Q & A with Dr. Robert Belton

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Dr. Robert Belton professor of Art History and Visual Culture in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies recently published a book entitled, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the Hermeneutic Spiral.

We met with Dr. Belton to find out what his book was about, and why he is fascinated with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

What is the book about? Why the Fascination with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

RB: Hitchcock’s Vertigo is sometimes ranked as the best movie ever made, but some of the things written about it actually contradict each other. I always wondered why. I remembered a friend of many years ago who was convinced that Superman, the 1978 Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeves, was a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He thought that because Superman began with the story of an alien infant arriving on Earth, the fact that 2001 ended with a Star Child orbiting Earth meant that the films were logically connected. When he thought about the movies he emphasized the details that supported his notion and ignored the ones that didn’t. I concluded that this common mental phenomenon, confirmation bias, was why critical opinions differed so much about Vertigo.

Can you explain for non-academics what the title means, what is the Hermeneutic Spiral? 

RB: “Hermeneutic” means “interpretation.” One’s interpretation of a whole movie is formed by interpretations of its parts, just as one’s interpretations of the parts are always being reshaped by the whole. This creates a seemingly circular pattern, but it’s actually more of a spiral because one can always notice new details.

What is the significance of your research — what are the implications to your field or learning outcomes for students? 

RB: A current theory of interpretation has it that the true meaning of a text can never be fully or finally determined. I agree with this, but I think the phenomenon has never been adequately explained in terms of cognitive biases and differences in experience. That is, I want to explain postmodernist indeterminacy squarely in terms of different life experiences and heuristics, or thinking shortcuts.

What do you tell students who may ask why they should study art history? 

RB: A good reason to study visual culture is fascination, but much art was never meant to be “enjoyed.” Some art asks you to question your philosophical, ideological, aesthetic, political and moral expectations. Having an understanding of visual culture is thus essential to a fully-rounded liberal education. Moreover, a Georgetown University study of the economic value of university majors found that art history and criticism, on average, offered a better return on investment than any humanities field other than American history.

Tell us about your other recent publications and articles…

RB: Three works have pulled together some themes that have intrigued me for about two decades. Most importantly, an archival research project unearthed the source of a sequence in Man Ray’s surrealist film L’étoile de mer (1928), which has been misinterpreted for over twenty years. A psychoanalytical reading of the cinematic installation art of Wyn Geleynse recently appeared in the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. Lastly, an exhibition catalogue essay for McMaster Museum of Art drew a comparison between expressionist art and the field of paralinguistics.

What most excites you about your area of research?

Dr. Belton reenacting the famous staircase scene from Vertigo

Dr. Belton reenacting the famous staircase scene from Vertigo

RB: Writers commenting on Hitchcock’s Vertigo were convinced that a particular scene made one character subordinate by showing another character looming over him. I have shown that this is a misinterpretation because the allegedly subordinate character actually does most if not all of the “looming” in the scene. This shows that critics are constantly convincing themselves that their wrong conclusions are actually right—a clear example of what psychologists call the “backfire effect.” If we all learned to avoid this kind of thing as part of a general education, maybe we would be less prone to errors in critical judgement.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the Hermeneutic Spiral.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the Hermeneutic Spiral.

 

Link to publication: www.palgrave.com/de/book/9783319551876

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