Open to the Elements: Surveying the Terrain of Victor Sjöström’s The Wind Adrian Danks May 2006 Cinémathèque Annotations on Film Issue 39 The Wind (1928 USA 80 mins) Source: NFVLS Prod Co: MGM Dir: Victor Seastrom [Sjöström] Scr: Frances Marion, based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough Phot: John Arnold Ed: Conrad A. Nervig Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Withers Cast: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Dorothy Cumming, Edward Earle, William Orlamond Widely considered one of the last great silent American films, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind is also one of the few Hollywood films that is truly alive to the elements, to the atmosphere and physicality of place. Sjöström’s career – both in Europe and America – is populated by films that examine the relationship of human characters to their environments (1). His films are marked by an extraordinary focus on the experiential detail and physical gestures of daily life, presenting grounded characters who truly exist in the spaces and places his films put before us. In order to achieve this, Sjöström commonly created the sense of a real environment that both reflects and even symbolises the predicaments of its characters but also exists in its own right. In his best films, setting is constructed as both a landscape – to reflect character psychology, to be turned into character, read and used by its human inhabitants – and something that exists outside of human understanding, occupation, and even such representational forms as cinema. It was once common critical practice to largely dismiss Sjöström’s American output at the expense of his work in Sweden, especially in terms of its often more focused and purified elemental geography and dramatic action. (And it must be conceded that his American films are more varied in subject and conception than those he made in Europe.) When he arrived in America in early 1923, Sjöström was not well-known by the general public but he did have a significant reputation within the industry and with other filmmakers. But unlike many other Europeans émigrés of the era – particularly, and most tragically, his compatriot Mauritz Stiller – Sjöström quickly adapted (as many of his characters also have to do) to life and work in Hollywood. This was partly the result of three key factors: Sjöström, though born in Sweden, had spent much of his childhood in the United States; this experience, as well as his extraordinary feeling for environment, made him well-suited to working in particular forms and genres; the influence of Scandinavian cinema, and his films in particular, on early Hollywood. Although his career in Hollywood was relatively short – lasting from 1924 to 1930 – he made a total of nine films (a little over half are extant), at least three of which have some claims to being amongst the most extraordinary of the period (He Who Gets Slapped , The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind). Of all the films he made in Hollywood, Sjöström regarded The Wind as the work that came closest to his initial aims and intentions. This was partly due to the relative freedom he had in production and the support of his leading actress, Lillian Gish, who initiated the project and gathered the team for its making. Nevertheless, like many films of its era, The Wind suffered significantly in the transition from silent to sound cinema, and also partly because of the waning box office appeal of Gish herself. Thus, the film was not a success on its initial release, well over a year after it was actually completed, being released with what – according to contemporary accounts at least – was a poorly post-synchronised and conceptualised soundtrack that literalised (and diminished?) the palpable sense of sound produced by the film’s silent images. The film was also criticised at the time for being old-fashioned, its reliance upon elemental polarities (oppositions) to tell its story, and what was seen as its Victorian morality, out of step with the critical fashions of the day (in America, at least). Much discussion has also subsequently focused on other changes supposedly made to the film. Gish has widely circulated the story that due to studio interference the ending we now see was not the one initially filmed. But although the surprisingly romantic ending that does grace the film feels a little too strident – and somewhat over-performed by Gish, in particular – it nevertheless seems perfectly integrated into the complex web of visual motifs and themes that Sjöström has developed throughout. Also, the “proper” ending that Gish has commonly touted – where her character walks out into the desert to die – seems closer to a puritanical Victorian morality (where a woman raped may choose to die, may in fact want to) than the more pragmatic sense of everyday survival, and gender roles, that drive the film. Such an extraordinary thematic focus on mere subsistence is enhanced by the mind-boggling location shooting undertaken for the film. Most of the exteriors were shot during late spring in the Mohave Desert where temperatures reached up to 120ºF and aeroplane propellers were brought in to whip up the sand and create a scarily palpable – for both audience and actor – sense of the wind. The actual ordeal the crew and actors went through in production is reflected in the way the film is able to definitively anchor character to environment. As Robert Herring has suggested of one of the film’s equally striking domestic scenes: “Everyday stuff. But watch the way Gish draws her skirts as she passes a carcass to fetch an iron… you have a state of mind pure before you.” (2) Thus, Sjöström’s large-scale elemental landscapes, psychologies and emotions are equally intimate in scale. He understands and can provocatively stage “waves of motion” (3) – as in the climactic, terrifying but rhythmic storm sequence – but he always gauges and marks the effects of such “waves” on the corporeal experience of his characters. The Wind is a melodramatic film highlighting extreme emotions and almost impossible environments – who could truly live in this world? – but it also has the air of realist drama, perhaps even documentary. It can be usefully placed within the genre of the Western, but even within this most landscape-driven of American movie forms it is exceptional in its portrait of an untameable and elemental nature. Despite its opening title-card spelling out Man’s – and such gender distinctions and divisions, and their ultimate corruption, are central to the film’s meaning – inevitable harnessing of the earth, the film ultimately presents an environment that both contains and is beyond humanity (other than it can be captured here, perhaps, by a film). This is some distance away from the positive and negative preoccupation with ideas of Manifest Destiny that defines the work of John Ford and Sergio Leone (and such a great contemporary work as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man ) (4). This still uncommon view of the environment may also be another reason why the film might have seemed so “out of time” in 1928. As suggested above, Sjöström’s great skill is in developing a wonderfully complex and integrated set of motifs, themes and stylistic techniques. Although The Wind relies upon a set of oppositions to help structure and tell its story – women and men, femininity and masculinity, inside and outside, East and West, society and individual, garden and desert, etc. – its ultimate progression and point relies upon the gradual negotiation of a shared space between these seemingly dichotomous positions and terms. But this journey towards adaptation and development is both elemental and extremely subtle. Most of the film is occupied with the shifting physical experiences and mental state of its central character – Letty, a naïve, and overly feminine girl from Virginia who enters the “domain of the winds”. Thus we are introduced to this extreme environment through her truly shocked response to the constant effects of “the wind” and the world it shapes. Gish’s performance of this role is, at times, understandably pantomimic but it also provides a peerless model of acting through subtle gestures of bodily movement and facial expression. What is often remarkable about Sjöström’s film is the economy of means he deploys to produce complex ideas and subjectivities. For example, immediately after Letty is told that she must marry one of two seemingly ill-matched suitors, Sjöström immediately cuts to the marriage scene (interspersed by a fade to black). The actual wedding “scene” is shown and communicated in a single medium close-up of three sets of hands, a ring, a few bits of costume, a collar, an open book, the gun-belt of the celebrant. This typical focus on detail at the start of a scene – and such an initial emphasis tells us much about the great observational qualities of Sjöström’s cinema – then slowly dissolves to a series of almost abstracted shots of the interior of a rudimentary house, a set of unkempt compositions of unwashed dishes and clutter which highlight the drudgery of domestic life awaiting the heroine. At the completion of this series an almost stilled image of Letty – in her wedding dress – slowly dissolves from the image of an illuminated lamp, the characteristic whiteness of Gish’s complexion (and femininity/sexuality?) and her frilly outfit matching the shape and perhaps purpose of this domestic totem. Sjöström transports us – and Letty – from the bare-bones wedding to the dreary domestic space in a series of shots that provide a complex sense of both subjectivity (this is definitely Letty’s view of the marriage, her objecthood, and not that of her somewhat simple but earnest husband, Lige) and a set of real environments and actions (rudimentary but in keeping with the elemental emotions and geography of the film). To further emphasise the seemingly, but perhaps not ultimately, arbitrary nature of this union, Sjöström then shows two characters entering through the marriage threshold, suggesting that Letty’s choice is both understandable – she chooses the younger and more cosmetically attractive suitor – and insignificant. Sjöström’s expressive use of the slow dissolve in this scene is both extraordinary and characteristic. The common use of this device is to note transitions in time and/or space, to help orientate the spectator in making easy sense of movements between shots, places and times. Sjöström uses this connotative understanding and adapts it to his own purposes. Thus dissolves are used in The Wind to give a more metaphysical sense of time – particularly its extension – as well as to further inculcate the spectator in the subjective experience, and thus psychology of its central character. Like many aspects of the film, the dissolves work to both enter us into the subjective point-of-view of a character and distance us from such a view. They also help us to more clearly register the interconnectedness of every aspect of the film. The Wind contains many remarkable and striking scenes. The scene that continues after Letty and Lige’s marriage is astonishing in terms of how it mixes together both a physical sense of environment and the warring subjectivities of its two characters. It is a masterpiece of gesture, framing, timing and the deployment of motifs and props. It also gives a true sense of the different sensibilities and sexualities of its two characters. The beautiful exchange of shots framing the stomping boots of Lige outside the wedding chamber and the dainty shoes and ginger steps of Letty inside is grounded by the grain and cut of the floorboards that tie the spaces and actions together. But the nature and intention of both characters is also beautifully communicated by how these feet act and are staged. Although Lige is somewhat rough and, at this stage, not all that bright, his boyish, impatient sexual longing for Letty – and sense of guarded possession – is mostly rendered through his relationship to his surroundings; how he kicks the door open, excitedly saunters through the threshold, stamps the floorboards, launches Letty’s bonnet through the air. His almost immediate disappointment is equally suggested through such a relation to objects and setting. Once he twigs to the real reasons for Letty’s acceptance of his proposal of marriage, and recovers from the rejection of his clumsy, rough and unpracticed physical advances, we are immediately granted a sense of his growing maturity – and morality – as he reads the various signs scattered across the mise en scène that now bears down on him. He notes the coffee that Letty has discarded, dejectedly observes his rugged face in a mirror, presses the rim of the tin cup that he had offered optimistically to Letty only moments earlier. Every element, gesture, framing, pause, object and camera technique is integrated and fully expressive. The film also features many striking individual compositions that give supreme force to the drama being played out between and within character and environment. The shot of Letty after her rape is exemplary in the way Sjöström uses forward camera movement and the placement of character – for once Letty/Gish does not present herself to us – to communicate her resigned devastation (and help tell us what has happened). Similarly haunting images are dotted throughout, including: the high angle shot of a maddened Letty seen through a sandblasted window; the creepy images of Wirt Roddy’s eyes seen through a stereoscope and of his body drowning in sand. In many of these moments, and almost despite the physicality of place communicated, the film also has an oneiric quality, its images seemingly drifting from in and out of consciousness. Despite the almost complete lack of liquid in the world of the film – Letty even uses sand to wash the dishes – the sand takes on the quality of water, miming its abilities to transform, submerge and clarify things and events. This also contributes considerably to the slightly fevered dream state the film evokes. One of the early scenes after Letty’s arrival at the devilishly named “town” of Sweetwater summarises and clarifies many of the most ordinary and extraordinary qualities of The Wind. The scene begins with Letty pointlessly ironing her inappropriately feminine clothes. Typically, the first shot starts in close, showing both the physical act of ironing and the effect that this, and the harsh environment, have on the character’s hands. Due to this unconventional introductory framing, we are forced to read these images and determine who this character is. The scene then metaphysically dissolves to a second, medium shot showing us Letty in a fuller context, the ever-presence of the wind registering through the window, its reflection flickering on the wall beside it (the combination of a dissolve and a match-on-action underlining a sense of extended, domestic time even when only real time actually passes). This scene is set-up as a study in contrast as it then cuts to the much starker and contrastive image of Cora – Letty’s main rival – carving into a large carcass. It plays with and questions our perhaps still widely held ideas of propriety, gender and femininity. It is also initially set-up so that we don’t fully register that these two characters are actually standing almost side-by-side (they seem literally worlds apart). Cora’s confident and physical carving establishes her as dominating her own space and that which surrounds her, suggesting a threat to Letty and the conventional femininity she is trying to maintain. Although we are never given a long shot that contains the complete interior of the room we are shown a complex set of shifting spatial relationships, as well as given the means to read who commands the space of the room (and thus the household), and how this actually changes across the scene. From its initial perspective emphasising Letty’s isolation and inappropriateness in space, the scene develops to exclude Cora; as each of the family members arrive they pay lip-service to Cora, moving quickly to gather around Letty and form a conventional family circle. Cora is left to wield her knife in the corner, her brooding carnality underlined and motivated by her exclusion from the family. The absolute strength of Sjöström’s conception is that one can understand and even sympathise with every character that enters and occupies this scene. But Sjöström also insists that we carefully read and interrogate the images presented to us, analyse not just what the images are of but how they are presented to us. So through its framing and construction of space – and the characters’ relation to it – The Wind encourages us to read events and actions in complex ways; to not just see a threatening woman with a knife, but a carnal, primordial mother and wife working to protect her charges. These are all ideas and techniques that are brilliantly developed across the film. But ultimately what I can’t get out of my head is the sound – and stinging, soiled feeling, I swear – of the wind. The Wind is an overwhelming sensorial experience that is both of its time and explicitly out of time. It may have seemed dated in 1928 – and perhaps was – but it is a film that has probably always felt ancient and modern, elemental and intricately nuanced. It is definitely a shining, windswept light of late silent cinema but its status is actually much greater than this. The film’s final image of the united couple enveloped and sculpted by the incessant wind, bringing so many of the film’s structural oppositions together, is a fitting conclusion to one of the truly remarkable experiences the cinema has to offer. Endnotes Sjöström’s name was anglicised to the much less “challenging” Seastrom during his time in Hollywood. There is no evidence that Sjöström strongly objected to this change. As this is partly a discussion of Sjöström’s aesthetics, and also because it is now convention, I have decided to use the original and ultimate spelling of his surname. Robert Herring, “Film Imagery: Seastrom” in Graham Petrie, Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922-1931, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1985, p. 221. Herring’s evocative analysis of The Wind, and Sjöström’s career more generally, is by far the most sophisticated contemporary critical account of the film. My own approach to The Wind draws heavily on Herring’s provocative ideas. Herring, p. 221. Dead Man has some very interesting similarities to The Wind. The openings in particular, featuring solitary central characters riding by train through the vast western landscape, share many compositional and thematic elements.