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Archive for August, 2010

So I’ve been listening to a lot of comics podcasts lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working on a novel set within the comics fan/creator vortex… maybe it’s just because these microphone-slingers are having so much damned fun with the material… whatever the reason, I could use some of what they’re having!

For the record, here are some of the people I’m talking about. Go and listen to them right now!

Tom Vs the Flash (covering Barry Allen’s Fast Times in Central City)

Super Future Friends (a chronological look at the Legion, beginning with Adventure #247)

From Crisis to Crisis (Superman from 1986 to 2006)

Amazing Spider-Man Classics (from the bite until they bite the bullet)

Tales of the Justice Society of America (they’re into All-Star Squadron–a lifelong favourite of mine)

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be a podcaster. Lord knows I love to talk–but recording and editing? There’s no way. Also, I hear it costs money. I don’t have money. Do you have money? Can I have some of it?

So I think I’ll do the next best thing. Grab a fistful of half-assedly preserved newsprint (with any luck, an entertaining one) whenever the mood strikes and make with the fun!

We’ll call it prosecasting.

This is where it starts–Strange Adventures #180 [Origin & 1st app. Animal Man]!

If you’ve read my scribblings elsewhere, you’ll know that I have a long history with this character… but…

We’ll see…

We begin with the essentials

Title: “I Was the Man With the Animal Powers”

Script: Dave Wood (who?)

Pencils: Anagramsci favourite Carmine Infantino

Inker: George Roussos

Colors: No Man Can Say

Letters: Stan Starkman

Query: Can gorillas actually do this?

The cover says yes. My gut says no.

Clearly, however, a “gorilla sock” is doing something to this amazing Infantinophant on the splash page!

Who is this man? How did he wind up in this predicament? What ails this poor elephant’s mind?

All I know is, I hope it ends in a hug…

Page 2: The man’s name is Buddy Baker. He’s just your basic guy who can’t quite work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend (Ellen), and takes out his frustrations on our friends the animals (with a gun and bro named Roger). One day, while out scouring for things to kill, Buddy is laid low by an origin blast! We are now 4 panels into the story! On the 5th panel, a tiger slinks toward the poor defenseless man.

Miraculously, he finds that he’s more than up to the challenge of defending himself. In fact, he’s THE MAN WHO APPROPRIATES ANIMAL POWERS!

Buddy adjusts to his new condition as only a silver age hero can! Get in the ring motherfuckers!

He gives the animal kingdom a taste of its own medicine:

The Tiger!

The Gorilla!

That elephant (named “Bimbo”, apparently)!

A child-eating fuckin’ Sea Lion!

Bobby’s fine, don’t worry…

Buddy Baker mans up to this menagerie of evil (actually just a group of frightened zoo animals, freed when their train went off the rails)

But he’s not done!

Apparently there’s a weird “Hulk” on the loose, a Xemnu-the-Titan-looking-guy who ALSO got animal powers from the blast. This is my favourite part of the story. Who the fuck is this creature? An alien? A mutated animal? No explanation is offered. Apparently, he’s just your basic heartland yeti, crazed by animal powers. Perhaps he too has been working up the nerve to propose to his hulk-mate?

Buddy can’t overpower him, because the “hulk” absorbed more radiation (making him the Man-or-whatever With MORE Animal Powers). Luckily, our hero has it all over the hulk in the brains department. Having reasoned things out with the remarkable, some might say pathological, lucidity of an anthology freak, he knows what his next move must be! The man who had begun his tale by worrying about his rodent-like romantic powers saves the day by scaring the hulk off a cliff with “mouse fear powers”!

You don’t have to take my word for it–here’s the proof:

Oh good job, Buddy–you fucking maniac. I’m glad I met Grant Morrison’s version of you first. Oh yeah, then he proposes to Ellen (we 1980s kids know THAT)–and faints!

But there’s more to this issue!

Palisades Park!

Environmentalism!

The goddamned “G.I. Joe Club”!

Don’t join!

A “Kat” who wants you to build cars (and get “cooled”? that doesn’t sound healthy)

And there was even more for your 12 cents that fine September!

A text page detailing the “Strange But True” saga of a six-schooner pile-up which occurred off the coast of Australia in 1829. Apparently, every crew member and passenger aboard these ships survived and the entire group was rescued within a few days. The affair reaches a satisfactorily “strange” conclusion when it is discovered that a sailor from Yorkshire and his long-lost old mother are huddled together amongst the survivors. Had fate engineered this oddly beneficent multiple disaster solely to unite their little family?

I guess so.

And then there’s the “back-up story”–“One Monster, Coming Up” (penciled and inked, apparently, by George Roussos). This one tells the tale of a bunch of “wildcatters” who get way more than they bargained for when they try drilling for oil on consecrated “Injun” ground… Disgraceful… I can summarize this one in one crazed cross-sectional panel:

Awesome.

After a lot of rampaging, they finally get the thing under control (with the help of some fancy magic relics–and a lot of golden “Indian treasure”).

Do these fuckers learn their lesson?

In a wink: No.

good night friends!

see you next time (probably with more King Vidor posts… but I’m also hoping to do some posting on the immortal 1973 Super Friends! series… I’m talking about the one with Wendy, Marvin and Wonder Dog. Accept no pointy-eared substitutes!)

Dave

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All of King Vidor’s films deal with artists (people who transmute the materials furnished by life into something far more personal than life, properly speaking, ever is), but La Boheme is the first one to be set in the artistic milieu–and the director doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Oh there’s plenty of charming bonhomie and aestheticized “suffering for art” on display–but Vidor pulls out all of the stops to show us exactly what this “boy’s own adventure” into “poverty” is founded upon–i.e. genuine (and inevitable) female pain. Implicit in all of this is a potent critique of the Artist/Muse trope.

We begin with a familiar scene from “Bohemia”–artists sketching a model–interrupted by a visit from the landlord:

The film sticks to this whimsical tone whenever it deals with the never-too-serious plight of its core brothers-in-arts (led by John Gilbert–and featuring Anagramsci fave Edward Everett Horton in a fairly early role). I mean, really, how serious can life get for these guys?

The very bearable lightness of their being is driven home by these little sing-along intertitles:

No, they don’t get paid much… Luckily, they always find some monkey to do the tough work for them:

And when their stomachs rumble, there’s always a banquet to be had, in the pit of the building (a classic sequence):

Lady Bountiful is Musette (art bro Marcel’s girlfriend), played by Big Parade alum Renee Adoree. We’ll get back to her–and the source of her bounty–later.

Poverty is quite a different thing for seamstress Mimi–both more exhausting:

and more abject:

The actress charged with walking these diverse and difficult roads? Lilian Gish, of course:

She enters the art-boys’ world in pretty standard melodrama fashion–they extend the dubious benefits of their “protection” to the hard-up woman of virtue (who steadfastly refuses to pay the landlord with her body). Unfortunately for Mimi, she looks so fetching as she warms herself at the heater that she is pretty much doomed to become muse-fuel for playwright John Gilbert’s fire:


From there, it doesn’t take us long to get here:

And after that, you know her fate is sealed.

However, the interesting thing–as I have been stressing in this series of posts–is the way Vidor finds a route to modern psychology and radical social critique within this  rather old-fashioned narrative framework. From the moment Mimi (Gish) confesses her love to Rodolphe (Gilbert)–and their powerful romantic scene IS fueled by her confession of love, rather than by his inevitable attraction to her–the film shifts drastically in tone, becoming a scathing analysis of what it really means to be (in the hackneyed terminology of yesteryear) the “great woman behind the great man”.

Yes, when Gish kisses Gilbert (becoming his muse), she accepts full responsibility for making a “great artist” of him. “So what?” you might ask. Isn’t that a passive, reactionary position for a female subject? Well, I would answer–“yes and no”.  Reactionary? Definitely. Passive. Anything but. It’s hard to remain muse-ical. In fact, as Vidor’s film shows us, Mimi works much harder–and produces a far more powerful dramatic construct (although only we and possibly one other person are privy to this fact)–than the nominal “artist” of the piece.

How does Gilbert reach his apotheosis? He sits around, jots down notes, takes money (which he thinks he is earning) and looks up (or through the window) at Mimi, whenever he loses his fix on “beauty”.

Meanwhile, Gish fights a war on more fronts than you can shake a phallus at.

She must remain “pure” (i.e. available–in body and mind–only to Gilbert).

She must remain “beautiful” (i.e. well-rested, well-nourished, well-dressed).

She must resist every offer of “assistance” that patriarchal society makes (and she gets quite a few–especially from that damned landlord and this syphilitic count):

In the end, Gish finds it impossible to satisfy all of these imperatives. [Vidor’s greatest films generally give us protagonists–particularly female protagonists–who find imaginative (and by that, I mean aesthetic) solutions to “no-win” situations]. She discovers, very early in the relationship, that Gilbert’s sinecure at a Dog and Cat Fancier’s magazine has dissolved (due entirely to his negligence)–and she elects to fill the financial void herself (by seamstressing herself to the breaking point, working round the clock to earn the money Gilbert thinks he is getting for the little pet articles he tosses off, whenever he can tear himself away from his supposedly magnificent play). By eschewing sleep, Gish courts disaster in a number of ways. For one thing, she contracts tuberculosis. Worse (in her mind), she’s looking more haggard than a “muse” ought to (a female friend lays this out for us–“if you lose your looks, he’ll stop loving you). Things get so bad that she clutches wildly for a shortcut to the success she desires for her artist–agreeing to go on a double date with the Count (who says he “knows a producer”), Musette, and some other rich guy (presumably the one who pays for the banquets she lays out, beneath that hole in the garret floor). When she returns, all hell breaks loose–as Gilbert has discovered that he’s been unemployed for five weeks, and assumes that she’s been playing hooker on him.

What follows is a monstrous scene of masculine egotism unleashed. We are forced to watch our likable small fry artist transform into a dick of unparalleled dimensions–berating Mimi for finding a way to keep him in food while he “creates”, and assuming that she’s done it by allowing others to ravish her body, rather than by submitting that very same frail form to the ravages of insane overwork. Only the long-overdue realization of her consumptive condition puts an end to his petulant (and physically abusive) tirade–at which point the repentant Gilbert puts Gish to bed and runs off to summon a doctor.

Of course, in order to remain true to her muse-conception, Gish must take her tortured body and run, thus saving Gilbert from wasting his chi powers on a lot of unplaywrightlike nursemaiding. In the bargain (the intertitles tell us), Gilbert’s remorse over his insane treatment of this extraordinary woman actually inspires him to create a “producible” drama! Vidor doesn’t waste much time telling that story. His camera makes a beeline for the true passion narrative of La Boheme–Mimi’s sufferings as muse-in-exile. Gish and Vidor go all-out in these sequences, and here I have to allow the film to speak for itself:


banned from the Big Parade to "Art"

It’s a litany of martyrdom with a radical message–the reverse of Gibsonian torture porn. Vidor traces the development of a gendered idea of muse-as-martyr in Gish’s mind, and then follows through as she makes all of her nightmarish dreams come true. A world that offers women nothing but this vast wasteland of stations of the cross needs a whole new slate of channels in a hurry. I would argue that you could interpret much of the director’s subsequent oeuvre as a series of pilots for a new model of female subjectivity…

Finally, Gilbert’s play (who knows or cares what it’s about?) opens–and what a triumph it is! (Actually, it is–but Vidor’s camera says otherwise)

And, as luck (and ill-health) will have it, Gish finds her way back to her lover, just in time to congratulate him (the film, of course, congratulates her) on his success–and die, knowing that the tableau in his mind, at the climactic moment of the narrative, is not his worldly success, but HER declaration of love for him, at the midpoint of the film (and here we get another Vidor flashback–every Vidor silent seems to have ’em!–to the sun-drenched kiss scene). The overall effect of Vidor’s subjective reorchestration (which stresses the fatal demands of the muse/artist structure over the traditionally aestheticized function of the “tragic muse”) punctures Puccini’s platitudes and weaponizes the weepiness of the finale.

We fade out on this brilliant sequence with Adoree and Gish (who else but Musette could understand the true nature–and terrible necessity–of Mimi’s trajectory?)

next time: Bardelys the Magnificent!



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The Big Parade (1925)

Okay, so maybe it’s a tiny bit of a stretch, but I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of Renée Adorée (as The Big Parade‘s Melissande) and Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty” (“Leading the People”)

I’ve been calling King Vidor a “Romantic” and a “Transcendentalist”–and this exercise might help to clarify what I mean by those terms. The Delacroix painting, of course, is one of the quintessential products of European Romanticism–a multifarious movement which exalted human “spirit” (and/or “Nature”) over the dead letter of conformity, legalism and (in its extreme form) “culture”. Perhaps the most important corollary of Romanticism’s quarrel with the school of thought that had preceded it upon the intellectual stage was a tendency to celebrate “the particular” at the expense of that sine qua non of Enlightenment Rationalism–“the universal”.  I’m sure that sounds quite radical, and in a few cases (Shelley, Victor Hugo) it actually was–however, as the 19th century progressed, mainline Romanticism definitely hardened into the aesthetic fist of  Old World reactionary politics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Hegel and derivatives–except for Marx, of course). This occurred because the particular “particular” that most of these folks latched onto was a Frankenstein Monster of “national character” defined by language, scientistic theories about “blood” and pre-Enlightenment Myth. And so in the above painting, “Liberty” rises from the collective breast of the “people” and spurs them to some triumphant realization of the ideal French state.

There was no shortage of this type of Romantic in the “New World” either–especially in the South, where people like William Gilmore Simms hearkened back to a fantasy of Medieval Order that they believed had been “perfected” by that region’s “peculiar institution”. Proslavery romanticism invented a nation (of “whiteness”) within the nation, and gloried in its unique destiny. The really interesting thing, though, is that (with the disturbing exception of Edgar Allan Poe–an anti-democratic departure unto himself) the most vital products of American Romanticism depart markedly from the European pattern. My undergraduate thesis (written more than 10 years ago now!) speculated upon the sources of this divergence. The short answer? If you want to celebrate the distinctiveness of a nation that was brought into being by Enlightenment theory, you wind up clinging to a belief in universal human rights AS the leading “characteristic” of your “particular” heritage. Hence the paradoxical title of the piece: “Enlightened Romantics”. So what are you saying Fiore? America=”good”; Europe=”bad”. Certainly not! However, I do think it’s important to acknowledge this divergence–and to take its implications as seriously as possible. Each intellectual tradition offers its own strikingly different network of roads to (imagined) Utopia and (very real) Hell (and to a whole lot of places in between). As a weird latter-day Gramscian (hence the goofy non-anagrammatic title of my blog), I believe that leftist thinkers who cherish any minuscule hope of steering the ship in the direction of social justice must engage popular culture head on (Adorno is my bête noire; well, Adorno and Ronald McDonald).

Enter King Vidor (and his version of “liberty”–who must remain on the sidelines, while “the people”–exemplified by an American doughboy–clash senselessly). The King is dead (and therefore not making movies any more)–but I would argue that his oeuvre embodies the paradoxical Hollywood/Transcendental zeitgeist (which lives on–for good or for ill) better than anyone else’s. Moreover, his career stretches across such a wildly oscillating chunk of the 20th century–and was thus susceptible to such an extreme range of societal influences–that his auteur‘s progress toward the blinkered paradise that is Truth and Illusion provides a unique laboratory for the student of American cultural history.

I’m bringing this stuff into play with The Big Parade because this is where the King ascended to the vacant throne of D.W. Griffith and assumed the mantle of “America’s Auteur” (long before the term was invented, of course). By 1925, Vidor was tired of making movies that played one week stands and disappeared forever (until the advent of TCM, that is) and he made this fact known to his new boss (MGM’s Irving Thalberg). As most of you reading this will know, The Big Parade changed all of that, becoming the biggest moneymaker of the 1920s, creating the template for every anti-war film that followed it (without ever being explicitly “anti-war” in the way that, say, Milestone’s All Quiet is), initiating the meteoric rise and fall of star John Gilbert and giving Vidor the “prestige capital” to get away with making the inherently unprofitable The Crowd 3 years later.

It’s a major leap from the chamber melodramatics of Wild Oranges (which had 5 cast members) to BP”s grand canvas–and there are casualties along the way to the battlefield. Stylistically, this is pure Vidor–except for the numerous digressions into knockabout “comedy” that came from the Laurence Stallings original. However, thematically, The Big Parade is a real oddity among Vidor’s films–giving us a protagonist who generally seems content to be carried along by the whims of fate (having no vision of his own to oppose to the reality in which he finds himself). Actually, James Apperson (Gilbert’s character) reminds me a great deal of our old pal Reggie, from Bud’s Recruit:

Remember me?

and that’s pretty strange, because Reggie was NOT the protagonist of Bud’s Recruit.

With the exception of The Crowd, I’m more interested in Vidor’s “minor” films–but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to talk about in The Big Parade. For one thing, there’s the title itself, which sounds festive, but which is actually synonymous with these funeral processions:

Talk about marching to the beat of the same ol’ drummer! Henry David Thoreau would be appalled! And, so, clearly, is Vidor. If The Big Parade is an anti-war film, it’s not because it’s a pacifist film, it’s because, in good Transcendentalist fashion, it deplores the regimentation of army life. Sure, there’s brutality galore on the screen, but the extended battle sequence actually hinges upon Gilbert’s trenchbound interrogative epiphany: “Orders? Who’s fighting this war? Men or Orders?” The film is pretty clear about the answer–“Orders” all the way. As soon as the people we’ve spent the first hour with leave their camp, they almost cease to be “men” at all–they become merely the undead agents of the inscrutable metronome of “foreign policy”. (And you’ll notice that we never, ever get a sense that anyone knows WHY they are fighting in France… no “make the world safe for democracy” nonsense in this script! These people are there to march at machine guns and hope–not even TRY–to survive. That’s it.) Vidor is the great prophet of subjectivity in the cinema–and the film’s most carefully planned out scenes give us hundreds/thousands of human beings drained of every trace of that quality; the reified elements of a Busby Berkeley spectacle:

None of this would have anything like the impact that it does if we hadn’t just spent a reel or two watching Gilbert (literally) barrel into something like a sense of self, thanks to this encounter French peasant girl Adorée:

After this bizarre first meeting, she (significantly) recognizes him by a ratty tassel around his right leg (the one he does not lose in the battle):

Their courtship begins as something that is played for laughs, but gradually progresses into an almost-Borzagean fortress against the cosmos. Gilbert’s romance-awakened personhood becomes synonymous with the candle that Adorée holds in the fourth still below (and which Slim extinguishes with spit, when the troops are sent to participate in the big show-stopper on the front):



After the call-up, Adorée becomes the sole keeper of this flame of subjectivity. The “only light in the world”, as the American exceptionalists used to like to say, during the darkest days of the next World War. If you accept this interpretation, then nothing which happens in Belleau Wood actually matters. All of that celebrated battle footage–the reach for the flower (a jauntier precursor of the reach for the buttlerfly in All Quiet)–the deaths of Slim and Bull–the scene in the trench with the dying German (which also has its analogue in Milestone’s film)–Gilbert’s pointless act of  “heroism” (which is presented as pure vengeance)–and even the nonsense with Gilbert’s “cheering family” and the New York end of another (equally dead) “big parade”–ALL of it is just a subjective flatline between this goodbye:

And this hello…. “Liberty reunited with the (man of the) people”… And not “leading” him anywhere but to bed, if my guess is correct!

Here again, this actually seems more like Borzage than Vidor, with two strong visionaries bringing an improbable dream to life by catching reality in a passionate crossfire. (Generally, in Vidor, you only get ONE visionary–often paired with an unworthy romantic partner who becomes aligned with a fate that must be resisted at all costs). All in all, I find The Big Parade less compelling–as an example of what this director is all about–than something like Beyond the Forest or Ruby Gentry…but we’ll get to them, in due course…

As Charles Silver notes:

For Marxist critics, The Big Parade was anathema, since Vidor “centered his comment upon the war in an absurd love affair between a French peasant girl and an American doughboy while men were being blown to bits.” What this writer for Experimental Cinema didn’t seem to realize was that war for Vidor, as for most human beings, is precisely about love affairs and their impossibility under conditions of combat. The tragedy of war is the interruption not of dialectic, but of love and of life.

Absolutely. That’s the director’s position here. Implicit in that position is a characteristic horror of any kind of collective undertaking (which the huge number of Americans who keep voting against health care will certainly understand). This is something that will come up quite a lot (as you might expect from the director of The Fountainhead!) However, it is worth noting that, somewhere between this film and the Rand adaptation, Vidor will also give us perhaps the most astonishing example of subjectivized spectacle ever filmed–in Our Daily Bread. The Vidor oeuvre–and the principles of transcendental melodrama which animate it–contains…well, if not multitudes, then, at least, an unexpected range of attitudes toward the relationship between the radical subject, shared “reality” and the possibility of justice.

That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.


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Wine of Youth (1924)

King Vidor’s first film for the newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wine of Youth lulls the viewer into a comfortable  rhythm with its Jazz Age jocularity–and then rips the skin off its “comedy of manners” facade to expose the capillaries of a culture in (perennial) crisis. Perry Miller famously described Transcendentalism as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism.” Wine of Youth tracks yet another of those tidal movements within the sea of sea-changes that is the American social scene.

The “Wine of Youth” in question is pressed from the soul of our protagonist by the impossibly conflicting demands of “authenticity” and “self-authorization” (call it “will”, if you will). It’s an intoxicating (that means “poisonous”, y’know!) paradox–we equate “freedom” with “choice”, when, in fact, every choice is the abrogation of freedom. Vidor’s film follows one “flaming youth’s” flickering awareness of this phenomenological fact. The person in question–the amazing Eleanor Boardman (in the first of a string of King films–culminating with The Crowd):

The film introduces us to a series of three Marys (each of whom, we are asked to believe, represents the “typical” young woman of her generation). Mary I (destined to become “Granny” in the present-day portion of the film) is shown careening toward marriage to the tune of a polka, sometime during the 1870s. Twenty years later, Mary II (aka “Mom”) waltzes to a similar fate–although not before she voices a few concerns about the ersatz quality of love that is “merely declared.” These quibbles come to naught when Mary II’s beau puts his lips to more convincing use, causing her to exclaim “ours is the greatest love the world has ever known!” These events lead directly to the creation of Mary III–who enters the story with some very definite ideas about indefiniteness:

Will our protagonist emerge from the film with her protean agon intact? Well, as you might expect, no. However, her journey toward the terminus is handled in such a way that we cannot but assume that the terminal case made by “THE END” will inevitably be reopened at some future date–and that Mary IV, whomever she proves to be, can expect a subpoena circa 1945.

Mary III (we’ll just call her “Mary” from now on, since she’s the one in the spotlight) has 2 suitors (“and she ain’t ashamed”)–Ben Lyon (Mr. Serious) and William Haines (Mr. Callow). Boardman’s knowing performance communicates the fact Mary is aware that this specious “choice” is no choice at all. What she really wants is the freedom to throw herself into the social whirl without being courted all of the time. Unfortunately (for her!), her sultry skepticism pokes an eye in even the most powerful storm, creating a pocket of pure pensiveness in the midst of these Fitzgeraldian frolics:

Mary knows that “flapping” isn’t freedom–but she longs to take flight. After a lot of tame bourgeois shenanigans, she hits upon a plan–she and her 2 guys will take a “trial honeymoon” (free of societal pressure and matrimonial maneuvering), in order to forge a more “authentic” understanding of each other. Natually, this shocks Mary I

and amuses Mary II (who understands her daughter’s urge without condoning it–or believing that the gambit has any chance of clarifying matters):

Once Mary III (I guess we need the numbers back after all) leaves the stage, her two elders have it out in an exchange which culminates (after Granny claims that Boardman is “in danger”)  in these very Thoreauvian echoes of Walden‘s “lives of quiet desperation”:

“Danger” is the Vidorian (not to mention Emersonian, Melvillian, Hawthornian, Fullerian, etc) status quo–the inevitability that must be avoided at all costs.

But how?

Certainly NOT by making a chastely illicit run up to the country, no matter what illusions those gusts of open road might conjure up:

The film quickly disabuses its heroine and its viewers of the notion that freedom is so easily won. Soon after the group hits the beach, Lyon gets sulky and Haines gets pervy, leaving Mary in a state of, uh, consternation?

She quickly realizes that the dread “society” cannot be escaped–it can only be confronted… and not head-on either, but rather “aversively” (as Emerson and Stanley Cavell would say). Turn your back on “society” and it’ll assault you in your tent (as Haines attempts to do!) Try to “face” it and all you’ll get is Harpo Marx playing “mirror”. The best we can do is fight our way unclear to a vantage upon the world informed by equal parts Rapid Eye Movement and sidelong glance.

So Mary fakes an attack of appendicitis and goes home–and this is where Wine of Youth gets really interesting. Discovering that everyone is out looking for her, Mary is amused until she hears the angry rumble of the family’s return. She hides in a closet and grabs a ringside seat (alongside the viewer) at one of the most upsetting conjugal disputes this side of Alice AdamsIt’s a Wonderful Life or Woman Under the Influence. Mary’s delinquency provides the spark which ignites a very desiccated marriage. During the next few minutes, this goofy lark of a film turns deadly serious, with Mom (played by the intense Eulalie Jensen) unleashing every poisonous postscript she’d been withholding since the day she made her own “choice”. Near the end of the battle, which simply must be seen to be understood, Mom tells Dad that she’d like to kill him with her bare hands. The pantomime might look a tad silly in a still–however, in motion, it scorches “abject despair” into the sign lexicon.

When Mary emerges from her cache to fling the enormity of her parents’ lifelong deception into their faces, they make a valiant effort to rewrite the story by contorting themselves into a warped imposture of “family feeling”:

Of course, in Mary II’s own long-ago words–“love” cannot be called into being by fiat. This declaration of dependence upon one another–an act of willful reinvention that makes a mockery of any and all notions of “authenticity”–fails to convince Mary III

But the crazy thing is that–after a melodramatic McGuffin involving a bottle of poison that never quite gets swallowed–Mary II and Dad actually discover that they HAVE talked themselves into something like a state of passion for one another. Their tale concludes in a manner that, in many ways, anticipates Stanley Cavell’s “comedy of remarriage” genre! Meanwhile, a strangely dutiful Mary III (inspired by a willful urge to rewrite her parents’ story by claiming it as her own–and attempting to call the placid relationship she had dreamed of rebelling against into “genuine” being? With no coherent “American Dream” to dream against–the revolt against philistinism collapses?) trudges back to the suitor who didn’t try to attack her on the honeymoon and, pretty much by default, throws herself “completely” into the throes of a purely rhetorical “grand passion” that builds the bourgeois sepulcher she grew up wanting to tear down (if she could only fix its position). Her (and the film’s) final words?

Even better than the real thing?

next time–The Big Parade!

good night friends!

Dave

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Don’t it make my orange blue

King Vidor’s Wild Oranges(1924) brings us into the High Silent Age, complete with tinted reels; lush location photography; perfected romantic pantomime; soft focus galore; drooling, lurking evil + its correlative: skulking, cringing fear; the Goldwyn Pictures Lion (see below) and June Mathis “Editorial Direction”.

What’s wrong with this (Goldwyn) Picture?

Last time on Vidor Theatre, Peg O’ My Heart gave us flashes of intense emotion (generated by virtuoso set pieces), diluted by an overly-schematic plot that tick-tocked its way between the high spots in a far from salutary way. Wild Oranges spits out those seeds of logic and lets flow the cinematic zest.

This is not a film for the literal-minded. No Vidor movie is. If you care about whether story points or characters’ actions “make sense” on the surface, you’ll have problems with Wild Oranges. My advice? Stop caring. Because there’s a lot to love here–and you don’t want to distract yourself with the thought that everything could have been settled ten minutes into the proceedings.

We begin tragically, with a newlywed buggy-ride that ends in senseless death:

That tormented, ineffectual groom (John Woolfolk–played by Frank Mayo) is destined to become our problematic protagonist. The scene provides a masterful dramatization of human helplessness. In an inspired touch, Woolfolk’s manic dash back and forth along the path is cross-cut with shots of this piece of drifting newsprint (which actually precedes the buggy-riders onto the screen):

Like Melville’s Ishmael, the dejected Woolfolk decides that there’s a more poetic way to drift and heads out to sea–burying his social self with his beloved bride.

For 3 long years, we are told, it’s just Woolfolk, the waves, the good ship “Yankee” and the craft’s cook + sailor, Paul Halvard (played by Ford Sterling). We catch up with them just off the Georgia coast, when they decide to put into a secluded harbour for supplies. It’s not a hospitable place to make a pit stop, since there’s only one house on this particular shore, and there’s a treacherous sandbar in the way (which will come into play big time, near the end of the movie)–but then again, these guys aren’t looking for hospitality.

Next, we get an interesting ship-to-shore (and shore-to-ship) crossfire of bruised subjectivities.

The cagey Woolfolk uses his binocs to spy on Millie Stope (played by Virginia Valli):

lady, you got any water?

Meanwhile, this old man seems unduly concerned about the appearance of the ship:

Hello, I’m crazed.

This hulking dude is just as disturbed–and looks more capable of making a nuisance of himself:

Then Millie gets in on the gazing, in tandem with the old guy–her granddad (whose neurosis is attributed to Civil War trauma!):

See that? We’ve just met the film’s entire cast (with one very important exception–more on that later). The stage is set for a poor-social-skills pile-up!

Everyone is afraid of everyone else in Wild Oranges. If not physically, then existentially. Hell is definitely other people in this film. That goes for the entire Vidor oeuvre. Every collision, or chance alignment, between subjects is treated as a cosmic event. Every person is a planet, shrouded in an atmosphere of memories, dreams and attitudes. Every friendship, or enmity, or instance of romantic attraction is serious business, and worth charting in full, no matter how badly this warps conventional narrative logic.

Woolfolk goes ashore, which is a big deal for him, and immediately gets more than he bargained for from those eponymous oranges:

I guess there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, right?

There’s bitterness and pungency galore in the scenes that follow this abortive snack. We get a tender exhange between Woolfolk and Millie that is quickly soured by his inability to respond adequately to her joyous discovery of his humanity.

As is usual with Vidor, it is the female protagonist who does the heavy spiritual lifting, moving from this

to this

in an epiphanic flash. And Valli’s face sells it perfectly.

All Woolfolk has to to do is buy in and really accept what she’s offering–but it’ll be more than an hour before that happens. While he’s dawdling, Nicholas (the hulking freak from before), gets to run amok for an unreasonably long time.

Skulking

Threatening:

the guy in the sailor's hat is Woolfolk's pal from the "Yankee"Proposing marriage:

The guy’s an escaped criminal who’s been “helping out” on the Stope place. Once Woolfolk and Halvard arrive, they’ve got him outnumbered 4 to 1.

(Also, this McRuffian makes it clear that he’s ready to take a bite out of crime anytime someone deigns to unchain him):

No one does anything. Because Nicholas isn’t really a “villain”–he’s a massively overdetermined symbol of Woolfolk/Halvard’s isolationism and Millie/Granddad’s lingering paranoia. Vidor cuts back to the chained dog EVERY time Nicholas gets out of line–an extraordinary directorial gambit which exposes, by analogy, the psychological restraints upon Nicholas’ victims.

It gets so bad that our “hero” actually sails off and leaves Millie + the old man to fend for themselves against their tormentor.

“Solitude–and Freedom!” That’s what I’d call my Vidor book, if I was gonna write one. These two concepts–and the relationship between them–form the axis upon which the director’s oeuvre turns. He’ll be exploring these things–and continually reassessing their respective meanings–for the next 35 years. And, of course, he won’t be alone–after all, solitude and freedom make up the marbled gobstopper that’s been stuck in the ideological craw of America since the Puritans came to town.

Anyway, some time later, on his beloved open seas, Woolfolk has an epiphany of his own, dramatized through a flashback to the moment that this man gave up on intersubjectivity, followed by some very Jack-Knife Man style astral projection therapy.

So they head back, for a major showdown with Nicholas.

Unfortunately, they’ve waited so long that Grandpa Stope is completely unsalvagable

And Millie is about to strike Crazy O’Clock:

The battle, when it comes, is quite something. A savagely baptismal re-entry into community and (possibly) a different kind of freedom

That’s Woolfolk doing the biting.

However, in keeping with the film’s oneiric logic, the final bite MUST be administered by that hound. And so it is, when the beast bursts loose and catches up with Nicholas on the pier (while he’s in the midst of blasting holes into the hull of the Yankee–and crewman Halvard).

Vidor’s version of this canine comeuppance does not disappoint.

Mr. Nicholas–he about to be dead.

Woolfolk, Millie and a badly-injured Halvard make good their escape. Grandpa dies and is consumed by the flames which destroy the decrepit Stope manse. Millie goes from fearful girl to navigational hero when she gets the Yankee past the sandbar, against overwhelming odds

And this closing intertitle sounds cautiously hopeful, doesn’t it?

However, the director never lets us forget that the hellhound (who gets a lot of howling screen time) has slipped back into the mix–and he ain’t Rin Tin Tin. Who knows what will come of this freedom (and of its psychological correlatives in the people aboard the Yankee)?

That’s it for now–next Wine of Youth!

Dave

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