Essays (book reviews)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
by Stephen Harvey
(New York: The Museum of Modern Art / Harper & Row, 1989)


Here is a common experience in cinema education.

The teacher gives a lecture on, say, Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino, Josef von Sternberg or Preston Sturges. He or she sets an essay topic on that filmmaker, or some closely related matter. The student heads off to the institution’s library and – naturally – looks first to see if there’s one or two good, clear, intelligent books devoted to these auteurs whom their teacher has (quite rightly) made out to be as culturally significant as Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf or Arnold Schoenberg.

But there are no good books on many of the great filmmakers – sometimes there is not even a single bad one. There is only the daunting jungle of often very badly catalogued periodicals. Any teacher, facing this, would have to nod in earnest agreement with Peter Wollen’s statement in his 1969 Signs and Meaning in the Cinema: “We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford, but many, many more”.

Ford and Hitch did eventually get a few books chalked up to their honour. But it is a sobering exercise to tote up all those directors one considers surely worth a book or two who languish, long after their death, without one; just as it is saddening to realise that so many projects down the years which earmarked certain fascinating filmmakers for future detailed work – think of the Edinburgh Festival dossiers on Roger Corman, Douglas Sirk, Raoul Walsh and Jacques Tourneur – have never been substantially followed up, at least not in the English language. (1)

Then again, perhaps this lament is just quaint and nostalgic, betraying a legitimacy crisis familiar in many an educator: the fear that film studies doesn’t yet measure up to its forebears in the academic Fine Arts or Humanities spheres. This fear is, in fact, rather well-founded. Note, for instance, a certain rather respected literary specialist reviewing a book on Satyajit Ray (who else?) in the arts section of an Australian Sunday newspaper, declaring that a “cinema scholar” is a “rare thing”. Dear me …

Someone who diligently practiced a certain postmodern arrogance could (or should) snarl in the face of such an academy. Who cares, after all, if the ephemeral, commodity-based form of cinema is preserved and discussed only fleetingly in the grubby pages of this or that underground journal? Even an undoubted cinema scholar such as Dana Polan has suggested that Big Books are just too monumental, too old-fashioned a form of commentary for the vagaries of our audiovisual age. (2)

And, anyway, auteur studies are generally considered outmoded these days; Charles Eckert had already noted in 1974 that the type of fan/critic who declared, “I want to write about Delbert Mann” was already an obvious embarrassment, dinosaur, nitwit. Simply, there seemed more important, more productive tasks at hand. Wollen himself was among the first to announce this shift, in the 1972 revision of his aforementioned book: “I do not believe that development of auteur analyses of Hollywood films is any longer a first priority”.

Still, one can be glad that, at last in 1990, we have a preliminary, relatively decent book on Vincente Minnelli. And, more deeply, one can ask a good question: what would a really meaningful and useful director study be, today? Now that the strict, polemical embargo on auteurism has (more or less) passed, new kinds of studies are starting to appear which tackle this question: Thomas Elsaesser’s articles on Joseph Losey and F.W. Murnau; Stuart Cunningham’s work on the Chauvels; Sam Rohdie’s studies of Antonioni and Pasolini. (3)

A new synthesis is being attempted, weaving personal biography, career trajectory, historical conditions, cinematic conventions, industrial constraints, and issues of concern to the present sometimes far distant from the explicit consciousness of the auteur-subject (such as feminist critique, colonialism or queerness). This is all as it should be; mercifully gone are the innocent days when a director could be treated as if in splendid isolation from culture, history and society, and tacitly (or explicitly) celebrated for their “transcendence” of such impure determinants. I just wish someone would tell this news to increasingly hackish biographers like Donald Spoto (see his pathetic opus on Preston Sturges, Madcap).

Stephen Harvey’s book is not at the vanguard of director studies. He has apparently read little of the earnest literature devoted to cinema study, and the debates therein. Fortunately, he brings to his subject research skills that are far more rigorous than anything most of the old auteurists could manage to muster. He’s been through the MGM files (memos, contracts, etc.), thus mirroring the “archival turn” of many researchers in the field; he’s interviewed a good number of Minnelli’s collaborators; he’s gone to the trouble of comparing the finished film with the source material via all available drafts of the screenplay. There is much that he uncovers about the director’s way of working, his aesthetic motivations, and the vicissitudes that each film underwent from initial script to release print.

In short, the book is an essential, indispensable introduction to the Minnelli œuvre.

Harvey’s critical framework, however, is pretty limited. These limitations need to be clearly pegged before any further work on Minnelli can be done. Harvey begins by rightly placing Minnelli as a prime instance not of the maverick director but, on the contrary, one who got the most out of the studio system by working within its constraints. His research bears out Victor Perkins’s contention that individuality in a director’s style was not frowned upon or outlawed within the Hollywood system, in fact it was encouraged – so long as the director played the game with the necessary attitude of give-and-take. Minnelli gave and took for his whole career, trading personal projects like Lust for Life (1956) off against strictly contractual ones like Kismet (1955).

Harvey prizes Minnelli above all for his sensibility. A “colourist”, an aesthete, a perfectionist with a marvellous eye for design detail, a master of movement both of and before the camera: Harvey gives substance to these typical (and truthful) descriptions of the director’s style. For each film, Harvey evokes its variegated emotional flow, its highs and lows, its expressive “bursts” – in sum, its stylistic plasticity (he is especially good, in this regard, on Meet Me in St Louis). Essentially, the book is therefore a fine account of Minnelli’s craft.

What, then, of Minnelli’s art – what is it, and how would we describe its worth, its interest? Here, the usefulness of Harvey’s book starts to quickly wear thin. His approach to this question has two aspects. The first is biographical. Harvey convincingly enough relates a central, underlying drive of Minnelli’s oeuvre – “the clash between suffocating respectability and creative anarchy” – to his formative life experiences.

Later strains in the director’s life, such as his difficult marriage to Judy Garland, produced another theme, “the idea that the satisfactions of hard work can compensate for personal unhappiness”. This is, at base, very old-fashioned auteurism indeed, Harvey extolling Minnelli for the ways he indirectly encoded his personal life into whatever property presented itself to him – which is ultimately not much more sophisticated than claiming that Hitchcock made films to work off his personal fetishism for luscious blondes (spotty Spoto again).

Harvey fights shy of nominating a thematic for Minnelli’s œuvre that is in any way generalisable or applicable outside the individual, biographical case of the director. Other commentators have not been quite so shy, but their proposals that the Minnellian protagonist be understood, variously, as one who struggles to impose his or her dream upon a resistant world, or someone suddenly confronted with the dissolution of his/her stable, gendered identity, or a figure enmeshed in the hypnotic spell of the cinematic apparatus itself, are not given any play by Harvey.

Indeed, it is a book that, knowingly or not, avoids all the keywords that have recurred in the last two decades’ discussion of Minnelli: desire, hysteria, seduction, ideology, identity …

Ultimately, Harvey’s take on the value of Minnelli’s art boils down to this, which constitutes the second, rickety pillar of the book’s art-appreciation approach: the director’s sensibility made routine Hollywood material watchable. He crafted it well, and added (whenever possible) a little something extra: a touch of criticism, irony, melancholia or fatalism. Harvey is big on what I can only call dark side criticism. We read again and again how Minnelli momentarily “allowed the placid surface of the Metro musical to be shattered by naked emotion” (as in Meet Me in St Louis), or implied an “undercurrent of erotic danger” (as in The Pirate); how he subtly “upstages” one character or “indicts” another through some telling bit of colour/design/camera movement business.

This is, ultimately, an inert critical model: a hopelessly unequal and unproductive exchange between an auteur who is somehow smart, thoughtful and artful, and a set of Hollywood conventions that are always only dumb, superficial, intrinsically uninteresting. Harvey gives his game away when he reflexly falls back on the assumption that, directed by virtually anyone but Minnelli, films like The Cobweb (1955), Some Came Running and The Pirate would have been merely “turgid hokum” or “high camp”. But why not instead argue that it was the conjunction of Minnelli-the-artist with the extraordinarily rich conventions of Hollywood that gave rise to such a remarkable œuvre?

The instant I finished this book, I gave myself three minutes to list every existing article on Minnelli not included in its bibliography that I considered critically significant. First the overview articles by Elsaesser, Richard Dyer, Jean-Loup Bourget. Then the pieces on individual films: Raymond Durgnat on Bells Are Ringing, Dana Polan or Dennis Giles on The Bandwagon, Robin Wood or the Melbourne Collective (i.e., Lesley Stern and her students) on Madame Bovary, Richard Lippe on A Matter Of Time, Dyer on The Bad and The Beautiful, Richard Collins on On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Yann Tobin on Yolanda and the Thief, Stuart Cunningham on Some Came Running, David Rodowick on The Pirate, Tom Ryan on Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, Raymond Bellour on Gigi, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on The Cobweb, Andrew Britton on Meet Me in St Louis, Ed Lowry’s thesis on artifice in four Minnelli films … then my time was up.

It’s no great sleight to Harvey’s not inconsiderable introductory achievement to suggest that we would all still be greatly rewarded by an anthology of such pieces, as well as by further critical explorations into an œuvre that is, as yet, very far from being exhausted. (4)

NOTES (2021)

1. This review was written over three decades ago. Some of the directors mentioned here, like others, have subsequently benefited from high calibre works of criticism – even as auteurism itself, as a method and/or sensibility, was forcibly moved into the shadows in certain academic/intellectual circles. I will merely cite a few outstanding French and English-language examples: Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American (University of California Press, 1990); Susan Felleman, Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin (Twayne, 1997); Mathieu Macheret, Josef von Sternberg – Les jungles hallucinées (Capricci, 2021); Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (McFarland & Company, 2011); Anne Gillain, François Truffaut: The Lost Secret (Indiana University Press, 2013); Lutz Bacher, Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios (Rutgers University Press, 1996); Tom Ryan, The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (University Press of Mississippi, 2019); Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures (University of California Press, 2005); as well as the best volumes in the Illinois University Press series on directors, such as George Toles, Paul Thomas Anderson (2016) and Mary Wiles, Jacques Rivette (2012). back

2. See Dana Polan, “Jack and Gilles: Reflections on Deleuzes Cinema of Ideas”, Art & Text, no. 34 (Spring 1989), pp. 23-30. A precision (as the French say): Dana was especially moved to make this suggestion after experiencing first-hand the “small magazine” scene of Australian cinephiles in the 1980s. back

3. Some of the 1980s-era essays alluded to here were later included in or recast as books: Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005); Cunningham, Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel (Allen & Unwin, 1991). Rohdie’s string of books on (predominantly) Italian auteurs – Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini, Visconti – began appearing in 1990. back

4. The anthology for which I longed finally materialised almost 20 years later in 2009, edited by Joe McElhaney: Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment (Wayne State University Press). I even managed to be a part of it! back



© Adrian Martin November 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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