The Pirate

(Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1948)


The Pirate – released in a superb Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection in late 2020 – deconstructs itself faster than any analyst possibly can. From its first seconds, a chorus on the soundtrack calls fervently for “Macoco!” Macoco, all-powerful pirate of the high seas, feared by all. As we soon see in the illustrated, turned pages of a book, this “Black Macoco” – or “Mack the Black” as he is immortalised in song – is, fairly obviously, black. And one hell of a man: indeed, a “flaming trail of masculinity”, as besotted Manuela (Judy Garland) will eulogise him.


In the course of the plot, another man, acrobatic (and how!) travelling player Serafin (Gene Kelly), will hypnotise Manuela and convince her, for a while, that he is really Macoco. But he’s not a pirate, and not black. Then another character steps forth to declare: I am Macoco! (If you don’t know who this character is, you need to see the film pronto.) But this second guy, although he’s telling the truth, doesn’t look anything like Macoco. Macoco is who he was. Now he’s fat. And he’s not quite black, either: sporting a mild tan, maybe. Michael Jackson before his time? The moment that this ex-Macoco finds himself yelling “If you want to worship Macoco, worship me!”, you know it’s all over for him. Black Macoco shouldn’t have to argue the proof of his own, magnificent, male identity.


So Mack the Black meets Jack the Lack. The point of The Pirate is this: no one, no man, is ever in the place of Macoco. Or rather, they might grasp at it, claim it for a moment or a scene, but they can’t stay in it for very long. It’s an impossible ideal, a myth, a fiction, a story-book in pictures. The Phallus. Towering above everyone, never “on the ground” … Is this an unfair recourse to interpretive psychoanalysis? Buddy, this is a movie where hypnosis takes centre stage, as it will again, 22 years later, in Vincente Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. And what a thoroughly possessed song-and-dance (for the performance of “Mack the Black”) that hypnosis unleashes in The Pirate … a true summit of cinema.


Cole Porter’s especially commissioned songs are a riot of exotica riffs and clever, punning lines. They, too, pursue the all-pervasive work of deconstruction. As we hear many times: “By the CaribBEan or CarIBean sea” … how many songs, in musicals or anywhere else – apart from “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by the Gershwins – are centrally based on differences of pronunciation? Porter even jumps in and stretches the equivocation out – “By the CaribBEan … or if you’re not agreein’ …”. You want to scream with delight at Cole, just as Serafin yells at Manuela as she relentlessly trashes a room on, over and around him: “You’re overdoing this!”


That exclamation is pure camp, and The Pirate is probably the supreme Hollywood masterpiece of knowing, not inadvertent, camp. It doesn’t need to be appropriated, read-against-the-grain or “subtextually” decoded as camp: from the first note, it’s totally exaggerated, histrionic, nudge-wink stuff. “Niña”, Kelly’s immortal number, is a veritable delirium of sexual innuendo and double entendre: “Til I make you mine, til I make you …”. The song is also decked out with fashionable pop-psychoanalytic references to schizophrenia and neurasthenia – well, both afflictions rhyme with Niña, if you give that the proper Spanish twist. Pronunciation-deconstruction again.


Personally speaking: The Pirate, what a strange path I had to take to meet you! I have always, since first seeing it in early teen years, found it a wonderfully energetic, exhilarating film. Garland and Kelly are sensational as a chemically-emulsified screen couple. But by the time I was really getting to grips with its wonderment, a few years later, I was in over my head at the university library shelves of grand Film Theory. From the mid 1970s to the early ‘80s, The Pirate could be found, pinned under the analytical microscope, in many sites: conference papers, classroom demonstrations, journal articles. It was – and genuinely is – a seething cauldron of “the gaze” and the voice, of fraught entry into the Symbolic Order, of place and identity and masquerade, of gender and genre, of Freud and Jack the Lack and Althusser … what else could the Macoco story be?


The film apparently found pride of place in the historic “Cinema and Psychoanalysis” event at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1976; Kelly’s ultimate direct address into camera (“Don’t move! There’s more!”), cutting off the tidy plot-resolution and hurling the final “Be a Clown” reprise at us, must have had that diegetically-aware crowd reeling. Kelly’s exclamation is somewhere between a mercenary sales-pitch and a Brechtian lesson: the kind of crazy cultural mix that Peter Wollen later located in the discombobulated formal mix-and-match “cartilage” of Kelly-Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) …


I have a fond, sentimental memory of this brief but beautiful cultural moment I lived through, when film theory danced with the “golden era” Hollywood musical (especially of the 1940s & ‘50s Arthur Freed/MGM variety). I am not really speaking here of the genre analyses of Rick Altman or Jane Feuer, fine and influential as they were (and are). I’m talking about the intimate tussle of “textuality”: really inhabiting the shifting texture, the gestures, the rhythms and energies, and especially the heterogeneity (man, I love this word) of films including The Band Wagon (a favourite of Lesley Stern, and the subject of a masterly mid ‘70s essay by Dennis Giles), On the Town (a revelation for me), Singin’ in the Rain (to which the sadly departed digital-era pioneer Adrian Miles devoted an early hypertext) … through to stranger musical mutations like Powell-Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models (1955) and Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man (1961). Raymond Bellour, too, has spent his entire adult life writing about Minnelli, from the latest releases at the end of the ‘50s to The Pirate’s hypnosis scene in his 2009 magnum opus Le corps du cinéma (“Serafin reveals the desire for theatre-cinema seemingly inscribed via the performers onto each cinema spectator”).


As an enthusiastic spectator and dutiful student during the ‘70s, one was caught in these films like a spinning top, catching and losing this or that identity, this or that place in the social order … and giving oneself wholly over to what we liked to call, in those days, the excess of sound and image, performance and style. Not quite realising, as it happens, that most musicals – and a good portion of Hollywood cinema tout court – are so excessive in their standard operating mode that, after all, excess constitutes a kind of norm. Alleluia!


But a certain over-seriousness had inevitably overtaken me, after all this microscopic frame-analysis on The Pirate, in classrooms, on conference floors and at the university library table. Somewhere in the 1990s – I registered this in a notebook of the time – I stumbled upon it once again, after a suitable absence, on TV or VHS. And I was amazed to realise for the first time that it was not only spirited and funny but … super-camp. Everything in it was camp! Macoco included. Perhaps I had unconsciously resisted this evident truth of the film because a strain of camp culture, well exposed in Melbourne during that era, was (in my mind) the absolute antipode to seriousness, or at least to a particular sort of interpretive analysis wielded by semiotic film theory. Hypnosis, seduction, fascination … were these matters of camp? (I had yet to read Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s careful sorting-through of the campness of Johnny Guitar [1954], which is “not sublime ‘at the risk’ of becoming ridiculous, it is sublime because, and only inasmuch as, it is ridiculous. The distinction between the two opposite notions is really not in the film at all but rather in the eye of the beholder”.)


When it came to writing a short capsule on The Pirate almost 30 years ago, I somewhat hedged my bets. I argued that it is, by now, a movie that probably belongs more to critics, scholars and students than it does to any mass, mainstream audience (David Hare has noted that, as a troubled production, it’s “never made its money back to this day” – wow, Hollywood sure keeps lasting account books!). I’d like to think that some perfectly ordinary filmgoers went for it, too, in its time and ever after – but who really knows such things? It is, for sure, a perverse and extreme manifestation of Hollywood’s most stylised, expressionist impulses – and apparently its most extreme point was the ultra-sexed-up “Voodoo” number that hit the cutting room floor, alas (that would have made three stage-performance songs for Judy, instead of the two we have – and would have made more sense of the crowning exclamation from Aunt Inez [Gladys Cooper]: “Not again, Manuela!”)


So, encyclopedically, I juggled The Pirate between four “diverse reasons” – and subcultures – that had claimed it across time. First, the Minnellian auteurists, from Robin Wood and Tom Ryan to Thomas Elsaesser and Jacques Rancière, who embrace it as a vivacious tale of desire, dream and repression within a familiar but beloved directorial template – with song-and-dance clocking in as the superb mise en scène of liberation. Second, the theorists of heterogeneous Hollywood entertainment, with its life-and-death struggle for what Serge Daney (another Minnelli fan) called the “place of the spectator”, as outlined above. Third, the more sociologically-minded musical-as-genre crowd, sketching a proto-Cultural Studies approach, for whom the story of The Pirate is mainly a scaffolding (or cartilage) on which to hang a typical Hollywood homily about the sterling role of spectacle and entertainment in our society and in our daily lives – a typically Pirandellian paradox (stage within film) and a distinctly populist homily, as immortalised in the two rousing versions of “Be a Clown” (the first featuring the Nicholas Brothers, only two of the many black players who wander around the margins of this tale of the weirdly whitewashed Macoco). Fourth: all those for whom the film is, first and foremost a camp classic, not only for the histrionics of its stars or the sauciness of Porter’s lyrics, but also because the whole affair sends up gender roles and shopworn movie clichés (on this plane, it’s a direct continuation of the Eddie Cantor-Busby Berkeley parodic romps of the ‘30s) with a rare gusto.


Now I see that these four Pirates are, indeed, one Pirate. There’s no necessary contradiction between the different ways of taking or reading it: straight, queer or camp; dream, identity or showbiz – it’s all part of the same warp and weft. Illusion, artifice, hypnosis, desire, belief: this self-deconstructed masterpiece wears every glove, and turns them all inside-out as well. It’s an eternal, dazzling display.

MORE Minnelli: Brigadoon, Madame Bovary, Some Came Running, Meet Me in St Louis

© Adrian Martin August 1994 / January 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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