Posts Tagged ‘cross-cutting’

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.



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!



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Made in 1917–the year the U.S. plunged into “The Great War”–Bud’s Recruit gives us the King at his callowest. Financed and written by “Boy City” impresario Judge Willis Brown (sort of the poor man’s Father Flanagan),  and certainly circumscribed by that stodgy gavel-wielder’s point of view, this flag-waving short nevertheless manages to ring up the curtain on its 23-year old director’s master subject in a very interesting way. For Hollywood’s premiere Transcendentalist, the eternal conflict (and the strange interdependence) between individual will and collective action is the source of ALL drama. Bud’s Recruit reduces the paradox-ridden drive to simultaneously make and break society’s rules to its purest (and most naive) terms.

A very precisely structured two-reeler, the film begins by introducing us to Bud at play with his disturbingly well-equipped little pals:

While performing mock-maneuvers in the idyllic countryside, the youngest member of the group falls behind and pretty much gives up:

That pup is sympathetic, but the tyke’s human comrades are less forgiving.

“What’s the penalty for desertion?” Bud asks.

Why, “Death!” of course…

And so:

Fortunately, this particular slacker’s mom happens onto the scene just as the mob closes in upon him with their toy bayonets. In another director’s film, this little vignette might serve as an indictment of the untrammeled will.

Not here.

Mom doesn’t stoop to moral suasion. She pumps her fists until they run away, then smacks the hell out of a scarecrow/tackling dummy version of the Kaiser–just to drive home the point that violence, when directed against the proper target, is as American as apple pie.

High spirited kids (and kids at heart), playing deadly serious games–that’s what King Vidor’s all about.

Thwarted in the attempt to bring his battlefield of dreams to life, Bud Gilbert heads home for dinner. There, we meet Mom (a leading light in the pacifist movement), the family’s  Black butler, and effete brother “Reggie”–a real lawn-chair lizard:

We are quickly informed that Reggie has drawn a lucky number in the draft lottery, and can look forward to at least two more years of the free and easy civilian life. This pleases Reggie, who has a lot of tennis-playing and cardigan-wearing that he needs to do. Mrs. Gilbert is, of course, equally pleased–her motto is “Peace at any Price”. Reggie’s girlfriend Eliza is torn. She wants him to be safe, but she doesn’t like thinking about the “yellower” implications of his behaviour. Bud–like all good Vidor protagonists–has no doubts at all: Reggie is the scum of the earth. When he realizes that the dinner is to be “meatless” (thanks to rationing demands) as well as spineless, he goes up to his room doubly disgusted.

We catch a glimpse of Vidor’s progressive (by 1917/1918 standards) racial attitudes in the relationships he establishes between the respective bothers and their butler. Reggie takes the manservant completely for granted, never looking him in the eye or engaging him in unnecessary conversation. Bud, on the other hand, enjoys a fun, bantering camaraderie with the distinguished older man, who takes pity on his young charge and sneaks a steak up to him:

By George Washington, he's got it!

The remainder of the plot is quite bizarre, but has a beautifully mechanistic logic to it.

The “pacifists” are exposed as small-minded–even querulous–old biddies:

Reggie’s despicable nature reaches its apotheosis in this mocking salute to all that is foppish and ungallant:

Eliza sprouts a conspicuously star spangled appendage:

And Bud decides to save the family honour by stealing his brother’s draft card, donning a fake moustache and reporting (as Reggie) as a voluntary recruit:

When the local paper lists Reggie on its “Honor Roll” of boys who’ve done the right thing by their country, the real elder Gilbert has a big decision to make. Bud, never doubting his brother’s incapacity to be a mensch, lays it all out for us: “you’ll have to leave town immediately!”

But then the movie throws us kind of a curve, via an expertly Griffithian cross-cut sequence that alternates between a dejected Reggie (surrounded by train station propaganda posters) and an exultant Bud (preparing to become the army’s first felt-moustached doughboy). Finally, Reggie mans up and cries “Uncle Sam”:

Look at 'im go!!!

The really amazing thing about all of this is that Bud’s Recruit is NOT about Reggie’s gradual progression from hopelessly self-centered wuss to champion of the democratic freedoms. If it was, would our last shot of “Bud’s Recruit” (i.e. Reggie) look like this?

I think not.

The film’s true subject is Bud’s quest to become (in Shelleyan terms) the unacknowledged legislator of his little world. Vidor is Hollywood’s supreme poet of the Will–with all of the exciting and disturbing implications that come along with that title. In later years, the director’s protagonists will generally have far more complex aims–and more nebulous foes than “The Kaiser” (culminating in a series of extraordinary melodramas that stage and re-stage the battle between One Strong Woman and Patriarchy Itself–but those are a long way off). For now though, we have a young man and his (technically not) technicolor dreams:

I’ll close with the movie’s moving final image–and its dialect-diminished final tribute to…whom?

An astonishing statement to be attributed to a person living under the Apartheid conditions of the 1910s–but then, King Vidor’s America has never been any more grounded in reality than Bud’s. However–also like Bud–this director is destined to become a master of marshaling the trappings and surfaces of the social and material worlds into the cinematic service of the Emersonian Self.

See you soon friends!


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