Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vincent Minnelli: Brigadoon

Another charming and criticism-proof musical from Vincent Minnelli. To find faults in this film is to not get the film at the most fundamental level. I thought it was less successful artistically than the two other musicals by Minnelli that I saw recently. The dances aren't as elegantly choreographed and also not as expressive or witty as in The Bandwagon (the "dancing in the dark" sequence or the "girl hunt ballet") and the songs never quite make you feel bursting into singing yourself as the songs in Meet Me in St Louis do (I am still humming "the trolley song" two weeks after I saw it).

Wikipedia tells me that Brigadoon was originally a German fairy tale but apparently so that the post-war audiences wouldn't be offended the guys who wrote the stage musical based on the story changed the setting to Scotland. It made sense because in popular culture at least Scotland has this image of being a very idyllic, rustic place where people speak in strange accents and use very curious sounding words and phrases. Two tourists (played by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson as his wisecracking buddy) from New York City no less, go on a hunting expedition to Scotland and get lost. While wandering through the forest on the highlands they come across the village Brigadoon which is not on the map. As they later learn the village comes to life only once in hundred years and only for one day. Things happen, as they do in fairy tales, very quickly (love at first sight etc). Gene Kelly falls in love with a pretty Scottish lass played by the beautiful Cyd Chariss (who died a few months back). But at the end of the day our hero can't quite make up his mind to live in Brigadoon forever and returns to the dreary New York City with its dull, phony, noisy and materialistic life. But as everybody knows the power of true love can never be underestimated even when it comes to miracles so the film ends on a happy surprise note.

I don't think there can be any argument that the isolationist fantasy presented in the film is deeply reactionary. People in Brigadoon believe in the superiority of their own ways of life and they don't want anything to do with the outside world and they are happy and smug about their isolation. When one of them wants to escape he is condemned not just because it will spell the doom for everyone but because he is not able to see possibility of happiness in Brigadoon's culture and beliefs. The other part of the story - that one has to suspend rational judgments and be willing to believe in miracles doesn't trouble me because it can be interpreted metaphorically and this is exactly what makes great fairy tales so resonant, even "poetic" in their effect, if not in their execution or storytelling. I also loved the New York City sequence. It very succintly and powerfully showed how empty such lives really are (though I would say that for me life in Brigadoon would be a little dreary too).

The songs are quite good here as well though not the same as Meet Me in St Louis. I loved the "Waiting for my dearie" song in which Cyd Charisse sings about how she would rather remain an old maid than get married to someone who is not her true love. One feels like resisting such unbridled display of naivete, romanticism and hope but can't help getting swayed by the overall effect. Two other songs "Go Home with Bonnie Jean" and "Heather on the Hill" are also quite good and later also has some good romantic dancing. The Scotland of course is not the real Scotland but created on the sets. I doubt if the real Scotland looks like the one presented here but that again is missing the point of the film. In most of the scenes the background does retain the illusion of depth which is all that is needed. Parts of it are more like a ride in theme park but like most fairy tales it does have a core of truth beneath all the glitterings of its artificial surface.


puccinio said...

''Brigadoon'' is certainly not criticism proof. It's not among Minnelli's best. That would include ''The Pirate'', ''Bells Are Ringing'' and ''An American in Paris'' and ''Gigi'' among his musicals. Especially the former two. Minnelli's non-musicals are also quite excellent.

I also loved the New York City sequence. It very succintly and powerfully showed how empty such lives really are....

Yeah but another musical, ''It's Always Fair Weather'', the saddest of all MGM musicals did that way better even if it's New York was made on Hollywood stages and included little footage in Hollywood.

Musicals have their own aesthetic you know and there's nothing criticism proof about them.

Other Great MGM musicals include
On The Town(which was actually shot partly in New York)
Easter Parade
Singin' in the Rain(naturellement)
Funny Face

Alok said...

With criticism-proof I meant that by their internal logic itself they reject an "intellectual" or a detached way of looking at things. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I thkink musicals are full of moments of "pure being" wonder intellectual (pseudo or otherwise) and alienated people (like me) have so much trouble with dancing in real life too ;)

I have only seen Singing in the Rain from your list but I am slowly making my way through the genre. Thanks for all the suggestions.

Alok said...

Now that I think of it, what I said may not be true. There can be an element of self-consciousness too... but in these MGM musicals (of the ones I have seen) I don't think this idea of singing and dancing as a Brechtian device is anywhere there. They seem to take it very sincerely.

puccinio said...

Watch ''It's Always Fair Weather'' next. It's more to your liking I think. It was a flop in it's time and the reasons for it is the fact that it's a musical for adults with a sense of grief and elegy at it's core though there's no compromising the spirit and exuberance of the musical genre.

It's also obscure to a great extent only recently getting the reputation it should have had at the start. It also has I think Gene Kelly's best performance as well as Cyd Charisse's.

Alok said...

It seems to be available on DVD. Have put it on the queue, thanks.