Minnelli Legacy: Kinetic Art, Stylized Spectacles

Vincente Minnelli: Kinetic Art and Stylized Spectacles

Kinetic art defines Minnelli’s work through deliberate camera movements and judicious use of color.

Even his lesser musicals, such as Yolanda and the Thief or Brigadoon, rise above the polished if mediocre films produced by Arthur Freed in the 1940s and 1950s. Minnelli’s talent was in blending a large number of seemingly random details into a visually harmonious and integrated format. But there were always exceptions, dizzying images and dazzling elements, which almost gave M-G- M art director Cedric Gibbons heart attacks.

To the best of my knowledge, scholars have not applied the concept of cinematic excess to Minnelli’s work.  Drawing on the work of Kristin Thompson, Linda Williams, and others, it’s possible to show that Minnelli’s films exemplify the struggle of two opposing forces, one that strives to unify a work and hold it together, and the other that defi es inclusion in the structure and inevitably calls attention to itself.

As Stephen Heath noted, excess is useful in understanding fi lms that do not or cannot exhaust the full range of visual imagery.  This is particularly the case of Minnelli’s richest and most complex narratives, which either defy or simply cannot contain the whole fi lmic system. The dense materiality of Minnelli’s imagery creates spectacles that go beyond the nominal stories. In his elaborate mise- en- scène, there are elements not integral to the smooth and coherent operation of the narrative.

But excess doesn’t necessarily weaken a fi lm’s emotional meaning or aesthetic impact, and in Minnelli’s case, it may be more fruitful to focus on those excesses and tensions. Unlike most Hollywood directors of his time, Minnelli didn’t hold that imagery must always serve the plot; he
deviated from the classical Hollywood model that typically strives to
minimize excess in favor of a seamless and invisible style.

Excess and spectacle

Excess and spectacle are probably the reasons Minnelli admired Orson Welles for his good and coherent fi lms (Citizen Kane) as well as the good and less coherent (Touch of Evil), which contain scenes that have no direct causal function for the plot and in fact divert attention from the action.

In Minnelli’s work the most emotional moments are often excessive in terms of narrative needs, such as Margaret O’Brien’s Halloween outburst in Meet Me in St. Louis, Lana Turner’s hysterical drive in The Bad and the Beautiful (arguably the most powerful image in the picture), the Girl Hunt sequence in The Band Wagon, and of course the lengthy ballet in An American in Paris, which is virtually a fi lm-within-a-fi lm.  Minnelli cultivated and cherished dissident thematic and stylistic moments that
disrupt a movie’s overtly intentional design, refl ected in unmotivated events, rhythmic montages, parallel constructions, images fl ashed in ultra- light, and other self- conscious and playful sequences.

 

Actors’ Director

There is a misconception that Minnelli did not place emphasis on actin and didn’t care about maintaining M-G- M’s prestige as the studio of the stars, expressed in its pop u lar catchphrase, “More Stars Than There Are
in Heaven.” A closer look, however, reveals that he worked mostly with
stars, or with actors on the verge of stardom, and that he did care about
acting, even if he despised the pretentiousness that often accompanied
Method acting. For starters, Minnelli is single- handedly responsible for
turning Judy Garland from a pop u lar adolescent and Mickey Rooney’s
costar into a mature and beautiful dramatic actress, by directing two of her best performances in Meet Me in St. Louis and The Clock, her fi rst nonmusical role.

While always reliable, Spencer Tracy also distinguished himself in a
Minnelli fi lm, Father of the Bride, giving a resonant per for mance for
which he received his fourth Best Actor nomination, and which surpasses
his back- to- back Oscar- winning turns in Captains Courageous and
Boys Town.
Kirk Douglas, Minnelli’s favorite actor, collaborated with him on
three fi lms in which the actor did his most iconic work as egotistical
producer Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful, the troubled
artist Van Gogh in Lust for Life, and in Two Weeks in Another Town.
The Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin complained about
Minnelli’s slowness and meticulous attention to the smallest detail, but
they were assigned good roles in his pictures and delivered mightily.
Minnelli brought Fred Astaire out of semiretirement and displayed a
new facet of him in The Band Wagon. He also encouraged Gene Kelly to
polish his comedic and athletic skills in The Pirate and An American in
Paris.
Although Minnelli didn’t have a good professional rapport with
Katharine Hepburn, due to a bad choice of vehicle in Undercurrent, he
did develop a friendship with her off- screen. He often said that he regretted
that Garbo was already retired from the screen by the time he arrived in Hollywood. He didn’t care for the studio’s other two queens, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, who retired from acting in 1942,
and he never worked with Greer Garson, Louis B. Mayer’s favorite star
in the 1940s, because he found her too stately. He also disliked another
dominant M-G- M fi gure, Debbie Reynolds, because she was, as he put
it, “unrefi ned,” though he directed her in the 1960s at a movie made
at Fox. On the other hand, he coaxed a haunting per for mance from
Jennifer Jones in Madame Bovary that was far more impressive than
her more celebrated Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated roles.

Sheer Pleasure

Finally, a note about the sheer plea sure we derive from watching Minnelli’s
musicals, comedies, and melodramas, and why we keep revisiting
such fi lms as Meet Me in St. Louis, a staple on tele vi sion every holiday
season, which occupies a mythical status similar to that of Capra’s It’s a
Wonderful Life or even Casablanca.

More than anything else, An American in Paris is a musical about visual
plea sure, in which the protagonist creates through song and dance
his own live and lively audience of children on the street, patrons of
fancy cafés, and his own pals. It’s also a movie about rhythm, as the
American ex- G.I. makes clear when he sings “I Got Rhythm,” and it’s a
stylized spectacle of and about Paris, a city whose long history and varied
cityscapes offer Jerry (and Minnelli) the subject and inspiration for
his paintings.
Hollywood’s plea sure principle was a structure that governed a fi lm’s
narrative, emotional, and psychological energy, leading to intense audience
involvement and engagement, and sometimes even to complete identifi
cation. It’s not necessary to be a fi lm critic or a scholar to recognize the
exuberance and charm that Minnelli’s fi lms and his stars continue to exude.
What Vincente Minnelli, the dark dreamer, did better than other
directors—and what Hollywood achieved better than other national
cinemas—was to bind its audiences on deep psychological and emotional
levels to movies, which went way beyond plot and character.
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