Collision 28: April 2019

Still from King Vidor's The Crowd (1928)

Give us a Name for Our New Motor Fuel and WIN ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS!

Karen Pinkus

A photogram, a screen capture, a closeup, isolated from its context – King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. A ripped newspaper held by a left hand while the right hand writes on a piece of paper. The image reproduced here is somewhat blurred because this particular film has not been restored. Perhaps because, in the end, it’s not a great film. Perhaps because of some fluke of distribution. Perhaps because Frank Capra and Preston Sturges made similar but more digestible (sound) films later. In its day, on the big screen, the paper and the hand of The Crowd would have loomed over the movie palace with sharp distinction. Naturally, the late 1920s cinema goer would not have the opportunity to freeze frame and pay such close attention to this one moment. Kracauer’s little shop girl might never register precisely what is happening here, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to think through the logics or illogics implied in the shot.1 Certainly, the kind of (neurotic?) close viewing I’m going to indulge in isn’t sanctioned by the film itself. I fully admit that there is something mildly perverse, or at least eccentric in expropriating a lone image to open up a series of reflexions about labor and cinema, but also, counterintuitively, about the massive disruption that is climate change.

Let’s rewind. The film begins with Sims’ childhood in the rural Midwest and the promise that he might someday make something of himself. We cut forward in time and space to wide-angle scenes of urban bustle. They could well be pieces of stock footage, edited in between shots that Vidor himself conceived and directed. Just before the photogram in question, the camera pans up the side of an extremely tall office building and then enters one window. One of hundreds, all precisely the same size and shape. Then a crane shot of indistinguishable men at their indistinguishable desks. A swan dive down to Mr. Sims, also known as (or rather reduced to) employee n° 137. Finally, the closeup we see here. Then a series of cuts between a large wall clock, Sims thinking (indicated by a caricatured gesture of furrowed brow and hand on chin), and the other workers, moving with exaggerated slowness. The hour hand sits, waiting, at 5. The minute hand ticks to the right and hits 12 on the dot. At that exact moment – perhaps a siren blares but this is a silent film and so we have only the cuts between the workers and the clock to indicate the end of the day – the workers scramble from their desks, all at the same time, all with the same gestures. It’s a crucial cinematic choice, one that will be copied by other directors with relative degrees of pathos or comedy or social critique implied.

It is only with this series of edits just before the end of the day that we realize (if we have time) that Sims is stealing company time. Employee n° 137 tries out two names on a scrap of paper. If his name for a fuel should be chosen by the Sylvanian Oil Company – that is, in contemporary terms, if he were to provide mediatic content to a private enterprise – he could win a one-time prize to supplement his meager income. He would be compensated, that is, from an external source, while he is sitting at his desk and earning a wage for time served there, for an unnamed company that provides unnamed services for unnamed individuals. That amounts to a kind of theft, or what Michel de Certeau called la perruque. But for now, we don’t judge n° 137 nor do we think about wages and value and time because there isn’t time. Not now.

What does it mean to produce a “new” motor fuel? By its nature, to function as a fuel, the gasoline sold in one service station must have the same molecular structure as the gasoline sold in the service station down the road. It likely comes from the same refinery via the same delivery truck or pipeline, later in the twentieth century. The branding of motor fuel, whether of a national or private company, is a rather peculiar gesture since what is being sold is not so much the substance itself (ephemeral, combustible) as the station with its amenities or service; and then, the experience of driving, perhaps just for the sake of driving and not necessarily for the purpose of going somewhere. An urban office worker like Sims might dream of someday owning an automobile and taking a joyride. Another form of entertainment, like the cinema, but private rather than collective.

It is worth noting that there was no “Sylvanian Oil Company” but there was certainly oil in the state of Pennsylvania (where, in fact, the first commercial oil well was drilled). There is a Pearl Street in the financial district of Manhattan, although it is worth recalling that aside from the establishing shot of the skyscraper, The Crowd was filmed in Hollywood. The proper names – East Coast names – give the film some sense of rootedness. The closeup of the hand on the paper exists in the realm of plausibility that is one of the film’s key modes. Consequently, when the film departs from the verisimilar (e.g. when it offers some rather exaggerated plot or character developments), the viewer is inclined to take them on faith.

Sims’ names, “Petrol-Pep” and “Jazz-o-lene,” sound quite modern, one imagines, in keeping with a certain optimism of the new age of the automobile, service stations, the culture of the road. Upton Sinclair’s Oil! gives you a similar picture… until things go south. That novel also takes us on a trip around motor fuels and Hollywood, among other locations. New York (with its faceless office workers not to mention bankers) seems very far away.

Miriam Hansen writes that The Crowd “foregrounds the impact of consumer economy by associating its protagonist with the business of advertising (…), with the fiction that advertising, like screen-writing or the creation of stars, is a popular art in which everyone can participate; whether a slogan is accepted or not is just a matter of luck.”2 Perhaps, but Sims is, precisely, not an ad-man. He sits behind a desk pushing around papers. He is forced to find other possible sources of income since his whole wage scheme is mapped out, in advance, by the company and it does not suffice for a family man, or a man who wants to consume just a few more products, or make a move to a nicer apartment or save for some emergency. Later in the film Sims does win another ad contest, for soap. One might argue, though, that the contest entry is actually a regressive way of keeping the worker from questioning the wage and the company. In this sense it is a conservative mode, but the film does not address this because Sims is a hard worker, an everyman, a victim of the system. In essence, The Crowd could be aligned with a peculiar Hollywood form of benign populism. Sims is the man in the crowd, not particularly notable or likeable; he is the subject of a major film precisely because of his ordinariness. The film demands that you take Sims’ side to the degree that you feel some frustration with “the system,” but it doesn’t allow you the time or space to define what “the system” really is. Because Sims is neither a representative of a class (struggle) nor a heroic or even a particularly likeable figure, the film does not inspire one to think much outside of its own rules. It’s a Hollywood product, after all. In other words.

The Crowd is a story of a man’s life, from childhood to the peak of adulthood, with some moments of pleasure and pain mixed in; a man of a certain class who strives to move up and is blocked by both internal and external factors and the viewer is probably too busy playing these against each other to consider one particular scene that takes up only a few seconds of screen time.

There is nothing in the scene, or the film itself that would logically prompt the viewer to think deeply about fuels: How they should be distinguished from energy.3 How we place hope in them to redeem us. How we imagine phasing out bad (fossil) for good clean, green fuels just around the corner, in the very near future. On the horizon or in the pipeline. Viewers should certainly not be expected to think about climate change. And of course, in 1928 this term would not have registered for anyone except maybe some solitary scientist, someone literally on the margins. And the viewer could not be expected to consider how the narrative arc might generate a certain carbon footprint or what will happen to the possibility for such a narrative arc in a future radically changed by increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. In fact, the naming or branding of a “new” motor fuel could also be thought of as a way of not thinking about what oil really is, and how it is tied up with a whole “petroculture” that weaves together iron-clad economic models, monopolies, colonialisms/extractivisms, infrastructures; or scenarios of energy transitions, calls to stop pipelines and “leave it in the ground” heard against calls to “drill, baby, drill,” lawsuits against corporations by schoolchildren, and so on. But that’s what I think about, now, when I consider the photogram. I can’t help myself.


  • 1 Siegfried Kracauer’s published a series of short writings on cinema under the title The Little Shop Girls go the Movies (Die kleinen Ladenmädchen gehen ins Kino) in 1927, one year before the release of The Crowd. His sociology of the movie goer is a crucial reference.
  • 2 Miriam Hansen, “Ambivalences of the ‘Mass Ornament’: King Vidor’s The Crowd,” Qui parle, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 1992): 102-119, here p. 108.
  • 3 The energy-fuel distinction is crucial to my book Fuel. A Speculative Dictionary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).