Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Car Ride with King Vidor

A promotional still from Show People, directed by King Vidor

King Vidor came to Hollywood by car. He, his wife Florence and a friend slept in their Model T and paid for gas by shooting newsreel footage for the Ford Motor Company. It was a wild country then: you almost imagine they'd run into Indians or herds of buffalo the way he describes traveling across pre-highway America--all forests and deserts, rocks and tumbleweeds.

One of the first shots in his 1928 film Show People is of a man and his daughter in a car; an intertitle tells us that he, like Vidor, has driven all the way from Georgia (Vidor’s trip was a little shorter—from Texas) to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood.

Few directors understand movement the way Vidor did. Not stylized movement, everyday movement—the speed of trains, of carnival attractions that made so much of the 20th century seem like a race to those born in the 19th. The camera is riding alongside the speeding car (presumably in another car—the scene appears to be shot “on location,” if such a thing was possible in the Hollywood of the silent era), and the effect is that we do not as much perceive the car as moving as the city around it, which becomes a blur of street signs and intersections behind the characters’ heads. What a difference two decades makes: automobiles had seemed like speeding rackets to the early filmmakers, but by 1928, they had become commonplace; now it seemed as though the world was becoming fast as well.

The film’s beginning is dominated by the car, which the father and daughter don’t leave for quite a while; even at the gates of the studio, the father talks to the guard from the behind the wheel, the motor still running. Throughout Show People, we see cars in use; Hollywood in the 1920s, at least for those involved in the film industry, is not designed for public transportation. Cars are not only glamorous (that those who’ve “made it” get driven around by chauffeurs), but practical: the studios, offices and locations are far apart, and the concept of a “community” is largely imaginary—like the concept of “America” in westerns, it’s constantly being undermined by the reality of the landscape, only instead of Monument Valley, it’s California’s hills and winding roads. Though used differently, they’re a bit like the cars in the films of Abbas Kiarostami—a persistent detail that becomes an astounding indicator. It's like looking through a keyhole at a distant culture: in this case that of that small bit of the 20th century that was mechanized but not yet homogenized: when tools for bridging geographic gaps were in use but had not been implemented to their full extent. Like seeing peasants in an engraving plowing wild lands—simultaneously seeing the past and its future. The car becomes a crystal ball.

Another indicative detail: the way, during a break from shooting, a camera man drapes a filthy cloth over the camera, like the kind you’d put over a table saw when you aren’t using it.

1 comment:

shahn said...

nice analysis. now i'm even more regretfully that show people was the only film i missed at the last san francisco silent film festival.