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Posts Tagged ‘Busby Berkeley’

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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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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