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Posts Tagged ‘Perry Miller’

Wine of Youth (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even better than the real thing?

next time–The Big Parade!

good night friends!

Dave

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With The Jack-Knife Man (1920), the Vidor oeuvre proper commences. The recruiting poster poseur of Bud’s Recruit is out. The Backyard Expressionist is IN. For the next four decades, before his creativity finally jack-knifed on the highway to Monism, Vidor managed to keep his camera trained on the crossroads between Mid-Victorian Melodrama and Modernist Mindfuck. It’s a rich symbiosis of incident and interiority; surface and surfeit subjectivity. You’re never lost in a Vidor film–but you never know quite where you stand, either. If you’re looking for the missing link between D.W. Griffith and David Lynch–you’ve come to the right place!

Like all of the director’s films, The Jack-Knife Man places the ideal and the quotidian worlds side by side, and then steps back to see (and show) how things’ll play out this time. Nothing is predetermined in these movies. And there’s never anything so simple as a mere clash between the subjective and objective realms. Vidor understands that these terms have no meaning without each other. We get “dreamers”. We get “reality”. What we don’t get is a Capraesque war to the knife between the two. Don’t get me wrong–I love Frank Capra. In the ol’ university days, I wrote reams of papers about his place within the “American Jeremiad” tradition discussed by Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch and others. It’s just that, these days, I’m more interested in exploring the messy ways people have of transplanting their hopes directly out of (and then back into) the plots that they’re born into. Capra gives us too much metaphysical hierarchy–too little insight. His prophets simply wander into town from Mandrake Falls and outlast the cynics (all audience surrogates). Their ideas are never tested–only their ability to preach is. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m always gonna love it–but I think it rests upon shaky (or, rather, far too secure!) foundations. The imagination, or the human spirit, or the visionary impulse, or whatever you wanna call it, just isn’t that autonomous. I’m not saying that the mind isn’t its own place–it most definitely IS! But there ARE ways to get to it (like those secret passages in Clue) from the material and social world. And no one can get you from the Kitchen to the Study (and back and forth and back again) like King Vidor.

Case in point, our “jack-knife man” himself, Peter Lane (beautifully played by old pro F.A. Turner):

When we first meet him, he’s not a jack-knife man at all! He’s an old codger who lives in a “shanty-boat”, keeps to himself, makes lots of coffee (man do I ever love filmed scenes of people making coffee! Kings Row is the best for that) and busies himself by fidgeting with clocks …. “a tin clock is just like a baby,” he tells a rebuffed boat-buyer, “she don’t do a thing you’d expect all day long!”

Really Pete?

In Capra, this would be presented as wisdom. A simple insulating mechanism that would help to keep the protagonist “pure”–like Longfellow Deeds’ tuba or Long John Willoughby’s “doohickey”. In Vidor, it is purely and simply naivety–the kind that has to be dispensed with. It’s not the world that needs Peter (like NYC needs Deeds)–it’s the other way around. This guy, basically, needs a life. It’s not that he must abandon his inner being for the inauthentic hustle of the metropolis (that’s a false, Capraesque distinction)–it’s that he needs to put his imagination into Port Real for badly needed repairs.

And that’s precisely what happens. Peter Lane–shanty-boat recluse–is laid low, not by the Holy Spirit, but by the irruption of a badly broken family into his home. In good epiphanic fashion, the big change is highlighted by a burst of light:

Said light is generated by a particularly vicious storm–which drives Lize Merdin and her young charge “Buddy” into Peter’s cubbyhole universe. The woman is near death–and the boy is starved (but quite affable). The old man does what he can to comfort them, settling Lize on a cot and heading out into the rain to trade his beloved clock for some crucial victuals!

At this point, we are introduced to the Widow Potter–who starts out seeming like Aunt March in Little Women, but is very quickly revealed to be more of a Marilla Cuthbert (that’s Anne of Green Gables, young adult fiction fans!) type. Gruff with a heart of gold. Even more intriguing–she’s kind of in love with our Peter (and wishes he’d grow up)…  When the middle-aged lady retires to her rocker and her knitting, Vidor hits us with a virtuoso move that takes us from “naturalism” to “lyricism” in the blink of an eye–as an image of Peter as domestic companion appears facing her:

Embodied goodwill has a way of  “rolling through all things” in The Jack-Knife Man–and this scene clues us in to the fact that the visionary world presented by the film emanates from more than one source. From here on out, it will be a (growing) team effort–with dreams folding into dreams in a snowballing avalanche of tender misprision.

Along the way, we meet another (far more extroverted) artist figure. The singing vagabond–“Booge”–who delights Buddy with his music and his footloose noncomformity:

This happy wanderer will be back–after a little jaunt to the hoosegow.

But first–to the Jack-Knife!

Our friend Peter takes up this charming habit as a direct result of being shaken out of his comfort zone by dire necessity… Lize dies the next morning–and young Buddy must be consoled! And so he gets a “veritable Noah’s Ark” of jack-knife carved animals to play with:

These creatures are not pure natives of Peter’s mind–they are NOT his gift to the world (as I have said, left to his own devices, Peter’s preference is for rusty old clocks–in Vidor, the hermit is not a “sage”, he is a robot). Rather, the animals are the issue of this man’s long-delayed plunge into the inter-subjective world. They do not represent a “going-forth” of the spirit. They are the emblems of a soul’s expansion. This point is definitely established later on, when “New York Clubwoman Marcia Montgomery” comes to town (dazzled by tales of the toys). She, of course, assumes that he was moved to create them by some inner artistic impulse–and Peter sets her straight: “I did them to please Buddy.” They had no prior existence in his mind. They were called forth by a particular person, in a particular situation.

Well, she responds, there are thousands of Buddys out there, each of whom might be comforted by his unique gifts (and again the friendly wraiths appear):

And, with that, we are off to the races!

–After a harrowing interlude caused by the malicious interference of the Dickensian bureaucrat Rasmer Briggles–who rounds up orphans at $20 a head and places them in the most uncongenial homes possible, the Widow Potter finds Buddy and adopts him (along with his long-lost sister Susie!)

–The Jack-Knife Man achieves a measure of celebrity (and makes enough money to shave and buy his OWN bread, every once in a while)–thanks in large part to the kind influence of Marcia Montgomery, played by the lustrous Florence Vidor (then married to the director):

–On a work camp, “Booge” learns that Buddy and Susie are actually HIS children (he had been married, unhappily, to Lize Merdin–in another life)

–A grown-up Peter Lane returns to the sticks in a marryin’ mood–much to the delight of the Widow Potter:

–and, in a boldly Victorian gambit of coincidence, “Booge” wanders back onto the scene just in time to witness the genesis of the happy home he himself was never able to provide for his children, or for Lizzie. Of course he leaps clear of this “happy ending juggernaut”–adding one more layer of visionary subjectivity wrapped in the prosaic trappings of the “real” (and stunningly anticipating a similar–even more potent–moment from Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas):

Whose dream IS THIS, anyway?

I’ll leave you with that!

Next time: The Sky Pilot (1921)

Good night friends!

Dave

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