Loss in The Crowd | Bleader

Loss in The Crowd


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Vidors 20th century: bureaucracy beyond the infinite
  • Vidor's 20th century: bureaucracy beyond the infinite
I'm glad I attended the Music Box Theatre's revival of King Vidor's The Crowd this past Saturday. Dennis Scott's organ accompaniment was stellar as usual, and the big-screen presentation made Vidor's much-praised effects shots look even more impressive than I'd remembered. But the best part of the screening may have been the enthusiasm of the audience, which made the movie feel like a contemporary work of art and not a museum piece, as silent films are generally regarded these days. In fact, The Crowd made me angrier than any movie I've seen in a while—in part because its misanthropy felt like the most contemporary thing about it.

Prior to Saturday's screening I hadn't seen the film since adolescence, though I had fond memories of a couple of its most celebrated sequences. The first, occurring early on, introduces the New York insurance office where the main character works: Vidor's camera glides up the edifice of a skyscraper (in actuality a miniature), into a window that's hundreds of feet above ground, across rows of desks that seem to extend into infinity, and finally landing on John Sims—Number 137—toiling away at his bureaucratic tasks. This is highly imaginative filmmaking and a clear influence on both Billy Wilder's The Apartment and Orson Welles's The Trial (I wouldn't be surprised if it also inspired Terry Gilliam's use of miniatures in Brazil). In wholly filmic terms, it conveys both exhilaration and terror in regards to this modern workplace, a marvel of 20th-century architecture that's nonetheless a dehumanizing nightmare.

The second sequence, which builds upon the sentiments of the first, occurs at the end of the film. (If you haven't seen The Crowd, you may want to skip this paragraph.) After a stretch of unemployment, Vidor's once-ambitious hero has found work as a sandwich-board wearer on the streets of Manhattan. He takes his wife and son to a vaudeville show to celebrate; and, as he finds solace in the mass spectacle, Vidor cuts to a mobile shot that sails over the audience before concluding on the movie's frightening final image: another, even more distant overhead shot that reduces the crowd to what Nathaniel Hawthorne once termed "the sea of humanity." It suggests that the hero has relinquished his dreams of success and accepted his anonymity among the hordes.

This conclusion—indeed, the film's descending pattern of its narrative development—is rendered even more bitter by its opening scene. John, shown as a boy, asserts to his friends that he's going to make something of himself one day, maybe even become president. It's the sort of "destined for greatness" prologue that still shows up in biopics of great men, and Vidor deserves respect for exposing this trope as bullshit so relatively early in cinema history. What boy doesn't boast he's going to be a great man when he grows up? The Crowd reminds us that cinema focuses disproportionately on the ones who guess right.

Vidor wants to portray the innumerable citizens who feel deceived by the American Dream, but to what end? John, the movie's Everyman character, desires upward mobility but nothing more precise than that. His sole plan for striking it rich is to sell advertising slogans—a process that involves little actual work—and Vidor implies that he gives up on this mission after taking that demoralizing job as a street hawker. (Surely he could still write slogans during his time off?) John even manages to sell one slogan; and when he does, he celebrates solely through materialist indulgence, buying expensive gifts for his wife and two kids. Soon after, though, his young daughter gets hit by a truck—ironically, while running home to open her presents—and John has to return the gifts to pay for the medical bills. Vidor frames this development tragically, as though fate has intervened to keep John down, but this doesn't add up in narrative terms. The truck accident is exactly that—an accident—it's not connected to John's social standing. More offensively, because Vidor sketches the little girl in only the most basic terms, her death registers as no more upsetting than John having to return his cool stuff.

Vidor dramatizes John's loss by showing how callously others regard it. There's a telling scene set when his daughter's on her death bed: John can't stand the street noise, so he steps outside his apartment to ask a cop to do something about it. "I don't care about your sick baby" is the reply. And none of John's coworkers at the insurance office show any sympathy either. The pervasive lack of feeling eventually inspires John to blow his top and quit, which only sends him further into poverty.

Vidor sums up these developments with an aphoristic title card: "The crowd laughs at you always, but cries with you for only a day." This is meant to be the stuff of tragedy—the hard truth of trying to get by in the modern city—but I feel it says a lot more about the filmmaker than it does about city life. Vidor seems pressed to depict any character other than John in a positive light. His coworkers register as automatons, his only friend a graceless boor (who nonetheless beats him to a promotion at work), his in-laws wannabe snobs who harangue him constantly for not being more successful. Even John's wife (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor's own wife at the time) comes across as a cipher. She inspires little evident sympathy in him—though this may be because Vidor purposely cast an inexperienced actor, James Murray, to play John to emphasize the character's anonymous qualities.

A promotional drawing of King Vidor from 1919
  • A promotional drawing of King Vidor from 1919
Taken on philosophic terms, The Crowd offers an unpleasant vision of humanity as a giant hurdle to the success of motivated individuals. And its limited definition of success seems to be having more money than other people. This vision anticipates Ayn Rand's sanctification of selfishness and her outspoken contempt for society at large, not to mention the position of most contemporary Republican politicians that our government should slash any programs that benefit poor and otherwise defenseless citizens (something that's a lot easier to support if you find most other people contemptible). It's worth noting that Vidor was a life-long conservative and later an admirer of Rand's, directing a film adaptation of The Fountainhead in 1949. The Crowd suggests an inversion of the Randian success story, its "tragedy" being that the hero fails to rise above the undistinguished mass of working saps.

That more people don't find this offensive is a testament to Vidor's impeccable artistry, which succeeds in making the director's antihumanist sentiments feel universal. In fact, I'd argue that the movie only works if considered in universal terms. Vidor famously shot parts of The Crowd on the streets of New York—shooting some of the sequences impromptu well before anyone had coined the term "guerrilla filmmaking"—yet the movie feels oddly disconnected from actual city life. For instance, we never see John and his wife interacting with their neighbors, even though they're poor enough to live squished between other apartments. And Vidor seems to have little feeling for real, everyday irritations that come from living among crowds: cramped public transportation, pickpockets, walking among litter.

The movie contradicts much of what I'd learned from my grandparents about U.S. urban life in the early 20th century. Both my father's and my mother's great-grandparents emigrated to American cities in the 1880s; by the time The Crowd takes place, they had settled firmly, if never exactly comfortably, into the Jewish immigrant enclaves of Chicago and New York. Community networks were in place to make sure that no one suffered too badly. The hardships of living in mass society were confronted communally, with institutions preserved from the old world (namely, synagogues) serving as hubs for group activity and support. King Vidor's film, for all its innovation, seems incapable of imagining any of this.

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