A few words on Vachel Lindsay

A caveat: if my arguments here at times verge on the side of eccentricity, please take it as my homage to Vachel Lindsay.

If you have never heard of Vachel Lindsay, no need to worry (if you do very likely you study American poetry). He is just one of many in the early days of cinema who wrote a book on a subject that he didn’t know much. His The Art of The Moving Pictures is still read today partly because it is arguably the first American effort to theoretical formulation of the cinematic phenomenon.

Lindsay’s taxonomy of film genres (or his numerology) consists of three categories: Action, Intimacy and Splendor. To use his familiar terms of pictorial and plastic art, he identifies the essence of these genres as Sculpture in motion, Painting in motion and Architecture in motion. His characterization of the action genre is actually quite accurate, as it is the case where “the outpouring of physical force of high speed is the main source of the drama.” Furthermore, “in the action picture there is no adequate means for the development of any full grown personal passion. The distinguished character study that makes genuine, the personal emotions in the legitimate drama, has no chance. People are but types, swiftly moved chessmen.” If one were to elaborate these claims in a modern perspective, one would cite the agility of dancers and martial arts heroes, whose body movements best endorse the beauty of sculpture in motion. Bordwell, in his analysis of the kinesis of Chinese martial art films—and this comes from Chinese opera—proposes that they offer a “pause-burst-pause” structure, which, interestingly, corroborates Lindsay’s point: the pause is necessary since it truly supplies a sculpture in all its stillness, which is then put in contrast with its motion. Furthermore, in contrast to painting, which is but a flat surface where different perspectives do not exist, sculpture is all about perspectives. This again echoes the aesthetic of action film (i.e., in Hong Kong) that the depiction of action is implemented in a fashion that none of the angles shall repeat itself; all these shots that are spatially dispersed somewhat whimsically exist to construct vantage points where this sculpture-in-motion can be best observed. But go back to Lindsay’s eccentric terminology,

I desire in the moving pictures, not the stillness but the majesty of sculpture. I do not advocate for the photoplay the mood of the Venus of Milo. But let us turn to that sister of hers, the great Victory of Samothrace, the spreads her wings at the head of the steps of the Louvre. (96)

But stillness is nevertheless desired, in that,

Even in a simple chase-picture, the speed must not destroy the chance to enjoy the modeling…Let any one section of the film, if it be stopped and studied, be grounded in the same bronze conceptions. (88)

The difference between Venus and her sisters is not that the former is still and the latter not—for they are both still—but that the former does not indicate any immediate and inevitable action. Samothrace, on the other hand, contains a kinetic tension that needs to be released before it enters into stasis. But what is majesty? Does it by any chance signify a rather masculine quality?

The so-called the mood of the Venus of Milo can be amply observed in cinema’s primitive age. What distinguishes the motion from stillness, however, is not the movement of characters on screen, which are seldom found still; it is rather the movement of perspectives—camera positions, angles and editing combined—that contributes to the essence of motion picture way of constructing a three dimensional world and the sense of real motion in it. This is where the psychology comes from and where it differs from stage—a point Balazs cannot stress enough. Think of video game, especially the first person shooter genre; what makes it inferior to the motion picture experience is that the action is always experienced from a single perspective, the POV of protagonist—now imagine an action film be shot in the mode of Lady in the Lake!

A slight digression: Watching The Thief of Bagdad, I come to realize what so impressed Lindsay that drives him to a theoretical formulation. The sculpture in motion is two things: the male body and the perfect control of it. I was not fully aware of the significance of having a direct visual contact with the source of the action. Modern martial art films do not always show this combination, Bruce Lee being the notable exception. Even Fairbanks doesn’t always get half naked; In The Mask of Zorro he didn’t. Although the action itself is equally impressive, somehow an aura is lost. In The Thief, when he is dressed, it is as if all of sudden he had turned into a suspicious merchant, not worth admiring anymore. It is perhaps for the same reason professional boxers are only wearing shorts, thus offering an unobstructed view of the body. This pleasure is not entirely voyeuristic.

The intimate photoplay, according to Lindsay’s definition, has its “photographic basis” in the “very small ground plan and the coziest of enclosing walls”. One wonders if he is talking about sitcom. And it is true, compared to action film, in these indoor dramas everyone is “half relaxed or gently restrained”, not in a hurry to go anywhere—except Kramer, which is exactly why he is funny—an action hero in an intimate photoplay, who does not want to be relaxed and tries to break up the “hearth mood”.

If in Lindsay’s day most of the pictures are in the action genre, where does he get the idea that intimacy can be a major case of photoplay? Mary Pickford. If Balazs were the one to conjure this up, the name will then be Asta Nielson. In both cases, is it a coincidence that they are so impressed by the facial expression of a female? I personally believe that best defines the intimacy genre. However, Lindsay seems to enjoy contradicting himself saying “the motion picture is shallow in showing private passion but it is powerful in conveying the passions of masses of man.” I gather Lindsay as an artist-wanna-be is aware that shallow is not the right word about private passions; yet he feels compelled to promote publicly a patriotic kind of passion, one that is geared toward the masses. If I venture to go further down the Lindsayian road, recalling a minute ago action implies majesty, I would be glad saying that the private passion is yin, the public, yang.

As for the splendor/architecture pair, Lindsay is so supernaturally inspired that he further divides them into four categories: fairy, crowd, patriotic and religious. The first corresponds probably to our fantasy genre, although I must say it seems the witch-power behind it is not the camera, but the computer. Fairy is the anthropomorphication of Nature. Camera has only a limited power in this respect, which I call selective manifestation; computer, however, is capable of total transformation.

As for the second, it is true, in cinema, the crowd is unmistakably present. In the first Lumière program, we already have it several times (Workers Leaving the Factory, Disembarkment of the Congress of Photographers in Lyon, Cordeliers Square in Lyon). Street scenes are fine; but when “the passions of masses of men” is touted this way, does it not often become a dangerous and inhuman thing? I imagine Lindsay would be impressed to see Chairman Mao on the Tianmen square, waving to a sea of mob below. This leads to the third and fourth category, which honestly I do not see how they differ from the second.

One important aspect of Lindsay’s thinking is hieroglyphics or the moving picture Esperanto. For Lindsay, hieroglyphics can be taken as a way of conceiving the world, a way of externalizing one’s innermost thoughts. Many a poets, or filmmakers, have expressed the idea that their poems, or scenarios, come from a picture that lingers in their mind (or before the mind’s eyes). It is definitely a symbol with all its symbolic dimensions, but it is not a symbol in its usual sense—contrary to a universal sign of abstract feelings it is a unique, highly individual happening.

Although these ideas are very dear to Lindsay, he does not in any way make them clear. A friend in a letter remarks

His mind was filled with a complete world of symbols. They were personal but very real to him. When he said one of those mystifying things, it was a part of this very clear world of fantasy….he had his own special pantheism, actively inhabited by symbol figures. He disdained translating these. (Wolfe 131)

Now that we have begun to think, let every thought be as well carried as a rose petal, and as able to be pictured. Let us evolve a spiritual hieroglyphic, a heavenly sign language. Let the fiber of every dreaming picture be thought, thought, thought; let meaningless beauty be driven from the earth. (Wolfe 133)

In the lengthy description Lindsay gives on The Thief of Bagdad, we see that a symbolic or hieroglyphic object is often an inanimate object that is made to carry psychological status. The object of course is first shown in its natural size; and through the use of close-up, it is magnified, “and just as the spectator might hold it to his own eye till it filled the whole horizon, likewise it seems to fill the whole life of this thief.” (Wolfe 138)

Lindsay’s understanding of symbolism has nothing to do with the French cult—I would be genuinely surprised if he had never heard of Mallarmé; his interpretation of symbol, for example his reading of the Egyptian alphabet[1], is more literal than Freud, Jung (he sees furniture and says “furniture”, not “meuble”, nor “female sex”) or even a fortune teller. As is often the case with him, he compensates his provinciality and logical deficiency by an almost evangelic assertion of future employment. “I would not be surprised if, in twenty years, we have our definite twenty-six or thirty established hieroglyphics in the motion picture field.”

Finally, a few words about the writing style, which is a curious mixture of florid imagination and gossips that are almost embarrassing to read. His approach, which he claims to be “philosophical”, is actually eccentric; his rhetoric, which he believes to be “poetic”, is often irrelevant. No wonder one gets the impression of a “lesser Whitman” who dedicates his poems to many a movie star. It is not that Lindsay is ill-educated, but he is indeed ill-informed; his mode of expression simply does not conform to a standard that we nowadays acknowledge. It is a Pensée Sauvage, conceived by a Bricoleur but not an Engineer. If you ask a barber (a typical example of gossipy bricoleur) to write a book of film theory, convincing him that he is THE authority of this matter, I will not be surprised that he would come up with even more indigenous classifications of the cinematic phenomenon.

Works cited

Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture. New York: Macmillan, 1915.

Glenn Joseph Wolfe, Vachel Lindsay: The Poet as Film Theorist. New York: Arno Press, 1973.

[1] According to researchers, although Lindsay’s interest in Egyptology is long lasting, his actual knowledge of it is rather sketchy.


1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

An interesting comment on Esperanto.

It's unfortunate that only a few people know that it has become a living language.

During a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

Further information can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

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