Monday, November 26, 2007

The Glory That Was Minnelli ... The Genius That Was Allen ...

On Film Forever

Vincente Minnelli’s Bandwagon makes color look as beautiful as black and white. This has to be, sorry Gene Kelly, my favorite movie musical. Fabulous Schwartz & Dietz songs from start to finish. Superb comedy from Jack Buchanan, as theatrical a performer as ever there was. Effortless perfection from Astaire and Charisse, their “Dancing in the Dark” a masterpiece of controlled choreography second only, in my opinion, to Gene Kelly’s signature song and dance exhuberation in Singing in the Rain.

Director Minnelli (among his credits, Father of the Bride, Gigi) turned his masterfully-paced Bandwagon into pure cinematic gold. We are not watching a movie. We are inhabiting it. Surrounded, encased and embraced at every frame by the colors and stage pictures of an extraordinary artist. That was what Hollywood once gave us; pure enchantment, yes, as pure as was stark black and white to film noir classics.

Bandwagon came out in 1953. Did American culture peak about then? Let’s see, Tennessee Williams turning out his best work on Broadway. Leonard Bernstein using television to teach kids how to appreciate classical music. Lucy amusing millions on Monday nights. Rod Serling thinking up a new show called "The Twilight Zone." Richard Rodgers scoring a brilliant tv documentary about world war II, "Victory at Sea;" Rodgers and Hammerstein riding high. So, too, John Ringling North.

Minnelli should have directed a circus for North.

Woody Allen’s prime came later, and surely it began with the 1969 hit Take the Money and Run. Watching it the other night on TCM, I was reminded of how ingenuously funny this man once was. How almost alone he reigned for a spell in his inventive genius. I remember standing in lines outside Bay Area movies houses to see his work, before he retreated into redundancy and protracted adolescent infatuations, before he got too much artistic freedom and listened to the wrong people or critics and lost it. There is a new book out on Allen, who, according to a New York Times review, seems not to understand what made his most popular films so good, who prefers pointing to his recently acclaimed MatchPoint , a quite compelling film -- until it falls apart before the final frame. Of recent Allen efforts, only Sweet and Lowdown truly impressed me.

Woody Allen used to make great movies. Either he does not realize or is unwilling to admit that his comedic flair for quirky surprise humor is what set him apart from the others. If only he could muster the will to joke his way back before he becomes irretrievably lost in vanity land.

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