Monday, April 25, 2016

Vachel Lindsay goes to the movies - the face of the whole earth changes

From A Doll’s “Arabian Nights”

(A Rhymed Scenario for Mae Marsh, when she acts in the new many-colored films)

I dreamed the play was real.
I walked into the screen.

Vachel Lindsay is anticipating Buster Keaton.  Lindsay wrote a number of poems about actors, including at least one more about Mae Marsh, one of D. W. Griffith’s favorite actresses.  I do not think the acting poems are among Lindsay’s best, but I am interested in their existence. 

I am the one poet who has a right to claim for his muses Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, and Mae Marsh.  I am the one poet who wrote them songs when they were Biograph heroines, before their names were put on the screen, or the name of their director…  There are two things to be said for those poems.  First, they were heartfelt.  Second, any one could improve on them.  (p. 4, Modern Library edition)

He loved movies; he theorized about movies.

The result, more important than the poems, was The Art of the Moving Picture (1915, revised 1922), “dated and cranky,” “hyperbolic and self-appointedly supreme” (says Stanley Kauffmann, p. viii) – Lindsay wants people to politely converse during the movie – he titles a chapter “The Substitute for the Saloon” and means it – yet insightful and thorough.

His vocabulary requires some transposition.  Crowd Splendor, Patriotic Splendor and Fairy Splendor. Sculpture-in-Motion, Painting-in-Motion and Architecture-in-Motion.  He is categorizing spectacle and imagery, looking for the uniquely cinematic aspects of film art.  Lindsay is almost an auteurist, praising the aspects of films that are not simply copied from the theater – strong images, intimate but non-verbal acting, crowd scenes, dream sequences.  Chases and special effects (“the wizard element”).

I have said that it is a quality, not a defect, of the photoplays that while the actors tend to become types and hieroglyphics and dolls, on the other hand, dolls and hieroglyphics and mechanisms tend to become human.  (94)

And this in a world almost without auteurs.  Georges Méliès is never mentioned; Charlie Chaplin only mentioned uncomprehendingly.  The one great artist for Lindsay is D. W. Griffith – “he is the star of the piece, except on one page where he is the villain” (124).

The feature-length film is only four or five years old when Lindsay is writing.  Part of the strangeness of the book, I admit, is imagining my way back into the world Lindsay inhabits, where Hollywood has not been built but is one of his correct predictions (Ch. XVI, “California and America”), where every aspect of movies is no new, and changing so fast, and where Lindsay can title his last chapter “The Acceptable Year of the Lord,” and can preach the Gospel of Beauty, prophesying “dreams deeper than the sea and higher than the clouds of heaven”:

It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes…  by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.  (187)


  1. tx for a unique series of posts/ enlightening and interesting character he was. in today's world he'd have been shot by one of our finest, most likely...

  2. A month ago, if you'd asked me to guess what Vachel Lindsay's attitude to the cinema had been, I'd have said he would've been against it, preaching the superiority of the stage, of the living scene. This is all surprising. I'll bet he would've loved all the CGI we have now, the dolls and hieroglyphics and mechanisms filling up the screen.

  3. He often sounds like he is describing today's movies, not those of a century ago.