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Depth Perception

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Films by Vincente Minnelli

Generally regarded as an entertainer with a superb eye, director Vincente Minnelli was influenced by art nouveau, impressionism, surrealism, and African art. While a number of critics have found a melancholy undertone to his films, the consensus seems to be that, in the words of Ed Lowry, "there is a dominance of style over theme." And his best-known films--musicals such as Oscar winners An American in Paris and Gigi--largely confirm that judgment. But Minnelli's real masterpieces, films in which style and theme are inextricably linked, have received the least attention. Perhaps the three greatest--The Pirate, Some Came Running, and Home From the Hill--are being screened during the Film Center's ten-film Minnelli series, running from January 3 to February 4.

In one of the few essays claiming that Minnelli had a substantial theme, the late critic Stuart Byron argued in 1973 in December that the director's subject was freedom, expressed in images that have spatial depth. But the Film Center Gazette's short essay by Martin Rubin includes perhaps the single most accurate statement of Minnelli's theme: Rubin writes that his movies "pirouette around two contrasting poles: the exuberant dreams of his passionate protagonists and the constrained social roles they are compelled to fill."

Rubin's statement is a particularly apt description of Minnelli's greatest, though far from most popular, musical, The Pirate (1948). Judy Garland--the director's wife at the time--plays Manuela, a young woman in a small Caribbean village whose aunt wants to marry her off to a much older man (Walter Slezak), the mayor and richest person on the island. Manuela has led a sheltered life devoted to fantasies about a famous pirate, Macoco. When a traveling band of entertainers arrives, its leader, Serafin (Gene Kelly), hypnotizes Manuela, and she bursts into an elaborate song in which she publicly reveals her infatuation. Serafin uses this knowledge to woo her, pretending to be Macoco. (It's impossible to discuss Minnelli's films without revealing the plots, so readers are forewarned.) In reality Macoco, now rotund and retired from piracy, has become the mayor Manuela is to wed; only Serafin knows his secret, which if revealed would lead to Macoco's capture.

These layers of artifice and role-playing are perfectly suited to the fantasy elements of Minnelli's style--to his splendid panoplies of color and of diverse objects. The musical numbers also allow plenty of room for the imagination: as Manuela fantasizes about Macoco, the night is illuminated by fires, metaphors for her passion that contrast with the well-ordered spaces of her home. The Pirate offers many such paeans to the power of the imagination, the film's sensuous colors seeming to disrupt the staid interiors, as if the colors themselves had become advocates for fantasy. Though on occasion Minnelli's sensibility has been characterized as "decorative," here his use of surroundings becomes a statement about how to live, recalling the late "decorative" paintings of Odilon Redon.

In the film's key scene, Serafin posing as Macoco has Manuela brought to the mayor's opulently decorated home, not knowing that she's just learned of his ruse. Teasing him in a hilarious prelude, she talks about how much she loves him because he's a pirate and not an actor, and a mediocre one at that. Then the real battle commences, as Manuela begins pitching every object she can find at Serafin. Literally shattering the signs of "respectability" and wealth in the home of her husband-to-be, which is filled with the pirate's booty, she implicitly critiques the power of objects, the illusions they create, and ultimately her own girlish infatuation with Macoco. Though she doesn't yet know that the objects she's smashing are really the pirate's, she's setting the stage for her acceptance of Serafin.

Minnelli and the theatrical couple of Manuela and Serafin never really abandon their love of illusion--but they must understand that it is an illusion. The costumes and painted backdrops of the final number, "Be a Clown," provide a study in the pleasures of decor--indeed, the flats used in Sarafin's performances resemble many of the film's other compositions: the decorations of certain rooms and even the taut space of the town square, all of which have a manufactured quality. If there's a melancholy undertone to the film's happy ending, it's due to our knowledge that Manuela has accepted far less than her original dream of Macoco--who, as she says, "slashed across this world [his] bold pattern of imagination." The theatrical life represented by "Be a Clown" lacks the all-consuming passion of Manuela's fantasy, but she and we know that this existence is more authentic for its acknowledgment of artifice. Other scenes also reveal the pretense underlying the characters' homes and lives--even the diminished Macoco must create a facade to save his own skin.

Not many realize that Minnelli was born in Chicago, in 1903. His parents helped run the Minnelli Brothers' Tent Theater, which toured the midwest in the summers. Hoping to become a painter, Minnelli studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute but left when his courses failed to "inspire" him, and he was once a window decorator for Marshall Field's. From Field's he went on to design costumes at the Chicago Theatre, and thence to New York's Radio City Music Hall; his subsequent career in the New York theater world--as a set designer and director--led to an offer to direct films.

Of the movies showing at the Film Center, four are among Minnelli's great 'Scope and color melodramas--surely some of the most underappreciated films ever made in Hollywood. In addition to my two favorites--Some Came Running and Home From the Hill--the Film Center is showing The Cobweb (1955) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The former has been described with a wink as illustrating Minnelli's fetish for decoration: in this mental-hospital drama, the central conflict revolves around a new set of drapes for the library. But Minnelli's triumph is to make us feel how crucial it is for one of the patients to realize his identity as an artist. Two Weeks in Another Town is a deeply felt meditation on moviemaking that focuses on a troubled director, one of Minnelli's many artistic or unusually sensitive male heroes.

Some Came Running (1958) is a favorite of many who appreciate Minnelli's later melodramas, and with good reason. The design was inspired by "the inside of a jukebox," as Minnelli put it, and his use of color gives emotional variety to this story of soldier, writer, and semiprofessional cardplayer Dave (Frank Sinatra) returning to his hometown (filmed in Madison, Indiana). At odds with his older brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) and Frank's wife, who refused to raise him as a boy, Dave moves in with local gambler Bama (Dean Martin). His affections are divided between two women: sexy Ginny (Shirley MacLaine), who followed him by bus from Chicago, and staid schoolteacher Gwen (Martha Hyer). John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman's script, based on a novel by James Jones, offers some subtle, wonderfully acerbic commentary on the characters, as when Ginny, waiting outside Gwen's classroom, suddenly perks up at the word "promiscuity."

As in many of Minnelli's other multicharacter dramas, and some other Hollywood melodramas, the narrative of the film is based on cyclical repetition: characters often repeat others' mistakes--in particular, children repeat the mistakes of their parents. Dave's father was an alcoholic, and he seems to be one too. Dave's niece sees her dad, Frank, cheating on her mom--and is about to become a tramp herself until Dave rescues her. These connections might seem mundane, however, without Minnelli's tight compositions. The cluttered spaces of Frank's store and home signal his bourgeois materialism, just as the sparseness of Dave's hotel room and room in Bama's home suggest his itinerant life. But more than defining the characters, these images seem to entrap them in their "small" selves (as Dave calls Frank in an angry speech). When Gwen finally rejects Dave because of his chaotic life, the scene is set in her clean, perfectly ordered, symmetrically decorated bedroom.

Still, Minnelli's characters do attempt to escape. In one instance of self-expression, Gwen uncharacteristically permits Dave to seduce her--first moving away from, then toward, the camera, creating a dramatic three-dimensionality unusual in the film. Similarly, the colored lights and dramatic camera movements of the spectacular penultimate scene, set at night during a carnival as Dave and Ginny celebrate their marriage, create complex depth effects that evoke both imprisoning passion and liberation, selfishness and selflessness. But it's the brief final cemetery scene that provides the key to the film's purpose. Ginny has died to save Dave from an assassin, and the characters who assemble finally acknowledge the possibility of self-abnegation: Bama, who's never removed his trademark hat, takes it off here. The last composition links selflessness and freedom, as Minnelli cranes up to show a view of the Ohio river receding into an almost infinite depth, replacing the film's subtle interweaving of characters and decors with an image of liberation.

Few films have spoken to me as personally as Home From the Hill (1960), an emotionally devastating two-and-a-half-hour melodrama about the degree to which individuals can free themselves of their family histories. Though the film ends with a death followed by another cemetery scene, two of the surviving characters achieve an extraordinary selflessness and are united in newly acknowledged familial affection.

Robert Mitchum plays a Texas land baron, a notorious womanizer called the Captain by his tenants and the residents of the nearest small town. He has a 17-year-old son, Theron (George Hamilton), and an unacknowledged illegitimate older son, Rafe (George Peppard), who works for him and lives on his land. The Captain is married to Theron's mother, Hannah (Eleanor Parker), who discovered early on that Rafe was his illegitimate son. When the film opens, the two haven't been intimate for years, and their sham marriage ultimately has a devastating effect on Theron's life.

There's something almost fugal about this magnificent epic; plot and style alike are reminiscent of polyphonic music. Three of the key scenes occur in a climactic sequence at the film's center. First Theron learns that Rafe is his brother and that the father of his girlfriend, Libby, has rejected him for fear he's like his dad. In the second, Theron confronts the Captain over his failure to acknowledge Rafe as his son. And in the third, Theron visits Rafe and offers him all his money. In a key plot complication, it turns out that the adage "like father, like son" has proven true: Theron has impregnated his girlfriend but doesn't know it, rejecting marriage with her for fear their union will turn out like his parents'. Breaking away from them for their hypocrisy, he unknowingly repeats his father's failure to acknowledge his child. Theron's partial attempts to break out of his father's pattern represent both the repetition of a theme and its inversion. Rafe, too, both resembles and differs from the Captain.

Minnelli demonstrates his usual visual mastery, using framing and camera angles to articulate each scene's meaning. He cuts to close-ups to capture Theron's dismay when he learns that Rafe is his brother. And his compositions when the Captain humiliates Libby's father beautifully illustrate the imbalance of power between them: the scene's opening is framed to heighten the fact that the Captain is seated at his desk while the girl's father is standing. But though the scenes are designed to show how various characters are caught in the Captain's web of power, the film is less a portrait of him than it is of the way family structures resonate across generations.

More significant than individual scenes is the overall function of what film scholar James Naremore calls Minnelli's "store-window sensibility." The backgrounds, the interiors of rooms, even the brambles of the forest--like decorative flats--seem to intrude on our consciousness as well as the characters'. The obtrusive surroundings even appear to dictate the characters' actions, most obviously in the scenes set in the Captain's den, filled with guns and trophies, but also in more ordinary settings: the walls of Rafe's shack seem interwoven with the character, defining his outsider status. Again like a fugue, the locales repeat the narrative's themes.

These echoes are what make the characters' attempts to break out of the film's cycles so moving. When Rafe, sitting in an ordinary little restaurant, learns of Libby's pregnancy and says "marry me," his words seem to cut through all the film's walls. The Captain's illegitimate son gives as one of his reasons that "there are too many little unwanted kids running around loose in this world."

The script similarly resonates with the style of the final scene, in which Rafe and Hannah meet at the Captain's grave. Rafe asks her to move in with him and Libby, now married, thus acknowledging her status as his son's grandmother. ("Is he very beautiful?" Hannah asks. "He looks like his daddy," Rafe replies.) Only after that does Rafe see that she's inscribed his name alongside Theron's on her husband's tombstone. In unrelated acts of genuinely selfless love, both characters escape from the film's weave. The final image is tellingly divided in two: the Captain's gravestone is at left while at right Rafe and Hannah walk away. When Rafe stops and glances back, Hannah stops with him. Even though they can't see the inscription from this position, we feel that the stone is exerting the same gravitational pull that rooms and objects have throughout the film. But Rafe and Hannah stop only for a moment, and then resume walking.

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