Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Pirate Isn't Just Decor [repost]

"In what kind of setting is the little image of the great Pirate (1948) lodged, with the signature luxury of its MGM sets that dazzled when their reds glowed, unrivaled, within the huge images being projected in a darkened theater?

And here comes the answer: What difference does it make, since The Pirate and its sets hold up splendidly? Because what they've lost in store-window impact they’ve gained in pure logic. Because, quite simply, this is not a “decorative” film. That’s the decisive point. For if there is a type of film that loses its aura by being deported to the small screen, it’s the decorative film, one that risks being less accomplished in matters of decor than the “interior” is seen. That confrontation, while unconscious, can be quite cruel.

Contrary to what one might think (or retrospectively hallucinate), when The Pirate was made, American musical comedy didn’t seek to expand space or open transversed lines of flight within the image. It was satisfied with the square screen. If Serafin (Gene Kelly) wants to conquer anything, it’s the vertical space of the flies, the crow’s nest, or the gallows that threaten him. Dreams and bodies soar, spin around one another, approach without touching, and accumulate without promiscuity, never cramped for space in a frame they have not yet begun to contest. The dream is a flight that never leaves home, one that transports its decor on the back of its images wherever it goes!

Minnelli’s characters always lie and never stop dreaming. A dream is the only truth because it is a decor, and one can fight in and for a decor. One might even say that it’s the only concrete thing in the world, much more so than words. Manuela (Judy Garland) is ready to “sacrifice” herself to save the decor of the little Caribbean town of Calvados and adapt it to her dream. But more than that is required: One must inhabit a decor, animate it with one’s dances and trances, bring it to life. The decor is, in the most moral sense imaginable, a “value," and like any value it is always to be conquered and never really won.

Which is why a Minnelli decor is different from that of other filmmakers. Cinema for a long time had no fear of overpopulated stages and images, knew how to make Judy Garland and Gene Kelly move without ever bumping into each other. When that does happen it’s a sign that they’re losing their footing, and that their power to dream has been diminished. It’s at the moment when Serafin, unmasked, is speechless before Manuela, who is beside herself, that, very discretely, he bumps into a humble chair. Kelly’s talent is knowing how to do this elegantly. It lasts a second and is very beautiful."
-- Serge Daney (October 15, 1988)


  1. Thanks for making this online, and for others you will publish in this series.