May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 4, 2010
Minnelli’s Some Came Running is generally considered a melodrama because of the way it pits classy against dingy, elegant against tawdry, and pastoral against fully-orbed CinemaScope kitsch. Likewise, its production was marred by a clash motivated by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin’s disdain for Minnelli’s boorish focus on minute set details like wallpaper prints and Ferris wheel master shots. The ratpack vs. the auteur. Taken all together, these somewhat superficial clichés serve as the background for a fairly typical story of a struggling novelist’s conflicting desires.
But despite the film’s dramatic excess, Some Came Running is really interesting. And it is not just interesting as an expose of post-war changes in the American moral identity, but in the way all these wonderful set designs relate to the characters passing through them. Rivette criticized the film for forcing its characters to work “in a void, with no one watching them or listening to them from behind the camera” because their director constantly seems more interested in their setting. On the other hand, Godard paid homage to Dean Martin’s character in the film by having Piccoli wear his hat all throughout that intense chamber drama section of Le mépris. While some attribute a certain superficiality to the film because of its preference for the overly composed medium-shot, others value its ornately constructed rat-pack charm. Clearly, something is afoot.
I think the conclusion to McElhaney’s essay on the film sheds a lot of light on the subject:
“A filmmaker can invest so much creative energy in so many small details in composition, performance, and staging of action because there is an inherent belief that such details will be noticed. This kind of belief, in turn, presupposes a certain subtlety on behalf of the filmmaker who rarely underlines a facial expression or gesture through a cut or camera movement, just as it presupposes a certain subtlety on the part of the film viewer, one with an attentive eye rather than an eye in need of constant and explicit guidance. If it has become increasingly difficult for American narrative filmmakers to make this kind of cinema, and for spectators to respond to and understand it, it may be that it is not Minnelli but our own visual culture that is ‘working in a void’ with no one carefully listening or watching, either behind the camera or in front of the image.”*
In McElhaney’s take on the film, the central theoretical tension here belongs to how much the viewer is willing to invest in the wealth of set detail Minnelli plugs into every frame. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Minnelli’s background included Marshall Field window dressing, costume design, and Radio City Music Hall set creation. He wears this resume on his sleeve in Some Came Running. The attention here to color and period detail through wallpaper, décor, and overall material ambience is alluring. Though I am hesitant to compare Some Came Running to any of Tati’s deep focus essays on modern life, there is a lot of detailed society and culture going on within Minnelli’s frames.
Eventually we reach the overly composed finale, which takes place through a series of saturated main street carnival shots. It is all completely over the top, but the “attentive” viewer has been prepared. Not only is this scene the sad narrative conclusion of the film, but it brings to a head an effulgence of color and detail that Minnelli had been slowly building toward. This is CinemaScope after all, and Minnelli goes all out. I agree with McElhaney that the treasures of Minnelli are only really available to the “attentive eye.” Whatever the film’s dramatic shortcomings, Some Came Running is a captivating visual exercise.
But, is this enough? What does this kind of set or effect-oriented filmmaking mean? What kind of “visual culture” does it belong to? These are all questions pretty relevant to our current film scene.
I enjoyed watching Nolan’s recent Inception as far more exciting version of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. The existential and relational subtexts are similar. But it was yet another reminder that the technical prowess displayed in the cinema of current directors like Nolan, Fincher, Aronofsky, Jonze, etc… (feel free to add to that list) seems bound up in the same intense visuality that we see here in Some Came Running. And more often than not, I end up feeling like Rivette while watching their movies. They often become beautifully constructed voids in which the actual plight of their characters is ultimately lost, confused, or secondary to a point of artifice.
Is there a point of balance between set/technique and character that we can actually articulate? When do we know when a director has prioritized special effect over character? Feel free to help me out in the comments.
*Joe McElhaney, “Medium Shot Gestures – Vincente Minnelli and Some Came Running” in Joe McElhaney, ed., Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), 334.