Posts Tagged ‘intersubjectivity’

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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Oil up your rubber plant leaves, we’re in for a vertiginous afternoon…


Inspired by David Cairns‘ wonderful Vertigo post, I took another look at the film (a longtime favourite) last night. And today, as fate would have it, I find myself in possession of the power and the freedom to do something about it.

But what?

I’ve read so much about this movie–and referred back to it in so many discussions (often revolving around Lynch, De Palma or 1970s Amazing Spider-Man comics)–that I’m not sure where to begin my own proper blog entry on Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

I do, at least, feel comfortable describing the film in those terms. But that’s where the comfort ends. This is a polarizing movie. And it should polarize you, as a viewer–especially if you happen to be a male gazer. When I first saw it, as a youngster, it made me really unhappy. I found it bleak, incoherent and, above all, misogynistic. (Interpretations of this sort are available in great abundance on the web.) These days, after somewhere between ten and twenty subsequent viewings, I can’t really argue with my 12-year old self–Vertigo really was built with those monstrous materials.

The difference is that, as an adult, I am willing to concede (which is not the same thing as accepting–in fact, for me, it’s quite the opposite) that bleakness, incoherence and (don’t kid yourself dude) misogyny make our sad orb go ’round. Once you make that concession, it becomes possible to understand that Vertigo itself is a plunge into the swirl of fallenness that shapes (or distorts–or both) our daily lives. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Vertigo is a sick film… a spiteful film. However, unlike our troubled Russian friend, Vertigo is very attractive indeed.


I like to think of this movie as the depressive rhyme to Emerson’s famously manic intuition of the Sublime:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.

Apparently, Judy-as-Madeleine Elster doesn’t agree with ol’ Waldo. Maybe tree size matters? Those East Coast woods are a lot less intimidating…

Vertigo is retrospective… everything happens too late… and it builds the sepulcher of Patriarchy–trapping our protagonist in a terrible tomb. Yes. If I have anything even moderately new to introduce to the immense discussion about Vertigo, it’s that Kim Novak’s character is the hero of the piece.

Of course it doesn’t start out that way. For more than an hour, the film lulls us into a very comfortable affinity with the subjective experience of Jimmy’s glib jerk.


What remains to be said about Stewart? He’s probably the most important male screen star of the 20th century. An incredibly complex figure–and a one-man argument in favour of the narratological usefulness of the star system. The cinematic embodiment of kindness and decency (although he played A LOT of parts that don’t bring these values into play at all)–everyone loves him, even after they discover, to their (or, at least, to my) horror, that he was a rabid right-winger, a proud carpet-bomber and a demented Vietnam hawk… And it means something, something terrible, something very hard to put into words, that “Scottie” Ferguson rasps Judy Barton to her doom in the same injured-boy tones that Jefferson Smith had used in fighting for the lost cause of democratic freedom in 1939.

But there’s no reason to mince words here.”Scottie” is an ASSHOLE. We know this right from the start. Or, at least, we know it from the moment that we see him in action with the much-put-upon Midge. We should know it, anyway–take a look at him up there, teasing his friend with his weirdly wandering innuendo. But it’s hard to see. This is Jimmy, after all. And he even does a Philadelphia Story-style comic drink take, as Midge dashes out the door to Pop Leibel’s. He might seem a bit crusty, here and there (or drop the occasional bomb), but we feel confident (the first ten times we see the movie), that there’s a good man in there somewhere. And, obviously, Midge is just as taken in by the Stewart oeuvre as the audience is–why else would she put up with his shit? The star’s track record protects Midge from seeming like a fool–allowing us to take her seriously as a character. She sees the same genial mirage that we do.

Ferguson, meanwhile, is in the grip of another, far more palpable, delusion:


This is the look Scottie ought to have been trying to recreate, if you ask me… And the fact that I’m only half-kidding about that cuts to the heart of this film’s power… Most of us, I think, know what it’s like to become more preoccupied with an image of beauty than is good for us. Vertigo can’t work at all if you don’t become complicit in Stewart’s objectification of Kim Novak. Mea culpa.

And there’s no question that, after the gloriously intersubjective promise of 1930s screwball (in which men and women actually seem to like each other), this objectifying “love” represents a massive step backward (particularly with that lovable screwball Midge relegated to the sidelines, in her cold driver’s seat, whispering: “Well now Johnny-O. Was it a ghost? Was it fun?”)


Yup–it’s the ghost of his own desire… But there’s no fun here.


This is “Romance” Midge. This is FUCKED. Get with the program.

Among other things, Vertigo is a crash course is the historiography of movie love.

And it blossoms into full-blown critique when Judy Barton, our thirties-style “shopgirl heroine” comes into focus as the subject at the core of the narrative:


Some viewers are annoyed by the supposedly premature revelation of Judy’s identity, but these people are deeply confused. I’m not the first to point this out, of course, but I want to stress that the shift to Judy’s POV is the most breathtaking narratological redirect in the history of the cinema. Or anyway, it’s right up there with the subjective jumpcuts that keep Mulholland Dr. hopping. In the blink of an eye, through the looking glass of Judy’s memory, Vertigo goes from misogynistic thriller to feminist tragedy. After the above-pictured moment, the hard decisions are all made by Kim Novak…and this sometimes-maligned actress–whom I personally love in just about everything, but especially here–rises magnificently to the task. As she later tells Ferguson, she deliberately puts herself in harm’s way during the second half of the film.

Why does she do it?

It’s because, having magnetized him once, as a prepackaged confection, she longs to repeat the feat… making him love her “for herself.” Ferguson is an automaton during the entire second half of the film… People have interpreted the Judy section as Stewart’s fantasy… That he never actually emerges from his catatonic state, and concocts this weird story as a way of assuaging his sense of failure. There’s not a lick of sense in it. If these events are the stuff of anyone’s dreams–they’re Judy’s (and, of course, they’re nightmares). It’s far easier to make the case that Elster’s erstwhile accomplice, consumed by guilt, devised this scenario as a way of punishing herself for her role in the murder. This would account for the total absence of Midge in Judy’s section (Judy doesn’t know she exists) and would also explain the nun-sensical leap off the tower (which calls back to Madeleine’s scripted memory of “Sister Theresa” scolding the children for daring to venture into their favourite play area–a commentary upon the ways in which patriarchy forces women to police each other’s jouissance?).

Ultimately, I don’t have much interest in “what’s a dream, what’s reality?”-type analyses of deliberately oneiric films (this impatience bubbled up most famously in the Mulholland Dr. debates of yore). I’m interested in exploring subjective states–and examining the preconditions (or the possibility) of intersubjectivity. Vertigo does the first extraordinarily well–making us feel both what it’s like to desire and to be desired under the dark star of patriarchy… And it confronts us with all of the questions (re: the second) that no well-adjusted person wants to ask–because we’re afraid the answers will leave us right here, on the brink of a deeply non-Emersonian Sublime:


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