American Movie Critics: Vachel Lindsay

After my post on Phillip Lopate’s introduction to American Movie Critics, Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee expressed an interest in reading the book himself and doing a joint series on it. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to discuss the book with another film fan while reading it, so that’s what we’re going to do. Ryan posted his take on the introduction and Vachel Lindsay, the first writer covered, earlier this week, so I’m posting this short piece on Lindsay’s section to catch up, and then from here on out, these posts will be conversations between me and Ryan. Look for the first one of those within the next few days.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the two pieces of criticism included from Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay was primarily a poet, but was also an enthusiastic supporter of the movies, writing the first American book about film aesthetics in 1914, a time when movies were still considered impossibly low entertainment and very few people seriously considered film artistic in any way. In the two excerpts in American Movie Critics, one from that 1914 work The Art of the Moving Picture and the other from a sequel written in 1925 but not published until long after his death, he rhapsodizes about the Action Picture and Douglas Fairbanks. According to Lopate’s little introductory bio, Lindsay also has chapters in his book about the Intimate Picture, the Film of Splendor and more, but it’s great to have this section on the Action Film, since action films represent the type of film most enthusiasts of the time pointed to as the major thing movies could do much better than the more established arts, yet they’re also the kind of dime-a-dozen thrill that detractors decried as the lowest of all forms of entertainment. Lindsay doesn’t deny the cheap ubiquity of the genre, but rather finds his way to praise that in itself, urging his readers to “close the book and go round the corner to a photoplay theatre. Give the preference to the cheapest one.”

The Spoilers (1914)

The Spoilers (1914)

Lindsay identifies that the value of the action picture is speed, but also that this very speed can be its downfall: “The story goes at the highest possible speed to be still credible. When it is a poor thing, which is the case too often, the St. Vitus dance destroys the pleasure value. The rhythmic quality of the picture-motions is twitched to death. […] These shows work like the express elevators in the Metropolitan Tower. The ideal is the maximum of speed in descending or ascending, not to be jolted into insensibility.” He’s speaking about the specific film The Spoilers from 1914, but his thoughts are pretty broadly applicable, even now. I’m sure Lindsay would be overwhelmed by the speed of our movies today, but his insistence on balance between speed and comprehensibility is still completely valid, and an issue I bring up often when talking about current action movies.

Interestingly, he believes that the action film’s strength is not in characterization, nor well-developed romance, nor even elaborate plotting: “People are but types, swiftly move chessmen.” He doesn’t really seem to see this as a weakness, as a lot of later critics would and do, but acknowledges that the reason these films are popular is simply because the spectacle and speed of them appeals to the average American. I wouldn’t generalize quite that much (nor even perhaps tie it to a specific nationality), but I do think he’s got a point that not every film needs to be in-depth in character or plot. A film like The Raid is all fight scene with barely enough plot to string the fights together, but that’s perfectly okay. His ultimate declaration: “The highest type of Action Picture gives us neither the quality of Macbeth or Henry Fifth, the Comedy of Errors, or the Taming of the Shrew. It gives us rather that fine and special quality that was in the ink-bottle of Robert Louis Stevenson, that brought about the limitations and the nobility of the stories of Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and the New Arabian Nights.”

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Lindsay’s second piece again praises action films, through the focus of Douglas Fairbanks, who by 1924 was the king of Hollywood after a string of hit adventure films. It appears that the release of the latest and greatest, The Thief of Bagdad, occasioned this particular retrospective, and Lindsay calls it “the greatest movie so far in movie history,” but he has praise for The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood as well. Lindsay sees Fairbanks as “his own master” and having “an individual career as actor and producer” – in a sense, Lindsay is positing Fairbanks as auteur, though that term and concept as such wouldn’t exist for another thirty years. He doesn’t even mention any of the directors of Fairbanks’ films, and really, he’s right. The Thief of Bagdad happens to have been directed by Raoul Walsh, one of Hollywood’s finest workhorse directors, but it’s a Fairbanks film through and through.

As a side note, Lindsay ends with about as impassioned a paragraph about D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as I’ve ever read. The Thief of Bagdad might be “the greatest movie so far,” but “there was more originality in Intolerance in fifteen minutes than in the whole Thief of Bagdad production.” He thinks the execution and overall effect of Thief of Bagdad is superior, but Intolerance laid the groundwork, being lesser only in terms of trying too many things at once – “there were enough suggestions in Intolerance, to producers of imagination, to last the motion picture world for fifty years.” His wonder at Intolerance and desire to study it (“it was the beginning of a lifetime of education cut all too short. We must all see and keep studying that film”) is a precursor to the entire discipline of film studies.

Intolerance (1916)

Intolerance (1916)