Monday, September 19, 2011

Bigger than Life. A

The fifties are a pretty interesting time for examination, not for social or political reasons but for the dissection of the American family. There's certainly an idealized version of the family during this time, one that can pretty much be summed up in an episode of Father Knows Best. This model of the family has been ridiculed by many as simply not true, yet I think there's a lot of accuracy to it. Families really were prime and proper in the fifties, and the rituals, mother cooking in the kitchen, father coming home from the office and hanging his fedora on the hat rack, and little Billy leaving his train set to go say hi, are not fallacious. However, what is often overlooked in the classic advertisements of this life, such as Father Knows Best, are the complications nagging at man since his origin. It's not as if they suddenly vanished in the fifties. No, they were as present as ever, only concealed to make the surface as smooth as possible. Perhaps it was caution from the war, or maybe a social thing, as suburban families all tried to fit in the same circle and keep dark secrets locked up to avoid humiliation. This can clearly be seen in Far From Heaven. This leads me to Nicholas Ray's dazzling take on the model family from this time period, Bigger than Life. It's been said that the movie tries to tear apart the idea of the family, yet in my mind it's merely deconstructing the myth of it and showing that all was not well with the dad, that the mom had doubts, and most importantly, that the son was much deeper and more complex than he's often displayed. It's admittedly a strange movie though, because Ray's method for the demythologization of the family comes in the form of a drug that the father takes to treat a terrible illness. At first it makes him feel bright and happy, but then he begins to overuse it and his mind becomes warped. Ray isn't suggesting that these are bad people or that the goodness of the family did not exist. He's merely saying that unfortunate things did occur and the sheltered lifestyle the families adopted left them incapable of dealing with them. The solution was to hide them away in order to keep things right. Bigger than Life came out after Rebel Without a Cause, but it can be seen in a way as a predecessor to it. The young boy, Richie, can be seen as a young James Dean, the connection being made by Ray with the signature red jacket both characters play. Bigger than Life is a fantastic film to look at, a technicolor spectacle filled rich images and vivid detail. The cast is stellar too, led by James Mason and including Walter Matthau, Barbara Rush, and Christopher Olsen. It's just an all around good movie, and hey, it's Nicholas Ray, so not a big surprise.

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