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September 24, 2010 / scherstuhl

Do They Neck? Watch! Vidor’s The Crowd does what movies do . . . and don’t.

Things Hollywood Movies are Good At: Kissing. Killing. People looking cool while driving.  People chasing each other, either to kill an enemy or to declare love to someone flying out of town to take a new job. People falling, either in love or in physical space after smacking into an obstacle. Revenge. Revelations. Breasts. Montage sequences in which people feel just one thing for weeks at a time. Showing what new love might look like.

The first blush of new love is the rare thing movies can reliably inspire us to feel. Even hacks can handle this, which explains the studios’ steady drip of indistinguishable romantic comedies – a maddening crowd if ever there was one. Just as horror films can trigger an endorphin release, and comedies stamp down our stress-inspiring neuroendocrine glands, romances glance us against something true and interior: a faint, thrilling trickle of that hormonal gush of falling in love.

In The Crowd, his 1928 silent masterpiece of first love and the long life that follows, director King Vidor stages a honeymoon shag in the weeds beside Niagara Falls. The sex is implied, but that gush is a literal torrent: a great release, explicit as can be, free and reckless.

Still, since it’s interested in how life is actually lived, and in how our insistence that we’re each extraordinary might be the most ordinary thing about us, The Crowd gets too often classified as a tragedy. (Just control-F “t-r-a-g” on a pageful of its IMDB reviews.)

This would make life itself a tragedy.

With such love scenes, its happy ending, its bravura scenes of urban bustle, and its foursquare celebrations of parenthood and marital commitment, Vidor’s film revels almost as often as mopes. Early on, a double date captures all the whirligig joy of youthful flirtation.

“I’ve got a pair of wrens dated up for Coney Island,” declares Bert, the good-timing chum of John, the hero, a new New Yorker possessed of grand yet vague ambitions. The fellows pair with the birds and dash for the glitter and tumult of the midway. Vidor’s camera larks along with them: we join them spinning on a carousel, humping down a steel slide, climbing a ladder where the boys can’t resist a peek upskirt.

We get closer still in the Tunnel of Love, where John – played with one-feeling-at-a-time hunger by James Murray – paws at a not unwilling Mary (a frumped-up Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s own wife.) Pawing builds to kissing that builds to a halt, a moment of anxious uncertainty, a breath of are we really going to do this?, and then its right back to kissing of greater dedication than before.

Even after 82 years, this feels true.

Already a celebrated and commercial director, Vidor understood just how eager we are to see the moment an innocent spark catches into passionate flame. As his double-daters drift down to the end of their Tunnel of Love, Vidor cuts to eager spectators standing over a section of the tunnel. A sign reads, “Do They Neck? Watch!” The boat nears, a carnie yanks away a tarp, and the Coney Islanders roar with pleasure at the young lovers.

The crowd wants to see hot make-out action, and you, the crowd watching The Crowd, quite likely enjoy seeing it, too.

Things Hollywood Movies are Not Good At: Adulthood. Grief, addiction, and other long-term emotional struggles. Depicting faith as something other than zealotry, comedy, or believe-in-yourself mush. Demonstrating that a character is thinking hard through means other than spinning the camera around his or her head. Finding inspiration in life itself rather than in previous movies. Showing what an enduring love might look like.

The nature of movie characters is to deep-down want one big thing that can be articulated in few words and achieved through direct action. The nature of people, though, is to deep-down want numerous big things so resistant to easy definition that we know them best by their absence: Security. Connection. Fulfillment.

The rare movie hero who yearns to connect with — let’s say — his daughter will manage to do so only through direct action related to a more concrete problem: killing her kidnappers, or outrunning some dinosaurs, or buying her the priciest wedding ever only to learn that she doesn’t need it after all.

That’s true, too, for the even more rare Hollywood hero who wants to connect with a spouse. There must be a rediscovery of love, a build-up to another first kiss, a connected kiss, after which the film ends and we understand that these characters will stop ignoring each other and have heaps of good sex. But that process of rediscovery must be incidental to some simpler, less human want. Date nights involve car-chases and assassins. Everyday normalcy must be upset, shaken off, replaced by adventure.

That makes The Crowd’s focus on life after the honeymoon not just rare but unique, more akin to novels or the best of today’s series television than anything in moviehouses. Here’s what John, The Crowd’s “hero,” wants, in order of appearance: To distinguish himself. To achieve something grand. Money. Sex. Marriage. Freedom. Respect. To achieve something. To heal after loss. Freedom. Money. A job. To achieve something – anything. Marriage.

And then, after Vidor’s happy ending, John will go on to want all of this again, just like everybody else.

After that joyous first attraction, John and Mary spend the film enduring. Again and again their marriage is challenged: by family and fortune, by plain-old ennui and out-of-nowhere tragedy, by its failure to feel like that first blush or romance all the time always. Vidor’s powerful scenecraft soaks us in John’s misery just as it lifts us with John’s happiness.

Each trial seems more severe than the previous. John quits his job and slumps through an unemployed funk; Mary aches quietly, perhaps wishing society would allow her a title card that screams, “Get your shit together, boy!” By the end, reconciliation between them makes little rational sense, but somehow circumstances — and a faint spark of their original hook-up – always bring John and Mary back together.  We might suspect Mary is making a terrible mistake, but we’re just as likely to celebrate her choice to stick it out. What more can people do for each other?

Vidor refuses plot in favor of the drift of minor events that, like tidal sediment, slowly accrete into lives.  He also refuses sensation in favor of the senses: The Crowd endeavors to remind us what life feels like. This might explain why even thoughtful film fans seem convinced that The Crowd is a tragedy. By showing life as it is, it denies us relief. Still, I think it’s something richer than any designation of genre can suggest. The Crowd is an uncompromising film about life and its beauties just as it’s a beautiful film about life and its compromises.

–Alan Scherstuhl

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