Thursday, 10 May 2012

All Girls Are Called Niña

In 1946 a campy version of the Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith, 1919) provided the material for a number in Vincente Minnelli's The Ziegfeld Follies, in which a setting of a London Street, standing on one of the sound stages which had been used in The Picture of Dorian Gray, becomes the set for the new musical. [1]

Up to this point, Minnelli was constantly referring to cinema in his films, but from this particular number on, it seems as if he is taking the liberty in directly quoting other films. His next musical project, The Pirate (1948), is another homage, this time to the Swashbuckler films of silent cinema, or precisely, what Minnelli envisioned of Douglas Fairbanks gymnastics and John Barrymore canned ham.[2]
Amazingly, in terms of space, The Pirate represents minimum of setting and the story merely takes place in a small plaza of a Martinique town and the house next to the plaza, where the 'girl' lives. Manuela (Garland), engaged to the rich mayor of town, dreams about the legendary pirate Macoco. Serafin (Kelly), a traveling singer falls in love with her and to impress her he poses as the pirate. Manuela falls for him, without acknowledging that real Macoco is her fat, boring fiancé.

When a someone asks Serafin why he calls all the girls Niña, he answers “in the world with so many girls’ names I find it very confusing. So I've simplified things.” Here, Minnelli, following the motto of his protagonist gives a minimal version of his vast theatrical universe by reducing every scene to its essential elements, and he puts less emphasis on dancing and singing than on the world that dance and theater can create together. [3]

Later, Manuela assures her aunt that she can distinguish the dream world from the practical world, and indeed she does. But then she chooses to act and play, to get on the stage and perform her sexuality. In such mode of self-awareness, space around her transfers along with her transformation, and sets from the neatly furnished, lightly ornamented architecture convert to a small, modest stage in which Minnelli’s protagonists sing ‘Be a Clown.’

Serge Daney summarizes this change of attitude and space as an essential characteristic of Minnelli’s cinema, by saying that a dream is the only truth because it is a décor: “One might even say that [décor] is the only concrete thing in the world, much more so than words. Manuela is ready to “sacrifice” herself to save the decor of the little Caribbean town 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.” [4]

In The Pirate, the spatial representation is so eclectic that it is almost impossible to give an accurate description of what’s in the film: all characters are intentionally flamboyant; cosmopolitan influences from East Indian, Chinese, and European of Martinique in the 1830s materializes this pastiche in which transforming the elements of Braque and Picasso sketches into magnificent costumes easily happens; A 19th century Caribbean room is furnished by painter Vermeer and a woman, right out of a Manet's painting lounges against a pillar in the port town.[5][6]  

But accordingly, this eclecticism and the transgressive representation of gender and masculinity provide an arena for installing camp aesthetics within the film. Interestingly, Minnelli in his memoir brings up the issue for the first time, and uses the word camp to describe his achievements in the film: “It was great camp, an element that hadn't been intentionally used in films up to now.”[7]   

Minnelli transforms the streets and skyline to an emotional collage, in which diverse fragments of daily existence are mingled to achieve a new ‘filmic’ expression and representation of reality.[8] The absence of human scales in the city turns the place into a vast stage in which director’s fascination with motion and colour concludes in the creating a space for collective dreaming. As Helmut Weihsmann puts it, all the unlimited possibilities of the cinematic apparatus and its technology are allowed to interfere, construct and change the face of the cinematic city.[9]

Therefore, The Pirate stands out as an “ultimate celebration of illusionism” and the “triumph of the theatrical imagination released in Manuela by Serafin over the antiquated social system of the town.”[10] And its power comes from its ability to transport the audience into a new universe, where it can experience delight and danger in an unexpected but convincing and above all emotionally resonant environment.[11]

[1] Minnelli, Vincente, I Remember It Well, I remember, Doubleday, 1974. pp. 142-143.
[2] Ibid, pp. 164-178.
[3] Braudy, Leo, The World in Frame: What We See in Films, University of Chicago Press, 1976. p. 153.
[4] Serge Daney
[5] Minnelli, 1974. pp. 178-179.
[6] Siegel, Joel, “The Musicals”, Film Heritage, Fall 1971. p. 184.
[7] Minnelli, 1974. pp. 164-178.
[8] Weihsmann, Helmut, “The City in Twilight: Charting the Genre of the City Film, 1900-1930”, Cinema & Architecture: Melies, Mallet-Stevens, Multimedia, edited by Francois Penz and Maureen Thomas, British Film Institute, 1997. pp.21-22.
[9] Ibid, p. 22.
[10] Feuer, Jane, The Hollywood Musical, British Film Institute, 1993. p. 83.
[11] Hobbs, Christopher, “Film Architecture: The Imagination of Lies”, Cinema & Architecture, British Film Institute, 1997. P. 172.

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