Wednesday, April 29, 2009
As Trek fever begins to grip this fanboy's soul (Star Trek returns next week), it is easy to consider the qualities that the sci-fi and musical genres have in common. For me, both serve as transportive experiences, escapism that allows you to leave daily life behind and travel to fabricated worlds where design and color take on a greater importance. Vincente Minnelli innovated in the musical genre by leaving behind the stage-bound Busby Berkeley-style show musicals or Astaire & Rogers-style dance musicals. Minnelli created worlds in which a man could walk down the street (more likely a backlot) and suddenly break into song. Technicolor would become as prominent a character in his films as any of the leads. Two of his musicals were recently released on Blu-ray: An American in Paris, which shows us the possibilities that can be explored in the genre; and Gigi, which demonstrates the genre's limits. As I've said before, the existence of Blu-ray is justified not by how it displays contemporary films, but because of the enhancement it gives to a remastered piece of classic cinema. Both films have beautiful, crisp pictures, that reveal tonal variations in the bright saturated colors that were never apparent in their original DVD releases. This is particularly surprising in the context of the heightened artifice of An American in Paris which was confined to the backlot for much of its shoot. In the film's climax, the paintings of French Impressionists Dufy, Manet, Van Gogh, etc., come to life during Gene Kelly's splendid ballet interpretation of George Gershwin's titular composition. An American in Paris is also a testament to the collaborative forces that shape a film. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Gene Kelly's contribution as a co-director to Minnelli. Minnelli may have guided the formal aspects of the cinematography and staging, but it is Kelly's choreography during the movie's many dance numbers that truly elevate this Oscar-winner to the level of a classic. Perhaps influenced by Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), with its 15-minute ballet sequence, Kelly was determined to include his 18-minute ballet sequence that is the undisputed highlight of the film. The additional 3 minutes, though a by-product of Gershwin's composition, probably satisfied Kelly's competitive streak, discussed further in a wonderful episode of PBS's American Masters included on the Blu-ray. Kelly's discovery, Leslie Caron, the ingénue of An American in Paris, went on to star for Minnelli in Gigi, also a musical, also set in Paris. But the effect here could not be more different than in Minnelli's previous film. Where the earlier film's scope seems limitless despite its shoot being confined to a backlot and soundstages, Gigi seems limited by its decision to shoot on location. I guess to justify production value, the actors are often upstaged by the Paris setting because of the decision to frame in favor of the appealing locations, as seen below. There are also some unintended laughs delivered by the otherwise delightful Maurice Chevalier as Honoré Lachaille. When he sings "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," its hard to suppress the darker connotations the lyrics have (specifically because it's sung by a rather old man) in modern society. And it's hard to ignore the misogyny inherent in his conversations with his nephew, Gaston (Louis Jordan). At one point, Honoré congratulates him for provoking his first attempted suicide, a reference to Gaston's mistress and her response to their break-up. Still, the Blu-ray contains a fascinating extra, the 1949 French version of Gigi, a nonmusical also based on Colette's novel.