"How a man lives": Robert Mitchum in Home from the Hill (dir. Vincente Minelli, 1960).
George Peppard and Luana Patten.
They don't make them like this anymore. Specifically, the grand genre of Hollywood melodrama is all but extinct, at least in its pure form, although there are decadent vestiges of it in things like As Good as It Gets, The Ice Storm, or even a mess like Crash (Haggis, not Cronenberg). Spike Lee and David Lynch, to name just a couple, still pay visual and structural homage to the genre here and there. Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven is a loving facsimile of high Sirkian melodrama, but in such a self-consciously conspicuous manner that it only reinforces my point: that the genre can exist fully now only as pastiche. It's not just that the codes and conventions of the form now convert instantly into irony; that irony was always there, generating much of the beguiling tension that thrummed beneath the exaggerated color and statuesque human posturings. Part of the irony of the irony then was that the picture would still make hearts swell and break whether the irony were missed or not. Now if it is missed, the drama falls flat, and if it is caught, the drama either falls flat or wasn't meant to stand up in the first place. We have not, in truth, grown more ironic as a culture; we have stopped learning how to integrate our irony with other modes of consciousness. When we single something out as "ironic" now, it often means either that we are being lazy in not accounting more inclusively for the strangely mediated pathos to which we are responding, or--perhaps, sadly, more frequently--that a flat, simplistic travesty of irony is all there is to respond to.
Minelli's luxuriously blighted saga of the Hunnicutt family is brimming with irony, but it is an irony that never hardens into self-negation. Nor does it overwhelm its characters with what is, up to a point, its earnest contempt for their surface glamor and carnality. Robert Mitchum's Wade Hunnicutt is a swaggering, callous rogue, a cheater and neglecter, a bloodthirsty feudal throwback. His lust for life and even love is a sort of grace, but not really a saving one. In the end, we feel close to him without admiring or respecting him. Similarly, his two sons--one (Theron, played by George Hamilton) legitimate and acknowledged but plagued by self-doubt, the other (Rafael or Rafe, played by George Peppard) a bastard swept under the rug but possessed of ambition and vitality--are just out of the reach of our affections. Each is likeable in his own way, but not fully loveable: they are too neurotic, too chained to the repressed agon of their origins. Wade's wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) has been sexually and emotionally unavailable to him for years, nursing an unwavering resentment of his infidelity. Her passive resistance to his demands for warmth reads at first as frigidity, and her closeness to Theron as manipulative and smothering, but these stereotypical qualities are gradually revealed as surface tics. Theron (the name itself is ironic, at least at first--he starts off as anything but a "wild beast") falls in love with young Libby Halsted (Luana Patten), and for a short time becomes confident in himself as a man, but the weight of his family history intrudes, and Rafe must become his surrogate. It's complicated, as they say on Facebook. But what marks all this as hardcore melodrama is not the convoluted and grotesque web of troubled relationships per se. It is an implied attitude toward these travails, a mood of fatalistic lyricism. The objective correlative to this mood, here as in all great cinematic melodrama, is distributed across the entire mise en scene of the production. It is in the set decor, the lighting, the music, the near-absurdly rich color, the almost exaggeratedly elegant composition in the frame. Life, this look and feel seems to say, is the grandest and most sweeping of hollow spectacles. Its sorrows and sweetnesses are all the sharper for being so easily mocked.
Labels: Vincente Minelli