodwink the masses. We just don’t have the visual processors to handle all of the information hitting the retina at once. ‘For that our brain would need to be bigger than a building, and still then it wouldn’t be enough,’ says Susana Martinez-Conde, from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.
Image of an eye with a spiralling retina
trust in me

The things we don’t see. 

In the last stages of the Vela years (Ex No2, Kaput’s last serious relationship), an end game was being played out, but I didn’t fully perceive. The aim of the game was for me to break up and walk out. Well, maybe not unilaterally walk out, but to join with Vela in building to a crisis that would make it so a break up had to happen. Trip wires were laid. There was an ambush here; a detonation there. I don’t think my ex wished to carry the can for a separation all by herself. (A lot of lovers don’t.)

I didn’t perceive this in the thick of the situation (the fog of war?). Not until after we’d gone our different ways, and I began what has turned into a long series of backward glances, did the pattern come together in a recognisable shape. (These backward glances no longer seem urgent or of any great purpose, but are intriguing and absorbing in a literary kind of way.) 

Vela’s year leading towards break-up had been one of near constant change – of shifts, tweaks, new resolutions and fresh starts that didn’t last or make it. She discussed changing her role at work, getting a new job, or possibly striking out on a brand new career path. She started and tired of several exercise regimes – ice skating, skiiing, walking, cycling, box fit, cross fit. There were week-long retreats, and more diets and abstinences than usual. 

She flung herself headlong, with utter conviction, into further education courses that lasted only weeks. Medication varied. Friendships were revived or suddenly killed off. Sisters were either in favour, or the cause of irritation. It was a year of discontent and change: I might have seen it coming, if I’d looked. 

But not at all. Emotional turmoil had always been part of the weather. This just seemed like repeat flurries, not the concluding deluge. But also, we supposedly had a family, we definitely had a nice home, and there was regular sex. I really am the last person on this cold, awful, terrible, lonely planet to walk away from regular sex (I’m not saying this is a strength). The Vela turbulence (sounds like an episode of The Big Bang Theory) caused exasperation, and sometimes pushed me close to the edge of the cliff – the jumping off cliff. But never over it. Only if I’d caught Vela red-handed killing kittens (cackling strangely), might I have given up on regular sex.
In the field of visual misperception, sometimes I look at a cafetiere and see intimacy – remembering what followed coffee in bed together each morning. (Well, most mornings.) My gaze can fall upon a filled coffee pot and momentarily I experience a throwback to long-gone antemeridian fun times. Who’d have thought a coffee plunger could moonlight as a Proustian erotic prop?
A Filled Coffee Plunger
my ex-coffee plunger – a second look

We don’t always see it. Though it’s there, right there, if we look.

The American film director Peter Bogdanovich achieved huge early success. The precocious start to his brilliant career was so stellar it almost sounds unreal (and, looking back, impossible to sustain). In 1960 Bogdanovich curated the first ever Orson Welles retrospective in the US, at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). He also wrote the monograph to accompany the show. He did this at the grand old age of 21. He had no background in curating (or in film, really), and wasn’t an academic – he didn’t even go to college. He landed the job off the back of a modest amount of film reviews he’d written for a college newspaper. He just happened to write warmly of Welles’ film version of Othello, when many critics had reviled the work. And from this, one thing led to another.

Bogdanovich went on to curate retrospectives for Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. He became friends with John Ford and hung out with John Wayne. He wrote long film pieces for Esquire magazine. He worked on scripts and directing for left field film producer Roger Corman – part of the same cohort of young brat movie hustlers as Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Bert Schneider and Monte Hellman. And then, at the age of 31, he directed his first mainstream film and delivered a new Hollywood classic. 

The Last Picture Show - Movie Poster - Includes Visual Illusion of a man's silhouette as a dark cloud
The Last Picture Show, released in 1971, was a critical and commercial hit that earned eight Oscar nominations and was hailed as the best American film since Citizen Kane – the best American film since Citizen Kane

Dust Jacket - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls - Peter Biskind
a Hollywood dish best served cold

In the summer of 1972, Bogdanovich left a Hollywood party and driving home stopped at a set of traffic lights. Seconds later, according to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – Peter Biskind’s New-Hollywood history – director Francis Ford Coppola pulled up alongside Bogdanovich’s station wagon. Coppola was driving a Mercedes stretch limo he’d recently won in a bet with Paramount studios, to mark his film The Godfather passing the $50m sales mark. Director William Friedkin was Coppola’s passenger. The three tyro directors had all been at the same party together and were plainly feeling psyched about life. 

On seeing Bogdanovich, Friedkin stood up, popped his head through the sun roof and started exclaiming about the success of his latest film, The French Connection. ‘The most exciting American film in twenty five years!’ shouted Friedkin, quoting from a review. He held up five fingers and shouted:  ‘Eight nominations and five Oscars, including Best Picture!’

Bogdanovich, not to be outdone, retorted across lanes, reciting from memory a line from the many laudatory reviews for The Last Picture Show: ‘a film that will revolutionize film history.’ And then added, “Eight nominations, and my movie’s better than yours.”

And maybe he was right. The Last Picture Show is a beautiful, spare, elegiac tale of small town America, 1951 to 52, on the verge of the Korean War, but also the cusp of decline and oblivion. The mood of end times is symbolised by the closing down of the last cinema in town, due to diminishing audiences – the death of cinema, murdered by television. Picture Show remains Bogdanovich’s best received work. Film critic Roger Ebert describes the film as ‘above all an evocation of mood. It is about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression.’

By the summer of ’72, What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s latest – was already out and proving critically and commercially popular. This loving tribute to 30s and 40s screwball comedies (such as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby), starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, reveals an aesthetic tendency in Bogdanovich towards movie nostalgia, a conservative weakness for bygone revival, that would arguably hobble future work. At this point however, all was shiny and fine as Doc joined Picture Show in Hollywood’s current box office top ten – it is a rare achievement to have two films ranking simultaneously in this way. 

Bogdanovich went on to direct Paper Moon, with father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal; for which ten-year-old Tatum won the best supporting actress Oscar – the youngest ever to do so. When Bogdanovich first told Orson Welles the title of his depression era comedy, Welles declared Paper Moon to be the perfect film title, one that would guarantee a hit. And Welles was right; while for the time being Bogdanovich could seemingly do no wrong. 

Only 34, the director was on top of the pile. In Early Success, his short story about the rise, then inevitable fall, of a bright new literary star, F Scott Fitzgerald wistfully conjures the gilded, perfect point of arrival at the summit: ‘when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.’ 

Black and White Still of Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show
I see a future including a date with Elvis and a groundbreaking comedy with a guy called Bruce

By 1974, the dream life of Bogdanovich had begun to darken and circle downwards. The run of hits ended with the underwhelming response to Daisy Miller – his slight screen adaptation of the Henry James novella of an innocent in peril. Soon after the flops started to roll in – especially the seriously misfiring Nickelodeon. By this point the film-maker had left his wife and collaborator for the actor Cybill Shepherd, following an affair that had put them in the gossip sheets of shame. 

The relationship with Shepherd didn’t survive the next few bumpy years. What did continue to thrive though was Bogdanovich’s apparent weakness for young, blonde, up-and-coming actors. He gravitated to the scene at Playboy mansion and became a close friend of Hugh Hefner. (It’s hard to view these developments as good for a serious film career.) 

At some point in 1979, Bogdanovich met Playmate and aspiring movie actor Dorothy Stratten. He cast her in his new film, They All Laughed (starring Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara), and they started a love affair while filming on location in New York.

Black and White Photo of Dorothy Stratten
Dorothy Stratten

By this stage Stratten’s husband Paul Snider – a former pimp from Vancouver – had been frozen out of the scene, and was left brooding back in Los Angeles. He hired a private detective to follow his wife. (An acute case of life imitating art, as the comic premise for the film Stratten and Bogdanovich were making concerned a trio of private detectives investigating two beautiful women for infidelity.) When Stratten returned to Hollywood at the end of filming, she met with Snider at their apartment, intending to ask for a divorce and to broker a financial settlement. Snider anally raped Stratten and killed her with a shotgun, which he then turned on himself. 

In the aftermath of Stratten’s brutal death, Bogdanovich took time out from film making and wrote a book about the murder. With typical Hollywood delicacy, it took merely three years for two films to be made concerning Stratten’s demise. Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story, starred Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead roleStar 80, directed by Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz), featured Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts. 

Star 80 was based on the Pulitzer prize-winning magazine article Death of a Playmate, by Teresa Carpenter. In this long-form account of the murder, the Village Voice writer condemned both Bogdanovich and Hefner for sharing some responsibility for Stratten’s tragic end – for wishing to possess the young performer, just like Snider: ‘One of the tacit tenets of Playboy philosophy—that women can be possessed—had found a fervent adherent in Paul Snider.’

Bogdanovich rejects both films on Stratten as riddled with errors and mistruths. His book The Killing of the Unicorn, was an attempt to get the record straightened out. ‘I wanted to understand what happened to her. I felt I couldn’t move forward with my life, creative or otherwise until I did.’ However, Bogdanovich’s account got banged up and down by the critics. People Magazine described it as ‘relentlessly self-serving’. The Chicago Tribune called it ‘a shabby little shocker’.

Around this time Bogdanovich filed for bankruptcy. He also turned litigious, becoming embroiled in court cases with studios and former employers – which he lost. Bogdanvich’s descent is reminiscent of the memorable line from Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, (the exchange Jay McInerney used for an epigram to his 80s novel Bright Lights, Big City). ‘How did you go bankrupt? – Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly’. 

Bogdanovich has continued to make films, but infrequently, and with none of these releases landing particularly well. There have been fall outs, mishaps and mistakes. He’s been fired from projects. There was a second bankruptcy. 

Into the ’90s and 2000s, the director switched successfully to acting, playing Melfi’s therapist in The Sopranos. (There followed a turn voicing the shrink for Bart in an episode of The Simpsons, and the DJ for the Kill Bill movies.) He also presented for classic TV movie channels.

Peter Bogdanovich in the Sopranos
I’m Peter Bogdanovich. My character’s name, however, is Dr Elliot Kupferberg

But the career spiral has been earthbound. The story arc of his life as a film-maker mimics that of Orson Welles – with a brilliant debut broadly followed by a long, winding decline, which has largely proved irreversible.You wonder if Bogdanovich recognises the overlap with his hero and mentor. It seems unlikely the comparison would have passed him by. 

The summer I turned 17 I worked in a big London record shop. It was mid way through my A levels and the shop was at the top of Charing Cross Lane. One day the renowned American film-maker Peter Bogdanovich came to London and went shopping. He bought a small pile of LP records from our shop and I rang up his purchase – I remember the batch included Ry Cooder’s Bop till You Drop. I knew it was Bogdanovich because I recognised him from interviews, and because he settled up with a credit card. (Credit cards were still pretty rare. You had to manually run them through a cranky four-ply paper embossing machine, and then check the customer’s signature.) For a moment back then, I wanted to say something to Bog. Tell him how much I liked The Last Picture Show. But hadn’t the nerve. Now, I’m glad I held off from speaking up – this is a man who, by all accounts and current appearances, possesses an ego the size of a blue whale; one hardly deprived of stroking down the years.  

In a recent long interview with the WTF podcast, Bogdanvich is witty, articulate, well-informed and smart – someone who knows his way round an anecdote.** But something’s missing. You could call it personal insight. In passing, it is mentioned that a few years after Dorothy Stratten was murdered, Bogdanovich started dating Dorothy’s younger sister Louise. They went on to be married in 1988, when Louise was only 20 and he was a ripe 49. (In the same interview, Bogdanovich mentions how he’d known Louise since she was 11 years old; that he covered her private school fees, and paid for modelling classes, while she was growing up. Hmm.)

At the time the marriage to Louise was apparently (and understandably) the cause of some remark, even controversy. The couple divorced in 2001, but the director says they remain good friends.

In Teresa Carpenter’s Village Voice article on Dorothy Stratten’s death, the author pointedly scolded Bogdanovich for his ‘puerile preference for ingenues.’ There does appear to be a pattern of desire. And patterns are interesting – in psychologies, but also in stories – and films. Given that Bogdanovich is a serious films scholar, who curated the Alfred Hitchcock retrospective at MOMA in the early 1960s (as well as writing the exhibition monograph); and remembering that he also went on to become friendly with Hitchcock, it seems reasonable to wonder if he has ever reflected on the curious (perhaps creepy) similarities between his real-life doubling of Stratten women and the storyline of Vertigo. (Yes, back to that film, again – just can’t keep away.) 

Saul Bass opening credits to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - grey silhouette of a man falling into a red and white spiral
I keep falling for you…

In the complex narrative of Hitchcock’s scenario, let‘s jump to the third and final part. Having failed to keep the apparently tormented Madeleine from taking her own life, ex-cop Scottie (James Stewart) has said ‘good-bye to sanity‘. Following a spell in hospital, he becomes possessed by a dead woman. Scottie sees Madeliene everywhere he goes.

And then something happens. The elaborate criminal plot to deceive Scottie into thinking Madeleine killed unravels. The fake ‘Madeleine’ is still living in San Francisco – in a hotel under her own name, Judy Barton. Inevitably, Scottie catches sight of Judy out walking one day. At first she bears only a resemblance. As the film critic Tania Modleski says ‘she looks ‘wrong’, a disappointing counterfeit of the beautiful Madeleine.’ As Scottie insinuates himself into Judy’s life, he seeks to improve on the resemblance, dressing Judy up as Madeleine, and choreographing a makeover. The mood is dreamlike, spectral and spooky. 

Kim Novak as Judy Barton as Madeleine in Alfred Hitchock's Vertigo
a beautiful ghost – dove grey suit by Edith Head

At the completion of Judy’s transformation, she is captured in the misty green haze of a neon streetlight leaking into her hotel room. As critic Michael Wood says ‘The message is clear: She has turned into a ghost.’ Until she steps forward, out of the green, and into a brighter, white light. ‘No not a ghost… just Madeleine, resurrection and nothing else.’ This is good taste reanimation with a slight twist of necrophilia. And then Scottie and ‘Madeleine’ embrace. 

But soon Scottie grows suspicious, as he finally perceives the grand deception that’s been played out, with him as the principal dupe. Scottie becomes bent with anger. Thereafter the film gallops towards an abrupt and slightly risible ending. Another fall from high, another death, as Scottie’s fate to be close to people who die – but forever unable to help them – is reaffirmed. 

Film Poster for Phoenix by Christian Petzold - Half Lit Face of a Woman
speak low, when you speak love

The narrative of the reanimated dead lover has recently been reprised by director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss in the film Phoenix. This immaculate nod to Vertigo is set in Berlin shortly after the end of World War Two.*** Nina Hoss takes the role of Nelly, an ex-cabaret singer and Holocaust survivor, who returns to the city after having facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage caused by a bullet wound. 

Ronald Zehrfeld faces Nina Hoss, Phoenix
where have I seen you before?

Nelly seeks out her lost husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who sports an award-winning period moustache and works as a lowly skiv at a quintessentially decadent nightclub called Phoenix. Johnny believes his wife to be long dead. He doesn’t recognise Nelly, but finds that she bears an uncanny resemblance to his dearly departed. 

Johnny has a plan to take possesion of the deceased’s large inheritance. He enlists Nelly in his scheme to pass for his ‘dead’ wife and scam the authorities. In going along with Johnny’s plans, Nelly impersonate herself – transformed back into the glamorous night club singer, with the red dress and heels. 

Although Nelly has been warned that Johnny may have been the one who originally betrayed her to the Nazis, she continues to be powerfully drawn to him, as they become close – but not lovers – while hatching and rehearsing the con in his apartment. All the while, Nelly seeks to find out Johnny’s true feelings and actions at the time of her arrest. 

Phoenix is a marvellous retro period melodrama with bold noirish stripes. The secrets of the past, the yearnings, the half light of truth, the controlled obsessions and delusion are wrapped in gorgeous colour and emotional detail. 

Suspicion and doubt run parallel to an ambiguous mutual attraction, as Nelly and Johnny seek to bring his inheritance scheme to completion. The plot culminates with a scene of revelation, as Nelly sings her torch song rendition of the Kurt Weil song Speak Low

At first Nelly falters. With Johnny accompanying on piano, she is barely capable of voice and can only speak low, in broken tones, grasping for the thread of the tune. 

Time is so old and love so brief
Love is pure gold and time a thief

But gradually she finds herself in song.

We’re late, darling, we’re late 
The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon

On ‘too soon’, Nelly’s voice rises in a falsetto of exposed feelings, of regret and despair perhaps.**** And finally the pieces fall into place as Johnny views his accomplice differently. 

No, at first, we don’t always see what’s staring us in the face.

If you’ve been caught up in Phoenix from the mysterious opening shots, and absorbed by the narrative build through the film’s 100 or so minutes, then this late moment is pure emotional payoff at the pictures. 

And there’s a pattern to the payoff. A doubling of its depth. It is both Now, but also it is Before. 

It’s brilliant as Now, in itself – the story, the style, the secrets, the guilt, and the all-powerful longing. Then also the well-dressed sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the acting. 

But beyond this, there is a doubling: because Phoenix is also brilliant due to what came Before, all those other films and film-makers: Lang, Sirk, Dieterle, Preminger; and then later, directors like Terence Davies and Todd Haynes. And of course, most of all, Fassbinder, with The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and other titles: complex, haunted, laden melodramas in the post war shadows and ruins. 

All those extravagant tales seen in the dark, some of them in lost cinemas, where it all comes together and a form of magic rises up –  and you think, god, I do love films. Cinema – my favourite illusion.

*This and much of the rest on the science of illusions has been lifted from a brilliant visual article on the field from the BBC. It’s a steal, but then as Roland Barthes once wrote, writing is a tissue of quotations.

** The interview with Bogdanovich on WTF is very long and meandering, but enjoyable. The conversation was posted the same month Barack Obama spoke to the comedian Marc Maron’s cult podcast. Although Maron is sort of bright and friendly, he serves very few aces and his main skill as an interviewer seems to be the ability to giggle between sentences. All this leaves the listener wondering why this got to be such a successful podcast that POTUS finds it’s worth dropping by – not so much WTF as How the Fuck?

*** Phoenix is actually loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s detective novel Le Retour des cendres, previously adapted into the 1965 film Return from the Ashes. But Petzold and co-screenwriter Harun Farocki stripped down and relocated the story to Berlin. 

**** Hoss’s singing voice at this point is reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s at the mic in Annie Hall. A random observation, but what the heck are we here for if not the occasional shot of random?