Sunday, May 9, 2010

#507: Bigger Than Life

(Nicholas Ray, 1956)

There is probably no better introduction to the power of the auteur theory than Criterion's catalog, and Bigger Than Life is a perfect example. Created in the heart of the 1950s, the supposed golden era of the middle class, the film is right in line with director Nicholas Ray's other masterpieces, thematically speaking, the anti-Western Johnny Guitar and the dark exploration of the masculine archetype, In a Lonely Place. And, of course, it's the perfect companion piece to Ray's most famous (and, in my opinion, fairly overrated) film, Rebel Without a Cause.

But Bigger Than Life might be the most subversive of all of them, a suburban horror film that could easily be seen as a nightmare anti-drug parable for the tract-housing set, but is instead an angry, horrifying deconstruction of the American dream. The film has flashes of Sirk in the way that it toys with darkness under the veneer (and certainly the way Ray plays with color here is just as impressive as Sirk's best work), but it owes most of its visual style to noir and even German expressionism. That shot on the cover comes from one of the most terrifying scenes in the movie, where Mason's paranoia and megalomania have made him a totalitarian dictator in his house, lording over his son as he forces him to be better, faster, stronger. When Mason leaves the room, Rush runs to give the boy a glass of milk, then quickly hides the glass from her husband. It's a moment of motherly concern pushed into big-screen territory (and terror) by the looming threat of a patriarch unhinged.

The movie flirts with camp, too, though part of that is inevitably the wink wink way in which the film attempts to shove such powerful and subversive themes into a commercial and melodramatic framework. The moments in which Mason slowly shifts from loving and restrained father into raging, roided maniac tilt towards the ridiculous, but the film is saved by its quiet confidence that this movie is not about drug addiction or abuse or even really the dangers of giving in to pleasure or receding from pain, like so many misguided anti-drug films. It's about us, instead, and our struggle to fit within the boundaries of American freedom.

I'd never seen or even heard of this film before Criterion announced its release (it had never been released on VHS or DVD), and once again I am thankful for the opportunity to see what actually might be my favorite Ray film. But it also makes me want to go back and see his other films and how they fit into the vision this film puts forward. Like the great filmmakers in Criterion's catalog, Bergman, Godard, Melville, Hitchcock, Ray makes films with a specific viewpoint that makes all of his films richer when viewed in the context of the whole.

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