The cinema of Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) can be divided into three categories in terms of genre: he made musicals, melodramas, and marriage comedies. Though the pictures in each of these camps differ from one another in tone and technique, it’s always been particularly easy for those of us who love Minnelli to unite them without doing much auteurist detective work, to discern in them the sensibilities and overarching vision of a singular artist. Minnelli’s films are extremely and exquisitely stylized – he began his professional life as a window dresser in Chicago, and this early predilection toward tasteful decoration seems to have informed his cinema a great deal. One might observe that design and décor even fuel the drama in a number of Minnelli’s films, wherein space and texture interact with action and character psychology in illuminating ways. The critic Christopher Small once remarked that he believes Minnelli was attracted to directing Father of the Bride (1950) only because he knew he’d be allowed to design and stage a full-blown wedding ceremony and reception using MGM’s money.
Another quality that marks nearly all of Minnelli’s films is their status as subjective fantasies: the Minnellian protagonist is almost always a dreamer, a fiercely imaginative figure of self-creation and artistic disruption. This is true of little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), of Manuela (Judy Garland) in The Pirate (1948), of Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) in Lust for Life (1956), and of Ella Peterson (the wonderful Judy Holliday) in Bells Are Ringing (1960), to name just a few. These characters use physical expression, which might come to us in the form of moving around, performing, throwing a tantrum, or the simple brandishing of a garment, in order to disrupt the reality of the storybook world that they’ve been placed into.
Minnellian protagonists assert themselves forcefully, and as their own self-discovery takes on the contours of theatrical performance, so too does the surrounding world become shaped and altered by their own force of subjectivity. A perfect example of this comes early on in the director’s late work The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), wherein Eddie’s emotional outburst at the death of a goldfish temporarily undercuts the preceding cutesy comedy with a sense of morbid intensity. In this way, the physical world for Minnelli is volatile, subject at any moment to being broached by character psychology. This somewhat unsettling tension between the outer world and the inner self, between spatial reality and emotional subjectivity, achieves a kind of moving and romantic apotheosis in Brigadoon (1954), one of Minnelli’s major masterpieces.
Brigadoon is one of the ultimate widescreen movies: almost the entire film plays out in long shot, with hardly any close-ups used to punctuate the emotional beats present in the script. The critic Emmanuel Burdeau reads the film as an “allegory of CinemaScope” in that it stages a kind of formal tension between the depth of the images and the frame or “framing” itself. Though Brigadoon takes place primarily outdoors, among the hilly woodlands of Scotland, the entire film was shot and created inside of an MGM studio. The Brechtian details of the proceedings, in which characters interact with one another and express their romantic stirrings amid deeply remote background space and on deliberately artificial sets, is in keeping with the film’s thematic opposition of appearances and emotions, wherein the romantic feelings of the characters are perceived as more “real” than space or time are.
Inscribed upon this strange aesthetic monument is a somewhat fable-like, mythological story that could take place anywhere in the world and at any time. The narrative follows two Americans, Tommy (Gene Kelly) and Jeff (Van Johnson), on a hunting trip in Scotland. Together they happen upon the charming and miraculous village of Brigadoon, a miniature civilization that materializes out of the mists once every one hundred years for only the duration of a single day. The ephemeral nature of Brigadoon’s temporal existence becomes problematic for Tommy in that he falls in love with the luminous Fiona (Cyd Charisse) during his visit, and his only means of remaining with her rest upon whether or not his feelings are strong enough to reject all the people and things he knows of the outside world, remaining in the village forever. Though this notion of romantic love taking on an almost spiritual dimension, or being powerful enough to supersede all else in earthly life, is a trope of classical Hollywood cinema and melodrama in particular, here it becomes fascinatingly literalized: the transitory quality of the village becomes a conceit that ritualizes love into a kind of moral quest or ceremony of sorts.
Though this concept imbues the interpersonal relationships of Brigadoon with additional levels of moral seriousness and permanence, it also becomes quite moving in relation to the themes and concerns that mark Minnelli’s entire body of work. If one observes that a Minnellian character such as Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis likes to interrupt the action that goes on around her with various performances, emotional outbursts, and morbid remarks in order to “create her own reality” in a certain way, then one might further claim that the fragile, volatile world of Brigadoon can be seen as a kind of large-scale extension or refinement of this idea. The film’s titular village is rendered into a kind of projection of Tommy’s internal romantic yearnings, an actualization of his own desired reality.
It seems to me also that one could read into this scenario a kind of commentary on artistic creation, a metaphor for the cinema: like a moviegoer, Tommy falls into an image, a projected world that materializes before him, that can never be experienced in exactly the same way twice. Minnelli, like his own characters, created worlds – visions that feel fully-formed and inhabitable in their intoxicating visual richness – but he also did much more than that. He was sensitive enough to show us that these physical worlds are never very far removed from the emotional world of the self.
Brigadoon will be screened at the IU Cinema on November 24 as part of the Sunday Matinee Classics: CinemaScope Song and Dance series.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.