#302. Bigger Than Life (1956)

OK so this one confirms for me that the roots of 1960s counterculture are scrawled, in code, across American art of the 1950s—especially that which pertained to domesticity, to suburbia, and that focused on people who maybe felt that they needed to manifest happiness on their faces, some kind of satiety and fulfillment, because, well, look: they’ve got the car, the fridge, and—pertinent to our story here—the boiler.

            What’s to be unhappy about in this age of postwar prosperity. Isn’t this what we all sacrificed for?

So Bigger Than Life is an early instamment in what might at this point be called the subgenre of domestic discontent (Stella Dallas and The Crowd also came to mind as even earlier examples) but it also belongs very distinctly to the 1950s int eh sense that it embodies the nameless and shapeless dssatisfaction that emerged from what, by all appearances, was a well-supplied and happy middle-class life—one whose (dis)comfort manifests here, in Bigger Than Life, as a water heater ont eh fritz, getting hotter and hotter and preparing to blow.

            It’s a metaphor that, I’m ambarrassed to admit, didn’t come at me right away. I picked up on it only from the supplementary material provided by Criterion where, to my surprise, the novelist Jonathan Lethem talks at incisive length about how carefully crafted this movie is and how subversive: it raises questions about the sexuality of a perfectly respectable supporting character, it addresses politics and questions of societal and domestic roles.      

            I didn’t really enjoy the movie, but I admire it.

            Same as with director Nicholas Ray’s last movie on the List, Rebel Without a Cause, which I thought was gonna depict a real kinda juvenile delinquency that would serve as like an embryonic model of 1960s and ‘70s youthful counterculture.

            It does and doesn’t give that image.

            I thought that the seeds of the young, defiant, “New Hollywood” of the next couple decades would be all about rage and sex. It isn’t. It’s about people realizing that they were stifled and wounded by their efforts to conform to an American dream.

            That appears to be the epiphany of American cinema in the 1950s.

            Going into the 1960s, that idea of the American dream to which audiences were conforming, in their daily life, is being dismantled on screen with lots of experimental film, indie film, the pushing of censorship’s boundaries. I think the word “cunt” makes its first cinematic appearance in an underground movie from the ‘60s.

            Then, in the 1970s, the New Hollywood movement was standing in the rubble of 1960s deconstruction, and they built a new cinematic ideal. Another Golden Age, like the 1930s.

            Getting back to the 1950s, though: Rebel Without a cause does reflect the restlessness of a young generation heading toward some kind of…change. Maybe revolution is too far ahead for it to really be theirs. But it’s here in the water.And I’m realizing now, thanks to some ancillary reading, that Ray was doing this showing this restlessness with his two earlier films from the List: Johnny Guitar and In a Lonely Place. Particularly the latter, which shows Humphrey Bogart as a well-to-do screenwriter living a bohemian life, an enviably posh bohemian life, but who’s also swelling to this spontaneous boiling rage that, frankly, wasn’t so compelling within the context of the movie (which I didn’t particularly like) but now, as I reflect on it from like a socio-, psycho-, cultural-historical perspective (whatever it may be), it seems pretty poignant.

            Same goes for Rebel.

            Same goes for Bigger Than Life.

            (I liked Johnny Guitar just fine.)

            But so this rouses a similar issue to what I’m experiencing with Hitchcock movies like Rope, or Rear Window, where I can tell that, though I find them very enjoyable, I’m enjoying them mostly as products from the Hitchcock sensibility, chapters from a genius’s obsessions.

Director Nicholas Ray

            Now, with Nicholas Ray (a filmmaker whose cultural significance has kinda mystified me up until now), I’m appreciating his work mostly as like a historical text from one of America’s great Bards of Discontent.

            As historical texts, rather than pieces of entertainment.

            And I’m wondering if that taints my impression of them somehow.

            Anyway: here’s a belated summary: James Mason (who’s wonderful here as a mild schoolteacher who transforms into the sorta tyrant he’s played so well already in movies like Pandora & the Flying Dutchman and The Man in Gray) has an artery issue that’s remedied by a “new drug” called cortison (which, incidentally, was once injected into my forehead). The cortisone alleviates his health issues but also fucks with his temper, makes him abusive toward his wife and child.

            And that’s pretty much all there is for plot. This, like Ray’s other movies, is about story (even if In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar are dressed up as genre films, they’re pretty cerebral literary-type stories): one thing leads to another, problems arise and complicate one another.

            It’s not a good time at the movies, but it’s really instructive.


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