I’ve been in New York for a month now. Read about my experiences viewing visual art here or here or here. Right now, I’d prefer to write about a master director who also concerns himself with viewing art, but also, ultimately, with becoming art, with living art. I’d prefer to write about Minnelli.
The BAMCinématek—housed in Herts and Tallant’s gorgeous, boxy, beaux-arts Brooklyn Academy of Music building on Lafayette Avenue—has become a second home to me during my stay. They’re hosting a complete retrospective of Minnelli: emphasis on complete, since about half of Minnelli, one of Old Hollywood’s most famous directors of musicals and melodramas (and ex-husband of Judy Garland, father of Liza), is available to see everywhere, putting a long shadow over the other half that remains unheralded and untended to.
Minnelli’s genius is endlessly fascinating and inspiring. He is one of the great artists of the twentieth century. Many focus on his closeted homosexuality: a recent study by Mark Griffin is entitled A Hundred or More Hidden Things. That title, admittedly, has a dual meaning (which I’ll get to later), but it must be said that the theme of appearance versus reality—an eminent theme of Shakespeare, one of Minnelli’s forebears—is unmistakably attached to gender and sexuality in his films.
His treatment of male characters can be revealing in this respect. Tom in Tea and Sympathy (excellently played by John Kerr, who also appears in Minnelli’s best melodrama, The Cobweb) is teased for being effeminate, but turns out not to be gay. (Deborah Kerr’s Laura Reynolds makes sure of this.) Ditto for Jack Cole’s choreographer in Designing Woman, who, in one scene, displays an accordion of family wallet-pictures to prove his virility to Gregory Peck’s Mike Hagen. (In real life, Cole was indeed gay; he choreographed one of the gayest sequences in Hollywood history, Gentleman Prefer Blondes‘ “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?“)
Minnelli’s gayness is best expressed by his female characters. Admittedly, this is often a reductive statement pegged to gay-male artists, but in Minnelli’s case it’s true. The way his women desire—the way they dream—seems his personal ideal. Minnelli’s cinema does indeed have male dreamers, but they tend to be terrifyingly rapacious: Gene Kelly’s megalomaniacal colonialist Jerry Muligan in an An American in Paris; Kirk Douglas’ ridiculously ambitious film-industry personalities in The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, and his laughable Van Gogh in Lust for Life. They seem to combust before they begin.
Minnelli’s women connive, but they are gentler misfits. I think primarily of six of them: Yolanda Acquaviva (Lucille Bremer) in Yolanda and the Thief; Manuela Alva (Judy Garland) in The Pirate; Gigi (Leslie Caron) in Gigi; Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; and the Countess Sanziani (Ingrid Bergman) and Nina (Liza Minnelli) in A Matter of Time. That three, if not four or five, of these actresses are gay icons might tell you something. But that’s just scraping the surface.
A thorough examination of all of these women would comprise a book. I want to focus briefly on what’s freshest in my mind: A Matter of Time, Minnelli’s last film from 1976. BAMCinématek’s screening of it was rare, including a seldom-seen deleted sequence. The print was imported from Locarno, Switzerland, whose film festival is doing saintly work in cinema-history advocacy. Minnelli disowned A Matter of Time, which may show evidence of his onset senility and definitely suffered at the brutish populist hands of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. (Much of this sad story can be found here.)
Still, the film mesmerizes. Minnelli scholar Joe McElhaney described it in his post-screening Q&A as “a ruin”—in the best, Romanesque sort of way. Ingrid Bergman is Minnelli’s last star, and she is magisterial playing a down-at-heel countess who retreats into the fantasy life of her glamourous past. As she languishes in raccoon eye-makeup and long capes at a fleabag Roman hotel, Liza Minnelli’s Nina, a chambermaid from the countryside, tends to and becomes fixated on her. (Compare the film’s conceit with that of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. and it becomes perhaps the closest Minnelli ever got to Italian Neorealism, although that’s not saying much.)
What emerges, flaws and all, is a definitive last work. It is a running joke among Minnelli-ites that his autobiography, entitled I Remember It Well, is, ironically, full of mendacity. But there is much to value in it, including what he says midway through about the responsibility of a director to be a fighter. (This is in light of his and Arthur Freed’s push to include the ballet at the end of An American in Paris, one of the most sublime moments in American cinema.) Fighting for one’s art, for one’s vision, comes in many forms and may often be Pyrrhic—witness the compromise of A Matter of Time—but, implies Minnelli, once done, it leaves vital traces.
Unquestionably romantic, this view of creative gain and loss is expressed repeatedly by Bergman’s countess in A Matter of Time through the lines, “No one dies unless we wish them to.” This is as dark as it is hopeful. One still feels everywhere in Minnelli a fear of the annihilation of the ego. There is a fear of what art strives to hide (vulgarity, mortality), its more grandiose and forced efforts to do this, epitomized by Minnelli’s lavish style, both radically denying and reinforcing this fear.
Art may be enfeebled by lack of care, but it is also by nature delicate. Still, watching the transcendent scenes in A Matter of Time—a single mascara tear slowly trickling down Bergman’s face as if commanded by a magic wand; Liza, in a fantasy sequence, gliding through a streamer-strewn ballroom after a party—one is kept aware of its ghostly power.