Monday, September 8, 2014

Vertigo - The Shadow of the American Dream

The question of the meaning of America has been asked many times throughout history and many different perspectives have led to that question having different answers, depending on either the author who wrote the answer or the time at which the answer was given.  In Lynd Ward’s Vertigo, the answer is given with the backdrop of the Great Depression.  The world has a dark tint to it now for those who live in it and values have been turned upside down.  Many who had strong beliefs and hope before the Depression now are cynical and no longer believe in a bright future.  In Vertigo’s 1929 section, there is evidence of this cynicism and gloomy viewpoint in the images that Ward selected.  These images serve as quick flashpoints in American history, but teaching the history is not their main point.  They are trying to show how America began as such a promise and then degraded in to the twilight that is the U.S. in 1929.  What was supposed to be a bright future for the citizens who came here became a twisted shade of a dream in which workers were exploited by industry.
                The first image in the sequence is of a ship, possibly meant to be the Mayflower, heading into the distance towards a skyline that is illuminated by a bright star.  This ship could be meant to symbolize the making of our country and future.  There are two key points in this image to be interpreted along with the ship itself, and the first of which is the lighting.  The single large star in sky represents the bright future that America could have in a new world, and the ship follows it towards certain prosperity.  Also on the stern of the ship the single lantern has its own aura of light which shines as the hope of the passengers for what is to come when they land at their new home.  The second point to consider is the fact that the ship is sailing away from view into the background, and after seeing the other pictures in the section it becomes apparent that this directionality is a foreshadowing.  The bright promise that the ship held is sailing away just as America will eventually turn away from its path and move towards the darkness that it is in 1929.  The capability for the country to be what it was meant to be was there at the beginning but it was swept into the new age and corrupted so that it no longer inspired such confidence in the citizenry as it did before. 
                The foreshadowing is downplayed in the next few images in which the typical American spirit is shown by expected representations.  A pilgrim doing honest work, farming his land with a musket in his hand, ready to defend what was his against an encroaching Indian.  Buildings rise to mark our progress and show how far we are coming.  The images of the Revolution and wagons going west bring up the themes of American bravery and adventurism.  But with the picture of the railroad expanding we see why the foreshadowing was there.  A cursory glance shows expansion being driven by American brawn and with the strength of the man swinging the hammer nothing can stand in the way.  But what the image really shows is industry and profit riding on the backs railroad workers who are not valued as citizens but just as labor to fuel the machine owned by the rich men who pull the strings.  During the 19th century when the trans-continental railroads were being built, it was incredibly dangerous and men were often pushed beyond their limit by the bosses who were only interested in making money.  This frame points to that motive that is soon to be normal in our country.  The next picture shows how that has become a reality.  A laborer is bent under the strain of his work while tall metal structures rise above him and smokestacks release black smoke into an already blackened sky.  The workers are realizing that the promise of America has been taken from them by the corporate owners and Wall Street men.  The final image in this short history pocket book is that of a businessman doing exactly what the book is commenting on.  He stands tall, inviting everyone to see the glistening gem of a city that has risen out of nothing while the sun shines down.  Unfortunately the sun is shining through a small hole in the cloud of pollution created by the smokestacks in the background, and the man stands there simply because honest workers were exploited just so he could take credit for it all.
                Several images in the Elderly Gentleman section correlate to the reality that this “pocket book” attempts to mask over.  In the January section, one of the businessmen holds up a graph showing their profits are down.  Many people are going to lose their jobs and the country is going to suffer, but all they care about is the fact that they won’t make as much money as they did before.  This is part of the darkness that has grabbed America in 1929, where the employers no longer care about the employed, just that they can provide those employers with profit.  Later in the June and July sections there are riots by the workers, demanding recognition for what they do.  They are rebelling against the fa├žade that the pocket book represents, rebelling against the idea that a future is being molded by the hard working American, because the history is not saying that the hard working American is being crushed down under the heel of big business and industry.  In the image where the crowd has the poster, “Don’t Scab: Fight for a Decent Living,” the people are trying to get what they deserve and armed guardsmen put them down at the point of a bayonet.  In this image the contrast in size between the crowd’s poster and the eagle at the top of the gate represents how overpowering the corporation is.  The eagle is reminiscent of the Iron Eagle in Germany, and during the 1930’s the German government was ruthless in coercing the population into agreement with their views.  Similarly, the corporation in this Vertigo image doesn’t care about how the workers feel, they are powerless to do anything about it.

                This pocket book in Vertigo, while it is very brief, tells us something about an important viewpoint of 1929 and the years that followed.  That bright future that was so ingrained into the American dream had been darkened and changed into something that no longer gave hope to the common people, especially when they needed it the most during the Great Depression.  The wealthy businessman at the top of the pyramid smiling down and proclaiming that the country was a beacon to the world was just a bad joke to those below.

2 comments:

  1. I completely agree with your description and relation of the American history being used to show the promise that there once was in America. The ship analysis is well written, but could also expand some on the choppy waters the ship is sailing in and how that could relate to what the ship had to sail away from to find the bright future. Also, the paragraph talking more in depth about the next pages of the history were a good interpretation of what the author was trying to convey, and the deeper meaning of the pictures do show the struggle of the working man being exploited by the businessman. I also looked at the context in which the story was being told and thought maybe the graduation speaker was trying to motivate the graduating class to become part of something bigger than themselves. He himself is acting like a businessman in that situation, but the class is naive to how the world is during this time, so he can build them up before reality hits them after graduation. This man and his intentions could be expanded on some to add another angle to the brief history interpretation.
    The paragraph about the Elderly Gentleman could be cut out or expanded on to relate it back to the brief history in more detail. His own transformation from a man with big dreams who may have started in the country somewhere, to a man overwhelmed by the big city and his business. In the scenes where the board members are looking to him for answers about the declining profit, he is shown as a weaker figure in the picture compared to everyone else. He may be questioning some of the decisions he was forced or chose to make, now that he is sick and facing his own mortality. I think this would be a good paragraph to expand some on and relate the Elderly Gentleman’s transformation with the transformation of America.

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  2. Your first paragraph is a little generic - rather than starting with particular images or problems, you start out big. This is usually something you want to avoid, because it leads you toward arguments like this: "What was supposed to be a bright future for the citizens who came here became a twisted shade of a dream in which workers were exploited by industry." This is a big topic, which is a bit of a problem, but it is also dangerously close to being obvious. Can you imagine, for instance, that anyone who read the book would really disagree with this statement? You want to argue something which is both more focused and more challenging.

    You move into two long paragraphs in which you summarize too much, but still have something very clear to say: Ward is basically providing a labor-oriented, critical history of the U.S. That's good, although it took you a little too long and it's a little unclear what you're doing with that observation.

    The third paragraph has similar problems - you expend too much effort summarizing and not enough figuring out what focused conclusions you are trying to pursue. Your grasp of Ward's thoughts on corporate America and how it relates to the world, and how he shows that through images, is quite good. I like the observation bout the Iron Eagle - but you don't take the line of argument which would emerge from that - that Ward is attacking American for being or becoming a fascist country. The implication you *might* draw is that the roots of American fascism are visible in the history given by the principal - that what seems like optimism is something quite different.

    I'm not saying you need to take that line of argument - my point is that you have much of the material of an interesting argument here, but that you aren't quite making it, because you do too much summarization and not quite enough analysis, which would actually pull those pieces together.

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