Monday, December 6, 2010

Citizen Scholar: Michael E. Grost on the Minnelli Factor

December 5, 2010

Citizen Scholar: Michael E. Grost on the Minnelli Factor

by Mark Griffin

"I just spent the morning writing an article on a film from 1912 called From The Submerged," reports Michael E. Grost, a film historian and self-described "citizen scholar," who is the creator of a one-of-a-kind website ( that exhaustively explores the visual and thematic links in the films of such master directors as Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh. Grost also regularly champions the achievements of lesser known filmmakers that he feels are deserving of greater recognition like Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis ("I'm up to ninety-six of his one hundred and six known films...")

Grost's greatest challenge (so far) involves examining the multi-layered levels of meaning in the work of the incomparable Vincente Minnelli. According to Grost, the arched alcoves, hexagonal wallpaper patterns and elliptical mirrors that turn up in Minnelli's movies are as meaningful as the vanishing heroes and gender outlaws that populate such classics as Cabin In The Sky, Meet Me In St. Louis, Tea and Sympathy, Designing Woman and Gigi.

Mark Griffin, the author of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, recently caught up with Grost, who took a break from his ongoing investigation to discuss what he describes as "the seemingly endless use of creativity in Minnelli's moves."

MG: Why don't we start with the most challenging question first...What is your favorite Vincente Minnelli production and why?

MEG: It's easy to pick a favorite. It's Some Came Running (1958). I'm not sure that I can say why other than it's just so extremely well made at all levels. It works wonderfully as a story and then you have Minnelli's incredible visual style -- it has that great finale with the camera moving through the centennial celebration in Parkman [the fictional Midwestern town where the story takes place]. It's one of Minnelli's films about writers and as a writer myself, I tend to identify with such characters, so maybe it speaks to me personally a little bit. It's just one of his films that's so richly done at a dramatic level...It also seems to be a climax of his melodramas. It's the best of the melodramas and the richest and of course, it's got a very creative use of color throughout.

MG: On your website, you explore how Minnelli uses red and blue as a recurring motif in Some Came Running.

Yes. The early Minnelli films are rather wild in terms of color design. It's very hard to summarize color in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) or Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). You'll have scenes that are multi-colored and certainly very beautiful but they don't seem to be designed according to any standard logic but the later Minnelli films tend to use complimentary colors -- It'll be the red-orange and blue that you see in a lot of his films...Home from the Hill (1960) has fifteen scenes in it which are based on red-green color contrasts. Some Came Running is more of the red-orange versus blue design typically. Especially with the finale at the centennial, there's this kind of conscious color design throughout...the lights of the carousel, for example, are all red-orange contrasted with blue. Minnelli certainly exhibited an extraordinary use of color throughout his work and a seemingly endless use of creativity in terms of the visuals of his films. The results are always very interesting to watch.

MG: In reference to Meet Me In St. Louis, you've suggested that beneath the surface of this glossy MGM musical, there are some heavier themes being explored -- like sexism and social anxiety. How conscious do you think Minnelli was of layering this seemingly lighthearted movie with loads of subtext?

MEG: Minnelli's films show a very consistent interest in sexism and feminism. In this country, we tend to think of sexism as something that emerged in the 1970's with the women's liberation movement and that's very true. But look at something like The Sandpiper, which came out in 1965 - it's very consciously about feminism. In fact, it seems to be the main subject of the movie. It's a women's lib drama from the period before women's lib really erupted...My impression is that Minnelli was conscious of feminism and you can certainly look at Meet Me In St. Louis as a feminist film. There's an awful lot of material in Meet Me In St. Louis about the societal restrictions on women's lives. These young women in the family -- they're not even allowed to make a phone call unless the father grants his permission. They can't control who they meet. They're not allowed to talk to men until another man intervenes and introduces them. I mean, Judy Garland can't even go over and say "Hello..." to the boy-next-door in this society. She's like in purdah or something. From the way all of this is presented, it's hard to imagine that this wasn't some sort of conscious decision and concern on Minnelli's part...I think, too, feminism is often invisible to people. Take the plays by Aeschylus -- like the Oresteia -- this seems to me to be a very feminist work. Though I never see any discussions of this among critics. It's like people can look right at something and not see the feminism in things. I, for one, don't understand why The Sandpiper is so ridiculed among Minnelli's films -- people seem to constantly put it down and make jokes about it. They just don't like it but I always thought it was a very good movie. I loved it when I first saw it decades ago and I saw it several times when I was writing about Minnelli for my website. But I've found that there's something about any sort of explicit feminist film that bothers people. When the feminist message is buried just a bit below the surface -- as it is in Meet Me In St. Louis -- it can suddenly become invisible.

MG: In writing about Cabin In The Sky (1943), you touch upon how Minnelli presented African-Americans in that film. You disagree with some of the audio commentary by academic Todd Boyd on the DVD version of Cabin. Some observers have made the case that a few of the characterizations in Cabin are racially insensitive stereotypes while others argue that Minnelli was something of a pioneer in terms of how he presented black people in his films. What do you think?

I think Cabin in the Sky is overwhelmingly positive and innovative in its positive portrayals of African-Americans. There are a few places where one could be legitimately concerned, though. The brief cameo by Willie Best as one of the demons in the film is stereotyped. There's no other way to put it. It's not good but it's mercifully very brief. Also, the pre-reformed hero of the film being portrayed as lazy and shiftless -- that's perhaps a bit uncomfortably close to some of the ugly stereotypes of lazy black people. But in the second half of the film, the hero very much reforms and becomes a hard worker and later on, you see him all done up in white tie and tails and he's a big success in life and so on. Mainly it's an extremely positive portrayal. There are some extraordinary portraits on display...the minister...Ethel Waters as the heroine and the incredible jazz musicians in the nightclub sequence...The film is like an inventory of many of the great black musical entertainers of all time. It's mainly just a remarkable, highly positive film despite some occasional problems that we have to acknowledge but at the same time we need to try to balance them with what is good about the film as a whole.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Lena Horne's character in Cabin. In Georgia Brown, we're being presented with a seductive, sexually available African-American woman in an all-black musical released in 1943. All things considered, was this kind of character a step forward or another strike against Hollywood?

I think in general, in the late 20's and 30's, most depictions of black people in Hollywood movies were really horrible. This was the Stepin Fetchit era. An important exception was John M. Stahl's original version of Imitation of Life (1934) which was considered a landmark film in the black press. It was always hailed as a model film in that era. You can see a few others -- like the black news-boy who gets killed in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) as another positive portrayal. And the extraordinary finale of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941), where the white protagonists go to the black church. Every now and then there was a pro-civil rights message slipped in about the equality of the races. So there were a few positive examples but otherwise, most of the portrayals were stereotyped and embarrassing and a disgrace. Then, in the early 1940's, black civil rights leaders pushed for a change. I think they actually went to Washington and asked the federal government to try and motivate Hollywood to include more positive black portrayals in films because blacks were contributing so much to the war effort - both as soldiers and as war workers and they felt that this ought to be recognized. In the early 40's, you had Stormy Weather, Dive Bomber and Cabin in the Sky -- suddenly Hollywood was making this series of films that were attempting to portray black people more positively. My impression was that this was a communal effort sponsored by civil rights leaders and the federal government. There were white liberals like [crime writer] Rex Stout, who lead a committee of white authors to try and promote more positive portrayals of black people in entertainment by white people.

I don't have any inner knowledge of the production history of Cabin in the Sky but I really don't think that the people who made it just woke up one morning and said, 'Okay, let's make a pro-black musical today...' I think this reflected a conscious effort by lots of different political, creative and film industry groups to improve the image of black people in 1940's Hollywood...For some reason, Minnelli was very much associated with black entertainers in his early films. Not just Cabin in the Sky but you also have these really interesting scenes with Lena Horne and the Berry Brothers in Panama Hattie (1942). You have the Hazel Scott numbers in I Dood It (1943), which are really the best part of what is otherwise probably Minnelli's worst movie. I understand that he directed a lot of black performers on Broadway, too...There are other ways in which he was sort of a pioneer -- in The Clock (1945), you'll see these very dignified, non-stereotyped servicemen in that wartime film who are black. In the scenes in Grand Central Station, not only are there very dignified and patriotic portraits of white servicemen but you see black servicemen, too. In The Sandpiper, there's a black artist who is on equal terms with the white artists in the film. There are all sorts of very dignified, pioneering looks at black people in Minnelli's films. It's a whole dimension that's important in his work that we shouldn't forget. Along with the feminist dimension and the pro-gay dimension, there also is the pro-black dimension. Minnelli was an aesthete but he was also clearly interested in liberal social values. I mean, Lust for Life (1956) has one of the few looks at child labor since the 1910's, when you had films like The Cry of the Children (1912), which deals very profoundly with the tragedy of child labor. And then it just goes away as a subject - even though it hadn't disappeared in real life - until Minnelli shows it in the tragedy in Lust for Life. The same thing is true about all of the science in Minnelli. As a director, he's consistently interested in technology -- especially sound communication. There are all of these recording devices in his films. Things like the radio remote control at the end of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). There's just a surprising amount of material about technology in Minnelli's films. After all, he was a leading figure in one of the world's most high tech industries. This sort of stuff tends to be invisible to today's commentators on Minnelli and I'm not sure why. It needs to be brought out and people need to start seeing more.

MG: In writing about Minnelli's directorial approach, you frequently make reference to this concept of "kinetic art." In relation to Vincente's films, how would you best describe what that is?

MEG: Kinetic Art is an art world term for art objects that you might well see somewhere like the Museum of Modern Art or the Tate Gallery in London or the Guggenheim Museum -- anyplace that concentrates on modern art. Kinetic art basically refers to machines that are created by artists in a lab that have moving parts that are designed to be looked at for their visual beauty and delightfulness. One machine might feature whistles and moving wheels or revolving pin wheels and spirals...or gears that interlock...pistons that move up and down...things like that. They were especially big in the 1960's in art museums and there were a number of artists who specialized in them. They were considered rather avant-garde. My impression is that such things actually date back to the 1920's.

The kinetic art movement never became the center of the art world but it did become quite a craze and if you look at the finale of Mickey One, which is a film by Arthur Penn made in '65 - there's a whole fifteen minute sequence in that film which visits a large scale kinetic art installation -- you know, a large machine created by an artist full of fireworks and revolving wheels and stuff that is as big as a house. I don't know if Minnelli specifically had an interest in kinetic art but his films are just filled to the peak with machines that move around and that are certainly like kinetic art. For example, in Lovely To Look At (1952), in the fashion show sequence, there are all of these pyramids that are filled with light inside and that glow with light and they're being moved all around the stage. In Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), Judy Garland and Tom Drake put out the lights with this complicated gadget that's on a long pole and it involves having to reach up and pull gears and levers and it helps them put out the gas lights in the chandeliers...At the start of An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly has all sorts of ingenious objects in his room like beds that fold up and tables that emerge from the ceiling and things that come out of his closet. All sorts of things like this appear all through Minnelli's films. Oftentimes these moving objects have light inside, too. There's a similar thing in the art world called art light, which involves moving light and Minnelli often combines the two. Like in An American in Paris - during the "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" number, when [Georges Guetary] is moving up and down the stairs, every time he lands on another step, a light flashes on and he makes elaborate moving patterns with the lights. There are hundreds of examples. We could spend our entire conversation going through all of the many examples you can find throughout Minnelli's films.

When you were first describing the concept of kinetic art, it struck me that one of the most obvious examples is when Fred Astaire is in the arcade at the beginning of The Band Wagon (1953) and he sets off that wild contraption that has all of the bells and whistles -- not to mention American flags that shoot out on cue.

Yes. Definitely. That's sort of like the pop culture equivalent of it. Machines like that probably helped inspire kinetic art installations in art museums...In Minnelli's autobiography [I Remember It Well], he talks about sending the first version of that machine back to the designers because it wasn't over-the-top enough for him. He wanted it to go absolutely berserk and do everything possible, including waving flags, turning lights on and off and moving around...and it's a totally spectacular example.

MG: On your website, you've created this extraordinary inventory - or cataloguing - of recurring imagery and symbolism in Minnelli's work. When you start sifting through the red gladiolas and the portable phonographs or the kind of nested rectangles that appear on Nanette Fabray's skirt in The Band Wagon, what - if anything - do you think Minnelli is actually "saying" with all of this? Since Vincente Minnelli worked at a factory like MGM, is it possible that some of these recurring images are just intriguing coincidences?

I don't think these things are accidental because you begin to see patterns through film after film -- like those nested rectangles - these things keep showing up throughout Minnelli's career. You see them on Nanette Fabray's skirt but you also see them in the benches in Kirk Douglas's office in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)...You see them in the main title sequence of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) -- where all of the multi-colored rectangles nest down to infinity. They're all over. A lot of these films are also filled with geometric patterns and you find this not only in Minnelli but in movies directed by Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh and many others. People today talk about visual style and everyone says that Minnelli is a great visual stylist. But then they don't try to specify what is actually appearing on the screen that makes up this very distinctive visual style and there are many, many things. My website does not touch bottom in terms of trying to analyze what we mean when we say that Minnelli is this great visual stylist. At least it is picking up on some dimensions and one of these is the use of all of these unusual geometric patterns. Minnelli's films are just full of geometric patterns and they repeat and modify themselves in film after film...For some reason, female controlled spaces in Minnelli often have checkerboard floors in them and men often trip and fall down in these spaces. An archetypal example is the checkerboard floor inside the trailer in The Long, Long Trailer (1954) that is owned by Lucille Ball. Her husband, Desi Arnaz, falls flat on his face when he first sees it.

Another great example is in Father of the Bride (1950), during Spencer Tracy's nightmare - the church floor suddenly turns to quicksand.

Yes! In the church - he starts sinking into the floor. It's the most extraordinary surreal imagery. Again that's a female-controlled space -- all of these women are running the wedding and he's just caught up in all of it. I have no idea why there's such a consistent pattern for some of these things in Minnelli. If you ask me, 'Is there something inherently female about checkerboard floors?' --I would have to say that I have no idea but they turn up over and over in Minnelli in the same way that the male-controlled spaces in Minnelli often have diamond lozenge patterns on the walls. Like Richard Widmark's curtains in his psychiatric office in The Cobweb (1955) or Kirk Douglas's space in The Bad and the Beautiful. There are many other examples. These patterns recur in Minnelli in film after film. And these things are always richly varied. It isn't like Minnelli said, 'Okay, bring out the diamond lozenge curtains, boys...' It's never just the same thing over and over again. It's always accomplished with very interesting variations and it's always very creative. But these patterns do constantly run through Minnelli. People need to start being more conscious of these things if they're going to be genuinely interested in visual style and not just paying lip service by saying something like, 'Oh, his visual style is very interesting...' Well, what makes it so interesting? Once you start talking about it in concrete terms, you start recognizing all of the geometry that plays an important role in terms of what's happening on screen.

MG: On your website, you make mention of Pedro Almodovar, Danny Boyle and Gus Van Sant. Do you think Minnelli has had an influence on any contemporary filmmakers?

I mentioned all of those directors because they often build their films around blue and red-orange color contrasts as Minnelli does. If you look at something like the Van Sant remake of Psycho (1998), you'll find that it's just endlessly fascinating on several levels but I guess I'm one of the five people who actually liked his remake of Psycho...In general, I don't think contemporary filmmakers are as visually skillful as some of the classic era directors. In terms of visual style, I'm very impressed with the Vietnamese filmmaker Hung Tran Anh. A film like The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) seems vaguely Minnellian in some ways. With Almodovar, I love the rich use of color in his 80's films like Law of Desire and Matador and Dark Habits. I think that may have been the peak of Almodovar's stylistic period. Though The Flower of My Secret (1995), which came later, has very vivid colors in it, too. You'll see many of these same color schemes in Minnelli -- it's a striking contrast of blue and orange-red with touches of green here and there.

Could you please suggest an under appreciated Minnelli movie that you think people should seek out?

I know that everyone ritually dislikes Undercurrent (1946) - the way that they don't like The Sandpiper - but I've always thought that it was a fascinating film. I wish Minnelli had done more mysteries. There's the mystery of identity involving the resistance leader in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and there are a number of little mini-mysteries in some of the other films. For example, Dean Martin has to figure out what's going on with this mystery woman throughout Bells Are Ringing (1960)...Most Minnelli films are so richly brocaded. Every time I see one from beginning to end, the next thing I know -- I'm spending the next 48 hours writing about all of the new things I learned about these films for my website. And you always see so many new things when you watch a Minnelli movie.

1 comment:

  1. ...a very intelligent analysis, abaut V.M:'s films...thanks