Movies 101: Welles vs. Minnelli

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

      Movies 101: Welles vs. Minnelli The DVD release of Gigi and Touch of Evil revive bitter movie disputes  

      TWO NEW DVD releases—Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (Universal) and Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (Warner Brothers)—revive the controversial movie year 1958. It was a year that divided movie lovers from cinephiles, the Motion Picture Academy from critics, scholars from audiences.Those old arguments stretch to the present, compelling us to re-learn movie history and re-examine aesthetics that are handed down or that we construct for our own betterment.Thus, Movies 101. It’s not so simple to crown one movie the best of a year that featured several landmarks—Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristese, Frank Borzage’s China Doll, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo— which just recently became that year’s consensus “masterpiece” for wannabe cognoscenti.

    Re-visiting Touch of Evil and Gigi poses the strongest American challenge.Welles’ film comes in a three-disc box of confusion.The original theatrical version is finally available, after decades of thrilling movie lovers who defended its virtues against critics’ dismissal. But that masterpiece comes squeezed in with two competing variations: a preview version of Welles’ cut before studio alterations and a ruinous restored version.

    Untold damage was done to cinema history when Bay Area scalawag Walter Murch (Oscar-winning editor of The English Patient) supervised a Touch of Evil redux that destroyed Welles’ legendary opening shot. Murch and associates tampered with the music score and removed the credit graphics that excised the dynamism of Welles’ Hollywood pop art. That sequence (discussed in Altman’s The Player, endlessly imitated by Scorsese and De Palma) was rendered long—and dull— with none of the modernist friction for which Welles has yet to receive sufficient credit. Instead, contemporary scholars spuriously claim that the restored version honors Welles’ intentions. Fact is, they’ve meddled with art history and made banal one of the most exciting sequences ever set before the public. (It represented the nexus of artistic inspiration and industry smarts.) An outrageous cinematic crime, flaunting intellectual pomposity over the miracle of art, is now recompensed.The theatrical Touch of Evil has been brought back from oblivion.

    Gigi has suffered a similar infamy due to critical snobbery that denies Minnelli’s greatness. The new DVD transfer isn’t a significant improvement (it’s most notable for including the 1949 French drama version of Colette’s original story on a second disc) yet Gigi remains a masterwork.

    Critic John Demetry has called it “The Lawrence of Arabia of musicals”  

    which fits Minnelli’s cinemascope compositions and the extraordinary deep-focus of Joseph Ruttenberg’s camerawork. Studying Minnelli’s unsurpassed expression of character through setting can start here. The opening Bois du Boulogne sequence evokes Proust, raising the stakes of a musical about a girl (Leslie Caron) being trained as a courtesan. Cecil Beaton’s triumphant art direction and costuming convey details of sexual and social pretense. Minnelli not only suggests Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grand Jatte brought-to-life but also inspires in viewers an appreciation that bridges high-art sophistication and pop excitement. (His Maxim sequences are feasts of color—the big screen is definitely the best place for Gigi.) No less than Welles or Hitchcock, Minnelli asserts cinema as a limitless, hybrid art form. By favoring Gigi, the Motion Picture Academy did not insult Touch of Evil or Vertigo but picked a worthy contender—the best default choice since How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane. Gigi seriously challenges any official canon.

    Also canon-busting is Criterion’s new DVD of Carl Dreyer’s genre-defying 1932 Vampyr. Calling it a vampire movie doesn’t account for the mystery of spirituality and temperature that Dreyer achieved. The brief narrative of a man (Julien West) surrounded by fear has a haunting effect far beyond its 73-minute running time. Sound and visual impressions permeate your consciousness. It’s one of the few movies to actually change the medium’s potential as in the famous “impossible” (coffin) perspective and an avant-garde nod to Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat. Dreyer brings the supernatural down to earth.

    There almost unbelievable beauty in Luchino Visconti’s 1973 Ludwig—never properly released in the States until now. Koch Entertainment’s two-disc, threehour version confirms the sumptuousness of Visconti’s uniquely structured biopic.

    (Warren Beatty copied its interview format for Reds.) Helmut Berger plays the Mad King of Bavaria, commissioning Trevor Howard’s obstinate Richard Wagner—a story recalling Dreyer’s Mikael but with Visconti’s opera acumen.This look at unorthodox creativity and sexual transference was a mammoth endeavor from Visconti’s most overlooked yet awe-inspiring period. It’s a rare case where scholarly restoration is justified.

    Finally, Paramount’s new DVD transfer of The Godfather trilogy is superfluous. But it must be stressed that the continued dismissal of Coppola’s Third Opus—omitted from theatrical presentations—not only diminishes the whole but all who go along with it.