By the 1960s, director King Vidor ’s star had largely faded. During his decades-spanning career, Vidor helmed a filmography at once both intensely personal and enthusiastically catered for mass appeal. His was a cinema of need: his characters strove, frequently with single-minded fanaticism, to find or establish their own meaning in life through their actions. His men doggedly pursued self-determination via work: Tom Keene establishing a Depression-era farming collective in Our Daily Bread (1934); Brian Donlevy as an immigrant pulling himself from rags to riches in An American Romance (1944); Gary Cooper battling for self-expression against a conformist society in The Fountainhead (1949). Even Vidor’s most atypical male protagonist, James Murray in The Crowd (1928), eventually seizes control of his fate by choosing to humiliate himself as a street performer in order to provide for his family.
His women, on the other hand, were frequently tragic heroines squashed by a society they cannot escape for their individualism: Barbara Stanwyck discovers that only by sacrificing herself can she ensure a better future for her daughter in Stella Dallas (1937); Jennifer Jones’ destructive actions against a prejudiced community results in the death of her lover and permanent social ostracism in Ruby Gentry (1952); Bette Davis dies horribly after a doomed attempt to escape a loveless, neutered marriage in Beyond the Forest (1949).
But during the 1950s Vidor’s work became increasingly uneven. By 1964 he hadn’t made a film in five years. Perhaps this is why his first—and only—film of the 1960s is so fascinating. For if Vidor had made a career of examining characters searching for meaning, then his short 16 mm documentary Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics sought the meaning of meaning itself.
Metaphysics, as the film defines, deals with “the nature of being; with cause, or genesis; and with the existence of God.” Through various other quotations of famous thinkers and philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, Vidor continues the definition to encompass how information itself is interpreted by the brain, transferred into conscious thought, and how that thought constructs our conception of reality.
It is nearly impossible to go into greater detail without simply repeating Vidor’s narration verbatim. But such is the film’s calm, didactic approach that it manages to summarize and condense quandaries and dilemmas that have frustrated many of the greatest minds of our species for millennia into simple, digestible sound-bites.
Some of Vidor’s illustrations are curious—a sabotaged multiplication table represents “evil thinking” since it prevents mankind from correctly understanding the world around them. Some are thought provoking—“If a tree fell on a remote island with no-one around to hear its crash, would it make a noise? (The answer is decidedly, “No!”)And some are existentially horrifying—“Time and space have no materialistic reality.”
Vidor accompanies these illustrations with visual montages pulled from sources as varied as stock footage of city crowds, toy models of airplanes, and classroom bric-a-brac.
Many viewers might find Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics at best tedious and at worse superfluous within the context of Vidor’s career. But the opposite is true: the film is essential to understanding Vidor. If his protagonists searched, fought, struggled, and died for things, people, and themselves, Vidor himself searched for truth. For decades, narrative cinema was the vehicle for his explorations as he lived vicariously through his characters. But with his career largely over, he could drop the pretense and explicitly delve into the object of his obsession.