Screening Log: Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

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01/09/2009 1:40 PM |

(Nice work, Film Forum, bringing back an un-DVDed film by a critically beloved director in early January, so there was little else for New York film critics to write about, so that your one week only! revival of Bigger Than Life became such a big hit that it played its last two shows last night to sold-out, intensely receptive audiences. Everyone who didn’t make it, keep this blurb in mind for the time, within I’m guessing the next couple months, when it comes back for an encore. Or when it is FINALLY RELEASED ON DVD, Jesus H. Christ in a glass box on Wyckoff Avenue.)

The scariest-, funniest-ever episode of Father Knows Best, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is a make-your-own allegory kit complete with 50s homestead and a rampaging James Mason as Pop. An initially ineffectual elementary school teacher — wracked with strange pains, unable to reach his boob-tubular son Richie, moonlighting at a cab company to make money and switching lights off while his wife’s still in the room to save money, and confessing to his her that he finds their marriage “dull” — he soon breaks down, collapsing, recovering enough to help his son pump up the deflated trophy football on the mantlepiece, and then collapsing again from the effort. Cue life-saving experimental doses of the still-experimental “miracle drug” cortisone; cue daddy dearest horsing around with his son and bullying his wife into trying on fancy dresses at the upscale department store (“the gentleman seems to know what he wants”). Cue dad as scrip-forging addict; cue boot-camping football coach, meal-withholding pedagogue and definitely not rod-spairing father, and manipulative, bullying husband (“What a shame I didn’t marry my intellectual equal.”).

As The L’s Nicolas Rapold observed in a piece from a couple of years ago, Mason’s Ed Avery’s “illogic is the logic of Fifties America carried out to its end”. Not just his own patriarchal role as provider and moral, physical and intellectual instructor, but the larger ethos of aspiration, competition and improvement (through hard work and consumer products, from the pharmaceutical industry and beyond). Is he keeping up with the Joneses, or racing to space, as a few h-bomb mentions seem to suggest? Talking always of the necessity of elevating his charges — at home and school — beyond their “congenital defects”, he’s Nietzsche in the suburbs, and the portrait of the all-American as a home-grown Ãœbermensch must have been a quite resonant self-critique in 1956.

Ed Avery is literally “above man”, not just because the cortisone makes him feel, as he says, ten feet tall, but because Ray shoots him that way. You expect the low-angle shots (though Ed and his massive shadow looming over his son’s homework has all the dread of a childhood nightmare, and the shots from the point of view of parents’ cowering in their children’s desks during a parent-teacher-night harangue are just plain funny), but what’s especially notable is how Ray uses widescreen. Most of the time a director shooting in CinemaScope will divide up the widescreen frame into thirds, frame-within-frames, or other horizontal compositions. Except for a couple of religiously informed family tableaus (side-by-side in church, at the heads and side of the dinner table for Grace), Ray rarely shoots rooms straight on — doorways open up further rooms in the background, so that the frame conveys not width but depth. And there’s Ed in the foreground, commanding our perspective. (At other times, Mason and Barbara Rush, as his wife, are oceans apart from each other on opposite sides of the frame, a motif tied up in the final scene — which is reconciliatory without being entirely comforting.)

Richer than a screed, Bigger Than Life rides to its climactic freakout (complete with writhing pain, psychedelic superimpositions and a long-foreshadowed fall down that staircase) on currents psychoanalytic and symbolic. Aside from the famous Biblical applause line (semi-spoilered in Film Forum’s blurb, and elsewhere), there’s the way Ed primps in the bathroom mirror, propping up his ego — in the medicine cabinet are his pills, behind the surface of his reflection as sure as they’re under his skin. During a particularly rigorous training session with Richie, Ed’s wife sneaks his son a glass of milk, a particularly maternal nourishment which he takes as an usurpation of his authority; later, Richie will try to steal the pills — which are, after all, keeping his dad alive; it’d just be him and mother then.

(For what it’s worth, which is maybe quite a lot given the importance of gender politics in our understanding of the 50s, Rush’s role, as written and played, is a demonstration of the quiet-strength strategies of reinforcement, redirection and subtle resistance, especially impressive when deployed by a wife literally held hostage in her own house.)

Intentionally corny and familiar at the outset, a Grand-Guignol-amid-the-banal by the end, Bigger Than Life is some kinda monster, and a necessary American film.

3 Comment

  • This was the cruellest movie I’ve ever seen; not that it exploits the audience but Mason becomes the meanest American movie hero of all time. It was terrifying, too; Mason reading the Bible, using that pair of scissors to guide his eyes across the lines, kept me up most of the night. I agree–necessary indeed!!

    Did you read Richard Brody’s brief piece? It adds an extra layer of unbearable uneasiness.

    Was everyone in the audience at your show snickering every time someone did something that was very “50s”? Seeing old movies at Film Forum is starting to get on my nerves due to the endless “ironic” giggling.

  • I saw that — it perhaps explains how the son’s best intentions do come off as a bit Oedipal, though of course we’re on his side.

    Film Forum audiencs are the absolute worst, always, my screening was actually not bad — in this movie the 50s movie talk is actually supposed to come off as stilted cheeriness, so it’s maybe acceptable. Still, the tendency of Film Forum audiences to treat everything from Shadow of a Doubt to Army of Shadows as camp is probably a clue as to why Bruce Goldstein hardly ever programs Sirk movies.

  • Best intentional joke:

    “no, sternum means your chest”

    “oh, I spent four years in the Navy!”