Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Warner Archive Grab Bag: THE COBWEB, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL ""

Monday, July 22, 2013


THE COBWEB(1955; Vincente Minnelli)
Only Minnelli could make tale of a simple psychiatric facility into an epic drama encapsulating a large group of characters and their turmoil. This film came recommended by my friend Jim Healy(who included it as an honorable mention on his recent Underrated Dramas list) and I am glad he turned me onto it. When I first started watching it though, I was unsure if it could hold my interest for it's full 2 hour run time. I was soon caught up in it though as the film's excellent cast started to play off of each other. Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish are too talented a bunch for me not to get hooked. A controversy arises around some drapes at the clinic and that is one of the main driving dramatic forces behind the whole story. It's remarkable how much drama and subtext can be squeezed out of a problem like that.
 I've always loved Minnelli's penchant for shooting drama in Cinemascope. Many directors use it for vast landscapes, which is nice too of course, but using it for people can also be quite wonderful. The shape of the frame just engages me in this whole different way. We are almost always looking at at least two characters in a given scene and it gives you a sort of natural sense of observation in just looking back and forth between them as they interact. It is ultimately more immersive for me a lot of the time. From a simple point of view, when you are looking at a room, you feel more in the room with the characters. I do love these actors as I said so I find myself getting lost in the rooms with them like a fly on the wall. It could end up feeling stagey, but Minnelli makes it still feel cinematic in my mind.
Richard Widmark is one of those actors that I've always admired. He's got a gruff and grumpy way about him that is both compelling and charming somehow. He is at the center of this film and does a nice job holding it all together. It's as "humanized" as I've seen him in a long time(as he often plays villains or side characters) and I liked that a lot. It's a great showcase for him for sure and it shows what a strong director can do with great actors. Speaking of great actors, Lillian Gish is a raging shrew in this movie and she really embodies one of those characters you love to hate.

Apparently, the novella of Jonathan Livingston Seagull(written by Richard Bach) was a really big deal in 1970. It sold a couple million copies in a few years so it's easy to see why it might have seemed like a good idea to carve a movie out of it. The only thing I ever remembered about the film was that Neil Diamond did some music for it. In fact, Diamond is credit with doing the music AND songs for the film. I must say that, as a general rule, I am often a pretty big fan of one singer or band doing the music for an entire film. It gives a movie this cohesiveness and narrative through line(almost like some sort of Greek chorus or something) that really brings me into the world it is trying to create. I'm thinking of course of the Cat Stevens songs that are woven into a film like HAROLD AND MAUDE(and DEEP END as well) for example. They give the film extra personality that really makes it a memorable place to visit. Now I happen to be a pretty big Neil Diamond fan myself I must admit. His voice and songs carry with them this folksy American gravitas that I can't quite pin down. That's one thing this film has going for it. Another is that it is a tale uniquely told from the point of view of a seagull. Right down to his own voice over/inner monologue. The result is a bit odd, but not totally uninteresting. There aren't really any actors in the film(other than seagulls of course). There is other vocal talent used to illustrate the gulls communicating, but that's it.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself is a bit of a loner. An idealist who is always trying to fly as high as he can and come down as fast as he can. Because he will not conform to the ways of his flock, he is outcast. So he roams about- over the ocean and the coast mostly. He tries to take in as much as he can and that's what we as viewers end up doing. What we get is more or less a dreamlike nature film, following a seagull around. It's like Ron Fricke, but in the 70s, and with a bit more narrative drive. Like Fricke meets BABE, but a little trippier. It has some neat photography and seeing the images play with the Neil Diamond music is sometimes nice, but it's a bit too existential for it's own good. Was gonna try to show to my daughter, but I'm pretty sure it'll bore her. I'll get her an appreciation for Neil Diamond though, mark my words.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

The Cobweb is an absolute delight!