“Toward a Cinema of Failure”


I often tell my students that my life is mostly failure. The acceptance rate at most academic journals in which I publish is 15%. That means, for every successful essay I write, some five will not get published. There is tremendous value in pulling back the veil on a career and showing students the messy clockwork out of which it is actually kluged.

In a November 2010 issue of the premiere science journal, Nature, Melanie Stefan, a post-doctoral researcher in neurobiology at CalTech, advised that successful professionals keep a “CV of failures,” a list about six times longer than one’s normal resumé which documents “every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper.” Stefan argues, “It will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”

Inspired by Stefan, Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University posted to his website his CV of failures, documenting the fact that he did not gain acceptance into some of the best Ph.D. programs at Harvard and Stanford Universities, among other major setbacks. Haushofer’s April 2016 posting has inspired considerable journalistic commentary, most of it highly laudatory. However, in an April 30 essay in The Guardian, Sonia Sodha takes a critical stance, arguing: “only successful people can afford a CV of failure.” She concludes: “[W]e are reluctant to talk about the fact that, for too many young people,… jobs simply don’t yet exist when they reach the end of their education. It’s hard to see what good a failure CV will do them.”

There are many worrisome aspects to Sodha’s naysaying, in particular a tendency to retreat from a celebration of excellence. One particular trend in the academic Left is to unduly foreground privilege as an analytical category of identity. Sodha makes the correct sociological argument that one gets to be successful not only through ability and hard work, but also luck and happenstance. However, to overvalue one form of privilege, say gender, is to devalue other forms of disadvantage, say race or class. When asterisks begin to be marked next to accomplishments, we run the risk of displacing the most positive social outcome, the development of excellence, sometimes the result of overcoming devastating obstacles. Haushofer’s failure CV might not acknowledge the considerable privileges that I am sure he profited from, but neither does it blame his failures on the obstacles life has put in his way. His work merely suggests that while excellence might appear to have been a foregone conclusion by looking at one’s resume, what that document clouds is the many times we tried at something and failed.

This debate got me thinking about how the cinema represents failure. Clearly, the ubiquitous Hollywood happy ending functions similarly to the standard CV: the film places a protagonist on a goal-directed trajectory, demonstrating the inevitability of that character achieving success. Are there filmic equivalents to Stefan and Haushofer’s CV of failures? Let me suggest this as a fertile framework for re-considering the most studied films in the American canon, Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In the former, Orson Welles sets out to ridicule a successful American, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst for his personal failures and cultural myopia: when asked by a reporter in the late 1930s about the prospects for future world peace, Kane naively says that after talking with all the heads of state, he can affirm that there will be no war in Europe.

The latter film, Vertigo strikes me as even more productive in the light of Haushofer’s project. The film begins with San Francisco police detective, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) failing miserably. He suffers an attack of vertigo while chasing a suspect across the rooftops of the city. When his partner attempts to help him while dangling precariously off of a ledge, the helpmate falls to his tragic death.

The rest of the film piles one failure upon the next. When Scottie’s nerdy college friend, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him overcome his malady, he climbs a stepladder one rung at a time, but gets overconfident, looks out the window of her high-rise apartment down at the street, and collapses in her arms. Scottie fails to see that Midge is desperately in love with him, instead falling for the ghostly Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).

To add insult to injury, Madeleine turns out to be an actress, Judy Barton, hired by the villainous Gavin Elster to impersonate his wife whom he wants to murder. Gavin preys on Scottie’s failure, knowing that at the moment the murderous husband pushes his wife off of a mission bell tower, the wounded detective will not be able to climb the tower to find out the truth.

The film ends with Scottie, having failed yet again, this last time in not being able to bring Judy to legal justice for her role in the murder of Madeleine. Scottie returns Judy to the scene of the crime, only seemingly succeeding when he makes it all of the way to the top of the tower. However, a nun appears out of nowhere, frightening Judy, who falls to her death, with Scottie again unable to intervene in time to stop her from dying. In the film’s terrific last sequence, a low angle shot from where Judy’s body lies, up at Scottie reveals the man, devastated at the loss of his love a second time, with hands outstretched, not in Christ-like suffering, but far worse, in a gesture of complete, ineffectual impotence.

Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s CV of Scottie’s failure. Rather than just showing us his life from the outside—he is a comfortably retired police detective with plenty of free time to do as he pleases—the film documents the many failures out of which his life is constituted. In the middle of the American 1950s, when the straight, white male Scottie should be basking in his privileges, the film opens the hood to find a man suffering from complete sexual frustration. Rather than embracing the love of the wonderfully talented Midge, Scottie takes the word of a murderer and falls in love with a woman he believes to be a ghost but who is really just a liar. Even in a world of privilege, we consist of all sorts of identity positions that threaten to undo us. The fact that a sixty year old film can teach us this is a testament to cinema’s power to engage the past as a method for understanding the present.

–Walter Metz