Vincente Minnelli at BAMcinématek (Sep 23-Nov 2)

by on September 23, 2011Posted in: Essay

On Tuesday, Oct 25th, author Joe McElhaney will introduce the 6:50 screening of Minnelli’s rarely-shown final film A Matter of Time (1976). Copies of McElhaney’s book, Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, will be available for purchase in the lobby of BAMcinématek.


IT’S NOT DIFFICULT these days to see the films of Vincente Minnelli. The Turner Classic Movies network now broadcasts most of his work on a regular basis, and Warner Brothers has released all of their Minnelli titles on DVD. Minnelli is still esteemed as a director of Hollywood musicals that were unprecedented in their fluidly expressive integration of story, music and mise en scène — the most of important of which, Gigi, won Minnelli the 1958 Oscar for best direction. In more recent years, there has been a substantial surge of interest in his gift for agonized psychological melodramas, and for comedies built upon domestic situations thrown into states of chaos, which has only further enhanced his reputation.


Filmmakers as diverse as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Spike Lee, Terence Davies, Amos Gitai, Quentin Tarantino and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have expressed admiration for his work.  Richard Linklater has repeatedly stated that Minnelli’s small-town melodrama, Some Came Running (1958), is his favorite film.  A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), a four-hour documentary tour of Scorsese’s favorite American films, is filled with extended Minnelli excerpts, as is Jean-Luc Godard’s far more ambitious project Histoire(s) du cinéma (ongoing since 1989), a complex video meditation on the very nature of the moving image.  


Vincente Minnelli’s films, then, are all around us and there for the taking. And yet the Minnelli series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s cinématek is a major event.


Louis Jourdan in Gigi (1958)

BAM’s program is the closest to a complete retrospective of the filmmaker’s work since the Museum of Modern Art’s series in 1989. All of Minnelli’s features have been scheduled, even The Seventh Sin (1957), a film that he completed without credit after Ronald Neame departed the production. All that is missing are the films for which he directed just bits and pieces (almost always uncredited), such as Judy Garland’s sequences from Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) or the fashion finale from Lovely to Look At (1952). These are not major omissions. Certainly any opportunity to revisit such repertory favorites as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), or An American in Paris (1951) is welcome. Not to be missed is the rare screening of A Matter of Time (1976), a masterpiece brutalized by its uncomprehending distributor; the 35mm print on loan from the Swiss Film Archive contains a sequence not otherwise available in any version that has been shown in the United States.


But the interest of the series is not really about being a completist, since this can be achieved by any armchair cinephile with a DVD player. It has to do with something else: projection. When the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris had its own Minnelli series in 2004/05, there was a great sense of discovery for the many who attended, and not only among those who were seeing the films for the first time. What took place at the Pompidou was very simple but also quite revelatory: screening Minnelli films in 35mm.


Kirk Douglas in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

Years of television and home-video viewing have accustomed us to a bright and vivid but also carefully contained flatness of image, an effect that’s only gotten stronger with the current craze for LCD displays and the rise of digital projection in the multiplex. The remastering of Minnelli’s films for the digital universe has given them a slightly unreal, almost too-perfect look. (Could they have sparkled like this even in their first release?) But Minnelli belongs to the last generation of directors who conceived of their films solely in terms of the projected texture of 35mm. Take the stunningly mobile camera of Brigadoon (1954), or the multiple planes of CinemaScope action in the sanitarium hallways of The Cobweb (1955), or the entire fairground set piece near the end of Some Came Running (in which every shot is a master class in composing for the anamorphic wide screen) — these sequences regain a visual and dramatic weight in 35mm that is lost in every other format.


It is time to experience again the specific warmth and luminous depth that true 35mm projection offers us. Few directors allow for such an experience as fully as Minnelli.


Top Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
Bottom Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956)


THE CRITICAL DEBATES that once surrounded Minnelli’s films in the ’50s and ’60s (is he an artist with a singular vision, or a minor talent at the mercy of the studio system?) can by now surely be laid to rest. Years of repeat viewings clearly show an artist who is nothing if not consistent. The three genres within which Minnelli worked — the musical, the domestic comedy, and the melodrama — only superficially mask the personality of a filmmaker who was obsessed with essentially one topic: the act of creating, of giving life to a vision of one kind or another. Creators turn up everywhere in Minnelli’s films, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.  The critic Jean Douchet was the first to note that all of Minnelli’s protagonists are united in their need to shape, mould, and transform the the world around them; in short, to be the metteurs en scène of their own lives.


It is only a slight distance of worlds that separates housewife Tacy Collini (Lucille Ball) in the comedy The Long, Long Trailer (1954) from painter Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) in the melodramatic biopic Lust for Life (1956). Both Tacy and Van Gogh are driven by the same fundamental joys and agonies of creation. For Van Gogh, these are achieved through the world of canvas and paint. For Tacy, it is the mobile home in which she and her husband Nicky (Desi Arnaz) attempt to live out a post-war, middle-class American fantasy life–an unlikely medium that becomes nothing less than the canvas for Tacy’s impulse for aesthetic control. Nicky tells Tacy that she is like a magpie in her need to collect and surround herself with objects for the trailer, a need that culminates in her irrational rock collection, which weighs the trailer down so massively that it almost kills them both as they drive over a steep mountain road. Though Tacy is far removed in time and space from the fin-de-siècle Paris of Gigi, she is a kindred spirit to Maurice Chevalier’s Honoré Lachaille when he looks into the camera and tells us that he is a “lover and collector of beautiful things.”


Home From Hill Vincente Minnelli
The Sandpiper 1965 Elizabeth Taylor
Top George Hamilton and Robert Mitchum in Home from the Hill (1960)
Bottom Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper (1965)


As a director, Minnelli himself is also a type of magpie. The décor of his films is usually filled with artfully arranged items that can emerge with a depth and wealth of detail when seen in 35mm. This impulse towards decorative clutter is central to such emblematic spaces as the den of Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) in Home from the Hill (1960) or the interior of the beach “shack” of Laura Reynolds (Elizabeth Taylor) in The Sandpiper (1965). In both of these brown and red interiors, the outside world of nature and animals has been brought inside, but the former film is as strongly masculine in its detail (the space of a hunter, filled with rifles, fishing tackle, and mounted animal heads) as the latter is feminine (the space of a nurturer, in which a wounded bird is healed within an environment adorned with flowers, plants and pottery). Such decor serves not only the obvious expression of personality but also the aesthetic and even sexual needs of the characters.


Everywhere one looks in this cinema are characters shaping, controlling, and dramatizing their environments. This is overt in films about the theater, such as The Pirate (1948), The Band Wagon (1953), or Designing Woman (1957) in which directors, writers, and performers battle for domination of some sort or another. But the “work of art” can also be a wedding, as in Father of the Bride (1950), or the birth of a baby in that film’s sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951). It can be a series of “coming out” balls for young upper-class women in The Reluctant Debutante (1958), the education of a teenage girl trained to become a courtesan in Gigi, or the lessons given to teenage boys on becoming a man in Tea and Sympathy (1956). In all of these films, the social rituals are not simply participated in by the characters. They become an ongoing, constantly negotiated mise en scène, in which the anxiety over losing control of not only the work but also one’s own life gives these films so much of their voluptuous energy. In repeatedly enacting such needs, these characters become extensions of Minnelli’s own impulses as a director, and the films themselves serve as allegories about filmmaking in general.  


There are, of course, the films that directly represent the world of filmmaking, such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and its magnificent companion piece Two Weeks in Another Town (1962).  But the need to stage action in Minnelli occurs well beyond the confines of a film set. When Tacy is giving her husband instructions on how to back the trailer into the driveway of her Aunt Anastasia’s home, her gestures and careful measuring of space and distance uncannily evoke a film director lining up a shot.  She even calls for “absolute quiet” from everyone around her, as though she is about to roll for a take.  But this extravagant gesture of control, like so much else in Minnelli, only leads to more chaos and destruction. In spite of Tacy’s efforts, the trailer destroys a portion of the house.


The eight-minute party set piece of Madame Bovary (1949)


THIS IS A WORLD to get lost in.  Scenes of swirling, choreographed bodies recur to the point where they become a virtual signature, from the New York City exteriors of The Clock (1945), through the carnival of Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and the market square of Kismet (1955), to the Felliniesque beauty salon of Goodbye Charlie (1964) and the many party sequences across Minnelli’s filmography.


Madame Bovary (1949) offers what is arguably the greatest of all of Minnelli’s parties, the musical and melodramatic set piece (over eight minutes long) of the ball at Vaubyessard.  The entire sequence is built upon a set of escalating visual and musical motifs: the play with fabric (with Emma’s ornate gown at the center of this), the contrasting rhythms and movements of the social dances (culminating with the eroticism of the waltz) and, most important, glass — the chandeliers, the glasses of alcohol, the mirror, and the windows.  In a moment of supreme delirium, these windows are eventually shattered by chair-wielding butlers in response to Emma’s anxiety about fainting due to the heat while she is waltzing.  In the midst of all this, Minnelli also establishes a contrast between the world of the visible (Emma as the center of attention, being looked at and admired by all, including herself as she stares lovingly at her own image in the mirror), and a world of the invisible (her husband Charles, not only ignored but barely even seen by anyone).


A recurring visual idea in Minnelli is the human figure hiding within the shot: lost in a crowd, buried under blankets or pillows, behind newspapers, or sunken into chairs until the person is suddenly revealed. At the beginning of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), Tom Corbett (Glenn Ford) cannot find his son Eddie (Ronny Howard) anywhere in their apartment.  Tom eventually notices a lump hiding under the blankets of his bed, pulls the blankets back, and sees Eddie there, curled up and asleep.  The aptness of this image within the context of the film as a whole is what it gives the image its emotional power.  Eddie’s mother, we soon find out in this saddest of comedies and funniest of melodramas, has just died and Eddie has crawled into the bed that his parents once slept in together.  In the absence of his mother, he is reverting to a kind of fetal space, a moment before his own birth.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) Vincente Minnelli

Glenn Ford and Ronny Howard in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963)


The word “nothing” recurs in the dialogue of Minnelli’s films, where it announces both the point of erasure or death for its protagonists and a potential new beginning. When Julio (Glenn Ford) in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) joins the French Resistance, he is told by a member of that group that this moment marks the beginning of Julio’s “new role as a man of no character.” But this erasure of his character through the anonymity of the French Resistance marks the paradoxical beginning of Julio’s transformation from a “neutral observer,” indifferent to the Nazi Occupation, to an active participant in the fight against the occupying forces.


Always for Minnelli there is this ambivalence, this nervous hesitation about the matters at hand, and it manifests itself at virtually every level.  For example, no filmmaker quite moves his camera as he does, where it is rarely a question of the camera simply following an action and delineating a space. What one so often finds are two or more contradictory movement ideas taking place at once within a single shot or sequence. In the “I Met a Girl” number from the underrated Bells Are Ringing (1960), as Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) is singing in Times Square, a craning camera follows his movements down the street in a single take.  But the extras in the sequence are largely moving against him, around him, and completely filling the frame so that the effect is rather like watching someone swimming upstream.


Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)


At other times, the camera will sometimes begin to move and then hesitate, as though changing its mind, before it then moves in another direction. The ultimate example of this is probably in Two Weeks in Another Town, where the car carrying a drunken and hysterical Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), with his ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), screaming her head off at his side, begins to spin out of control. The car executes a 180-degree turn as the camera moves 90 degrees in the opposite direction.  The car still spinning, the camera briefly stops and then resumes movement by retracing its steps and doing a full 180 around the spinning car until both car and camera come to a full stop.  Conversely, the camera itself may move in a single direction while movement within the frame establishes a counterpoint.  


“You see, madame, circulation is your big problem.”  This is a line uttered to Ellie Banks (Joan Bennett) by Mr. Massoula (Leo G. Carroll), the caterer (but in reality, one of the metteurs en scène) of the wedding reception in Father of the Bride.  Massoula’s concern is with the flow, the circulation of bodies through the small space of the Banks home for this reception. In his brilliant new book Vincente Minnelli (published in French by Capricci Press) Emmanuel Burdeau sees the absence of circulation as a constant problem facing Minnelli’s comedies.  But one may also see circulation as a fundamental principle of Minnelli’s entire body of work.  It reaches its most expressive treatment in the two great, final films, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) and A Matter of Time.  Circulation is not simply a question of movement within the frame. It is the structural principle here, as a character from one world exchanges everything from knowledge to songs to material objects to even their own identities with someone from another world, from another moment in time. These two films also remind us of how often, in this otherwise very mobile universe, characters sit or recline, caught in moments of reflection, contemplation.


On a Clear Day You Can See Forever 1970 Vincente Minnelli
Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

IF MINNELLI’S FILMS are such rich and evocative allegories about the cinema it is not only because they are about artistic process.  They are also films about what it means to be a spectator, to sit in a chair (in a screening room or a theater, in a living room or psychiatrist’s office) and imaginatively observe.  Both Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand) in Clear Day and the Contessa (Ingrid Bergman) in A Matter of Time create entire worlds by sitting in a chair and reliving their own pasts to another person: Marc Chabot (Yves Montand), Daisy’s psychiatrist in the first film, Nina (Liza Minnelli), the Contessa’s chambermaid, in the second.  The power of these memories is so strong, though, that a kind of spell is cast over all four characters and the memories of Daisy and the Contessa become not so much flashbacks as a collaborative fantasy, a type of film-within-a-film, created by both storyteller and listener. The distinction between being a spectator and being an artist is irrelevant, these films tell us.  Both can be creative acts.


See the Minnelli retrospective at BAM, then.  After all, how many other filmmakers imply that we may be artists simply by virtue of the fact that we are sitting in a theater watching films?


Joe McElhaney is professor of film studies at Hunter College/City University of New York. He is the author of The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli and Albert Maysles.


“The Complete Vincente Minnelli” is playing at BAMcinématek September 23rd to November 2nd.

  • No one knows Minnelli like Joe knows Minnelli. Read his chapter in “Death of Classical Cinema” on “Two Weeks…’ after seeing the film yesterday. Like the lighting in a Minnelli musical- brilliant and illuminating.

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