In the 33 years between his first signed film (Cabin in the Sky, 1943) and his last (A Matter of Time, 1976), Vincente Minnelli directed almost a film a year, many of them major MGM productions, prestige-laden, award-winning, box office successes. Minnelli’s name associates easily for many people with a number of wonderful musicals, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), An American in Paris (1951), The Bandwagon (1953)and Gigi (1958). He also made some magnificent melodramas, from The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) to what could be seen as at least its thematic continuation ten years later, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962),with magnificently entertaining films in between, such as Some Came Running (1958)and Home From the Hill (1960).Then there are some immensely enjoyable comedies, several literary or dramatic adaptations, and works that generated even more sequels and follow-ons. Father of the Bride (1950) had its own Minnelli-directed sequel (Father’s Little Dividend,1951) as well as more recent (and surely unnecessary) remakes starring Steve Martin. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) had an extended life as a TV series (78 episodes from 1969).
From all the wonderful moments in this cornucopia, is there one scene that can perhaps represent exactly what is embodied in the credit, “Directed by Vincente Minnelli”? In his new critical anthology, Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, editor Joe McElhaney raises this question, and posits his own answer before providing space for two score of critics and film lovers to make their nominations (1).
For the “serious” critic, Minnelli seems to raise a lot of problems. His films are manifestly entertainments; they are seemingly middle-brow even when the characters flirt with “high culture”; they are not the work of a “tormented artist” (even when they seem to be about such a creature, as in Lust for Life ); they are “commercial”. He is not political; there certainly don’t seem to be “great themes”, even if the setting is perhaps world conflict (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ).
So, why Minnelli? If McElhaney wants to suggest that there is one scene from all his films that epitomises Minnelli, is there a writer in this anthology who perhaps has the emblematic comment that unifies all the various contributions? To me, there is. I found it on page 81, in a piece by Thomas Elsaesser, where he makes a reference to the pleasure that films give us:
film studies in the 1970s and beyond appeared to have settled the vexing question of why films give us pleasure, by deciding that in the cinema the spectator enters into a dialogue with his or her own split self and alienated subjectivity, be it Marxian or Lacanian.
Actually, I’m a bit lost with the second half of that statement, but there is something almost insidious about the simplicity of the first part. Films do give us pleasure. That pleasure is surely what has driven many of us to see films, read about films, write about films, become “cinema academics”, film-buffs or movie-tragics. Pleasure is almost the first principle of our involvement with the cinema – but it is also a principle that perhaps gets lost when we want to talk about the films we’ve seen. At times, some writing about cinema seems to be motivated by a fear that admitting any actual pleasure is almost an admission of sin.
The academic approaches to film criticism surely spring first of all from pleasure – or should. They should be an attempt to explore that pleasure, and to interpret in a way that allows other viewers the chance for increased pleasure from the films discussed.
In many of the articles collected by McElhaney, you can practically hear the different writers working out what it is about Minnelli’s films that have given them so much pleasure. In the final article (“Minnelli’s Messages”), Cahiers du cinéma editor Emmanuel Burdeau gets down to acknowledging it’s often in tiny moments – telephone calls, “lighting a cigarette, putting it to one’s lips,” the dance of hesitation (p. 419). Robin Wood focuses on Madame Bovary (1949). He responds to a sense of hysteria in this adaptation, which frequently fell foul of the literary police, to whom a Hollywood version of such a literary classic could never have any validity. Wood is more appreciative, and writes,
Minnelli understood hysteria emotionally and intellectually, as a response to feelings of powerlessness and entrapment, and he was able to dramatize it (without ever abandoning artistic/intellectual control) in many of his finest films. That is why he is able so often to identify with hysterical female protagonists. (pp. 158-9)
Many of Minnelli’s films are visually sumptuous, an element often noted with a hint of disparagement from his early Meet Me in St. Louis on, as though recognising and delighting in the film’s appearance was something to be embarrassed about. Pauline Kael, for example, writing on Two Weeks in Another Town, could serve up a comment like, “And Minnelli’s pictorial imagination is just too pretty – the sumptuous gorgeousness turns into slop.” (2)
Several of the writers feel bound to mention this common criticism, but why can’t pleasure be taken in the décor? Jean Douchet’s article specifically addresses the importance and relevance of the décor in writing on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a piece thatillustrates the rewards of a book on a director written with many voices. Four Horseman was not seen as one of Minnelli’s strongest, even by his best supporters. It was a commercial failure. But Douchet finds much pleasure – and importance – in Minnelli’s attention to detail in the décor.
Each Minnelli character pursues […] an inner dream. For the characters, that dream – […] an intense one in the melodramas […] – is essential. It is more than their raison d’être – it is their very existence. Hence the need each character feels to give flesh to his dream. Each wishes to surround himself with a décor that bears the mark of what he is, of what he loves, of what he desires, of his deepest aspirations. That décor becomes his domain and his refuge from reality. (p. 43)
Douchet’s piece is not a close reading of the film. Its overview is more impressionistic, often reading more like a personal, emotional response than an academic decoding. But it is never less than stimulating and provocative. It is also the first piece in McElhaney’s anthology – for very particular reasons.
The articles are arranged in roughly chronological order of writing, from Douchet’s piece written for Cahiers du cinéma in 1962 (and at the time of the film’s release in Paris) through to the most recent pieces from 2005. They are organised by decades, for McElhaney sees them as also reflecting the evolution of film studies. This organisation means that the volume is almost a representation of developments in writing about film in the last half century. And we get an overview of particular thinking about Minnelli. Some seek global summations, trying to link all Minnelli’s work into a particular theme or idea – though surely the simple fact that a number of films share a common idea or theme makes them automatically valuable is at least debatable.
The overtly auteurist readings of the 1960s evolve into the close genre and psychoanalytical readings of the 1970s and 1980s. However, some of these closer readings are, to my mind, somewhat questionable. Just as semiotic readings of some films laid out every (arguably) definitive meaning of the film, but missed the essence and joy of the film on their dissecting table, several of the articles from this era collapse under their own weight. Andrew Britton’s article, “Meet Me in St. Louis: or the Ambiguities”, was for me the least successful response to a film. Britton’s main correlative seems to be The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). In places, he is interpreting the film as a castration epic: “The women have won, and the palm of victory is their own entrapment with their castrated men, inside patriarchal institutions.” (p. 123)
Britton frequently draws in references and analogies from so many other films and literature (including minor or obscure short stories by writers such as Herman Melville and Henry James). Too often these don’t illuminate the film, but carry a sense of wanting to draw attention to Britton’s own voluminous reading, viewing and erudition. When he really gets to grips with the film, however, his insights are helpful. In particular, his final section on Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) is illuminating. His observations challenge any viewer to see extra resonances in the film.
It is a measure of the film’s intelligence that Agnes [Joan Carroll] and Tootie can be seen both as profoundly subversive of an order based on repression and as themselves already caught up in the network of repressiveness. (p. 124)
“During the 1990s,” McElhaney writes in his introduction,
the discourses surrounding Minnelli’s films inevitably began to reflect the increased interest in cultural studies and along with this emerged a number of other related approaches emphasizing specific historical, material and cultural contexts for the films. (p. 22)
An obvious choice for investigation under this banner is Minnelli’s first film, Cabin in the Sky. This all-black musical was one of only a half-dozen films to have all-Negro casts made in Hollywood between 1927 and 1954, according to James Naremore, whose essay addresses many of the issues related to this. Do we see Cabin in the Sky as a progressive work, giving blacks equality and prominent roles in a white-dominant industry? Or is it a regressive, racist, paternalistic work? There is in fact much of value to be mined by exploring all these approaches, how the film came out of the social climate of the 1940s (and that included the wartime situation as well), but also how it plays to us today.
But there are other Minnelli films that also can be enriched by this 1990s approach. Works that have at different times been considered compromised can now be appreciated as more insightful and more incisive than some contemporary responses would have them. Tea and Sympathy (1956) is explored by David A. Gerstner. With insights from queer criticism, and a wider socio-political approach, there are new complexities to be found in this film. At the time, there was certainly a sense that the homosexual elements of the original stage play had clearly been minimised to appease the Production Code Administration and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Gerstner reminds us that the 1950s were not only the era of the Kinsey report, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (published 1948), it was also the period of McCarthyism.
Both the homosexual and the Communist were viewed as domestic and international security risks as well. On the home front, the homosexual (or the “sexual pervert”) threatened not only American youth but also governmental agencies. (p. 281)
These elements are teased out intriguingly and rewardingly.
But back to pleasure. In any audience, you will have probably everyone responding to different elements with different levels of delight. Something that some people won’t see (without prompting) will be giving someone else enormous enjoyment. And the selection of essays highlights this. Other people’s perhaps idiosyncratic responses are enriching. I appreciated being asked by Scott Bukatman to consider the relationship between Lust for Life and the physicality of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. (And Pollock died in a car crash in 1956, the year that Lust For Life was released.)
I don’t think that all Minnelli films are effective – there are no essays wanting to champion Kismet (1955), which has only two index references, one to a footnote. It would have been interesting to read a defence of this film, but perhaps there is no one anywhere to defend it. (There is a championing of another Minnelli film usually regarded as “disappointing”, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ,by Adrian Martin.) And it is much more positive to have people writing about films that they really get pleasure from.
Oh, and McElhaney’s emblematic Minnelli sequence? It’s Nicky (Desi Arnaz) backing his mobile home into his wife’s aunt’s rosebush, in The Long, Long Trailer (1954). Why? Read McElhaney’s introduction for his argument. It will make you want to see the film again.
Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, edited by Joe McElhaney, Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television series, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2009.
- Among an extensive catalogue of articles and books, McElhaney is also the writer of the Great Directors entry on Vincente Minnelli for Senses of Cinema.
- Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Bantam Books, New York, 1968, p. 458.