Archive for Vincente Minnelli

The Reluctant Revenant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2016 by dcairns

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My trawl through the less-explored Minnellis continues — thanks to David Wingrove for recommending this one. Introducing Martin Scorsese’s personal Technicolor print of THE BAND WAGON in Bologna, Ian Christie remarked that Marty considers Minnelli to be still an underrated auteur. Very well, I say, let’s take him seriously, which means looking for themes and stylistic motifs in his lesser films as well as the acknowledged classics.

GOODBYE CHARLIE, modestly opened-out from the play by George Axelrod (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and others of note), has maybe the most transgressive plot premise of any Minnelli. Pair it with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and call it his Diptych of Reincarnation (doesn’t Eddie “Rochester” Anderson get restored to life at the end of CABIN IN THE SKY? Could we call this an informal trilogy? This auteurist is drooling at the thought). Charlie, a hypermasculine screenwriter rake/heel, is shot dead when caught in flagrante with a movie producer’s wife, falling into the sea — only to emerge, post-funeral, in the form of Debbie Reynolds. (One wants to say “alluring form,” and one could, as Debbie is cute as a button, but one does get the impression the script has something more like Jayne Mansfield in mind.) Best buddy Tony Curtis has to deal with the fallout.

I wonder how this worked as a play? It doesn’t work as a film, in strict plot terms — audience identification is split between best buddy Tony Curtis and his back-from-the-dead transgender pal; subplots tantalise with the possibility of Reynolds actually getting intimate with (another?) man; a homicide detective turns up to make Tony nervous, but why? On Broadway, was some immoral element explored that had to be chopped from the movie script, leaving lacunae and shapelessness? I’m not too bothered, because what’s left is highly entertaining and quite peculiar.

Opening credits — director’s name revealed in the purple interior of a yawning clam. Well well.

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Scene 1 is part of the opening out — it shows how Charlie met his maker (but not how he gets remade). Minnelli, perhaps assuaging the nervous hetero element in the crowd, gives us generous footage of a Playboy Playmate doing the twist, a dance which mostly seems to involve shaking her tits (I had never thought of the twist this way before). Fiona admired her dress. I admired the way her breasts jostled for supremacy (partly) within it.

Minnelli accompanies this action with strange handheld lurches, leering in on several of the characters, which at first seems like a subjective drunkenness effect, then like a seasick thing, then becomes completely inexplicable, resembling the mad bursts of handheld frenzy in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN or TRAGIC CEREMONY — handheld disorientation served up purely as a stylistic garnish.

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A very Minnelli widescreen shot. Burstyn on the right.

Then we’re into ninety-very-odd minutes of typically elegant Minnelli mise-en-scene, with occasional outbursts of excess pizzazz. Tony Curtis confirms his status as capable farceur, and Reynolds is fantastic, not overdoing the butchness or underselling it either. Astonishment: there’s Ellen Burstyn (before she took that name), playing comedy with gusto and skill. This could maybe form a duologue for her with THE EXORCIST: both are insider Hollywood stories in which a girl is possessed by a male identity and the solution is arrived at by defenestration.

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Further astonishment: the manslaughtering movie producer, clearly based on Alexander Korda (he’s a Hungarian and a knight) with maybe a side-order of William Randolph Hearst (jealous yacht-based assassin), is played by Walter Matthau. Old scrotumnal-face had mainly been making his living in hero’s pal or sneaky villain roles, but I guess ENSIGN PULVER had just unveiled his comic chops (and what chops they are!). However, the manic silliness of his work here is beyond anything he’d attempted on the big screen to this date, making even his most excessive moments in A NEW LEAF seem restrained. His “accent” is a wonderful creation all his own, owing nothing to any set of sounds previously mouthed by modern man. One has no idea whether his self-description “not unattractive” would have been so hilarious if anyone else had played the role — Matthau, of course, is an extremely attractive player, but for him to play a man who uses that phrase is priceless.

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Another highlight is Pat Boone. Enjoy that sentence as this is likely the only chance you’ll ever get to read it. Boone plays the mother’s-boy son of a millionaire businesswoman, mollicoddled since conception. He falls for Charlie immediately, based on her looks (she’s naked when they meet) and her knowledge of sports cars. There’s a spectacularly smutty exchange of double entendres about Boone’s malfunctioning Maserati.

Jesus, did Boone know what he was doing to himself with this role? “I do drink on special occasions: mother’s birthday, or the election of a Republican president.” Curtis gets a scene where he almost necks with Reynolds, and comes to his senses feeling squicky, but Boone actually kisses her/him. And the mother obsession is astonishing — mother is apparently absent attending to her many businesses, but when Pat leads Debs down to the wine cellar we half expect to find momma mummified in a corner. At one point, Minnelli jump-juts straight down the line on mum’s portrait, as if she were the Frankenstein monster or the eyeless farmer-corpse in THE BIRDS.

Boone was either completely clueless or a very good sport — I hate to give him credit, but I think he was at least somewhat aware. He gives really good stooge, and you can’t do that unknowingly in a comedy.

If you can manage it, I highly recommend seeing this crazy thing. You get Minnelli’s playful/transgressive side given freer reign than even in TEA AND SYMPATHY. You get his undiminished suavity as a master of camera blocking. This is probably his last good movie. It’s not wholly successful, but all the disconnected bits are good — we’re back to the FRANKENSTEIN metaphor again.

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…

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