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Archive for July, 2012

After John and Mary’s refreshing (but thoroughly culturally prescribed and signposted) “escape” into sexuality and the Sublime at Niagara Falls, the film quickly undercuts that intangible bliss by cutting back to the couple’s cramped apartment in New York City. At first, Vidor lets us believe that the honeymoon’s prophylactic effect has survived anomiespheric reentry, showing a very contented-looking John strumming away on his ukulele:

However, John’s ditty’s lyrics parse out the doomed inside/out pattern of a Victorian “separate spheres” worldview that The Crowd consigns quite unceremoniously to the dustbin of history. Popular jingles might still be peddling the illusion of a “private” realm unaffected by “publicness”; but, by the 1920s, the pedlars and publicists themselves had already done a pretty thorough job of laying down the infrastructural tracks for the rapidly dawning age of mass culture.

Indeed, El is The Crowd. It roars and rolls through all things, including the gates of John and Mary’s domestic bliss bunker, where it soon deposits the singularly superegorific Trinity of Mary’s inaccessibly hard-of-hearing mum and her two white collar stormtrooper sons:

It’s Christmas! And this evil-eyed trio comes bearing gifts of Guilt, Incensed “Frankness” and Murmur, cathechizing John re: his puling “prospects” for economic ascension. He stands trial for as long as he is able to, but the thing is, he shares their homiletic understanding of the world as a place where the good and dutiful are predestined to rise, and he’s already beginning to see himself as one of the “fallen” who isn’t likely to get up. No wonder he takes such violent exception to Mary’s repeated injunctions not to “slip”, as he slips away from the inquisitorial in-laws.

He spends the night drinking with his old office bud Bert (played by old pro Bert Roach), and stumbles home into the arms of a very understanding Mary (the title cards actually tell us that she “understands” him). Things seem destined to remain “swell”, until John spoils it by scolding Mary for “always doing something wrong” when she opens his Christmas present (an umbrella) in the house. Again and again, Vidor works against the stereotype of the “nagging” wife to show us a rapidly maturing Eleanor Boardman weighed down by her husband’s increasingly nagging self-doubt. The upshot is a radically bifurcated (and far from “swell”) flat, shot through with stark vertical lines between our protagonists:

The battle line is drawn, or: taking umbrella-age

Things get so bad that the pair reaches the threshold of divorce, before news of a more welcome intrusion from the Karmic crowd pool pulls them back from the precipice. Mary is pregnant, and for Vidor, unlike, say, for Borzage (whose works express pretty much the point of view contained in John’s doggerel tune – albeit in a far more powerfully poeticized form), there’s no tragedy in tampering with the dynamic duoism of romantic love. As the film’s rapid lesson in domestic cell division has made clear, the world inside was always already “El”. It just took John and Mary a minute or two to trip over the rails. So, yes, “three”, as they say, “is a crowd”; but then again, so was two (or one, for that matter). This film isn’t some chronicle of sovereign subjectivity (or Emersonian “individuality”) under siege. From the moment we meet him (as he emerges from the womb), John Sims IS a member of the crowd. That is to say, he’s a participant in the society that he’s born into (on the 4th of July, no less!) It’s in thinking that he is above the crowd (as when he jeers at the clown or imagines himself to be in an adversarial position vis-a-vis the rest of New York City) that John manifests the most pathological personality traits of the particular mass-mind that Vidor takes for his subject. That’s how “late capitalism” works. It blithely grants the franchise to all of its subjects, knowing (as Marx never dreamed) that a majority of them will always use it to feather the economic nest of the “winner’s circle” they see themselves sailing into, on that much-anticipated day when their ships finally come in.

And really, who can blame them, when the results of even a $500-dollar dinghy docking are so deliriously joyful?

There is no way to put into words just how wonderful this sequence is, or how much it has to tell us about the continuing (and so terribly puzzling, from a critical theorist’s point of view) appeal of the “American Dream”. When the arrival of one not-even-especially-huge check can swell four connected hearts to such epic dimensions, the socialist’s task becomes daunting indeed (and please don’t misunderstand me here — I am as thoroughgoing a socialist as you are ever likely to meet). Vidor, of course, was a socialist (or something very close to one) during this stage of his career, and he quickly steers the narrative away from nuclear bliss toward nuclear calamity, as the youngest of our family’s celebrants is cut down in the street by melodramatic vicissitude before she even gets a chance to partake of the Capitalistic Eucharist furnished by the good folks at “Sleight O’ Hand: The Magic Cleaner”.

The aftermath of this tragedy is heartbreaking to behold, as John realizes, perhaps for the first time in his life, just how implacably clamorous the group organism he belongs to (whether he acknowledges it or not) can be. The men and women on the street are certainly affected by the terrible tableau of an aggrieved father cradling his broken daughter, but (as a policeman later tells John) “the world can’t stop because your baby is sick”, and the crowd’s nocturnal avatar has moved on with its bustling life long before the little girl draws her last ragged breath within the crushed and imperfectly hushed confines of the victorious sloganeer’s flat.

John’s gradual descent into ineffectual self-pity is beautifully handled, as Vidor dramatizes his protagonist’s ironic awakening to his true position as a member of the Crowd just as he finds himself most “out of step” with its irrepressible “can do” optimism. What, John (and his director) asks, does all of this dutiful striving amount to, if scenes like this can’t be prevented?

Those numbers make me think of the bizarrely detached idealist banquet Vidor serves up in Truth and Illusion — although here, of course, they don’t add up to anything very (self-)satisfying. John quits his job, diving into a rabbit hole of despair that soon makes him a rather unfit companion for the robustly healthy Mary (Vidor the proto-feminist takes pains to show us – as in the wonderful beach scene that I could easily have rhapsodized about as well, if I hadn’t already ranted about so many other aspects of this endlessly thought-provoking film – that Mary has blossomed into a far stronger person than John will ever be). Things move quickly toward a Capraesque sequence of contemplated self-destruction, but here, as in everything else, Vidor differs quite dramatically from Capra. In the latter’s oeuvre, the hero would pull back from the tantalizing brink of self-destruction because he is needed (by his family, by his fellow citizens, by the overarching imperatives of some noble cause). Vidor’s John Sims isn’t needed. The director pulls no punches in that regard. The only thing this guy can do is juggle. Mary can easily raise Junior without any help from her erratic husband. However, he is wanted. First by his son, who joins John in the highest-stakes game of “fetch” ever committed to celluloid

… and whose radiant proclamation (“I like you”) is one of the most justly famous title cards in the history of silent film:

Mary likes him too – against her own better judgment, but perhaps all the more wholeheartedly because of that fact.

And when John accepts his long-predestined fate and becomes a self-conscious “man of the crowd” – a mass-culture clown clothed in the advertizing copy that holds consumer capitalist society together – he earns the family three tickets to the post-modern equivalent of the Victorian private sphere’s refuge from all worry and care – the audience! And here, as so often with Vidor, a sequence of shots (taking the Sims family from their pop tune jingling flat to the raucous halls of Vaudeville) can tell you so much more about the astonishingly complex nature of mass-subjecthood than any 20,000 words I might come up with. Do the benefits of spectatorial crowd-membership outweigh the costs bewailed by romantics and Frankfurt School theorists? Does the Sims family’s joyous (and comradely) acceptance of their place alongside their fellow spectators open up greater possibilities for political cooperation and group agency, or kill them forever? Is John’s concern for his neighbor an emblem of his widening empathy, or merely a shrewd prelude to a sales pitch? This is the director’s final “Sleight O’ Hand”, and no matter what answers you come up with to the questions I’ve posed, the images are indisputably magical.

Thanks for reading — and looking!

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In my series thus far, I’ve described King Vidor as the cinema’s preeminent mediator between ideality and the quotidian – a Plotinus/Montaigne (to borrow, once again, James Russell Lowell’s description of Emerson) who, through some miracle of epistemological deep focus, always manages to keep the subjective and the sociological in the shot (and without forcing a Capraesque showdown between these two seemingly incompatible perceptual modes). Nowhere is this more true than in The Crowd, a film which many consider to be his supreme achievement. Set and shot (wherever possible) within the mechanistic whirl of late-1920s New York City, The Crowd shows Vidor the 20th Century Transcendentalist truly engaging, for the first time in his career, with the realities (and the undergirding fantasies) of life in a consumer capitalist society.

Where most of Vidor’s earlier films gave us open air auteurs working within and against the constraints of their social and physical environments to shape their autobiopics on the fly, The Crowd explores the ideological foundations of “idealism”; and without, I would argue, in any way cheapening the experiences of the visionary in question (James Murray’s “John Sims”). That’s John in the film still above, poised on the first step of a double-decker streetcar, quietly contemplating the mysteries of wife-to-be Mary (Eleanor Boardman)’s ass and existence as she makes the climb in front of him.

It’s all part of an extended courtship sequence that helps to place/ensnare these people just as fully within the context/web of their society as Vidor’s more famously virtuoso camera stalk of “#137: John Sims” through the skyscraperscapes and white-collar alleys of densest, brightest America (I’ll just inundate your mind with those images right now, since I know they’re in there anyway, before getting back to John and Mary’s long date).

Vidor’s greatest feat in this film is to create a believable protagonist who is at once absolutely typical (of white middle-class masculinity, at any rate: it should never be forgotten that John belongs to a group that occupied a privileged place within his society – and continues to do so) and utterly convinced of his own atypicality (which, according to the prescient logic of the piece, is what makes him absolutely typical). John Sims is both victim and beneficiary of the American Dream (plenty of his fellow citizens weren’t deriving any benefits at all).

To borrow from the script of Frank Capra’s thematically-related (but tonally very different) 1941 masterpiece Meet John Doe, he’s “the man that all of the ads are written for”

(Later on, of course, they will be written by him — at least once

and on him — possibly for the rest of his life)

(Returning to Capra and Robert Riskin’s script) “He keeps the books” (other John Simses are flying the planes and driving the buses…)

“And when a cop yells: ‘Stand back there you!’ He means [John Sims]”

Yes, John is that elusively ubiquitous quarry of politicians, pollsters, preachers, pundits and publicists everywhere (in our “mass culture” society), the “Average Man.” The sort of guy who, in his classified personal ad (or OK Cupid profile) would undoubtedly describe himself as having “his own of way seeing things” and an “offbeat sense of humour”.

And, as the film begins, he’s about to fall in love with Ms. Average Flapper, 1928.

Their courtship is pointedly banal. He puts her in stitches with some of the least inspired comedy routines ever committed to celluloid (the ol’ smile/frown magic face eraser game), and then dazzles her with some condescending snark directed at a hapless sandwich board clown:

that’s a terrible French translation, by the way… “malin” means “scheming” or, at the very least, “crafty”

To this point in the film, Mary hasn’t done anything except laugh a bit goofily and look like Eleanor Boardman (which, admittedly, is no small thing), but somehow John finds it in his thoroughly mediated heart to utter this declaration as they glide through the balmy city air, looking down upon the masses, from the rather crowded roof of their streetcar:

Yes, this is Vidorian sociology in action. But it’s so much more than that. Unlike John, the director is not condescending to his subject. And, as cliched as their sparse dialogue is, there is no denying the reality of the bond that is growing between these characters. Time and again, during the course of this film, Vidor will surprise us by purposefully melting the icy edge of his proto-Adornian cultural critique by capturing the inarticulate warmth generated by the physical and emotional propinquity of these living, relating bodies whose title cards have been hijacked by the sloganeering cant of commercial copy. John and Mary’s montage/date plays out with the ruthless efficiency and foreordained cultural logic of something that’s been itinerized by some combination wedding planner/urban travel agent. And yet, there’s no denying that it looks like fun!

The whole sequence is a proto-Busby Berkeleyan delight – equal parts inspiration, mechanization and sniggering patriarchal glee.

It’s fantastically telling that, once the couple reaches the end of their culturally signposted journey to the honeymoon sleeping car, their romance hits a bit of snag. The pop taglines and jingles that have scored their lives to this point simply don’t describe what happens after you “neck” and “pop the question”. Simultaneously prurient and prudish, the advertizing culture of the 1920s crept as close to the sexual realm as was politically feasible, and then left the rest up to their increasingly dependent audience’s imagination.

Ah sweet liberty!

These Waldorf and Statler types know where it’s at, but when it comes to sex, John and Mary are left high and unlubricated by their mass cultural education.

Fortunately, they get their respective mojos back by tapping into the ferociously sublime “natural” energy of their era’s most ardently cherished (and prescribed) sexual metaphor: Niagara Falls. Here again, Vidor identifies a multi-layered cultural logic at work, and involves our critical faculties and emotions in the process as it unfolds. We shake our heads as they seem bent on seeing the falls merely as a chastely beautiful backdrop and then cheer as they begin to take on some of its more electrifying properties, turning the postcard “photo op” into something more akin to a “French postcard” tableau. “Naturally”, this is exactly what is supposed to happen – the brochures just can’t mention said fucking by name.

I’ll be back later in the week with Part II of my look at The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me! (And please, feel free to comment, quibble and flat out disagree with me! I’m here to converse with people!)

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(Reposted from my defunct film-only blog — Cailloux de Cinema. I’m finally ready to start following through on this one.)

This Alternative Film Guide piece on Mark Vieira’s new book on Hollywood’s first “Boy Wonder” (Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of MGM) intrigues me, but not for the reasons you might think.

I’m sure it’s a fine book, and I have no doubt that I’ll be checking it out–but, at the moment, I’m more interested in the metacritical issues that its publication raises.

To put it succinctly–enough with the Thalberg already!

Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not objecting to the lionization of the Lion on (Pauline) Kaelian grounds. I love MGM’s early sound catalogue (and it does seem to me that Thalberg’s rep depends upon the films he oversaw during the 1930s, doesn’t it? That’s what the hagiographers focus on. And I want to stress that point because, paradoxically, the studio’s really innovative period came during the late 1920s–with Sjöström and Vidor). I am eager to concede that they made some fantastic films–and (again, unlike Kael) I love Norma Shearer.

However, I must confess that I am baffled by the widespread fixation upon Thalberg. I just don’t see any warrant for it.

Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault? I mean, The Last Tycoon IS awesome. But if you make up a list of the great Hollywood films made between 1929 and 1937, how many Thalberg films would be there? Tastes vary of course, but what MGM films provide an experience to match All Quiet on the Western Front, Waterloo Bridge, Dracula, Frankenstein, Back Street, The Old Dark House, Counsellor At Law, Imitation of Life, Little Man What Now?, The Black Cat, The Bride of Frankenstein, My Man Godfrey, Remember Last Night?, Show Boat (Universal); The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Man’s Castle, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (Columbia); The Smiling Lieutenant, Animal Crackers, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, Duck Soup, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Peter Ibbetson, Desire (Paramount); The Last Flight, Blonde Crazy, Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage, Five Star Final, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Baby Face, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Petrified Forest, Stranded, Living on Velvet, They Won’t Forget (Warner Brothers); Little Women, Dangerous Corner, Alice Adams, Swing Time, Stage Door (RKO); Bad Girl, Six Hours to Live (Fox); Cynara, Dodsworth, These Three (Goldwyn); Our Daily Bread (Vidor) etc ad infinitum?

Again, I’m sure there’s lots of room for disagreement here… and I do think that MGM releases like Daybreak (a Jacques Feyder film from 1931 that everyone ought to see!), Possessed (1931), Freaks, Red Dust, Queen Christina, Mad Love, A Night at The Opera, Libeled Lady and Fury belong on a list with the above items (along with movies produced by Thalberg’s in-house rival David O. Selznick–who somehow always comes in for a beating in Thalberg-love-ins, and the article that prompted this post is no exception!–like Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities)… but there’s no way anyone can convince me that MGM’s films were appreciably BETTER than what the other studios were putting out.

The only difference is that they made money, during the “depths of the Depression.”

Is that any reason for us to get excited about the guy?

Apparently, yes.

And perhaps that’s valid–much of this scholarship, after all, is grappling with the question of Hollywood’s steadying influence upon the country during an insane period in its history. And MGM certainly can take the lion’s share of the credit for that.

But if you wanna talk aesthetics and politics–film for film, MGM lags FAR behind Universal during the early-to-mid-1930s. No?

So wherefore Thalberg?

I get that this was a guy whom intellectuals (i.e. writers) could (and can) take seriously–even though he was primarily responsible for the system that obliterated the screenwriter’s autonomy in Hollywood. And I get that his life story appeals (in a creepy way) to people of all political persuasions who cherish the idea that integrity and success can (or, at least, at one time, could) go hand in hand in America. And Fitzgerald’s investigation of the damage that really living the Horatio Alger dream can do to a potentially sensitive mind is truly unparalleled.

But wouldn’t it be even more fruitful to study the career of a mogul who leaped into the key role at his studio (the same one that gave Thalberg his start–and by virtue of the same nepotistic good fortune) at the dawn of the sound era, determined to present America with prestigious films that proceeded from an almost uniformly, and, ultimately, suicidally counter-hegemonic position (on the economic, cultural and psychological levels)?

Wouldn’t it be great to see some books about Carl Laemmle Jr.?

All I know about this guy is what I read from the movies.

Oh sure, there’s some stuff about him in Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System–a bizarre mixture of insight and maddening conventionalism that is at its weakest when it tries (and it wisely doesn’t try very often) to analyze the films (as texts) themselves.

And I guess I should read this book–although it looks like more of the same, in terms of its misplaced emphasis upon Junior’s faemmle ties, rather than what he did with his six years as a production head.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on Universal’s horror unit too–but, in my experience, none of these works (including Kevin Brownlow’s documentary–which is good as far as it goes, but, like the filmmaker himself, has DECIDED limitations) ever takes the, to me, logical step of connecting these films up with the amazing things that Milestone, Borzage, Stahl, Wyler and even non-horror James Whale were doing at the studio during the same period.

Come on–let’s have a book (or at least a series of blog posts!) on the Lost Tycoon.

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Bardelys the Magnificent was King Vidor’s third John Gilbert film in a row, following on the heels of The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926), but this is the first of the three that deserves the dubious label of “star vehicle”. Based on a novel by historical romance author Rafael Sabatini (author of books that would someday be adapted into deathless classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), it’s a swashbuckling adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition. Long considered a “lost film” (MGM was forced, by the terms of their agreement with Sabatini, to destroy all of their copies of the movie when their distribution rights lapsed in 1936), the piece was rediscovered (minus one reel) in a French vault a few years ago. But for my money, it’s still a lost film – or, at any rate, largely a lost opportunity for its director.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad film — far from it, in fact — but there’s not a whole lot  in Bardelys the Magnificent to suggest the guiding hand of the  cinematic Transcendentalist/feminist whose career I’ve been examining. You can’t get your way all of the time, not in Studio Age Hollywood anyway, and watching John Gilbert smile and frown and careen his way through these lush MGM sets and crowds, you can almost picture King Vidor closing his mind’s eye and thinking of The Crowd. Still, there are “Vidorian elements” to be found, if you exert yourself! I’ve argued that all of Vidor’s protagonists are “artists” of one sort or another – and usually not the sort that paints, sings, writes or dances. Call them willful visionaries if you like. Better still, call them open air directors. That description fits our Bardelys (John Gilbert), who delights in staging reality dramas for his own private amusement (with a dash of noblesse oblige in the bargain).

Case in point, the seemingly sordid little affair that takes up much of the first reel. Gilbert is introduced as a Don Juan type, a silver tongued seducer who deflects his ladies’ legitimate concerns with the formula phrase: “Dark/Fair/Red-Headed(?) Enchantress, can you doubt me?” Apparently they can’t, despite the photographic proof (see above) that, as a counterfeit lover, he isn’t exactly a method actor. He always has one eye trained on the world beyond the stage – a wise move, it would seem, in a land of irate sword-wielding husbands.

Vidor and Gilbert never ask us to take this fight seriously (look at that smile), but for two of the three people involved in the melee, it is indeed a life and death matter. The wife (our erstwhile “dark enchantress”) has (in the parlance of the times) thrown away her “honor” and the husband has had his own dignity snatched from him by a man who doesn’t even seem to have had the decency to have been genuinely present at the scene of the crime. Nor is he really inhabiting this fight scene; he’s hovering above it, making sure the actors hit their marks, trying to come up with a good dramatic twist that will save him from the boring task of executing another cuckold.

He finds it by ribaldly reinterpretating the husband’s awkward lunges as the valiant strokes of virile and worthy lover:

The husband takes this as a compliment (although he doesn’t stop lunging), and the wife jumps back on the marriage bandwagon. Soon, everyone is in on the joke, and Gilbert blesses their reunion by giving them the good-natured bum’s rush:

This is Bardelys’ solipsistic habitus at the beginning of the film. Like the Jack-Knife Man puttering away with the clocks on his barge, our privileged protagonist busies himself by toying with the delicate mechanism of 17th century French society – and he even fixes a few things, occasionally. Of course, it’s the plot’s job to force him out of this comfort zone and into a more challenging directorial assignment – and it achieves that end beautifully, due in large part to the (mostly unwitting) efforts of Roxalanne de Lavedan, whom we first meet in an appealing conference with her cat.

Played by the lustrous Eleanor Boardman (previously seen in Wine of Youth), the director clearly wants to make something interesting of this character. In a truly Vidorian piece, she would have vaulted onto center stage and stayed there. Unfortunately, that enterprise is almost completely steamrolled by the inane workings of Sabatini’s mechanistic plot (not to mention the callow logic of the Fairbanks formula itself), which thoroughly violates the integrity of Boardman’s character, reducing her to a carrot/stick to be tossed back and forth between Bardelys and his “rival in fashion and love” Chatellerault (played by the menacingly mugging Roy D’Arcy):

However, Boardman does impress in her initial scene, rebuffing the evil man’s offer of marriage with beguiling disdain:

“Will I MARRY you?”

When he threatens her family with violent reprisals (it seems they belong to the aristocratic faction that strove to oppose the consolidation of French state power under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu during the first half of the 17th century – we’re in Three Musketeers territory here), she flashes even more of that proto-Ruby Gentry steel, replying “I had only disliked you before, now I must despise you.” Her radiant self-possession is so palpable that it sends Chatellerault reeling – quite literally, as he backs into a snarling pratfall that soon becomes the talk of a very small-minded kingdom.

Vidor’s disgust with class-ridden Europe comes across in every tittering tableau:

Only in this vapid social environment could anything as foolish as the film’s most artificial plot device have come into being. Bardelys and his pals are having a good laugh at Chatellerault’s expense, until the latter turns their jeers against them, demanding, in effect, that our protagonist put his manhood where his mouth is. Chatellerault is no great shakes with the ladies, but he knows his way around this fleur-de-lys-scented locker room, cunningly manipulating confirmed bachelor Gilbert into wagering his entire fortune that he can sweep la belle Boardman off her feet and marry her within three months. I have no idea how this scene plays out in the novel, but I suspect that Sabatini’s Bardelys is more a victim of own hubris than of peer pressure. Vidor’s film communicates a very different (and very characteristic) horror of inauthenticity, as the net of social expectation slowly ensnares Gilbert’s will. Ordered to remain at court by King Louis XIII (played by future talking equine impresario Arthur Lubin!), Gilbert exclaims: “my life is yours, Sire, but Bardelys’ honor is his own”, but the truth is something closer to the reverse. For Vidor, “honor” is a monstrous joint stock company with too many interfering ninnies on its board of directors. The rest of the movie will largely concern itself with examining the dire consequences of signing away one’s right to (as Emerson would say) “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim”.

For me, it’s the strongest sequence in the film.

Many finely crafted scenes, detailing the misadventures of our hero as he goes undercover (as a dead anti-Bourbon leader named Lesperon) to defy the King’s orders and insinuate himself into the good graces of the rebellious De Lavedan family, follow upon its heels, but, for Vidor’s purposes, Bardelys is in prison from the moment he signs Chatellerault’s document – it just takes the plot about an hour to catch up:

During this span, Boardman doesn’t get a chance to do much more than contort her mood and her mug to suit the haphazard dictates of Sabatini’s snakes-and-ladders plot, but she and Gilbert do perform well together in a lavishly shot love scene on the river:

Those obscurantist leaves make nice stand-ins for the problematic elements of this harebrained tale, which effectively prevent Boardman from ever truly making common cause with Gilbert in his quest for subjectivity. She does launch one spirited counterstrike against the moronic exigencies of the plot, when she ambushes the still-incognito Bardelys (and the entire genre) with some impromptu sacralizing before a self-serve altar in the wilderness:

But this is a swashbuckler, not a love story, and we’d never have gotten our swordfights and derring-do if Gilbert had simply come clean with Boardman in this scene. Instead, he pulls away from her, setting into motion a chain of events that will eventually call for her to petulantly denounce Bardelys as a traitor in the presence of the King’s soldiers. This leads to an amusing courtroom scene in which Gilbert is tried for the crimes of the man he replaced en route to his rendezvous with inauthentic romance. Bardelys, it seems, isn’t magnificent enough for anyone in the court to recognize him – except, of course, for head magistrate Chatellerault, who fairly basks in his rival’s plight when the latter begs him to set this question of mistaken identity straight.

“Moi?”

 This is amusing stuff, and the saturnine D’Arcy gets a lot of mileage out of his Mephistophelean position as the contractual owner of Bardelys’ soul. Not to worry though, after a brief brush with imprisonment and an abortive ride to the gallows, our man Faust breaks loose through a series of brilliantly filmed stunts that stand in for his vertiginous escape from the hell of other peoples’ expectations.

Back in charge of his identity and his destiny, Bardelys gives the devil his due, ceding his property to Chatellerault, since it is the latter who has managed to marry Roxalanne (she accepts his second proposal in exchange for his false promise to pardon her true love). Then Bardelys gets back everything he lost (including Eleanor Boardman, whom he can now woo as a purified version of his former self) by shaming his antagonist into falling on his sword (by defeating him in single combat and by making sure his pal the King knows the full extent of Chatellerault’s villainy).

It’s a thoroughly magnificent win-win-win scenario, and, thankfully, there won’t be much of that nonsense in the truly Vidorian films on our horizon.

Our next entry is The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me!

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Julian: “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Vicky: “I was ordered to, but I was much too excited to sleep. So here I am.”

Julian: “Are you? I haven’t seen you.”

Vicky: “Thank you.”

Julian: “By the way, you haven’t seen me either.”

For all of its balletomanic intensity, and despite the justly-praised plenitude of its palette, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is primarily a cinematic soubresaut into the abyss of allegory. From its beguilingly bleak Technicolor title cards (each one a mocking invitation to the dance macabre, with the eponymous crimson seal of aesthetic purity set upon the enchanted but leafless woodscapes they’ve both beautified and blighted) to its harrowing alt-Karenina conclusion, the film rarely misses an opportunity to shine its spotlight upon what (and who) is missing from its mise-en-scène.

We begin with an empty stairwell (with a cultivated horde of youthful barbarians at the gates) and then cut to an empty theatre balcony (soon filled by that same bevy of boorish beauty-lovers). It’s opening night! (For a ballet entitled Heart of Fire) Definitely a time to “be here now”, as the yogis like to say. And the Great Palmer, supposed composer of the piece, is smilingly conspicuous by his presence. So, too, is Boronskaja, the bohemian balletomane’s delight. But this is a production of the “Ballet Lermontov”. And where is Lermontov? The camera takes its time, but it does eventually get around to showing us – and here we get our first glimpse of the film’s taste for dramatic indirection.

 

Yes, that’s Anton Walbrook’s hand, reaching out of the shadows to close upon an irritating summons to appear before the great worldly god Mammon, incarnated in the chummy person of that “great patron of the arts”, Lady Neston. To everyone’s astonishment, the ultra-aloof impresario, whose only god is the ballet, deigns to attend the party. There, he just barely dodges an ambush/dance audition by the hostess’ niece, and then succumbs to an even more mortifying fate when he brags of his escape to a fellow cocktail drinker, sneering “now it seems we are to be spared that horror”. His interlocutor (Moira Shearer), of course, proves to BE that horror, and tells him as much. Lermontov is singularly unperturbed by this mammoth gaffe, opting to press on with the conversation, asking the young lady (her name is Vicky Page) why she wants to dance. Here again, she surprises him, responding with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” And there we have them: “Dance” (or “Art”) and “Life”, presented as parallel (although not yet competing) forces, each with their own irresistible imperatives.

Speaking of parallels, the film has also been following the tribulations of one Julian Kraster, the actual composer of Heart of Fire (ol’ Professor Palmer definitely doesn’t teach ethics), who has his own disconcerting dealings with Lermontov after firing off a denunciatory letter concerning the latter’s unauthorized use of his stolen intellectual property. He soon finds himself engaged by the Company (as an orchestra coach), showing up for work the same morning that Vicky presents herself to ballet master Ljubov (played by the celebrated Leonide Massine) as a potential trainee. Now we begin to meet all of the major players (both on- and back-stage), and begin to get a sense of the daily life of the Ballet Lermontov. Powell and Pressburger tease us with the possibility of some sort of antipathy between Ljubov and ballerina Boronskaja (when the latter arrives nearly an hour late and the former explodes), but their seemingly bitter bickering is soon revealed to be merely a form of ritualized play, and the group (most of whom, I believe, actually were Ballet Russes personnel) comes into focus as a singularly convivial and mutually supportive family (complete with grandfatherly set designer Ratov, played by the always comforting Albert Basserman). Everyone’s so very nice, including the big star that Vicky will have to replace if she’s ever to get on with the business of her inevitable ascent. Everyone, that is, except for “Dad” Lermontov, who, in Walbrook’s carefully judged performance, is only ever as encouraging as he needs to be, and never because he actually cares about his people. (After Ljubov warns him that you “cannot alter human nature”, Lermontov remarks: “No. I think you can do better than that. I think you can ignore it.)

Matters come to an early head, and the symbolic conflict between Art and Life really takes hold, when Boronskaja interrupts a practice session to announce, in a very heartfelt scene, that she is engaged to be married. The whole Company mobs her with their congratulations. It’s an eruption of emotion that is every bit as moving as the dances we have seen – although Lermontov clearly doesn’t see it that way. And we don’t see Lermontov at all. Neither does Boronskaja.

 

“He has,” she concludes, “no heart… that man.”

It’s an astonishing moment. Astonishing and surprising. It’s not exactly the most original bit of scripting. In any other film it would seem ridiculous and over-the-top. But here, thanks to actress/dancer Ludmilla Tcherina’s perfectly calibrated tone of tragic realization, and to Powell’s remarkable staging of the discovery (using a golden pillar and a billowing curtain to indicate the absent man in question), it conveys the film’s allegorical drift brilliantly: Art has left the building.

 Soon, Lermontov spells this out for us (and for Vicky, who is standing nearby, literally and symbolically “waiting in the wings” when he issues his balletomanifesto) in his characteristically sneering manner: “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” Vicky takes the bait, readily leaping into the Red Shoes that Lermontov has been cobbling for her, in his mind, ever since his discovery that she actually has the skills to back up her aspirations and her sexy talk about dancing because she must. Quickly, the impresario asks Kraster to write a new score for Hans Christian Andersen’s grisly fable about a young girl who finally attains the pinnacle of her desire (to dance at a ball in the eponymous footwear) and is eventually consumed by it (the shoes, it seems, like “Dance” itself, have a mind of their own, and, like Lermontov, no heart). Walbrook seems positively possessed as he recounts the events of the tale, gripping a slipper-clad sculpture en pointe as he tells Kraster: “time rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on”.

In a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, Lermontov seems to forget what all of this insane terpsichore is building toward – and when Kraster jogs his memory, asking “what happens in the end?”, the impresario lets go of the foot and replies, offhandedly, “oh, in the end she dies.”

Indeed she (Vicky) does, although, in the “backstage” plot of this film, the protagonist dies while seemingly rushing toward what the allegorical structure asks us to accept as “Life” (leaping off the balcony where she first made contact with her off-stage lover Kraster – the place neither of them was supposed to be, in the dialogue quoted at the top of this post – and the train that enshrouds them in the earlier scene, insulating them, it would seem, from the demands of “Art”, so that “Life” can have its brief fling, is destined to become the instrument of her destruction), rather than expiring  under the unyielding lash of pure aestheticism.

In fact, the only real similarity between the tragedies involving the ballerina Vicky and the character she plays on stage is that, in both cases, red shoes are found at the scene of the crime. Red Shoes that cannot be filled for long. There’s a great deal of symbolic slippage going on here. Do the Red Shoes mean the same thing in P & P’s film that they mean in Andersen’s story? It seems not. They are connected, of course, but the shoes in the fable act unilaterally upon the girl, fanning the flames of her aesthetic desires and then literally subsisting upon them until that energy expends itself. Vicky’s shoes seem motivated by a very different agenda. They certainly don’t get much mileage out of her (Lermontov insists that she’s got a long way to go before she gets a toehold upon the peak he envisions for her). Can we then say that “Art” (and Lermontov) is only one of the shoes that weigh her down? Meanwhile, that other foot, so firmly planted in the banal world of “Life” with Julian, is just as murderously clad in crimson. It is, in fact, the Art/Life dichotomy itself that carries Vicky, and those shoes, in uncharacteristic lockstep toward the precipice.

There’s a lot to say about the patriarchal gender dynamics of the piece – about the culturally-prescribed factors that pushed Powell and Pressburger to dramatize the eternal artist’s dilemma through the subjective experience of a woman- but last night’s viewing caused me to consider a more purely theoretical reading of the film this time around  – i.e. it isn’t the hubristic pursuit of a career (or the resentful decision to “settle” for being a housewife) that kills Vicky, it’s the overweening logic of the film’s (and, certainly, patriarchy’s) organizing allegorical structure itself. And if that is the case, then perhaps the film isn’t suggesting, as many people have inferred, that its protagonist is predestined to die for her “Art”, but rather that she is murdered by the power that she (and, of course, society) invests in the only-superficially-dissimilar devils that she finds on either one of her shoulders (and imprisoning both of her talented feet), whispering and weaving (together) a web of mutually reinforcing lies about the incompatibility between experience and expression that works to limit the horizons of human agency.

Ultimately, what is missing from this film is anyone real for Vicky to interact with. Far from being the “creation” of Lermontov, Moira Shearer (who really is magnificent in the part – never straining to convince us of her aesthetic ambitions, because we can perceive them in her every movement)  is the only truly living being in the piece (at least, after Ludmilla Tcherina leaves the stage), surrounded and continuously mocked by the golden pillars and billowing curtains of an unyielding literary formula.

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The latest entry in an ever-intensifying game of iterate-me-with-your-best-shot that goes back more than half a century, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has inspired some rather high-profile musing about the superhero genre’s lizard-like propensity for storytellular regrowth. No review worth its salt has failed to mention that this is the second Spider-Man origin film in ten years, and I’m not about to buck that trend; however, where many commentators have adduced this fact in order to decry (or merely denote) a sped-up, played-out tendency of today’s entertainment industry, I am more interested in it as another indicator of the superhero’s crucial position as a four-color harbinger (and now Hollywood hallmark) of pop postmodernity.

As any diehard comic book fan will tell you, this business of rapid-fire “rebooting” has deep roots – Marvel (with its ill-fated premature attempts to resuscitate the Submariner and “Commie Smasher” Captain America) and DC (with far more successful second kicks at the Flash and Green Lantern canons) have been doing this kind of thing since the mid-to-late 1950s. Back in those pioneer days of belatedness (just as, I would argue, in our own), this process had exactly the reverse of the stultifying effect that Dargis and Scott ascribe to it upon the segment of the population that took note of its processuality. As I’ve argued (at remarkably tedious length) elsewhere (and perhaps especially here), the situation helped to produce the ideal conditions for a kind of lecture engagée that had no real precedent in the annals of mass pastimery. Of course, in an age before the advent of specialty collector shops (to say nothing of exhaustively complete, easy-to-find, and even-easier-to-afford internet archives), the segment in question (call them a “collecting remnant”) was rather miniscule. However, as the saying sort of goes: mighty coteries from little dork nodes grow. Today’s popniscient public offers living proof of that.

Don’t let your price guides (do they still publish those?) fool you kids, THIS is the Golden Age of superheroes. That’s not a very startling statement, of course – no one is denying that these characters are more powerful than they’ve ever been before. And I will even confess to sharing some of A.O. Scott’s concerns when he notes that “the scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.” There’s no question that, in making the leap from the subcultural trash heap to the mighty multiplex, these stories have sacrificed a great deal of their underdog-in-the-manger vitality. At least on the surface. But to let the matter rest there would be to overlook the genre’s most extraordinary power of all – i.e. its ability to unite readers/viewers from across the political/social spectrum (many of whom would never deign to speak to each other in any other context) in passionate group appraisal and debate of each beloved character’s continuously evolving historiographical trajectory. As a kid, what I fell in love with about superheroes, far more than any specific panel or page, was the interpretive scrum that I plunged into every time I poked my nose into a letters page – and today, as an adult, my engagement with them is even more heavily focalized through podcasts, forums, blogs and the like. These are the places I turn to (certainly far more than any of our hopelessly uninspiring North American political institutions) when my faith in the democratic project wanes. These supposedly ephemeral products of the “superstructure” (and the even less heralded glosses and “fanotations” they generate) constitute, for me, the embryonic, but very definitely beating, group heart of a truly intersubjective community-to-come. And, strangely enough, that oddly spastic organ is now being kept alive (while also, I will readily admit, “being played”) by “Big Hollywood”.

All of that was just a round-about way of saying: “yeah, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man tonight, and I check out just about every superhero movie they churn out”. (And also: “yeah, I think they’re culturally significant events.”) Not only because many of these films do present the characters as “avatars of reaction” (to quote Scott and Dargis – and, I must say, I think that label applies more completely to Christopher Nolan’s Bat-chise, which these NY Times people seem inexplicably to like, than to just about any other genre entry I can think of), but also precisely because their increasingly reliable release schedule furnishes critics and commentators (both paid and unpaid) with regular opportunities to make these kinds of statements.

So what did I think of The Amazing Spider-Man? Well, I liked it a lot! And probably, I must say, more than I would have liked it if I hadn’t seen all three of the Tobey Maguire spideys first. It’s not that hated those Sam Raimi-directed efforts (each one definitely contained many likable elements – from J.K. Simmons’ JJJ to the strange chocolate cake wielding girl next door to Topher Grace’s gleeful, pre-alien-possession church prayer for the death of Peter Parker), but, on the whole, I really disagreed with Raimi’s gothic, Danny Elfman-ridden take on Peter (and even more so with his inexplicably stodgy deflation of the unsinkable Mary Jane Watson, whom I grew to love during Gerry Conway’s 1970s run on the comic book). As some critics have noted, the genre-splicing of superheroics with the indie-romantic-comedy-coming-of-age-film serves Spider-Man much more effectively than Raimi’s desperately auteurish superhero/monster movie mash-up. (This is why I find Dargis’ contention – and she’s not alone, by any means – that Webb didn’t bring a sufficiently original approach to the material so baffling – this spider-film isn’t even the same genre as the 2002, 2004 and 2007 entries!)

Don’t think I strolled over to the theatre as a “friendly witness”. On the contrary, the trailers for the film, with all of their talk of Peter’s special “destiny”, had me quite worried. As my tweets will confirm, I was not prepared to look kindly upon any story that deviated from presenting the protagonist as a regular schnook, randomly empowered and correspondingly forced to rethink his “responsibilities”. Well, there was a deviation, and, to my surprise, Marc Webb managed to convince me that Peter Parker (in the comic books that I grew up with) never was a regular schnook. How could he be, with all of this web shooter inventin’, instant photojournalistin’ and Gwen-n’-MJ-lovin’ going on? Peter, as conceived by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gil Kane, Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Roger Stern and many other notables, is a personality-plus kinda guy. Sure, he’s a little bit shy when we first meet him, but even then, as film critic/philosopher Stanley Cavell (after Ralph Waldo Emerson) would say, “he is fit to stand the gaze of millions… [he] carries the holiday in his eye.” In other words, he’s a romantic comedy protagonist (Cavell prefers the term “Hollywood comedy of remarriage”). I liked Raimi’s films best when he veered in this direction (i.e. near the end of Spider-Man 2). Sadly, he didn’t do it nearly enough, and, even when he did, the bizarre, tortured performances that he demanded from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (both of whom I have liked in other films) worked against that kind of lightheartedly serious effect.

With the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (who reinvents the historically rather tepid Gwen Stacy as a character to be reckoned with, while keeping the fetishistic nostalgia fiends in the audience at bay by dressing in the time-honoured accoutrements of her feeble four-color self), Marc Webb got it right. Sure, the Lizard is a somewhat less-than-captivating villain (especially since he’s deprived of his perennially perturbed wife and son Billy, from the comics). Who cares? Spider-Man was never about the villains. It was – and, in this one writer’s opinion, IS – about a gifted young man webswinging his way between humor, hormones, and heroism (just another name for moral responsibility) – and doing his damnedest to avoid posing next to American flags. Marc Webb got that right too.

What do you think?

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