“The idioms of one medium through the materials of another”?

James Panero of The New Criterion has produced a puzzling review of “the traveling exhibition, ‘Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect’.”

Wyeth manipulated his compositions much like a silent film director… In his lack of authenticity and his chilly sentiment, Wyeth was decidedly unmodern. His artifice might be considered postmodern, even contemporary, as he processed the idioms of one medium through the materials of another…

At the same time, the approach was far from superficial for Wyeth. His compositions largely emerged from personal, psycho-cinematic places. His figures and locations all conveyed a personal if sublimated feeling.

Panero writes about Wyeth’s lifelong fascination with King Vidor’s silent film The Big Parade (1925) and an affinity between the two masters’ vision: “Vidor’s cinematic innovations were Wyeth’s great artistic inheritance…”. However, this somehow contributed, in Panero’s eyes, to Wyeth’s work being un-modern and inauthentic. It’s not too difficult to define modernity and authenticity in a way that would exclude Wyeth (and Vidor for good measure) but I don’t see much value in the exercise.

This said, James Panero’s piece opened up a new field for me, for which I am grateful. I soon found this article by Tag Gallager, an American film historian and critic. It is in a class of its own and deserves at least one separate post.


  1. I don’t understand where Panero is coming from either, except I get the feeling the “The New Criterion” has some kind of obsessive devotion to the True Path of High Modernism.

    I have the Blu-ray of “The Big Parade” and it’s a great film. I didn’t get it the first time I saw it because most of the first two-thirds are set behind the lines and involve a lot of knockabout comedy. However, when I rewatched it with commentary it made more sense. The film drives home the brutality of war by creating lovable characters, then slaughtering most of them in the final third set on the Western Front. Oh, and if anybody claims silent acting is inferior to that in the talkies, they should watch the scene with John Gilbert and the dying teenage German soldier trapped in the same trench. When Gilbert slaps the German round the face, you can’t tell whether he’s angry with him for killing one of his comrades, or he’s desperate to save the life of someone who is little more than a boy, or he’s simply taking out his frustration at the futility of war – or all three simultaneously.

    I haven’t seen much more of Vidor. He did the Audrey Hepburn “War and Peace” of course. “The Crowd” is one of the most famous films of the silent era yet it currently languishes unrestored in Warner’s archives. His autobiography “A Tree is a Tree” sounds fascinating. The title comes from the time Vidor was fretting that the Californian locations he was going to use for “The Big Parade” didn’t look French enough. His producer retorted, ” “A rock is rock, a tree is a tree – shoot it in Griffith Park [Los Angeles].” The extracts I’ve heard from the book on the commentary to the “The Big Parade” make you realise what incredible innovators those early directors were. It’s not often you get to see the birth of a new art form.

    Tag Gallagher’s a good critic. I only know him from his essays on Rossellini though.

    • I watched the film while on vacation. It’s carefully thought through and most episodes are well crafted and played, even the slapstick comedy parts. There’s almost no sentimental padding beyond what’s absolutely necessary. The quick transition from horseplay and courtship to mayhem and death is very effective. (Incidentally, Tom O’Brien, who played the bartender, would have been an equally natural fit for a Russian character. Vasily Shukshin vaguely resembled him.) The silent era was almost over when The Big Parade hit the screen – only three-four years left – and I don’t think many critics or filmmakers realized how rich the legacy of that quarter-century would turn out.

      • Yes, by the mid-20s silent film was at the top of its game and there were still plenty of masterpieces like Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and Murnau’s “Sunrise” to come. Then sound arrived and – in the words of one critic – “film became terrible again”. Early sound films are generally stilted and awkward. The actors can’t be spontaneous because they have to stay close to the mike. Likewise, camera movement – so fluent in the late silents – is now straitjacketed. The cast often includes stage actors who don’t know how to tone things down for film and overproject melodramatically. It’s no coincidence that some of the best films of this era – Lang’s “M” or Dreyer’s “Vampyr”, say – are really “semi-silent”, involving long stretches where there is little or no dialogue. Of course, after two or three years people learned how to make a decent sound film but in many ways it was a different art form from the silents.

        • I only saw Singing in the Rain last summer so I remember the making of The Dancing Cavalier, including the unidirectional microphones that kept actors from turning their heads aside. One of the early Soviet talkies, A Gentle Life by Boris Yurtsev (1932), is a story of a British sailor in the Soviet Union (straightforward propaganda, content-wise). At the beginning, the protagonist speaks no Russian, so much of the dialogue is in gestures and signs – a deliberate reversion to silent-film technique. On the other hand, Yurtsev used Boris Popov’s “sound machines” for sound effects, which was an innovative approach. Popov’s machines were built for the theater, where they were mostly used, but were also a natural fit in the studio. (I’ve seen them in a museum: simple, effective but rather large, some of them.)

          My impression is that Soviet filmmakers used post-production dubbing a lot in the 1950s-80s, possibly because Soviet microphones weren’t very good and actors’ time was relatively cheap. All the dialogue was recorded anew, as a rule.

          • I haven’t seen “Singing in the Rain” since I was a kid. Must give it another look.

            Italian films were (are?) mostly post-synced, partly because the Italian Hollywood, Cinecitta, is located close to Rome’s Ciampino Airport.

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