Over the holidays, I got to see a few good films, but two stood out for their surprising thematic resonance. One was a first time viewing for me, and the other was the first viewing in a very long time. The films were Pete Docter’s Inside Out (2015) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
One, a family fantasy-comedy told through bright computer animation, and the other a dour suspense-thriller dealing with infidelity and murder. Though the two works are in many ways as disparate as any two films can be, they both offer acute insights into the ways that emotions shape our interactions with others, our perceptions of reality, our memories, and our deepest sense of self.
Inside Out tells the story of pre-teen Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) and her family as she deals with the trauma of a move from Minnesota to California. The emotions inside her are personified as cartoon personalities led by Joy (voice of Amy Poehler). Their quest to maintain control of the situation becomes a comic quest played out in the fantastic inner landscape of Riley’s mind. Riley must learn to cope with integrating the difficult and often competing emotions as she deals with not only facing the hardships of a new life, but also those of growing into adolescence.
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s color masterpiece thriller that follows retired police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the strange behavior of his old college buddy’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). During the course of the investigation, the two become romantically involved. After Madeleine’s apparent death, Scottie meets a woman named Judy who looks strikingly similar to his dead love. After confronting her, the audience learns that she is in fact the same woman. Scottie undertakes an obsessive quest to transform Judy’s image into that of Madeleine, not knowing that she already is the same woman, or that his obsession will lead to tragic consequences.
One probably coincidental similarity is that both films take the city of San Francisco for their setting. Hitchcock made it a point to incorporate local elements into the plot of his films, and Vertigo is no exception. Notable landmarks such as Coit Tower and particularly the Golden Gate Bridge make an appearance. This beautiful shot is the scene of Madeleine’s attempted suicide.
When Riley and her family move to San Francisco in Inside Out, you also get a shot of the iconic bridge. Other SF landmarks that receive the Pixar certification include the famous winding Lombard street and the Ferry building.
I was struck upon viewing Vertigo again how Hitchcock thematically employs the color green to to visualize Scotty’s obsession with Madeleine. Scottie first spies her in restaurant wearing a green dress. She drives a green car that he tails throughout the first half of the film. When Scottie finds Judy, she is again wearing a green dress. The green glow of the neon sign outside Judy’s apartment window builds in intensity along with Scottie’s obsession to transform her into Madeleine, culminating in this shot where Kim Novak seems to be walking through a radioactive haze.
Blogger and critic Jim Emerson has more exhaustively documented Hitchcock’s use of the color green in his review of Vertigo, but I want to highlight the way that the color evokes a visceral emotional response, and how this might tie into the use of color in Inside Out.
In the Pixar film, green is the color of Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), one of the five primary emotions depicted as controlling Riley’s experiences. The visual conceit of Inside Out is that memories are represented by glowing orbs which are colored according to the dominant emotion associated with them. So Disgust is introduced as “saving” Riley from the fate of consuming broccoli.
Green is indeed the color of disgust, it is the color of ill health and disease, and we of course commonly speak about being “green with envy.” Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine/Judy is an expression of an unhealthy mixture of repulsion and desire that will lead to tragedy for them both. His mental handicap – a fear of heights, or more properly a fear of falling – is the occasion of a barely concealed self-loathing, both for the vertigo itself, and for the action/inaction it seems to drive him to. In Inside Out, Disgust is likewise seen to have a powerful influence not just on gastronomic sensibilities, but also on Riley’s social choices and responses. Her interactions with her parents and friends are frequently driven by a sense of revulsion, though of course much milder than that which we see in the adult pathologies of Hitchcock’s hero.
What connects these films on a deep level is the way that the filmmakers use visual means to explore the ways in which our emotions and our psychological state affects our relations with others, and are in turn affected by them. Both films, for example, explore the notion of fear as expressed through dreams.
The sequence in Inside Out is played for laughs, while Scottie’s dream in Vertigo emphasizes suspense through a bewildering bit of psychedelic animation. Nevertheless, the experience of fear, though visualized in different ways, rings true in both portrayals to anyone who has woken up with a start in the night.
Throughout both these films, similar themes are explored with different tones and emphases, but in many ways with equal success. Both films ask the question, what essentially is our identity? Is it something external and objective, like the way we dress? (Is Madeleine a different person than Judy, and if so, how?) Is it something formed primarily by our emotional responses to social memories? How much of our identity is chosen by us, how much is determined by others, and how much is purely a matter of circumstance?
I think both films are wise enough to avoid clear answers to what are essentially some of the deep mysteries about what it means to be human. But both films are also insightful guides in helping us see to formulate our own ideas. Like Riley at the end of Inside Out, I experienced a rich blending of emotions when viewing these films, both of which I value immensely.