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.
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.”
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!
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.
Next time–Bud’s Recruit (1918).