Tag Archives: nicholas ray

Bigger Than Life

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?

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Blahteurs in Love

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes split. Without Conrad Hall or Roger Deakins, there’s no way Mendes could make anything work.

Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)

American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!

Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.

Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)

Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.

And brilliant.

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Mitchum on Writing and Directing

Graham Fuller: Did you ever have the urge to direct a movie yourself?

Robert Mitchum: No. I’ve never had the urge to be an analyst or a stunt pilot either. (a) You have to get there in the morning before the actors do; (b) you have to stay there until they’re gone; (c) you have to wrangle with the producer and the front office; (d) you have to sit in a darkened room and watch the film frame by frame by frame. You can hire an albino to do that.

GF: Did people ever approach you to direct?

RM: Yeah.

GF: You just didn’t fancy it?

RM: No.

GF: But you wrote scenes in the movie occasionally. I’m thinking particularly of Macao [1952], the Josef von Sternberg movie that Nicholas Ray took over.

RM: I was pretty well compromised, wasn’t I? I walked in there and Nick and Jane [Russell] handed me a pad of paper and some pencils. That was it. I went to the dressing room and I wrote in the morning, and then we had it typed up and we shot it in the afternoon.

GF: Did you ever want to have a career as a writer?

RM: I wrote special material for night-club performers and I had worked as a junior writer at Warner Bros. Writing is a very lonely proposition. Every time I submit something, I would hand it in and run because I didn’t want to be around when the criticism came.