Archive for Vincente Minnelli

Send in the Clans

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Or, 2,000 McManiacs.

It was inevitable that, on my journey through Vincente Minnelli’s cinema — which is extremely rich and there’s more of it than you think — I would have to face BRIGADOON, a movie which seems to give Scots some trouble. In the same way as you’re unlikely to find anyone in Ireland with uncomplicated admiration for THE QUIET MAN. I guess that film is MORE embarrassing because Ford claimed Irishness, yet produced a gruesome slice of what is known as paddywhackery. The tartan tat of BRIGADOON is entirely the work of outsiders — Lerner & Lowe don’t sound too Scottish, neither does Minnelli, and it’s amusing to go through the cast list and check off the birthplaces of the actors. Elaine Stewart and Hugh Laing SOUND Scottish, but they’re from New Jersey and Barbados respectively. Other “highlanders” hail from Lancashire, Wales and Northern Ireland — it’s like they wanted a sampling of every distinctive accent they could find without ever touching upon the authentic.

Quite sensible, perhaps — anything authentic in this studio confection could prove fatal. Cyd Charisse sets the style, adopting a weird vowel (not necessarily the RIGHT weird vowel, but an alternative from her usual pronunciation) roughly every third word. It’s hilarious for five minutes, then we got used to it. I imagine it’s pretty amusing to most Brits, less obvious to Americans. Australians, Kiwis and Canadians probably see through it.

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(Cultural appropriation is GOOD, as a rule, and I feel flattered that Broadway and Hollywood found Scotland worthy of ingesting. It’s even more flattering in something like BRAVE where they made sure to get the accents right — or, if not right, at least Scottish [there are a score of distinct regional variations within this one tiny country]. BRAVE is pure BRIGADOON, but get the right voices and nobody here is embarrassed — I saw the film introduced by Alex Salmond.)

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What has to be admitted is the grandeur of the fakery — not the vocal stuff, but the scenery and photography. Every exterior is backed with heather-covered miniature hills. I prayed for Cyd, just once, to take the wrong turning and run up the mountain path so that the forced perspective would make a giantess of her within steps, before she smacked into the louring sky. It’s all really impressive, false in just the right way — except the two wide shots of the village, which for some reason look cheap and crappy. You’d think they’d be really important shots to get right, but because they don’t feature actors and dancing they seem to have been handed to the trainee.

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Shot in Anscocolor! I thought that was only used as a cheap alternative to Technicolor, but I think Minnelli must have liked the earth tones. It has a rich but sort of muted quality compared to most MGM musicals, and is probably the best preserved-example of the short-lived process.

The whole premise makes precious little sense — and the idea of the minister praying his village into a time-warp brings the church into it in a way that feels unnecessary. There ARE Scottish myths about lost time and waking up a hundred years later, but they’re decidedly not Christian — they concern the fairy folk, and have a lot in common with the “lost time” reported by UFO abductees.

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Subtextually, the story deals with a man petrified of marriage who is offered a magical alternative (not involving priests) in a subculture off the map — I can sort of see how Minnelli might have been intrigued. As with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE there could be a gay subtext here. (At the Freed Unit? Surely not!)

What stops the film consistently reaching the heights of the best of Minnelli (or Lerner & Lowe) is the religiose solemnity permeating the Highland scenes — that’s why the most impressive stuff breaks free of this. When Hugh Laing, who hates everybody in his village, entirely justifiably seeing it as a hellish prison (all that weaving!) seeks to leave, thereby bringing out a local apocalypse, things get really exciting. It’s hard not to sympathise with the man hunted by a Frankensteinian mob with flaming firebrands. It also calls to mind similar torchlight parades in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and TEA AND SYMPATHY. Minnelli’s idyllic little communities sometimes have something scary lurking underneath.

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Van Johnson: “I just shot a guy, and now I seem to have GUNS ON MY MIND.”

And then the best stuff of all is New York, envisioned as an overcrowded inferno (OK, maybe not a concept requiring vast resources of imagination), the background gabble turned up to 11 to the point where you really start to get a headache trying to hear the foreground dialogue. Minnelli became a huge success due to his ability to deliver musical uplift with high style and inhuman cinematic elegance, but his left-handed technique, which would have doomed him to minor cult status if it were all he had, is a mastery of acute discomfort, putting the audience through several different kinds of ringer, pulling in several different directions at once, (See THE LONG, LONG TRAILER if you don’t believe me!) This extra string to his bow makes me admire him even more, if that were possible.

Brooklyn Heights of Delirium

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2016 by dcairns

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Somehow, BELLS ARE RINGING escaped my notice when I was last hoovering up unwatched Vincente Minnelli films. It’s a charmer!

A pomo Cinderella story, it sees Comden & Green adapting their stage play with star Judy Holliday, their former revue partner. Judy plays a former switchboard operator (for the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company) now working at an answering service, and getting involved in her client’s lives, like Amelie or something.

Judy really WAS a former telephonist — for the Mercury Theater. While there, she made her film debut in Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON as an extra. We went looking for her in it, and Fiona spotted her ~

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Second from left.

Judy’s dreamboat is Dean Martin, also cunningly cast, as a playwright suffering a crisis of confidence after splitting with his partner. Dino broke up the Martin & Lewis act five years before, though having done RIO BRAVO and SOME CAME RUNNING in between should have bolstered any sagging confidence. Oh, and Dino’s character avoids writing by drinking. Not in any way typecasting. (Would a modern star make such play of his alcoholism, and would we think it was cute?)

Fiona was delighted by Judy’s menopausal co-worker, constantly overheating. I was delighted by the long-take number where Minnelli stages a musical version of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross ~

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High angle trucking shot swarming with Felliniesque New Yorker extras enthusiastically barging their way through frame…

We were both delighted by another incredible long take in which typically corny-silly-clever Comden-Green dialogue vies for attention with ridiculously sexy gyrating girls, for AGES. Most Minnelli comedies have an escalating nightmare qualities (THE LONG, LONG TRAILER is fucking harrowing), but this being a musical that’s softened considerably.

Excellent use of Frank Gorshin’s mimickry, playing a Brando parody. Fred Clark’s hulking ebullience is somewhat underexploited. A VERY interesting accent/speech impediment from Eddie Foy Jnr, someone I should look into more deeply.

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Judy herself — boy can she sell, and interpret, a song! Argument 1 against the existence of a merciful God might be His removal of her from planet world right after this film. OK, she got to sing The Party’s Over, heartbreakingly, but we shouldn’t have to take it literally. For once, she’s not playing dumb, or brassy, but her multiple voices on the telephone allows to show off her versatility and we briefly get to hear that brazen bray.

What she does in this song is hilarious. Especially at the two-minute mark. But you have to watch the whole thing.

Sorry about the aspect ratio — it wasn’t me.

Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed not only fulfill their roles, but appear as lyrics in the Name-Dropping number.

We can probably sense the coming end of the musical genre as a cinematic mainstay — the film aims to be light as a feather and is over two hours long. Very few films that followed it would pull that trick off, but of course they all had to try…

Stab Me, Sugar

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2014 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON, which Fiona had never seen, was a big hit with us — viewed with friends Nicola & Donald. It has just enough story — it doesn’t plummet into an endless ballet like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Too much narrative might be a problem — musicals seem to exist in an unusual relationship to plot, with progress essentially halting for each number, which freezes a moment of happiness or sadness and extends it and wallows in it. This being a putting-on-a-show story, it has license to depart even further from the spine — especially since, as in most movies where a show of some kind features, the play being staged, inexplicably called The Band Wagon, seems to be a mishmash of disconnected songs, a revue of sorts, even though we’re TOLD it has a story, which is even summarised for us at the start. When you try to make the songs fit the outline, however, you find that they don’t, except the big one ~

The Girl Hunt, choreographed by Michael Kidd, spoofs Mickey Spillane, and allows screenwriters Comden & Green to extend their satiric twinkliness into a song-and-dance for once. We were particularly impressed by the various book titles displayed at the start, (KILL ME CUTIE, STAB ME SUGAR, THE BODY WITHOUT A HEAD) and by the surrealism of it all — it pinpoints the hysterical sense of nightmare that permeates noir, and which usurps any sense of reality in Aldrich’s Spillane adaptation, KISS ME DEADLY, and boils to the surface in the work of David Lynch.

In fact, if The Girl Hunt ballet were somehow to be a new production, everyone would be talking about how it plunders Lynch’s movies for imagery.

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Syd Charisse plays dual roles, like Patricia Arquette in LOST HIGHWAY. “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic railway.”

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Giant fireball like in WILD AT HEART — also LOST HIGHWAY, and others. Lynch, on how he got the idea for the exploding shack in LOST HIGHWAY, which seems like a clear echo or the blazing beach house in KISS ME DEADLY: “We had finished at this location, and then I suddenly got this image in my mind, and I called the effects guy over and asked him what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had A LOT, but that he could GET MORE.”

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The clue of the shiny rag — obviously a reference to Dennis Hopper’s titular sex-swatch in BLUE VELVET.

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Nothing in this sequence specifically relates to the red room in Twin Peaks… but the general effect evokes it in every way.

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The fight amid the mannequins — now it’s Kubrick and KILLER’S KISS that seems to be the target. The pre-perfectionist Kubrick rather screws that scene up with some egregious eyeline-crossing, causing each piece of store dummy to change direction as it’s hurled. Minnelli and Kidd and Astaire have no such trouble.

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Back to Lynch, with the Greek sculpture and b&w floor irresistibly evoking Twin Peaks again. The palette is different, but you wouldn’t want red curtains in a bathroom — not restful.

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Lynch’s sets don’t usually have this level of stylisation, but in THE GRANDMOTHER he painted all the rooms black and then chalked in the edges in white for an abstract, graphic effect (painting his cast’s skin chalk-white too). Here, the highlight is the minimally-rendered skyscraper, it’s lower storeys obscured by other buildings that aren’t rendered at all.

vlcsnap-2014-10-26-21h21m03s218It’s the cursed ring from FIRE WALK WITH ME!

I guess what this sequence has in common with Lynch and particularly the world of Twin Peaks (returning to out screens next year), apart from some imagery, is that both exaggerate the incomprehensible plotting of the pulp mystery into abstraction — these mysteries can never be solved because their terms aren’t clearly defined. Suspects, clues, leads and corpses multiply absurdly, and Comden & Green mock these conventions by amping them up while Lynch pushes them further in order to enjoy the mysterious as an end in itself.

As I tell my students, never solve an intriguing mystery with a boring explanation.

 

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