Saturday, September 22, 2012

THAS: Vincente Minnelli

"Repeat viewings of Singin’ in the Rain merely confirm its initial pleasures. Repeat viewings of The Band Wagon bring forth a work of an increasingly apparent formal, thematic and emotional richness which the Kelly/Donen film never approaches. While there are several ways of accounting for this difference in the two films, arguably the central one is the sensibility of The Band Wagon‘s director, Vincente Minnelli... Minnelli is often condescendingly regarded as the ultimate example of the decorative metteur en scène. Certainly in his handling of color, camera movement, costuming, decor, and staging of action, he has few rivals in the Hollywood of this period. A recommended experiment: Try watching the “Shine on Your Shoes” number in and force yourself not to watch Fred Astaire and LeRoy Daniels. Instead, only take note of the direction of the extras; watch it again, and only note the function of the decor and the camera movements; then watch it one final time putting all of these elements together. It is a very densely layered sequence, not only a brilliant Astaire number but a brilliant example of mise en scène."
If John Carpenter is the Howard Hawks of New American horror, then Hooper is the Vincente Minnelli (... with a certain eye of Fellini, and the self-nature, desires, and beset tooth-and-nail independent career of Charles Burnett, who, by the way, is certainly another one of the unsung graces of the cinema now...).

But yes, Minnelli. Sensibility. Color. Staging of action. "The function of the decor and the camera movements." "Densely layered sequence... a brilliant example of mise en scène." Film scholar Joe McElhaney hits Minnelli and The Band Wagon right on the head (I also encourage reading his general profile article on Minnelli at Senses of Cinema), and the "Shine on Your Shoes" dance number he singles out is another scene I'll immediately put up as one of the grand achievements in cinema - a statement I previously made about the living room scene in Poltergeist.  And indeed, both are a wonderment of directorial orchestration (of bodies in movement in time and space) and the aesthetic camera, tied to grand yet somehow - probably in their being embedded in the scene-craft's formal structures and perspectives - always sublimely understated emotion (and positive emotion).

Descriptions of Minnelli sound like Hooper to me.  The way their cameras are motivated by a full-fledged aestheticism tied to fluid beauty and those Bazinian ideals of revealing "structural depth" in the "reality of dramatic space."  The ways their cameras triangulate space, reconfigure staging, musicalize blocking, generate rhythmically their elegant camera gestures. See the edge of the frame, highly susceptible to the flight of characters into it... The high level of movement continuity between shots... Their cameras that bend and contort around decor and actors in the most inspired and sophisticated vectors, morph the architecture of a space into psychological geometries, seem to float every now and then in a cloud of characters' feelings, rise and fall in the most emphatic use of dolly and crane motion, glide past shoulders in loving exhortation of depth cues... The camera as living entity, alive and capricious, not afraid of the sprightly, reactive camera... the specifically-timed planning and precision of the movements, not suggesting simple style or emotion, but strident visual analysis and the aesthetic rhetoric of the plastic art... Minnelli and Hooper are flamboyant when they are being subtle, subtle when they are being flamboyant. Their mannerist use of depth, often three-plane images that place an emotional figurehead in soft foreground, emphasize coexistence and emotional life.  Characters changing placement within a single shot resulting in the constant reshaping of the composition and perspective. An aesthete's sense of the truly elegant tracking shot, or the elegance of the slow and low, or practically imperceptible, pull-back. Simply put they are always in search of beauty, or, even more precisely, sublimity.

In this "Band Wagon" musical number, we've got a wordless sequence, a revolving display of interacting characters and contraptions of amusement (contradicting the sequence's beautiful sense of artificiality, its interaction of crowds, machines, and the herding camera is entirely evoking of the spatial reality of the environment), and a glum rich guy, Freddie A., who experiences something of a silent, communal reverie with his surroundings, before it culminates in a joyous dance with working fellow Leroy Daniels.

For your enjoyment, here is that scene and two others, all of which are simply three of my favorite scenes from Minnelli's musicals I've seen (I actually have much of his filmography to go still, but these scenes have undeniably stuck with me, and I'll place the "greatest of cinema achievements" claim on the extra two as well) - truly joyous scenes from one of the truly joyous filmmakers.  But do watch them carefully if you choose, for they are in fact highly representative of many of the attributes I looked into above ("Trolley Song" may be a bit of an indulgence):

The "Shine on Your Shoes" number from The Band Wagon
  video

"The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis
video

The "By Strauss" scene from An American in Paris

(This scene is actually an incredible example of many of the aesthetic techniques mentioned above.  Depth, blocking, graceful and minute dollying, timed movement, the interaction of bodies in a restricted space, the precise arrangement of the bodies in the frame resulting from their constantly reconfiguring [here, literal] loopty-loo and dance.)

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