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Reflexivity and Modern Expression
Reflexivity is defined as the circular relationships between cause and effect, meaning that there is never a true cause or effect because they are interchangeable and cannot be defined. This theory of relationships is one of the defining aspects of expression in modern culture. We see elements of reflexivity in modern art, films, and literature, namely in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo and Italo Calvino’s fiction Invisible Cities. These two creations of modern culture explore their own themes concerning human nature whilst also bringing to light how they express their themes through their respective mediums.
This embodies the reflexive nature of each artistic conception: the medium and the content are in a circular relationship. Modern expression cannot be complete without reflexive tendencies.
Before starting Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one notices that the chapters are in an order that is somewhat confusing and disorderly, but what alludes us is that this means of organization was planned.
Calvino uses the Fibonacci number, which acts as not only a way of chapter organization, but also as an introduction of thematic material. The Fibonacci number sequence is formed because every number after the first two is the sum of the two preceding ones; reflected in the chapters, we see that each chapter, their categories and their presented thematic ideas, build upon each other and become more complex, thought-provoking, and allusive as the fiction moves along. Cities start to blend together as the human experience is tested and we start to follow the Fibonacci spiral towards an ending that creates an even more suggestive reference to the golden ration of the Fibonacci sequence: there isn’t an endgame to life, we live through time that constrains, and there is nothing we can do about it but keep living.
The golden ration is life, it’s what constrains life that makes it living.
Invisible Cities is a prime example of modern expression with reflexivity, not only because of the organization of the fiction, but also because it morphs storytelling into an elusive prose and fiction version of communicating memories. With the format of a story in mind, we can easily see that Invisible Cities breaks the mold as Marco Polo tries to tell Kublai Khan of the cities in his empire through a new form of storytelling that rides close to mystical realism and prose poetry. The idea that Marco Polo is creating a travelogue for Khan of his empires is very difficult to see in the stories of the cities themselves because he explains the cities by mixing the physical characteristics with ideas of existence, not as an actual travel guide and explanation of the cities. For example, “Cities and Names 2” describes the city of Leandra as a city that is protected by gods of two different species, species of which constrain the city itself that I have defined as two different definitions of time. When explaining the relationship of the two gods, we also come to recognize the physical characteristics of the city as they are seen through the eyes of each of the species of time. This magical realism that connects the real world and the ideas that create and constrain it, making them interchangeable.
Now that we have concluded that the organization and means of telling Marco Polo’s adventures are both reflexive with the ideas they convey and that they both highlight the means of storytelling and the medium itself, we can look at the actual contents of the story. Because magical realism is used to convey each city, the true idea of the city has already become a figment of the imagination because the city itself doesn’t exist without the foundations on which it was built, but those foundations don’t necessarily make the city wat it is. “Thin Cities 4” centers around these ideas as we visit the city of Sophronia, the city of two half-cities. One of the cities appears to be a carnival of fantasy and imagination, and the other, the harsh life of reality. The idea that cities and the foundations they are built
on being interchangeable comes into play when Marco Polo informs us that the carnival is the permanent part of town and that the city of reality is the half the uproots itself and moves and becomes part of other half-cities. This means that reality and imagination are two interchangeable ideas as well, creating a new unknown between where imagination ends and reality beings.
After examining how modern writers embody the reflexive characteristic of modern art, we can now look towards modern filmmaking for similar connections. Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo is, first and foremost, an example of mastery of reflexivity between plot and the filmmaking process itself. This use of film to make the plot represented in the actual cinematography was branded “pure cinema”. Now there are connections between the filming, the story, and the characters. Understanding that the vertigo that our main character, Scottie, is gripped by is key in understanding the film because the techniques of filming show the severity of the vertigo and acrophobia and allow us to see things are Scottie does. An important example of this is the scene of Madeline’s death as Scottie chases Madeline up a winding staircase and is forced to a halt because of his acrophobia and vertigo. Every time Scottie stops on the steps to look down the camera zooms out, creating the effect of vertigo, as it would be seen by Scottie. Each time he stops the vertigo spells get worse and worse until he is forced to stop out of fear, letting Madeline fall to her death. We also see correspondences between vertigo and the plot of the story as Scottie follows Madeline around in her car early in the film. With each turn down the twisting, steep San Francisco streets, we see the plot and the setting start to morph, representing the complexities of the plot in a dizzying visual.
Vertigo also employs different cinematic decisions of Alfred’s through Scottie’s nightmare sequence that pushes his fears over the edge and drive him insane. This dream sequence starts by flashes of blue that hint at a deep emotional issue of Scotties that is followed by haunting images of Carlotta’s flower bouquet and Carlotta herself. Then it shows Carlotta’s grave and we see Scotties face falling through the abyss surrounded by flashes of green and purple until Scottie’s body falls towards the roof where Madeline committed her suicide and then through it, falling through a white abyss with no end. This visual representation of a dream is crucial to Scotties character development, but also to our understanding of the effects of guilt. We now have representations of dreams, creations of our own imaginations, which blurs the lines of what reality is and what creation is, like Calvino did in Invisible Cities.
Alfred Hitchcock also alludes to ideas of Fibonacci’s as well as he has the reappearance of the spiral in the unfolding of his plot and in his visual cues of vertigo. We’ve already seen the use of the winding streets of San Francisco as a visual cue for vertigo, but we also have the appearance of spirals in the background waves that crash majestically as Madeline and Scottie share their kiss. This is one of the few spirals that doesn’t represent vertigo because it is more representative of the Fibonacci spiral. This spiral shows that the intertwining plot of Scottie and Madeline will become a part of the elusive nature of human relationships, riding towards the constraints of the real world on the golden ration of life. We see this spiral wind itself out as Madeline is uncovered as an actress named Judy and her relationship with Scottie becomes one of control instead of one of passion, creating a fuzzy line between love and infatuation.
Creations of modern culture always test the bounds of knowledge surrounding the human experience, conscious and unconscious. Vertigo and Invisible Cities both dance around these ideas and create reflexive ideas of their own, further muddling the definitions of life.
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