Sunday, March 08, 2009


Originally, and in keeping with my pledge to spend less time here researching and writing, I was only going to humorously point out that, in a routine trip to a book store earlier today, I came across a book titled Vincente Minnelli: The Art Of Entertainment, and thought it might be amusing to use it as a warning that it could result in even more pieces around here about Minnelli, surely the filmmaker I've written about the most.

But, hey, surprise, this is in fact going to turn into another long piece about Minnelli. Once I brought the book, a collection of essays edited by Joe McElhaney, home and examined its contents, I began to fear the worst. Though individual essays cover a refreshingly wide range of topics (including Two Weeks In Another Town, one of the director's most underrated efforts), too many pieces bear titles like The Ambiguities or The Pirate Isn't Just Decor or, most obviously, Queer Modernism: The Cinematic Aesthetic Of Vincente Minnelli.

In other words, he remains doomed to be treated as he so often has been: as a director of flamboyant style, with "flamboyance" intended as a code word for "homosexuality". Yes, Minnelli was known to keep company with men, though it should be pointed out that he was married (to women) four times and had two kids, both of which strongly resembled him, so he could get it up in the company of women. And as far as his obsession with aesthetics being some sort of gay signifier--when does a distinctive (and yes, flamboyant) visual style determine a person's sexuality?

I mention this in part because so many filmmakers of note have a flashy visual style--think Michael Bay or Tony Scott--but never seem to get called on it. But in Minnelli's case, he most frequently tailors his style to the material. And a careful reading of just one of his films can oproduce rather surprising results.

By sheer coincidence, I spent yesterday afternoon watching Some Came Running, Minnelli's 1958 melodrama that would probably be more accurately termed a film noir if any other director had made it. And what was interesting was how mostly straightforward most of it is--he favors long takes and relatively little camera movement. True, the decor is often used to delineate character, but that's less a sign of queer aesthetics and more the work of a meticulous filmmaker doing his job.

In fact, the director I was most reminded of when watching Some Came Running was Howard Hawks, who seldom finds his work discussed through the prism of his sexuality. But like Hawks, Minnelli in this film used the camera as unobtrusively as possible, as a recording instrument for the work of his fine cast (and let's pause for a moment to single out Dean Martin's career-best performance), as a way of telling a story.

Well, mostly. The movie does feature a number of somewhat self-conscious setpieces, most notably its famous climax. Spoiler alert for this scene if you haven't seen it, but I wanted to include it to make a point.

Many critics, even approving ones, have tended to view this sequence as Minnelli using the stylistic mannerisms of his famous musicals in service of melodrama--gaying it up, in other words--but that seems way too simplistic. Minnelli himself claimed he intended this sequence to resemble the inside of a jukebox, to be as tawdry and colorful as the characters it depicts. The jukebox aesthetic was something George Lucas famously (and quite successfully) utilized in American Graffiti, but everyone takes its visuals at face value; nobody ever speaks of Lucas' queer aesthetic.

But there's another director even more in Minnelli's thrall, I think.

That was the trailer for Mario Bava picture known in English as Blood And Black Lace, and the movie is like a playbook of Minnelli tropes, from the deep blues and canary yellows to the use of settings to define characters to the heavily symbolic mirrors and curtains. I don't know if Bava ever claimed Minnelli as an influence, but I have no doubt he was familiar with that sequence from Some Came Running, as well as the Limehouse Blues sequence from Ziegfeld Follies.

But nobody ever reduces Bava to his sexuality. He stuffed his movies with nothing but flamboyant stylistic tics, but because he worked primarily in the horror genre, nobody ever describes his work as gay. It comes down to that, doesn't it? Minnelli mostly made musicals, so his vision is gay by definition. But again, look at those scenes from Blood And Black Lace--if we're going to use aesthete as a synonym for homosexual, Bava must surely be a member of the club, and so must his followers.

I mention all this, I guess, because so many of the things that mean the most to me (like, well, many of Vincente Minnelli's films) have so long been considered "gay" while so many other things I love (like Sergio Leone's westerns) have been regarded as not only solidly hetero but downright manly. But come on! You don't have to look too closely at Leone's films before the fetishistic wardrobe choices and ritualist encounters between sweaty men take on a certain, um, subtext. In other words, you can find reservoirs of meaning anywhere you want, once you go looking. Or you can just enjoy the experience, and not worry about the significance.

On the other hand, my favorite Minnelli picture is The Pirate, and even I must admit, it's kinda gay.