Thursday, October 20, 2011

Minnelli Rising

For the past month, New York has been treated to what I think is a momentous, radical retrospective that if looked at carefully can change one's view of the history of classical Hollywood, and therefore call into question many assumptions we make about the history of cinema.

The retrospective is of the complete works of Vincente Minnelli (at BAM), and in showing all of Minnelli's works it calls for a reevaluation of his role in the history of cinema, and to my mind it positions him as more than a "director of MGM musicals" or a competent "window dresser" but rather as a central figure in the history of classical cinema, a figure as central and pivotal as Griffith, Ford, Capra, Chaplin and Godard.
There is much to say about many of his greatest works, like Some Came Running, The Long Long Trailer, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Pirate, An American in Paris, etc. etc., but it only takes watching for example the melodrama Tea and Sympathy, to understand that Minnelli was no 'window dresser', whatever that really means. The work mentioned contains one of his most complex, consistant, classical uses of color and mise en scene I have encountered. It is due to such clear headed, exuberant, classical, inclusive and ultra-sensorial artistic form and rhythm that he is both hailed as a master confectioner of beauty and balance and yet shunned as an innovative dramatist whose work could reflect any conceptual musings about the cinema in general and its place in history.

As a matter of fact, Minnelli, as others have written, in working within classical boundaries found a way to reflect and document the very workings of various institutions and the people who create them. Yet, I believe, in Tea and Sympathy as in all of his work, he shows not just a politics of individuals under different institutions, or even a phenomenology of the give and take between institutions/representations and the individual dreamers who posit them and live under their pressure. What I believe he shows is rather a clear sighted reportage about the very existence of the singular under the stifling command of laws, the soul of any institution. In this sense, his work is not only classical in referring to our understanding of the history of cinema and therefore of a history of a hundred year old art. His work, in the most cinematic form, is rather classical even as positioned within the history of the Western canon. Its sensibility and use of form harks back to the most classical of ideas in our collective consciousness: the understanding of the tragic condition and its denial.

The retrospective still has much to offer until its closing in November 2nd. Next week there are so many films I greatly anticipate I will hardly watch anything else. I suggest you do yourself a favor and catch any of them if you live in New York.

There are also many tremendous articles and blog entries appraising the work of Minnelli the auteur. I provide links to some of the most insightful, either by Richard Brody, film critic at The New Yorker, or by Joe McElhaney, professor at Hunter College and Minnelli scholar. I studied under him and was hence introduced to Minnelli's work through him and his showing of Tea and Sympathy.

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