by Claudia Siefen
LUDWIG WILL BE A LITTLE LATE TODAY!
In 1926-28, together with Paul Engelmann (architect, 1891-1965), Ludwig Wittgenstein designed and built a now world-famous residence for his sister Margaret Wittgenstein Stonborough (1882-1958), located in the 3rd District of Vienna. Today it houses the Bulgarian Cultural Institute. Of the usual Monday dinner hosted by Moritz Schlick (physicist, 1882-1932) during that period and the related inspirational talks, renowned as “The Vienna Circle”, there is probably no record; just as little is known of Wittgenstein’s reasons for always being late. Relieving themselves from the gruelling work and the development of the house’s construction, Wittgenstein and Engelmann visited the nearby Viennese cinemas regularly, especially if an American western was showing. As Marie Kaspar-Feigl, the wife of the Austrian philosopher Herbert Feigl, ironically put it, “Ludwig will be a little late today”, because Ludwig probably had yet to go to the movies before joining the sometimes contentious debates.
The thought of bringing Wittgenstein together with cinema came to me only when I read about how he was particularly happy in hotel rooms or in guest rooms of friends and admirers, using black tape (which was thrown into the UK market in 1927) to tape up the windows and to keep taping until he was finally contented with the view. He clarified that a window, such as one with a view over a desk, had to be measured precisely as he had to make things appear the way he wanted to have them seen from indoors.
So imagine the process like this: If the tree on the left side of the window bothers you? Tape it.
If the horizon takes up too much space? Tape it.
If the stairs to the right crush the overall impression when looking out? Use black tape again.
Nothing more and nothing less can be seen here, just like the artistic design and weight of the director and the camera on set, in order to develop the appropriate picture, or to plan exactly how to frame it.
“Look how different the room looks when the windows have the correct proportions. They believe that philosophy is a difficult business, but I can tell you: Compared with the difficulty of being a good architect, this is nothing. When I was in Vienna building the house for my sister, I was exhausted after work every time so completely that I could do nothing more, except I went every night to the flicks.”
Occasionally accompanied by Engelmann, Wittgenstein seemed so happy sitting in the first row of a darkened movie theatre. In the two years whilst living in the Argentinian architectural work which was his family home, it was mainly the American Western movie star Tom Mix who made an impact on him. Once the place of a true craftsman’s discovery, the typical light-hearted American Western offered him enough material to share the wild, wild experiences of real men: the cowboys. Later at Trinity College in Cambridge, he continued to pursue this passion by relaxing in the front row at the famous local cinema club. And also, being quite relaxed, he wrote next to nothing about it!
“I said it would be dark, and he said he hated daylight.
I said it would be lonely, and he said he prostituted his mind talking to
I said he was mad and he said God preserve him from sanity.
(God certainly will.)”
For Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, and especially the detective stories written by Norbert Davis (1909-1949), the case was totally different. It was not only that Wittgenstein was addicted to, and had a true passion for, collecting the small booklets. The simple language and simple arcs between good and evil in the brutal and unworldly detective stories by Davis can be rendered well without a guilty conscience to Wittgenstein’s fondness of Tom Mix.
The cowboy-turned-actor Tom Mix (1880-1940), when thoroughly surrounded, sees and feels the aura of the real and tangible. Tom Mix sees the eternal good of winning the battle against evil. The fact that Mix always trained by himself and was expertly accompanied by his horse named Tony and by a rich commentary, made him a family-friendly addition to the wild genre. This wordy, rich communication with his white horse (after all, we are still in the era of silent films) was such that Mix could not have failed with the “talkies”. So he came to the conclusion that he was still connected as a horse trainer and stunt expert to the country’s Wild West Shows and cinema. As a professional and successful rodeo rider, Mix went to Hollywood in 1909 and worked as a sort of horse consultant and a professional stuntman and then later, because of his good looks, finally worked as an actor. Mix was the most simple, honest cowboy, desiring a little love and a beautiful little farm, and the highly competitive and ardently desired wealth (finally allowing him to buy a farm) that survived after a duel. Daredevil stunts and hurricanes included, of course.
And there was so much to see there on the big screen in Vienna! There at the cinema, always sitting in the first row! Or at Schikaneder in the Mariahilferstraße? Let’s go and case the joint!
In Silver Valley (aka The Secret of the Volcano, 1927) by Benjamin Stoloff, Mix leaves no stone unturned in order to save his kidnapped sweetheart. Various rescue plans are discussed first, of course, with his horse Tony. Optical and dramatic climaxes can be seen in this film as well as the hiring of a small plane, along with Mix’s concern about flying in the desert, to make it easier to find the whereabouts of his beloved. Having conversations with just his horse is not the same. In the end he comes to the realisation that it’s no real comparison to a two-legged female friend.
Or The Last Trail (aka The Last Trip, 1927) by Lewis Seiler. Here you will see a wild stagecoach race and the claiming of victory. This is not about conquering the heart of a lady, but getting rid of the allegations that Mix was involved with frequent stagecoach robberies. Although there is no love to save, old friendships are reformed. While Mix is on his way across the prairie, he receives the news that his godson is now 10 years old and the parents want a reunion. The good-natured horse Tony is of course one of the party.
The Great K & A Train Robbery (aka The Robber King George, 1927) by Lewis Seiler. Here we travel with Mix by stagecoach to the railroad. It gets attacked too often and our hero is hired together with his horse to catch the bandits. Disguised as a street robber of the more luxurious variety, and named White Horse, he prospers in due course and is quickly revealed as the secretary of the chief organisers.
Or maybe The Black Riders (aka Ranson’s Folly, 1926) by Sidney Olcott? The German-language distribution title is once again more than misleading. The American silent film star Richard Barthelmess is an officer who gets caught in the crossfire: he must save the father of his sweetheart, who innocently becomes involved in the hunt for a criminal with the catchy name of Red Rider. So Barthelmess becomes the Red Mask to lure the real killer out of hiding. Of course, people come together with Red Mask at the end.
The Farm and Ghosts (aka The Spook Ranch, 1925) by Edward Laemmle? The film was much later accused of blatant racism. It could be said immediately that the film has silly humour, but we see Hoot Gibson as a humble cowboy with the ambiguous name Bill Bangs, who smashes a Chinese cook over the head with a massive platter in a fit of rage. The sheriff uses the awkward opportunity and sends the cowboy to jail, not in the wilderness, but to observe a ranch that is supposedly haunted. The wild goings-on at the ranch are nothing less than a full-blown kidnapping. The lovely Helen Ferguson wants to be (and can still be) saved.
Looking uncontrollably at beautiful women– sometimes one might think that this was the only reason the big screen and the art and craft of filmmaking was invented. Looking at beautiful people and landscapes, visually appealing light effects and architectural features: cinema is nothing else. We receive the accompanying story as an alibi. The shows must indeed have a purpose. Above all, the required conditions are to be expertly constructed. Wittgenstein organised the basic characteristic of movie theatres in his daily life, sometimes even enjoying that activity though a deeply meditative method, creating another reality in order to comprehend the new space:
When Maurice O’Connor Drury came to the Dublin Hotel one day, Wittgenstein was already waiting in the entrance hall, which was a rare occurrence. This resulted in the following dialogue:
W: “At the time, I was staying here waiting for a woman in the hotel, who has attracted me greatly. An Englishwoman? Oh no, because no English woman would have such good taste in clothing. She must be from the continent. If we wait here a few minutes, she will come down the stairs and then I will show her to you.”
A few minutes later the lady arrived.
D: “Oh, but I know exactly who she is. Let me tell you, many years ago she lived in Exeter, now she is married and lives near Dublin. She is English!”
W: (with a very skeptical look) “I find it hard to give you faith… “
The elegant movements of a beautiful woman follow the desire for constant repetition and finally the obvious displeasure of a seemingly simplistic reality (the lady is English!): Here is a pure example of cinema. Wittgenstein was impressed by the beautiful construction of a picture sequence, even outside the movie house. He bought cheap little cameras at Woolworths and then stuck the resulting photos into small notebooks and I followed his own principle arrangement of an inner and outer story. In order to bring it all to the desired format, he never shied away from using scissors. His interest was primarily to portray what he loved during his trips in photos, which he then arranged into narrative sequences in his books.
After the framing, we finally find the principle of film editing. Because: “The work of the philosopher is a gathering of memories for a particular purpose.”