The Wedding March ★★★★★

“They say I give them sewers — and dead cats! This time I am giving them beauty. Beauty — and apple blossoms! More than they can stand!” - Stroheim

1928: already Stroheim gives us a work which unmasks the history of cinema as a history of consumable fairy tales and illusions. For me, this is the greatest of all silent films, the seminal work of this proto-Brechtian director who is more class-conscious than the Soviets. All but one of Stroheim’s existent films remain truncated - and it’s interesting that the least sophisticated (Blind Husbands, a film which is certainly not unsophisticated) is the only one that remains in Stroheim’s intended version. Yet these works are like Greek statues - cinema as a series of Venus de Milo’s, more beautiful, suggestive and provocative in their fragmentation than one would imagine. But Wedding March works for me truly on its own terms, it’s hard to believe a second installment here could have ever matched, at the very least, this movie’s emotionality. “Apple blossoms,” says Stroheim, who then says, “More than they can stand!” This is a film of romances, fantasies, illusions - all so self-aware that Stroheim does not even need to overly formalize when drawing attention to something. As Straub dictated on this remarkable filmmaker: “You see magnificence, and you feel the exact opposite.” So when we see the “fairy carriage,” instead of seeing a “fairy carriage,” we think “something is wrong here.” This is a work which takes the dreams and illusions and fairy-tales created and sold by the cinema and returns them to the Brothers Grimm, then spewed out by Stroheim himself. No film is more aware of the way we as viewers are conditioned to look at things....and revealing a connection of social tradition to be a complete history of myths, tales, lies. Far from a ‘wonderful romance’ as some have stated - this is one of the most violent acts of cinema ever produced.

Every character in this film is a type: the handsome prince, the beautiful female commoner, the unsavory second suiter. The dynamic which has been set allows for a treatise on the way dynamics have been set by industrialized cinema standards: the Prince therefore of high social status, the naive woman to which fairytales come true, & the roughneck, improper, socially ugly proletariat. Yet even with this intertextuality, it is difficult in early scenes to focus on the dramas of the King and Queen, and the Prince who is begging his parents for money. That’s because it’s impossible to take one's eyes off of the servants in the background, toiling and constantly moving to sustain and keep afloat this aristocratic institution. Prior to this moment Strohiem gives us a shot of a statue of the Virgin Mary, “a guardian,” before giving us an image of it’s fictionalized counterpart, “The Iron Man -- a remnant of the Middle Ages -- heartless - soulless - threatening.” At first glance this seems a tad literal and overly symbolic, but shortly it’s complications shall reveal itself. Meanwhile, King and Queen squabble over a dog and waking up too early, Prince Stroheim is awakened by a maid. Now this section is fascinating: the blinds which create shadows of the doorways and thus the maid’s entrance: it’s one of the few times I’ve seen an expressionist technique work in ways beyond visual abstraction (for emotional reaction) and rather (and successfully at that) use it to make sociological implication. The maid teases, the Prince plays cad: but with these shadows the film makes a point: one of lower social standing cannot approach one of higher social standing, but as the film progresses, we will see that one of higher social standing can approach one of lower social standing. But again, what is most astonishing is how this movie pushes this examinatory envelope further from sociological examination of class relations to dense investigation of cinematic standards. This advances into one of the most impressive scenes in the movie, a 25 minute sequence centered on the Corpus Christi celebration. Firstly, by introducing more of the aforementioned characters, these “second and third” classes. Gorgeous, “naive” Mitzi is overwhelmed by the celebrations, Schani disgusted. Schani acts arrogantly, spits everywhere, frowns upon tradition and everyone else’s joy at the procession...yet he is also the one most conscious of the difference between one's class and anothers, and furthermore, the only one who is outraged. Of course, he points out that the view they have of the procession is poor, because the aristocrats & militia get the best spots. Instead the best these proletariats have to settle for is a view of horses asses. Yet everyone else is content. What follows is a series of shots that are incapable of being described with words alone. Stroheim and Fay Wray’s Mitzi meet - but it’s not four eyes which interlock, its two eyes on regala. One of the most brilliant juxtapositions of the film - Wray’s eyes to a pan upward of Stroheim’s body - but first starting on his boot, and then moving upward slow enough to study the “gold tassels and plumes.” Cinema at large has favored position over human. “That’s one of them swells that don’t do nuthin,” says Schani. Schani is far from a saint, and later in the film he goes on to show reprehensible behaviour. Yet his words here are absolutely right. And on this re-viewing, we realize that media at large, then and now, have tried to show us that people of “low” position, dissenters, etc, are reprehensible. And thus we take that attitude and apply it to life.

In this sequence, Stroheim is positioned on a horse, Wray below. Thus, he is always looking down at her, and she looking up at him. A series of shots repeat themselves over and over as they lock eyes back and forth, make small gestures towards one another, and so on. But something feels off here - we’ve seen this moment a million times in movies. Yet there is something perverse..the way Wray is excited by Stroheim’s commanding of his horse, the way Stroheim makes suggestive glances not at Wray but directly to her. Very few in cinema have placed men and women on equal eye level - Ford is one, Walsh too. Obviously, this is not something movies have done in a general sense - so the amount of shot-reverse shots here imply an awareness of this. Movies are indoctrinating - they teach us that men should look down at women, and that women should look up to men.

I can’t think of another movie with such sophisticated self-reflexivity. Could one believe that this sequence continues? It does - Stroheim’s father, the King enters the sequence decked out in shiny royal garb - manifesting Stroheim’s famous quote, “I show you the king in the bedroom first....” We cut to bells (this happens alot in this sequence) bells which ring for weddings, celebrations, funerals. A social tradition. Things happen - Stroheim’s horse gets spooked, knocking out Wray. One of the most haunting images in the film: Wray’s unconscious body being hauled off to hospital, still from Stroheim’s “higher up” perspective. And Schani is hauled off to prison for showing his ire to this royal member. Then in one of the most ingenious, perhaps a bit cynical touches, we get a title saying “Then the Procession - the Procession Mitzi waited so long to see.” There is no need narrative wise to see this, yet Stroheim films it in stunning two-strip Technicolor, illuminating colors which have no need to be expressed. Only one reason can be surmised for its inclusion - because it is spectacle and spectacle consists of surfaces - we live in a bourgeois world and the bourgeois want their moneys due. So we get surfaces, a procession of aristocrats and royalty. Yes this is cynical, irony at its most dense - but people like to dream about things which they don’t have.

We enter apple blossoms, the aforementioned “fairy carriage” Mitzi’s own fantasy fairy-tale world which manifests perhaps partially out of the belief (as in: her’s and the spectators) that aristocratic Prince Nicki/Stroheim can provide it. Blossoms fall romantically like out of a picture-book, there is gorgeous soft-focus photography and sublime lighting. Yes, everything here, from sets to character interrelationships, is artifice. But at every little moment we are pulled back into reality - Nicki/Stroheim accidentally sits on a crooked nail upon entering the carriage. Not for nothing is the following scene Schani’s release from prison, and returning to his work-day at a meat-shop.

The dense intricacies of this film is too much for me. Over this most recent viewing, I had to pause the film after each scene and have a cigarette - there is so much going on in this movie, in every shot, in the way a shot cuts with another one, in a single scene, and how that scene works in tandem with the rest of the film. As I write this, it’s clear to me that this film asks for something much bigger and more expansive than say, what something approximating conventional criticism can provide. Hopefully I (or who knows! Maybe another Stroheim lover!) can do a piece like that in the coming year. Regardless, I’m going to continue, because this film and filmmaker deserve everything, this mammoth work (and yes, there are several Stroheim films which are greater and more dense than Greed) which was post-modern for 1928 and remains post-modern for 2015. Because Stroheim is addressing and examining images in a way that is self-aware without drawing attention to itself, allowing for a Brechtian experience which doesn’t so much shape conclusions but rather shows you how a person sees the world -- and the truths they think they have discovered about it. That’s all one really needs from a movie. And why is this relevant in the present and the future? Because these truths discovered are aware of the cinema, and furthermore aware of the influences the cinema has on the spectator at large. And in a time like now, 2015, and no doubt ten years from now we are in a world dominated by screens and media. We are spectators every day of our lives. It’s a common occurrence in film schools to relate “the king’s seat” anecdote, that cinema was a liberation from the stage because now “the poor man recieved the same intimate view of the interesting subject in the film, as the rich man derived from looking through his opera glasses at whatever interested him on the stage.” They never tell you who said that. Guess what: Stroheim did, and he said it over a radio broadcasted eulogy during D.W. Griffith’s funeral in 1948.

The cracks begin to show: upon Nicki and Mitzi’s second meeting she asks why he was late. “I was on duty,” he says. He was at an orgy with his own father! Myths reprise themselves - Mitzi sees appreciations of “The Iron Man,” which wealthy Nicki of course cannot see. And so we realize that this film too (or rather, in development of its cinema critique) is in-dialogue with myths which are created by storytelling. How much is it really that social traditions have derived from myths? “But marriage is one thing and love another!” exclaim Nicki/Stroheim’s parents! How is it that centuries old institutionalized standards are still prevalent? One of the most moving & provocative images in the movie: Zazu Pitts staring at her wedding dress (note - if there is one complaint I have to make about this movies truncated form is that we do not get enough of this character) She stares with bewilderment - she is about to marry a prince, attain social status impossible for anyone else.....yet she is still marrying a man she has never met.

This is a film in true dialectic with the cinema - attractive men of power, women who are disposable as cyphers, and unattractive men and women alike without any power. We understand that with very few exceptions, cinema in its profitability and consumability makes it far from progressive. At the very least, this is true for much of what passes as narrative cinema. Rather than reject old rules and invent new ones, cinema’s primary role in the 20th century was to preserve cultural norms and traditions, and preserve the institutions profiting from them. I think it would be obvious to anyone who knew anything about the trajectory of Stroheim’s career, that he would have been aware of this.

The opening credits: “O Love --Without thee -- Marriage is a sacrilege and mockery! -- Dedicated to the true lovers of the world. EVS.” No doubt, this is one of the few images in this film which is not indirect. The movie’s final moments return to this thought, but it is in the most despairing instance in the history of Hollywood film. It feels we now leave cinema behind: all that is left are the mores and codes which try to govern our lives. We get the ultimate irony, the “trampling of the apple blossoms,” the falsity upon which these codes sustain themselves. To be quite general, we see fantasy and reality finally collide, and thus see how the former only works for one part of society, while the latter only works for the other.

I cannot think of another film which works so intricately in theoretical terms, yet remains so emotionally overwhelming.

Neil liked this review