Monday, February 13, 2006

Favourite Movies #3 Meet Me In St. Louis

My life has been changed twice by this movie. When I first saw it on December 22, 1989 I knew that I was seeing something truly wonderful, something that all movies that followed would have to live up to. Then again around 10 years later reading the following sentence in CD liner notes, "Garland movingly depicts the internal turmoil of a romantically minded young woman and the repressive turn-0f-the century bourgeois society around her." This interpretation of a movie I had seen dozens and dozens of time made me love Film Studies. So fun!
And the movie is, above everything, fun. Filtered through Vincente Minnelli's rose-coloured vision of the past, we're presented with a St. Louis that ought to have been but never really was. Ketchup making, house parties with square dancing, making snow people, talking on the brand-new telephone are all 1903 activities we are privy to here. The costumes are Sears catalogue perfect and set decoration crammed with details (how many busts can one family have?).
The female-dominated household's focal point is Judy Garland. She gives the performance of a lifetime (look at the inner torment she holds in during the proposal scene) and sings like never before or again. The moment at the end of "The Boy Next Door" when the lace curtain falls across her face is completely haunting. She understands the sense of nostalgia Minnelli wanted to inject into the film. Indeed for the rest of her film career there was an attempt to recapture the magic she found while at 5135 Kensington Ave.
The second female lead is Tootie, played by 7 year old Margaret O'Brien, whose intensity and obsession with death keep the film from being sacchrine. Through Tootie we are presented with the dark side of childhood, from being beat up to having to "kill" people on Halloween. The Halloween sequence can been seen as a frightening microcosm for mob mentality, with its central bonfire and grotesquely dressed children.
Minnelli really needs to be credited with creating a film that looks like a moving painting. Each shot is composed and staged so artistically that it's difficult to believe it's only his third movie. His obvious gay style ushered in a series of MGM musicals in the 1940s and 1950s that were made by a largely gay talent pool at the studio; their style and taste pulse through these films, especially in Meet Me in St. Louis. In some ways, these films can be seen as being made by gay men for gay men.

Favourite Movies #13 East of Eden

I'll preface this short review by saying that John Steinbeck's 1952 allegory is my second favourite book of all time. The movie only deals with the last third of the book but what's there is choice: from the initial haunting Leonard Rosenman theme to the final dramatic crecendo, this film has risen beyond a mere James Dean vehicle to a work of art. Unavailable for over 1o years (and a crap print at that), this 1955 film finally made its return in a deluxe DVD edition for Warners last year. Completely worth the wait, believe me. This lush pastoral symphomy captures the full wildness of California in 1917 and (inadvertantly) comments on 1955. The ultra-conservative, repressive '50s produced the ultimate rebel in Dean; his performance as Cal indeed contributed to his cult of wildness. He's as wild and unkempt as the flower brushed across his lips by Julie Harris, who is modulated and exciting as Abra. There are two moments that stay with me from the film: said flower scene taking place in a field of blowing goldenrod that simply fills the Cinemascope screen; and, in an electrifyingly Oedipal frenzy, Cal hurling good brother Aron in the lap of their prostitute mother. Jo Van Fleet is not as menacingly evil a Kate as Steinbeck created; despite the fact that she took home an Oscar, I would've liked to see her bare her teeth a little. Perhaps she's no match for Dean's rawness? Perhaps no one could be?
This film is the perfect example of one that I had to "come around" to. First seeing it over 10 years ago left no impression; seeing it again as an adult makes me fully appreciate the forces at work here. Forces like Dean, Harris, cinematographer Ted McCord, and of course John Steinbeck. For all of these reasons I will always come back to this movie.