Thursday, April 01, 2010

Or Maybe God Was Right

Vince Keenan has some thoughts after seeing Bigger Than Life:

I don’t have many rules when it comes to movies, but here’s one: when every hosanna fawns over what a movie says but not what actually happens onscreen, odds are you’re in for a tough sit...

The lopsided script is so focused on Mason and his largely one note fugues that the behavior of the other characters is rendered incomprehensible. His doctors aren’t held to account. As for Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush), I had to keep stepping out of the movie to backtrack her motivations. “I suppose if she thinks X, it makes sense she’d do Y.” Many critics claim Bigger Than Life is fundamentally about issues of class – novelist Jonathan Lethem, a great admirer of the film, offers 27 minutes of cultural background on the DVD – but the movie treats money obliquely. In a key scene, Mason holds up medical bills shot in such a way that I couldn’t tell what they were until he’d already put them down. Here’s another of my rules: if your characters’ actions are essentially prompted by subtext, you’ve failed as a dramatist.

Vince also compares the film to the New Yorker article it's based on, and finds that the true story makes more sense at every point. (For example, in real life, the teacher's dosage of cortisone was constantly upped by the doctor; the writers of the movie, not wanting to portray doctors negatively, made it entirely the teacher's decision to overdose on the miracle drug.)

I don't really agree with his take, but it's worth reading lest the DVD release and the (deserved, in my opinion) acclaim for Bigger Than Life get us all too caught up in Ray-mania. Most of his movies have serious flaws and Bigger Than Life, which may be my favorite among his films, abounds in unclear motivations, absurd plot points, and most damningly of all (since this is something Ray could have fixed on his own, without help from the writers) some weak acting, particularly from Christopher Olsen in the big role of James Mason's son.

And yet most of these flaws -- except the acting flaws, of course -- don't matter all that much to me personally. In a strange way, the lack of coherence in the film makes it more interesting than it would have been as a realistic case history, like Hitchcock's The Wrong Man the following year. In particular, the Barbara Rush character is more interesting to me because her motivations are so unclear and her behavior is so frankly bizarre. The thing I always find, when watching it, is that the wife drug-free (or is she? this being the '50s and all, who wasn't taking some sort of miracle drug?) is crazier than her husband on drugs. Her absolute insistence on playing the devoted wife role, no matter how things are collapsing around her, is almost pathological. It's like she is so determined to play her proper role in society, knowing her place, afraid even to go into a store that's out of her price range, that she is willing to let her husband destroy himself, her and her son rather than admit there's something wrong.

But while I think that's a valid interpretation of the film, borne out by what happens on the screen, it's also an interpretation that "justifies" what would normally be considered weak writing (a character who acts bizarrely for reasons that are never clarified, and whose bizarre behavior is never even addressed as such by the other characters). A lot of '50s Hollywood movies are like that. The directors of that era who caught the imagination of the French New Wave critics were often those like Ray or Sirk, who would take a compromised script -- often with hashy writing, tacked-on endings, and unjustified plot twists -- and made the movie look like it might mean something more than the script implied. (So at the end of Bigger Than Life Ray is using every device he can to make the happy ending look weird or sinister; it's not even that he has a specific, coherent comment to make on the convention of the happy ending, just that he wants to make it seem strange. Update: as noted in the comments, it's an exaggeration to say that there's no specific purpose to the way the ending is filmed. In particular, the final shot is pretty clearly intended to suggest that things might not get better for these people.) The New Wave saw this as a plus, because they were tired of "quality" movies from Europe and America, where every motivation was spelled out and every theme was explicitly stated.

So what seemed like weak writing in some of the films of Ray or Sirk, or the nonexistence of vital plot information in Artists and Models, or that plot point in Vertigo that is set up and never resolved, and many other such moments in '50s American movies, all seemed like a plus to the Godard generation. That generation of moviemakers set out to make movies that would deliberately incorporate the unclear motivations and messed-up characters that some of these filmmakers incorporated by accident. Which led to the cinematic status quo that so angered Pauline Kael in the early '60s, where both art and commercial movies paid less attention than ever to "motivations and complications, cause and effect."

The quality of Hollywood movies by the early '60s was far below what it had been in the '50s (and almost all the '50s favorites were in decline, in many cases having let their lovable flaws become much bigger flaws that choked off anything good in their movies), but you could argue that the decline was a direct consequence of the tendencies that appeared in the great Hollywood movies of the '50s: by ignoring the basics of good screenwriting, and trying to make movies that went against norms of good structure and characterization, these directors were doing something that could never work on a regular basis. This would explain why Howard Hawks, having broken many well-made movie rules with Rio Bravo -- creating a great film with an incredibly slow pace and some gaping plot holes (remember, we're told later in the film that Dean Martin witnessed a shooting that he wasn't actually conscious to see) -- spent much of the rest of his career making slow, plot-hole-filled movies that weren't very good, trying to repeat the Rio Bravo formula without the greatness.

But in those '50s movies, where the approach works, there's a certain exhilaration in seeing the rules of screenwriting class trumped by the power of images, performances and that unique atmosphere that a director and cinematographer can create. The fun of Johnny Guitar or Bigger Than Life is that the director and actors and cinematographer seem to be telling us that there's more to the story than the script will admit. I can see, in the right frame of mind, why so many young critics and filmmakers fell in love with that idea.


Vince said...

Great post, Jaime. I know I'm in the minority on Bigger Than Life, but that's a good place to be from time to time. I'm a fan of plenty of films in the Ray/Sirk mode you describe. That approach tends to work best in genre films, where there are entire accepted structures the filmmakers are free to subvert. Bigger Than Life's story, for me, is fundamentally too earnest for that gambit to pay off. But it's interesting to watch Ray try.

Edward Hegstrom said...

Post-Godardian directors who landed major studio gigs continued to try to subvert their material in much the same way as Ray or Sirk. I'm thinking most obviously of Brian DePalma, who devotes the entire running time of The Fury alternately mocking the script or pushing it to reveal some sort of dark significance it can't possibly achieve. A more recent example would be Roman Polanski with The Ghost Writer, where a mood of autumnal despair occasionally intrudes onto a pretty dumb storyline.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted the ending to seem strange? I thought it was evident that the slight creepiness of the final shot ("Come closer!") underlined how, despite the family's optimism, there was really no certainty at all that they could manage the drugs or that Mason's character would live beyond the year. I don't think we're supposed to completely buy into their redemption as much as the family itself has, after the film was over they could easily just have fallen apart once again once he was back on the cortisone.

EJK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EJK said...

Great essay, but dead wrong on "The Wrong Man":

And what exactly is the plot point in "Vertigo" that is never resolved?