Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film noir Vertigo is widely agreed to be an American cinema classic. It has everything you’d expect from a classic Hitchcock movie – a cool blonde, a convoluted murder plot, an aging Jimmy Stewart – but Vertigo stands out in the director’s oeuvre as a particularly harrowing case study in the male gaze. As Stewart’s character Scottie Ferguson falls for, loses, and eventually tries to resurrect the woman he loves by dressing another woman in her likeness, the film morphs into an exploration of the obsessive distortion of perspective often at work in heterosexual male desire, and has been discussed and argued over voraciously by film critics and amateur film fans alike.
Now, Californian arts project Kismet Ltd. have joined the conversation, with a music video that both celebrates and subverts the Hitchcock classic. Filmed entirely on original Kodak 35mm celluloid, recreating elements of the original set and props, and featuring a cast entirely comprised of actors and actresses of colour, as well as an all-female creative team, the video marks a daring creative feat – and one entirely at odds with the whiteness and maleness of the Hitchcock original.
Spindle caught up with Kismet’s vocalist and the video’s protagonist Amani Starnes to ask how it was that they came to bring intersectional feminism to the Hitchcock aesthetic.
Firstly, what is Kismet and how did it come about?
Kismet is a multimedia, multicultural arts project, musically helmed by myself and producer-songwriter Shruti Kumar and filmically led by director Shatara Ford.
It all began when the Gatos Trail recording studio opened in Joshua Tree. Our engineer, Eva Reistad, got us all to go to the opening, a night of concerts and merry making. I don’t know if it was the heat, the music, or the desert wind, but we got this wild idea to start an all-female funk band. But when Shruti and I sat down to work on songs in LA, the studio became like therapy for us. We ended up talking about the mental gymnastics of trying to make precious but fraught relationships work. Funky riffs and themes? No so much. We were inspired by what each of us was going through as women, daughters, artists, lovers, etc. …
1) destiny; fate.
As for the name, I’ve always liked the idea of ‘kismet,’ which basically means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny.’ The tracks, ‘Active Love’ and ‘Best’ are about reflecting on and shaping how our relationships unfold. They’re reminders that even the smallest actions are choices, and we can choose love. And they affirm that destiny doesn’t preclude free will. The most we can do is be honest with ourselves, which in turn, allows us to be more authentic others.
We rounded out the project with the talents of co-producer, Ryan Gilligan, and mixing engineer, Ben O’Neill.
What made you choose Vertigo as inspiration for the video for ‘Best’?
This past fall, filmmaker Shatara Ford and I happened to both be in Oakland, CA. On a walk taking in neighborhoods… I brought up our music and that I was unsure what to do with it. She, the visionary that she is, told me to send them to her and see what they inspired. ‘Best’ really stood out. For her, the song was an expression of denial over a relationship that isn’t working and the internal conflict it brings. I was thrilled – she’d totally ‘gotten me.’
Maybe because we’d been in the Bay, Vertigo, which is set in San Francisco, was already on her mind. But a few days later she called to let me know she saw parallels between a potential story about the figure in the song and the characters in the film… Shatara wanted to make a video for ‘Best’, on actual 35mm film, in which we restaged scenes from the film and played with some of its themes. In our video, our protagonist (played by yours truly) is fragmented, convincing herself of a part she and her boyfriend should play in order for them to go on as before, with no regard for who either of them really is now.
What was the process of filming like?
The production process was incredible—digging deeper into what the song might mean, researching the film… learning what it’s like to perform in front of a 35mm camera, which affords fewer re-shots and requires incredibly high precision. The crew was helmed almost entirely by women (producer Aireka Muse, director of photography Ludovica Isidori, production designer Eloise Ayala, and, of course, Shatara our director), which I believe fostered a production and performance space that made it very easy to be vulnerable and innovative. We shot in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. It was quite the ride!
The video works to subvert the white male gaze that characterises Hitchcock’s film – what message do you want the video to convey by doing this?
Shatara, a film buff, had long wondered what it would look like if the protagonist of Vertigo was a woman and how the idea of denial and objectification would change. In ‘Best’, the female gaze subverts objectification. The woman idealizes the ‘relationship’ instead of the man, and convinces herself that she and her boyfriend both need changing to serve her dream – thus saying that often in cis-hetero relationships, women are willing to sacrifice themselves and their partner to make a relationship (at least on the outside) work.
Maybe she’d be in a better place at the end if she were alone and comfortable with who she really is, accepting that her dream relationship may not be all that realistic, or what she actually wished for.
I particularly liked Shatara’s idea of putting brown bodies in the historically white space of posh 1950’s SF, as an almost transgressive move to include people of color in narratives that had long excluded or ignored them or honored them as nuanced protagonists.
Watch the video for ‘Best’ below:
Connect with Amani Starnes: