Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Art of Joe McElhaney

If I want to single out one book, among what's been written so far, on cinema of Vincente Minnelli, my choice, without any doubt, would be Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, edited by Joe McElhaney. Jonathan Rosenbaum gives a good set of reasons why this book is important, which can be read here.

Mr. McElhaney, an associate professor in the Film and Media Studies at Hunter College, has brought together every imaginable name in the Minnelli's realm, under one colorful roof to map the critical changes in the reading of Minnelli's cinema since 1960s.

Interestingly, McElhaney's meticulous selection not only portrays the transition from auteur studies to more recent ones (including "exclusive" essays by Adrian Martin, Carlos Losilla and others), also each essay and chapter independently gives the utmost pleasure in rediscovering Minnelli as a filmmaker, without necessarily being read in a chronological order.

The Art of Entertainment is not McElhaney's first illuminating effort to bring Minnelli back under the spotlight. Not long before The Art of Entertainment, he wrote The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli, in which a whole chapter was dedicated to Minnelli, or more precisely, to one Minnelli film: Two Weeks in Another Town.

If Jean Douchet's criticism of Two Weeks in Another Town is the "most eccentric," as Joe McElhaney puts it, then Joe's defense and close reading of the film is, by far, the most thought-provoking analytical piece ever written on this neglected Minnelli's masterwork. I remember my first viewing of the film wasn't so successful either. It was a pan-scan broadcast on TCM, and there was hardly any pleasure in watching a mutilated sequel to the flawless The Bad and the Beautiful. Joe recognizes such problematic status in viewing the film, but he manages to see the importance of the film in this very peculiar difficulty:

"At 107 minutes, it is shorter than any of the Minnelli melodramas preceding it, several of which run approximately two and a half hours. Perhaps as a result of the studio’s interference, Two Weeks does not have the precise, stately rhythm and structure of Minnelli’s later melodramas. If this makes for a sometimes awkward viewing experience, it also gives the film its distinction, as though the crisis it is attempting to dramatize cannot be encompassed fully within the forms it is employing. [And]  the film was on Godard’s Ten Best list for Cahiers in 1963 and placed twenty-first in the magazine’s critics poll for that year, tying with Godard’s own Le Petit soldat (1960). In Movie, Paul Mayersberg’s essay on the film was titled “The Testament of Vincente Minnelli.” For Mayersberg, the film was a “personal statement” about the process of filmmaking, comparable to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Renoir’s The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, and Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse...Peter Bogdanovich’s review in Film Culture declared that Two Weeks was “the ballsiest, the most vibrant picture [Minnelli] has signed.”

As a film about the creative impotence of filmmaking, Two Weeks emerges on the international scene one year before two other cinematic works that also deal with this matter: Godard’s Contempt and Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). In comparison with these two films, Two Weeks might seem like a minor exercise in metacinema. But as I will argue, Two Weeks in Another Town has its own kind of integrity and interest. If Minnelli’s film lacks some of the assurance of these other modernist works, if it does not pursue certain issues in the same manner, it also addresses issues that these other films avoid. While Hollywood had been making films about its own working environment for almost as long as it had been in existence, these films had largely concerned themselves with presenting Hollywood as an occasionally troubled but largely regenerative community devoted to principles of hard work and self-sacrifice for the sake of the benevolent production of entertainment."

The Art of Entertainment can be purchased here, and Two Weeks in Another Town will be screened on 21 May 21:00, 23 May 20:45, and finally 25 May 18:15 at BFI Southbank, London.

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