Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment

Joe McElhaney (ed.),
Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment.
Detroit: Wayne State University, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8143-3307-5
US$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wayne State University Press

For a discipline which frequently stresses the importance of a historical perspective, film studies has rarely reflected on its own history. Last year we were reading Deleuze, this year we are “doing” cultural studies, and it seems way back in the dark ages that we were trying to understand Lacan (possibly while listening to Abba). New ideas are embraced eagerly, strut and fret their hour on the conference stage, then wander off unchallenged but no longer new and shiny enough for young academics looking for novel publishable material. Joe McElhaney’s anthology on Minnelli is the most valuable work I have read for some time in providing a sense of the ways critical ideas, particularly those concerning authorship, arose out of historical and theoretical contexts, and the ways they have evolved. It is an indispensable collection for anyone seeking to understand the historical development of critical studies in film.

Vincente Minnelli always represented the kind of challenge to which auteurist critics loved to rise. His work came out of a long association with a studio which was highly commercial and concerned with a diverse range of entertainment genres. Minnelli suffered the curse of being a commercially successful American director, so that he had to forego the artistic indulgence, afforded to someone like Sam Fuller, that came from working in the art cinema or the more marginal reaches of the commercial industry. On the other hand, Minnelli’s output is like the old story of the blind men feeling the elephant. It’s big and each bit seems pretty different, but he has had a finger in just about every pie served in academic film studies. There’s Fred and Gene and the musical of course, but if patriarchy, oedipus and the family melodrama is your thing, you can’t go past Home from the Hill (USA 1960). Sexualisation and gender? Have a look at Gigi (USA 1958). Issues of race and the representation of African-Americans? Cabin in the Sky (USA 1943). Queer themes? Tea and Sympathy (USA 1956) might be just your cup of tea.

McElhaney, who teaches at Hunter College, begins his anthology with an excellent introduction which lays out the contents as a kind of narrative. The articles are situated in relation to each other and to the prevailing theoretical and critical ideas of the moment. We begin our journey, of course, with Cahiers du cinéma during its heroic phase of the politique des auteurs. Minnelli was immediately recognised as a stylist, and while we owe much to the Cahiers critics in re-prioritising style, their project was to find ways of converting style into the more recognisable currency of moral and thematic evaluation. Central to this reading is the assumption that great art is produced by great artists, and that the output of great artists can be read in terms of unity. Jean Douchet lays out what was to become a surprisingly enduring master thematic for understanding Minnelli, arguing that what unifies his films is a protagonist who seeks to impose his vision, or dream, on to the world. In the musicals he succeeds (happy ending) and in the melodramas he is frustrated (unhappy ending or unsatisfactory happy ending).

In the early 1970s we see Thomas Elsaesser repeating this line but amplifying it by stressing: (a) the primary role of genre in facilitating rather than restricting, Minnelli’s thematic, (b) the self-referential turn with the idea that all great films might be seen as analogies for the process of their production, and (c) a move to post-structuralist theory with the emphasis that films should not simply be looked at as texts, but rather as psychical transactions between text and spectator.

For psychoanalytical criticism, the main game was always somewhere else other than in the surface of the film, which had to be interpreted to get at the good pathological stuff. Where the initial auteurists had read Minnelli as a stylist (mainly of décor) and tried to solve the problem of how style led to metaphysical themes, the psychoanalytic critic (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s “Minnelli and Melodrama” is included here as a useful benchmark) sees style as a mark of underlying hysteria. From within their hydraulic perspective, the play of style generates an excess to be “siphoned off” (p. 103). As many authors have reminded us, the problem with the notion of excess is that no one really knows what all this excess was in excess of, precisely. Dana Polan, in “Denial and Difference in The Band Wagon”, provides an interesting counterpoint by re-positioning style as “spectacle” (another pretty slippery term, it seems to me) which resists the essentially oedipal logic of narrative.

Andrew Britton and Robin Wood’s essays mark the way that another tradition of British analysis attempted to marry auteur criticism with Freudian hydraulics and ideological analysis via a heavily literary framework. This undercurrent of criticism explodes into all its Comp. Lit. glory with Edward Gallafent’s piece on Home From the Hill, invoking Melville (Herman, not Jean-Pierre), Faulkner, Hawthorne, James, Twain and Cooper as intertexts for the way the film grows out of, and addresses, deep cultural influences.

A pronounced change can be registered with James Naremore’s “Uptown Folk: Blackness and Entertainment in Cabin in the Sky” (originally published in 1992). Where Elsaesser, writing in 1969, had categorised the author as “a necessary fiction” (p. 82), Naremore’s piece begins a historicist revision where Minnelli is resurrected as a figure who is more than simply an effect of the text. He is situated as an individual who came out of a dense weave of influences in film, theatre, dance and the visual arts. Naremore provides a fascinating analysis of the way Cabin in the Sky was influenced by conflicting discourses surrounding African-American culture; dance historian Beth Genné traces out the influences of the ballet d’action on Minnelli’s conception of the musical, and David A. Gerstner traces the ways that Minnelli was involved with a range of people and movements associated with what might be (very) loosely described a relation to the term “queerness.”

This leads us to the final section of the book, “Minnelli Today” which picks out two trends in contemporary critical practice. The first is a move to detailed stylistic analysis, facilitated by the widespread availability of letterboxed dvds of the films, as well as dissatisfaction with the huge generalisations inherited from psychoanalytic criticism – such as Elsaesser’s claim that “the basic purpose of Minnelli’s handling of visual elements is to encourage audience identification” (p. 90).

McElhaney’s own piece, “Medium Shot Gestures: Vincente Minnelli and Some Came Running” examines the patterns of staging, cutting and composition which earlier authors have been satisfied to refer to merely as widescreen spectacle. Genné’s analysis of Minnelli’s composition and camera movement in musicals such as Yolanda and the Thief (USA 1945) has primed us for this detailed analysis, and McElhaney provides some rich material for a consideration of the stylistic work underpinning the less noticeable sequences in Minnelli’s films. It is an analysis which might have more scope if it had been placed in the context of ‘Scope i.e. the ways in which other Hollywood directors were handling the problems and opportunities of the wider aspect ratio which was not quite so new in 1958 when Minnelli shot this film.

Like so many cinephiles, McElhaney seems to be a Francophile and the final sequence of essays returns us to Jacques Rancière, Raymond Bellour, and Emmanuel Burdeau. I have to admit that I find it difficult to take anything away from this group of essays. Deleuze has perhaps restored the vogue for this type of impressionistic criticism, whose purpose is to dazzle with aphorisms as wondrous as they are generalised. Bellour approvingly cites Deleuze’s proposition that “the plurality of worlds is Minnelli’s first discovery, his very great position in cinema” (p. 407) which sounds beaut until you start to wonder what it means, and what it actually tells you about cinema. What are we to make of a passage like this from Burdeau: “the one who listens, telephones, smokes, hesitates is never an artist of anything but herself. Rather than sovereign master of her acts and gestures, she is a creature surrendering to a summons or question that resonates within” (p. 420). It sounds fabulously poetic but I’m not sure that it advances my understanding of Minnelli in any way. Raymond Bellour’s essay “Panic” is a measure of just how much has changed in the French critical landscape. Those who cut their teeth on Bellour’s shot by shot attempts to reconstruct the systematic nature of commercial cinema might be taken aback when he brands his analysis “irremediably subjective” (p. 408).

This anthology is as boldly unfashionable as it is timely. Academic interest in Minnelli’s films has tended to fluctuate with the rise and fall of interest in specific genres, particularly the musical and the melodrama. While he undoubtedly made some of the strongest films in these two genres, academia has typically needed a stronger reason to be interested in a filmmaker other than that he made good films. Joe McElhaney has provided us with an important record of many of these reasons. This is a book that I will undoubtedly use a lot when teaching a history of critical studies in the cinema.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, South Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →