An American in Paris (1951)
This has always been one of Minnelli's most popular movies, but even if you think you've watched it to death on TV and videotape, you have never really seen this most tragic of all the director's tragic musicals if you haven't viewed it on a big screen with its shimmering color photography by John Alton, the great noir artist, and Alfred Gilks, who shot the extraordinary 20-minute ballet that "closes" the film. Alan Jay Lerner's plot is wafer-thin, even for a musical. An ex-G.I. (Kelly) remains in Paris after the war to pursue a career as a painter. His canvases aren't so hot, though, so when an aggressive patroness (Foch) pleads to "sponsor" him, the opportunistic Kelly flashes that Irish grin and goes along for the ride. ... It may sound like a conventional quintet on which to hang what seems like almost every marvelous George and Ira Gershwin song ever written ... An American in Paris, however, is a brooding, somber work. Like all of Minnelli's protagonists, Kelly refuses to face the truth, namely that his desire to paint is hampered by his mediocre talent. To justify his dreams of being a great artist, he imagines and bounces through a world of fantasy, a world so real to him -- and to us -- that his frequent outbursts of song and dance become as natural as they are imperative for emotional liberation. This vaporous paradise completely dispenses with the narrative's indications toward illusionism in the climactic ballet, a cathartic set-piece (cf. the finales of Some Came Running and Two Weeks in Another Town) that deliriously, continually re-creates and releases through movement, dance, color, and decor the tensions between Kelly and Caron that have been building throughout the film. Designed after the paintings of Dufy, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousseau, and other artists that Kelly has unsuccessfully emulated in his work, this sequence is quintessential Minnelli: a heightened, swirling exploration of time and space, bustle and repose, grief and loss. The camera tracks, cranes, and dollies through the dance space, anticipating with the boldness of the greatest director working at MGM in 1951, that the New Wave is, indeed, not so very far away. Finally, like all of Minnelli's collaborations with Lerner (Brigadoon, Gigi, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), An American in Paris is a paradox -- a musical that embraces solitude and romantic despair. It is a resplendent motion picture. (10/24/86)
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941)
D: Raoul Walsh; with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Charley Grapewin, Gene Lockhart, Anthony Quinn, Sydney Greenstreet.
Raoul Walsh's masterpiece is one of four movies programmed by CinemaTexas this semester that explore the myth of General George Armstrong Custer (the other three are Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, John Ford's Fort Apache, and Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee). Walsh's film is superficially the most romantic treatment of the four, but it's neither the whitewashed presentation of Custer nor the simplistic view of historical events surrounding his colorful figure that it may appear on a casual viewing. In the first of seven films he made under Walsh's direction, Errol Flynn gives one of his finest performances as the brash young West Point cadet who forges a legend out of his experiences in the Civil War and later, against the Sioux and the Cheyenne. The director reveals the dark side of Flynn's devil-may-care persona by having his ego subverted throughout the pell-mell narrative by other characters, especially by his wife (de Havilland, in her eighth, last, and best role opposite the actor). Like Bogart, Cagney, and Gable, Flynn is a definitive Walsh adventurer. He hurls himself against the authoritarianism of the military establishment with the same abandon with which he plunges into battle and ignores social niceties, exhilarating in action for the pure hell of it the way that Walsh does with his breathtaking pans, tracking shots, and a narrative compression that distinguishes the director's experiments with the epic form. In both the action and more intimate sequences of They Died With their Boots On, Walsh embodies Flynn's energy and individualism with a small boy's vulnerability, adding a tragic dimension to his character as he is swept inexorably toward the Little Big Horn. The farewell scene between Custer and his wife as he prepares to embark on that fatal mission is charged with emotional resonance. Flynn says to her that "walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing, indeed," kisses her passionately on the lips, and strides out of the room. Walsh pulls the camera away from his departing figure, seeming to will him to stay with her. The next shot is a dizzying track into de Havilland isolated in the frame, her faint providing the period to one of the loveliest passages in Walsh's cinema. (1/11/85)
THE SPIRIT & THE FLESH: THE FILMS OF DREYER AND BRESSON
Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson are hardly the most commercial choices for a film series, but [we] are bringing these rarely seen movies to Austin because we love them and want to see them. We also feel that there are a lot of adventurous, inquiring filmgoers around town who will welcome a chance to see some of the most challenging, intensely personal masterworks of cinema.
The Danish Dreyer and the French Bresson share a number of thematic and formal patterns. Both have superficial reputations as religious artists. While religious philosophy and the dilemmas of faith are vital parts of both men's oeuvres, the visions here are light years removed from those postulated by organized religion as it has been defined by Judeo-Christian culture. In his book, Transcendental Style in Film, critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader identifies Dreyer and Bresson as transcendental artists whose movies are interior journeys of the soul through a chaotic, hostile world toward liberation and grace.
... In Dreyer's movies, which range from The President in 1920 to Gertrud in 1965, meditations on the conflict between free will and society are inextricably linked to the Nordic landscape of Denmark. The chill air and gray skies of the heaths, villages, and cities extend to and shape the austere routines of daily living in Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. The effort to assert one's identity in this world is made at great cost, especially for women. Witchcraft is the generating impulse in Day of Wrath, and the women who are so condemned are inevitably those who instinctively act out their desires despite religious, legal, and social pressures.
... Like Dreyer, Bresson has created his unique dialectics of faith and doubt, guilt, and confession on the cutting edges of the commercial cinema. And also like Dreyer, Bresson has developed a bold, elliptical style that pares the narratives down to the minimum details necessary to illuminate interiority. In Diary of a Country Priest, for example, death is announced by a tilt from a clock down to an entry in the young priest's (Claude Laydu) journal or by a doctor's office door opening and closing.
... Bresson's protagonists work to declare their individuality, but [they] partake of the modernist complicity in their victimization. They seek to expunge the physical through a cultivation of the imaginative self, finding liberation in either escape, imprisonment, or death. The agonies they endure are transmuted into things of joy, and it is in this serene acceptance of the abyss that Bresson leaps securely into the pantheon as one of the most inspired givers of form in the medium. (3/28/86)
CARMEN JONES (1954)
D: Otto Preminger; with Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Roy Glenn, Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters.
Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones is one of the most uncompromising portrayals of black America in the cinema ... Transposing Georges Bizet's opéra comique, Carmen, to an all-black, World War II setting had been a pet project of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II for many years ... His lyrics for Carmen Jones are eloquent fusions of dialect and poetry ... The supporting cast reads like a who's who of Fifties black entertainers.
Preminger strips the musical of all excess and frills. He creates an austere, depoeticized, anti-lyrical world in which nothing obstructs his camera's detached recording of the action. The great themes of Preminger's oeuvre are obsession and the conflict between freedom and repression, themes which are central to Carmen Jones. ...
Dorothy Dandridge's Carmen is sister to those Preminger "heroines," like Gene Tierney in Whirlpool and Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse, whose irrational behavior defies psychological interpretations or motivational speculations. Slithering through Preminger's mise-en-scene in her slit skirts and tight blouses, Dandridge is a savage force of nature, and when she begins to taunt Joe in the factory cafeteria with the hottest red rose in movie history, or huddles between his legs to shine his shoes while he suckson a peach, the sexual energy ignites the wide screen.
And the wide screen is very wide indeed in Carmen Jones. It was Preminger's second CinemaScope feature (River of No Return?Carmen Jones, made the same year, was his first), and he displays a mastery of the elongated, horizontal shape that would be matched only by Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Robert Altman, and a handful of others. Many of the musical and dramatic sequences are constructed in majestic long takes accompanied by complex camera movements, an observance of spatial and temporal unities that encourages us to view the volatile melodrama without judging the characters or their actions. The tension Preminger creates in these frequently electrifying CinemaScope compositions between the impassive gaze of his camera and the fury storming across the screen is the source of much of the power and depth of Carmen Jones. (9/26/86)
"There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art." -- Douglas Sirk
... The use of objects and decor to block movement, to obscure truth, recurs in the greatest Sirk movies, among which I would include There's Always Tomorrow (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959). For Sirk, and later for Fassbinder, these claustrophobic arrangements of interiors relay the feeling that people are incapable of direct confrontation because they cannot move freely. Moreover, they cannot think freely and objectively because these clustered frames keep pushing in on them, highly symbolic reminders of the social, political, and economic barriers that inhibit liberation.
Sirk's movies are also about images. The expressionistic deployment of mirrors, glass, and shadows reflects the souls, the doppelgangers of his tormented characters ... Sirk's actors also become images through his complex manipulation of their personae. Rock Hudson starred in eight films for Sirk, and the best of them ... are astonishing records of the evolution of a hunk into a star/actor.
... At Universal, Sirk was repeatedly given schlock scripts and pulp novels, with the exceptions of The Tarnished Angels, based on Faulkner's Pylon, and Erich Maria Remarque's A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Sirk brought to the most intractable material, however, an ironic wit and a glittering style that bathe the stories in symbolic lighting, angling, colors, and mise-en-scene that continually give the lie to the "happy endings" the studio demanded .... -- excerpted from Douglas Sirk obituary, 2/13/87
Why is Blake Edwards so controversial? At times it seems that I spend half my life defending Edwards with friends and critics whose tastes I ordinarily respect, arguing the density of 10 or Victor/Victoria, the comic brilliance of The Great Race or The Party, the sublime ambiguities of Gunn, S.O.B., or the director's greatest, most personal work, Darling Lili. Perhaps the imminent opening of That's Life! will bring a few more people around to the view that I hold, namely, that Blake Edwards is the one surviving, actively creating, transition artist in the American cinema. His tragic farces and comic tragedies audaciously bridge the halcyon days of Hollywood classical filmmaking and the arrival of modernist forms of distanciation and alienation.
... Edwards is best known for his comic expertise, and movies like The Great Race, The Party, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and S.O.B. are among the most hilarious farces to lurch across the wide screen ... pain, humiliation, and sexual impotence recur throughout Edwards' comedies, and like Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, he will exhaust a joke until it's no longer funny, forcing us to analyze comic modes even while we watch them.
As great a satirist as he is, though, Edwards affects me most deeply because of the intensity and honesty with which he probes his characters' sexual confusion. In Gunn, Darling Lili, Wild Rovers, The Tamarind Seed, 10, and Victor/Victoria, he systematically eradicates male and female differences, blurring genders into a celebration of ambisexuality. Again, this mirrors the characters' drive to adjust to new, confounding situations. In 10 and Victor/Victoria, especially, Edwards seems to be suggesting that a failure to change, to grow, is the true tragedy in life. Nothing, especially our sexuality, is absolute. That Edwards has navigated this tricky region in seven films with his wife (Julie Andrews) representing the Eternal Feminine testifies to his rank as one of the most consistently invigorating filmmakers in movies today. (10/10/86)