This weekend I had the good fortune to break in the new Criterion Blu-ray of Bigger Than Life with L.A.’s foremost family of cinema, The Goldblatts.
There is so much to discuss about Bigger Than Life that one feels the only way to say it is with a PowerPoint presentation, or at the very least, three or four dioramas, a copy of David Halberstam’s The Fifites, a brief overview of German Expressionism, Sirk, Kazan, Cinemascope, and a handful of Ann Goldblatt’s oatmeal cookies.
At once bravura and almost invisibly subtle, director Nick Ray has fused a startling number of cinematic precepts in Bigger Than Life, drawing connections between genres, styles, and states of mind with such freeform proficiency, it’s easy to forget that an ordinary director would never think to combine them, let alone succeed in doing so. In Johnny Guitar, by contrast, Ray was just as playful, and though I admire his brazen blending, in that picture, he’s overt about it in a way only Godard and his acolytes could truly love (and they do). But in Bigger Than Life, Ray’s mind is just is hot – and it never gives off steam.
Style aside, the movie has guts. To disassemble, with Ray’s level of insight and complexity, the foundation of fifties America – and here’s the best part – in the midst of fifties America, without ever once succumbing to excess, browbeating, or the narrow-minded assurance of a missionary, is a feat of sensitivity on par with his achievement in composition. Unlike Kazan, Ray never makes judgments; unlike Sirk he doesn’t deal in polarities. That’s what makes Bigger Than Life so rewarding. For all its color, it dwells in the grey.
Even today, the film’s moral ambiguity is troubling. As James Mason descends (rather, ascends) into madness, there’s a part of you that’s relieved, even a little excited to see him live. You think, maybe a little suburban nonconformity might not be so bad after all. “Don’t you get tired of the same story, over and over?” Mason asks his TV-glued son. The answer, obviously, is no (this is 1956). But at what point does nonconformity become psychosis? How much disruption is too much? Thanks to Mason’s subtle modulations, we’re always refashioning our answer – all the way to the end of the film. As Bigger Than Life eases, almost superficially, toward its resolution, one gets the sense that familial security may come again. But at what price?