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Minnelli's closest rival at MGM, George Cukor, was a director who believed in self-transformation, but Cukor's humor and his drama comes from remaining fully aware of what came before the transformation, whereas Minnelli insists on living in the dream of what has been created; he offers us fantasy, and the lure of his fantasy visions is still tempting but can be baffling. Some of his early MGM musicals, like Yolanda and the Thief (1945), feature a series of sets filled with outré furniture (is it Las Vegas Versailles?) arranged with such skill, flair and sensitivity that they transcend the bad taste of the individual pieces; it's pure interior design camp, consciously created as such but also adored by Minnelli as a source of consoling beauty. As his career progressed, Minnelli was asked to handle all kinds of material, and he often passively accepted scripts in the spirit of a cinematic aesthete who trusts that his audience will not mistake narrative, dialogue and performance for what he actually wishes to accomplish with a movie. Few directors were his equal when it came to animating crowds of extras so that they all seemed to have an inner life (it was his habit to give each extra on his sets specific instructions, so that they become vital, swirling aspects of the decor).
In his last film, the badly cut but often very beautiful A Matter of Time (1976), when his daughter Liza first enters the empty room of the Contessa (Ingrid Bergman), Minnelli's camera makes the space vibrate uncannily both with the Contessa's absence and also with a presence of its own. Minnelli's films are a series of rooms to be entered, and what you find in them depends on you own sense of taste and proportion. Sometimes the rooms turn into a labyrinth, and I'm often afraid that I'll never get out of them. What Minnelli meant by some of these rooms remains tantalizingly obscure, but they are full of what his daughter in Cabaret (1972) calls "divine decadence." They are against nature and against realism, mitigating and even outright blotting out the drearier beige aspects of life like bolts of yellow silk. They remain as dream worlds in favor of flowering artifice, wit, color and cathartic, frenzied acting out.