Friday, 6 February 2009

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicolas Ray, 1956)

My first screening at the cinematheque in a very long time (shame on me) was Wednesday night with Nicolas Ray's 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life. The print was quite good and the theatre was full, making for an ideal viewing experience. This is in stark contrast to my first viewing of the film, which was a VHS copy of a TCM broadcast.

I remembered very little about the early scenes, in fact just about everything up until the last half. This is no doubt because I was first exposed to the film in clips from Martin Scorsese's 1995 American cinema documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Scorsese uses Ray as an example of the director as "smuggler":

"Like Douglas Sirk, Nicolas Ray offered both the American family in suburbia and the psychotic undercurrents, the conventions and the contradictions, the sugar and the poison."

Scorsese emphasizes the poison, the ways in which the lead character, under the influence of cortisone, rebels against his dull, middle-class existence. But what is interesting about the film is how all the parts fit together, as well as the form of rebellion the character Ed Avery takes. Ed's breakdown is caused, the film implies, by overwork and the need to take two jobs to support his family's middle-class lifestyle. His wife believes he is having an affair, and Ray certainly implies that Ed would perhaps like an affair with his attractive co-worker. However, he doesn't have the time. Instead, he spends his nights as a taxi dispatcher, trapped in a modern equivalent of a call center. Ray sets up the audience, through this first act, to sympathize with Ed and understand the rebellion against this society that his cortizone addiction allows him to express. However, I think Ray is smarter than simply identifying with this character.

If one considers Ed's new philosophy carefully, it is clearly diametrically opposed to anything the leftist-anarchist Ray would actually endorse. Ed turns into a fascist, and while Ray encourages a certain identification with the criticism of the small-minded community in which he is trapped, Ed's rantings are that of a totalitarian madman. This to me is Ray's larger point. Not only has the American society of the 1950s trapped Ed in his routinized, quite literally deadening existence, but it has created even more demonic (if at the same time alluring) fantasies (or delusions) of grandeur.

Before an appropriately awkward finale at Ed's hospital bed, there occurs a fight between Ed and his friend Wally that results in the destruction of the bourgeois home. It allows for one of Ray's typically striking and genuinely odd compositions in which a jagged piece of railing figures prominently in the foreground. It provides an apt metaphor for this profoundly pessimistic film. Even the stripping away of social repression is dangerous in a world that can only imagined more grotesque, patriarchal alternatives.

A clip from the film is available here, featuring one of Ray's (and Hollywood's) greatest shots.

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