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Archive for November, 2009

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King Vidor’s Truth and Illusion (1964–no IMDB entry!!!) treats the viewer to the remarkable spectacle of an artist erecting his own tombstone.

That’s the truth.

Fortunately, Vidor’s oeuvre will always be around to ensure that the feeble speculation contained within this film never becomes anything more than an illusory epitaph for the great director.

Truth and Illusion (subtitled An Introduction To Metaphysics) is, first and foremost, a declaration of creative bankruptcy–and should never be confused with an “interpretive key” to King Vidor’s narrative works. However, it does not follow that it is irrelevant to a discussion of the films. Much like Frank Capra’s rose-coloured memoir The Name Above the Title, this 25-minute 16mm piece gives us direct access to intellectual temptations (in metastasized form) that must have been twinkling away within the director’s mind throughout his career. And yet, there is no denying that this cheap, watered-down Platonism (and we’ll get to the “substance” of the ideas in a moment) played an immensely important role in shaping Vidor’s art, so long as it remained in a productive tension with his gut-level perceptions. Vidor’s Transcendental tendencies give even his most “overwrought” melodramas a kind of balance that they could not otherwise possess–in effect, the naive egotism contained within T & I had lent Vidor the courage to dive so completely into the subjective experience of figures like Stella Dallas, Ruby Gentry and Rosa Moline. In the end, it seems, this courage (like aging muscles) turned to flabby, airy thoughts–but we did get 30 years’ worth of fascinating films out of the guy before it happened.

That’s a good trade.

Emerson, in one of his more T & I-ish stupors (F.O. Matthiessen called it “the optative mood”), would have called it “Compensation.”

Truth and Illusion: An Introduction To Metaphysics is structured as a kind of catechism, with various mentally deficient interlocutors seeking guidance from our narrator, down-home guru King Vidor.

Early in the film, after a few meandering notes about the ways in which film stills take on the illusion of movement, we get this exchange:

Dumbass: “But what do these exposées have to do with our daily life?”

Vidor: “The basis for happiness is knowing what is true–thereby dispelling the illusion of what is untrue.”

WHAT?

The entire self-satisfied film, a guided tour of Simon pure Idealism throughout the centuries, is constructed upon this premise. For whatever reason, Vidor takes comfort from the notion that all reality is subjectively constructed (i.e. Bishop Berkeley‘s conclusion that there is no way to prove a world beyond the confines of the human senses). For serious intellectuals, this insight can be the beginning of thought and art –Existentialism would be impossible without it. For Vidor, in 1964, it has become an endpoint: “Life is what you make of it–so just think of it as good.”

The whole world of the mind is your playground, so use as many letter As and number 5s as you want!

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Exciting stuff, I’m sure, but King, what about Stella Dallas? Is she just imagining patriarchy? What about the motherfuckin’ Holocaust?

It’s very telling that, when Vidor starts namechecking his influences near the end of Truth and Illusion, he goes from Plato to Berkeley to Kant to Mary Baker Eddy. The whole piece is very New Agey and Laws of Attraction-y and this recourse to the founder of Christian Science comes as no surprise. It also makes sense that Vidor skipped over Ralph Waldo Emerson here–because, while Waldo did have many Christian Science-type moments, he also wrote stuff like “Days” and “Experience.” Emerson, at his best, was a Plotinus-Montaigne (James Russell Lowell did a greater thing for criticism than he knew, when he formulated this jest)–equally attentive to infinities and particularities.

Vidor, in his prime, looked at the world through a similarly stereoscopic lens.

In Truth and Illusion, he publicly shut his eye for detail, leaving a very distorted picture in its wake.

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Next time–Bud’s Recruit (1918).

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Keep those curtains wide open. There’ll be plenty to see (and discuss) around here for the next little while. The topic? The films of King Vidor.

Aficionados know all about this guy’s snakes and ladders journey across the first perilous century of film criticism. One of the most revered figures in Hollywood during the 1920s, Vidor’s rep probably took an even bigger hit than Frank Borzage’s during the latter stages of his own lifetime (1894-1982).

It’s not hard to see why.

For one thing, during the classical (sound) era, the director gravitated increasingly toward the kind of no holds barred melodrama that critics in search of cultural capital felt duty-bound to deride. Today, looking back from the other side of the “high-/low- brow” divide, we understand that the people who savaged Vidor’s “bourgeois sentimentality” (usually expressed in the same gendered terms used to marginalize ANY art centered upon the emotional life of the modern subject) were far more trapped within the middle-class looking glass than they knew. To me, nothing smacks more of “false consciousness” than the pallid observations of critical theory. I mean, really, how you gonna have a revolution without Ruby Gentry or Rosa Moline (or the intense dissatisfaction they represent)?

Another major aspect of the “Vidor problem” is the director’s wild rightward shift across the political spectrum, during the 1940s and 1950s. HOW did the director of The Crowd and Our Daily Bread wind up making An American Romance? It’s a real puzzler–at least on the surface. Not a good idea just to dismiss it either–not if you really want to understand what the hell happened to the country as a whole, after the end of the Great Depression.

And you know, it’s exactly the kind of problem that a student of Transcendentalism (and its effects upon American aesthetic and political culture) might be able to do something with. That’s me. Also, as luck would have it, Vidor was enough of an intellectual to proclaim his Emersonianism in a number of places–most notably in his aesthetic autobiography (A Tree Is A Tree) and in the 1964 documentary Truth and Illusion: An Introduction To Metaphysics. So the stage is set–and (thanks to the magic of avi files) I now have access to ALL of the sound films and a large percentage of the silents (including all of the key entries from Vidor’s glory days at MGM under Thalberg).

So we’re gonna do it. Chronologically, I think (with an introductory piece on Truth and Illusion to kick things off). I’d love to promise one entry every week, but I won’t go quite that far. This blog is never gonna be completely stable. I’m sure King Vidor would approve of that.

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Oil up your rubber plant leaves, we’re in for a vertiginous afternoon…

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Inspired by David Cairns‘ wonderful Vertigo post, I took another look at the film (a longtime favourite) last night. And today, as fate would have it, I find myself in possession of the power and the freedom to do something about it.

But what?

I’ve read so much about this movie–and referred back to it in so many discussions (often revolving around Lynch, De Palma or 1970s Amazing Spider-Man comics)–that I’m not sure where to begin my own proper blog entry on Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

I do, at least, feel comfortable describing the film in those terms. But that’s where the comfort ends. This is a polarizing movie. And it should polarize you, as a viewer–especially if you happen to be a male gazer. When I first saw it, as a youngster, it made me really unhappy. I found it bleak, incoherent and, above all, misogynistic. (Interpretations of this sort are available in great abundance on the web.) These days, after somewhere between ten and twenty subsequent viewings, I can’t really argue with my 12-year old self–Vertigo really was built with those monstrous materials.

The difference is that, as an adult, I am willing to concede (which is not the same thing as accepting–in fact, for me, it’s quite the opposite) that bleakness, incoherence and (don’t kid yourself dude) misogyny make our sad orb go ’round. Once you make that concession, it becomes possible to understand that Vertigo itself is a plunge into the swirl of fallenness that shapes (or distorts–or both) our daily lives. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Vertigo is a sick film… a spiteful film. However, unlike our troubled Russian friend, Vertigo is very attractive indeed.

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I like to think of this movie as the depressive rhyme to Emerson’s famously manic intuition of the Sublime:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.

Apparently, Judy-as-Madeleine Elster doesn’t agree with ol’ Waldo. Maybe tree size matters? Those East Coast woods are a lot less intimidating…

Vertigo is retrospective… everything happens too late… and it builds the sepulcher of Patriarchy–trapping our protagonist in a terrible tomb. Yes. If I have anything even moderately new to introduce to the immense discussion about Vertigo, it’s that Kim Novak’s character is the hero of the piece.

Of course it doesn’t start out that way. For more than an hour, the film lulls us into a very comfortable affinity with the subjective experience of Jimmy’s glib jerk.

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What remains to be said about Stewart? He’s probably the most important male screen star of the 20th century. An incredibly complex figure–and a one-man argument in favour of the narratological usefulness of the star system. The cinematic embodiment of kindness and decency (although he played A LOT of parts that don’t bring these values into play at all)–everyone loves him, even after they discover, to their (or, at least, to my) horror, that he was a rabid right-winger, a proud carpet-bomber and a demented Vietnam hawk… And it means something, something terrible, something very hard to put into words, that “Scottie” Ferguson rasps Judy Barton to her doom in the same injured-boy tones that Jefferson Smith had used in fighting for the lost cause of democratic freedom in 1939.

But there’s no reason to mince words here.”Scottie” is an ASSHOLE. We know this right from the start. Or, at least, we know it from the moment that we see him in action with the much-put-upon Midge. We should know it, anyway–take a look at him up there, teasing his friend with his weirdly wandering innuendo. But it’s hard to see. This is Jimmy, after all. And he even does a Philadelphia Story-style comic drink take, as Midge dashes out the door to Pop Leibel’s. He might seem a bit crusty, here and there (or drop the occasional bomb), but we feel confident (the first ten times we see the movie), that there’s a good man in there somewhere. And, obviously, Midge is just as taken in by the Stewart oeuvre as the audience is–why else would she put up with his shit? The star’s track record protects Midge from seeming like a fool–allowing us to take her seriously as a character. She sees the same genial mirage that we do.

Ferguson, meanwhile, is in the grip of another, far more palpable, delusion:

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This is the look Scottie ought to have been trying to recreate, if you ask me… And the fact that I’m only half-kidding about that cuts to the heart of this film’s power… Most of us, I think, know what it’s like to become more preoccupied with an image of beauty than is good for us. Vertigo can’t work at all if you don’t become complicit in Stewart’s objectification of Kim Novak. Mea culpa.

And there’s no question that, after the gloriously intersubjective promise of 1930s screwball (in which men and women actually seem to like each other), this objectifying “love” represents a massive step backward (particularly with that lovable screwball Midge relegated to the sidelines, in her cold driver’s seat, whispering: “Well now Johnny-O. Was it a ghost? Was it fun?”)

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Yup–it’s the ghost of his own desire… But there’s no fun here.

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This is “Romance” Midge. This is FUCKED. Get with the program.

Among other things, Vertigo is a crash course is the historiography of movie love.

And it blossoms into full-blown critique when Judy Barton, our thirties-style “shopgirl heroine” comes into focus as the subject at the core of the narrative:

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Some viewers are annoyed by the supposedly premature revelation of Judy’s identity, but these people are deeply confused. I’m not the first to point this out, of course, but I want to stress that the shift to Judy’s POV is the most breathtaking narratological redirect in the history of the cinema. Or anyway, it’s right up there with the subjective jumpcuts that keep Mulholland Dr. hopping. In the blink of an eye, through the looking glass of Judy’s memory, Vertigo goes from misogynistic thriller to feminist tragedy. After the above-pictured moment, the hard decisions are all made by Kim Novak…and this sometimes-maligned actress–whom I personally love in just about everything, but especially here–rises magnificently to the task. As she later tells Ferguson, she deliberately puts herself in harm’s way during the second half of the film.

Why does she do it?

It’s because, having magnetized him once, as a prepackaged confection, she longs to repeat the feat… making him love her “for herself.” Ferguson is an automaton during the entire second half of the film… People have interpreted the Judy section as Stewart’s fantasy… That he never actually emerges from his catatonic state, and concocts this weird story as a way of assuaging his sense of failure. There’s not a lick of sense in it. If these events are the stuff of anyone’s dreams–they’re Judy’s (and, of course, they’re nightmares). It’s far easier to make the case that Elster’s erstwhile accomplice, consumed by guilt, devised this scenario as a way of punishing herself for her role in the murder. This would account for the total absence of Midge in Judy’s section (Judy doesn’t know she exists) and would also explain the nun-sensical leap off the tower (which calls back to Madeleine’s scripted memory of “Sister Theresa” scolding the children for daring to venture into their favourite play area–a commentary upon the ways in which patriarchy forces women to police each other’s jouissance?).

Ultimately, I don’t have much interest in “what’s a dream, what’s reality?”-type analyses of deliberately oneiric films (this impatience bubbled up most famously in the Mulholland Dr. debates of yore). I’m interested in exploring subjective states–and examining the preconditions (or the possibility) of intersubjectivity. Vertigo does the first extraordinarily well–making us feel both what it’s like to desire and to be desired under the dark star of patriarchy… And it confronts us with all of the questions (re: the second) that no well-adjusted person wants to ask–because we’re afraid the answers will leave us right here, on the brink of a deeply non-Emersonian Sublime:

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