Ben's Top Pick for October
THE CROWD (1928) - October 19
Wonderstruck, from director Todd Haynes and writer Brian Selznick, hits theaters this month. It's a beautiful film telling two parallel stories: first, a young boy in 1977, roughly 11 years old, whose mother has just been killed in a crash, loses his hearing in a small Minnesota town. Alone, he sneaks off to New York hoping to find his father, a man he knows nothing about. Second, a young girl in 1927, about the same age, deaf all her life, flees her insensitive and unfeeling father to find her mother, a silent screen star, also in New York.
Haynes builds their stories together in an emotionally satisfying construction. It's not flawless. There are imperfect layers, but if the goal of a movie like this is to make us feel something strongly, then whatever wobbling there is in Wonderstruck falls away in its triumphant resolution.
Haynes joined me as a Guest Programmer to discuss Wonderstruck and the four movies he selected - all films he watched as he was planning Wonderstruck. Haynes' love of classic Hollywood is intense. One of his pictures, Far from Heaven, with Julianne Moore who's also in Wonderstruck, is a love letter to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. He also remade Mildred Pierce as a five-part miniseries for HBO starring Kate Winslet.
Todd's movies (yes, I'm calling him Todd now because he's impossible not to like and I've decided that we're going to be great friends - he is unaware of my plan as of this writing) are stories of outsiders, people either looking for acceptance in a world that doesn't know what to do with them, or at least looking to find some small part of that world where they can be some version of themselves.
The final three movies he chose - Sounder, Night of the Hunter, and Walkabout - are all stories featuring children on a journey, all quite clearly related to Wonderstruck. His first pick, The Crowd, King Vidor's 1928 silent, seemed like it might have been a Todd Haynes film if he'd been directing during the silent era.
It's not the story of an outsider, but of a remarkably ordinary man. He's an office worker in a sea of essentially identical men. In perhaps Vidor's most famous shot, his camera travels up the front of a Manhattan skyscraper into a window, revealing a huge office with row after row of desks, dissolving imperceptibly to focus on one man - at one desk - our man.
However, as we follow him on his journey, our man morphs into an outsider, tossed out of the mainstream by ambition, pride and tragedy. The Crowd's humanity is exposed in his struggle to get back to ordinary - to return to the crowd.
Vidor wanted an actor the audience would accept as an everyman - and he found an ideal choice in James Murray. Murray had worked his way across the country as a dishwasher, a coal-shoveler and boxcar rider. When Vidor spotted him, Murray was the ultimate Hollywood everyman - he was working as an extra at MGM.
Vidor's healthy obsession with authenticity led to shooting on location whenever possible. The result is a picture that's as valuable as any newsreel. It shows a New York City in 1928 that was already an overcrowded, bustling metropolis packed with people pouring out of the subway each morning. If you'd told me those scenes were shot in 1958, I'd have believed you.
The Crowd was a box office dud, though a critical success - Murray's life , though, was a tragedy. He drank too much and didn't work regularly. His last film was a splendidly titled pre-code drama from William Wellman, Frisco Jenny.
A couple of years later, Vidor found Murray panhandling on Hollywood Blvd. Vidor offered Murray a part in his next picture, Our Daily Bread, but Murray wasn't having it. "Just because I stop you on the street and try to borrow a buck, you think you can tell me what to do," Murray told Vidor. "As far as I am concerned, you know what you can do with your lousy part."
Two years later, James Murray was dead. His body turned up in the Hudson River. Maybe suicide, maybe he just fell. Either way, a terrible end to a talented actor. In 1979, Vidor tried to raise money for a movie about Murray's life, called The Actor. It never got made, but I can imagine at least one filmmaker today who could turn it into a powerful story - Todd Haynes.
By Ben Mankiewicz